Ono -- Oh Yes!
By Jody Denberg
The whole world hated me and my music," Yoko Ono remembers saying when asked to compile material from her catalogue for a 1992 boxed set. "Let's bury it and leave it alone." The executives at Rykodisc did not, and the ensuing 6-CD collection, Onobox, sparked critical hosannas that continued with last year's album of new material, Rising, and its subsequent tour. Now, for the first time, Rykodisc has begun reissuing 11 Yoko Ono albums, replete with enhanced artwork, revelatory bonus tracks, and a marketing campaign that's simpatico with Ono's sense of humor about her often maligned yet frequently brilliant body of work: "Ono -- Oh yes!"
The first three installments are collaborations with John Lennon, long sought on compact disc by Beatles' completists. Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (1968) is perhaps the best remembered of the trilogy, displaying the unabashed couple naked on the cover. "Well, John thought of that!" laughs Ono in her ground-floor office at the Dakota building in New York City. "We could have looked better. I was four or five months pregnant. So, between John and I, we would say, `This is actually three virgins.'"
A spiritual cousin to the Beatles' "Revolution #9," the sound collage of Two Virgins was followed a year later by Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With Lions. Even with a recording of her dying baby's heartbeat and cover photos that chronicled both the Lennons' hospital stay at the time of that miscarriage -- as well as the drug bust that hampered John's later quest for U.S. citizenship -- Ono views it with some emotional distance. "All these practical things that happened were like, almost happening outside of us."
This emotional distance comes because Ono measures and marks her life as art; her wedding album is the actual Wedding Album (1969), packaged with the couples' marriage license, photos, drawings, and press clippings. On the CD is an audio-verité diary of the couple's infamous honeymoon bed-in for peace called "Amsterdam." So, did the bed-in change anything? "It might have," says Ono. "That's another thing that's funny, because people were scorning us. They were very upset with us. They were angry. They didn't think we had a sense of humor about it."
It certainly takes a sense of humor to listen to "John & Yoko," the 22-minute recording of the dynamic duo repeating each others' names from separate ends of Abbey Road studios, at first tenderly, then thunderously. "I don't think we were just screaming each other's name," she states firmly. "It's music. It's music. It starts with a kind of pianissimo and kind of largo. And then it goes on increasing in speed as well. And then it goes into crescendo -- I mean, that's music."
Stretching the boundaries of what is and isn't music is a hallmark of the Lenono works; they're filled with tape loops, found sounds, and samples, all elements that later found homes in the ambient, hip-hop, and electronica genres. The roots for these influential pieces are in Ono's musical schooling and the inspiration of her fellow artists in the New York City scene of the late Fifties and early Sixties. Ono's musical career did not begin with Lennon.
Ono's memories of her formative years flow freely only because she is asked; it's a time she rarely mentions in interviews, yet is crucial to understanding her oeuvre. A classically trained pianist who studied musical notation by the age of 4, she ultimately resisted using formal notation and developed her own style combining Western and Oriental forms. While studying composition as a child in Japan, she had a prescient homework assignment: to notate the sounds of her environment, from honking car horns to chirping birds. It made her hear the world in terms of music.
Ono and her father gave up on her being a great pianist, and since he felt that successful women composers were rare, he encouraged her to take vocal lessons. And with every subsequent exposure to increasingly extreme forms of opera and classical composition -- and with the revelations of hearing Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, and Billie Holiday -- Ono developed an affection for vocal expression as an instrument.
By 1957, after dropping out of Long Island's Sarah Lawrence College, Ono fell in with a group of radical artists and musicians, including one of her inspirations, John Cage ("I go, `Wow, so it's okay to be wacky'"). Once, while recording her voice as an experimental accompaniment to a 1961 Carnegie Recital Hall concert, the tape accidentally zipped into reverse. "I thought, `This is so interesting.' And I imitated that." Thus Ono's singular vocal modulations were born.
"I was attracted to what the voice expresses in terms of human suffering," she says. And her curdling emoting on the epochal Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970), Ono's first album under her own name, ran the gamut. "And when I was screaming and all that kind of thing, somebody commented that this is too theatrical or dramatic. That's how it was perceived. Too animalistic. But we make those noises when we give birth to children. And so I was more interested in the sound of inner turmoil."
The intensity and angry quality of Ono's voice on YO/POB came about in part because she was trying to cut a swath through a loudly amplified band that included Lennon, who contributed some of the most inspired electric guitar playing of his life, as well as his famous drumming partner. "Ringo, you find him totally amazing," says Ono with awe. "There's a dialogue that my voice and Ringo's drumming are doing. And it's just a very musically exciting experience."
Over the next 16 years and the course of seven more albums, Ono explored the realm of pop songcraft, often combining it with the experimental nature of her early work. Yet, when you listen to the bonus tracks included on the first four albums (gentle B-sides like "Remember Love" and stark demos like "Song For John," both dating from the late Sixties), it becomes obvious that more conventional songwriting was always a part of her palette.
Fly (1971) includes hellfire rockers and magical love songs alongside indulgent soundtrack-like aural imagery, while both Approximately Infinite Universe (1972) and Feeling the Space (1973) are filled with songs of interpersonal relationships, character allegories, and political sloganeering. These are albums with moments of pure profundity as well as sheer awkwardness, sometimes dated, and at other moments timeless.
In 1973, following Space, Ono and Lennon separated for more than a year; when they reunited, she shelved an album called A Story (1974) to avoid having to answer questions about the lyrics written during their estrangement. It was a welcome, inspired inclusion as part of Onobox and will now be available through this current reissue campaign, as will the slickly produced It's Alright (1982) and Starpeace (1986), both of which offer texturally marvelous moments and spotty songwriting. The masterpiece of the Rykodisc series, however, is Season of Glass (1981).
An eloquent meditation on loss issued a mere four months after Lennon's death, Season of Glass was produced with the legendary Phil Spector until Ono decided (after the basic tracks were recorded) that the songs would benefit more from sparseness than a wall of sound. Although many of the compositions predate Lennon's murder, they fit together as a whole, including "I Don't Know Why," written the day after his death as revealed by the date of the newly added demo version: December 9, 1980.
"I was in the bedroom and outside there were 2,000 people or whatever. They were all just screaming this and that. And I was like [lowers voice], `What? What? What?' And then the song came in me. And I thought, well, I better just -- because whenever I don't record the song usually it just goes away and I forget it."
One of the more notable aspects of Season of Glass is the cover, on which Central Park West is reflected through Lennon's bloodstained glasses. Mentioning that there were charges of exploitation levied at Ono for displaying his famous spectacles in this fashion elicits her most emotional response of our conversation: "It never for a moment, even for a moment, crossed my mind that it was somehow using him or anything like that. I mean, John and I were like one person at the time. And I saw this pair of glasses with his blood. And that's the thing that you have seen. But I've seen a floor with a pond of blood. And that was the reality. And this was like a very, very, mild expression of that. And I was totally amazed that people felt that I was exploiting him. It wasn't that at all. I felt the oneness with him and we were saying, `Please look at me. This is what you did to me.' I mean, that's what John wanted to say, I think."
At 64, Ono is poised for a year of art exhibitions, and maybe a new album and tour next year. With her spiky haircut and healthy appearance (she quit smoking in December), Ono's got everything she needs; she's an artist, and she only looks back when people ask her to. The Beatles asked her to, and she gave them a tape of Lennon's demos to concoct "new" songs for the Beatles' Anthology series.
"I thought they did their best," she says of "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love." "It's a very difficult thing to do. One, John is not here. And for the three of them to get together to record John's songs, it's a very emotionally straining kind of situation. And I think they did a beautiful job."
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