A fascinating article from my personal archives. This comes from the July 1992 issue of Option magazine and discusses the re-evaluation of Yoko Ono…
Living well may be the best revenge, but vindication is just as sweet. In Yoko Ono’s case, the payback is that while many of her former critics have faded into the seams of that chapter in the history books called “The Turbulent ’60s,” Yoko remains a vital influence on contemporary music.
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana calls her “the first female punk rocker.” Donita Sparks of L7 calls her “a real gem.” And the feminist music fanzine Bikini Kill recently noted that women musicians should “rescue our true heroines from obscurity, or in Yoko’s case, from disgrace…What your boyfriend teaches you is that Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles…But besides being the victim of the girlfriend-as-distraction thing, Yoko was so fucking ahead of her time.”
More than two decades of pop music evolution later – during a time that’s seen the B-52s, Sonic Youth, Babes In Toyland, L7 and other noisy and atonal rockers signed to major labels – Yoko Ono’s music is being re-examined in a fresher light. Truth is, her dismissal by the old pop/rock elite should never have happened. “John Lennon saw the light,” says Donita Sparks. “And the fact that he and Yoko had the moxie to get out there and sing about the things they sang about, do the stuff they did for humanity, and play the kind of music they played, was really courageous. Yoko just told everybody, fuck you, I’m not going to disappear.”
When she hears such comments, Yoko smiles. “I wish John were here so he would know this,” she says. “He would say, ‘I told you so, Yoko, I told you so.’ The B-52s really cheered him up; he thought from that point on everything would be okay for me. But it wasn’t, really, not right away. Anyway, I’m thankful that I’m getting a second chance. It’s like getting a second life.”
The castle-like apartment house at the corner of 72nd and Central Park West has been photographed a zillion times since the winter of 1980. Those black-and-white newsprint images of teary-eyed Beatles fans, standing at the iron portcullis that shields the building’s dark, vaulted carriageway from the streets, are now as permanently etched into history as the Kennedy motorcade. The Dakota’s sooty, salmon-colored brick and olive-colored sandstone trim, its massive pavilions and steep-sloped roofs, give it an almost haunted house-like aura today. Watching people come and go beneath the two-story-high archway where Mark David Chapman stood, took aim, and fired five deadly shots at John Lennon so many years ago, you wonder how anyone could even live here anymore.
It’s a clear, breezy April afternoon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and the side-walks are unusually quiet. Just beyond the Dakota’s archway a guard stands with his hands in his pockets. When I ask the question he’s heard probably a million times by now, he shuffles self-assuredly and points to a spot some ten feet in front of him. “Right there, sir, that’s where it happened.” To his left, a pair of double doors opens into a small vestibule with wood-paneled walls. There, a second guard sits behind a counter surrounded by television monitors that are zeroed in on the building’s various nooks and crannies. Another door opens to a maze of passageways, one of which leads to Studio One, the office where Yoko Ono has managed John Lennon’s legacy for the past 12 years.
Visitors are asked to remove their shoes before entering Yoko’s sanctuary, a spacious room with soft white carpet and white furniture, a black piano, an enormous desk with hand-carved Egyptian motifs, a statue of a “feminist geisha girl” and an amateurish painting of John and Sean (the latter two being gifts from John). Yoko explains the painting: “They were in Bermuda having the time of their lives, and I was back here working. I called them every day, but they were always out. I thought they were just having fun at the beach or something, but as it turns out they were going to this artist every morning, having that done for me.” She glances up at the painting. “Isn’t that sweet of them?”
Yoko Ono has lived a hard, charmed life. At the peak of her creative years in the avant-garde of the mid-1960s, she met John Lennon at London’s Indica art gallery, where she was showing her work. She was married at the time, and not only did meeting Lennon mean she would be divorced (for the second time), it meant she would lose her daughter, Kyoko, to her ex-husband. Within the next 14 years, Yoko would miscarry her first child with Lennon, suffer through a relentless effort by the U.S. government to deport Lennon, separate from Lennon during his notorious “lost weekend,” become a drug addict, lose Lennon to an assassin’s bullets, and finally be cruelly immortalized by scandal biographer Albert Goldman in The Lives of John Lennon. On the other hand, she would become one of the wealthiest bohemians in the world, and produce a prodigious volume of art and music apart from her celebrated husband.
Earlier this year, she took a breather from her management of Lennon’s posthumous career to focus on herself. She compiled Onobox, a six-CD boxed set on Rykodisc that traces her own music from the way-out jams she did with Lennon in New York in the late ’60s to the solo music she released during the six years following his death. “It was very painful to go through that material and listen to it, because you would just suddenly, unexpectedly, hit that emotion,” she says. “I had a lot of feelings like that when I was working on the boxed set. I’ve always had feelings like that when I’m hearing John’s music, but this time it was different. It was my work, so it was a different kind of pain. It was really weird.”
Yoko prepares for our conversation by carefully placing a tumbler of water and then an ashtray on the glass coffee table in front of her. She reaches into her bag for a cigarette and inadvertently spills the contents onto the floor. A dozen or so half-full packs of Marlboro Lights tumble out. She smiles sheepishly, picks one from the pile and gingerly places it on the table next to the ashtray.
Wearing a brown sweater, a pair of faded blue jeans and wire-rims that are only slightly larger around than the granny glasses John Lennon made famous, Yoko projects a vastly different image from that of the tortured Dragon Lady who “broke up the Beatles,” or the mysterious woman who never leaves the Dakota without her wraparound aviator sunglasses and an all-black wardrobe. Her hair is short and ruffed today, and her face – those broad, smooth cheekbones, dark, sloped eyes and tight, rigid mouth – is shiny and youthful looking. At 59, Yoko looks happier and healthier than she has in years. But the marks of her painful life remain: she stops almost immediately when she catches herself laughing, and at least twice in the span of nearly two hours her voice cracks when speaking of Lennon.
“I don’t know why I’ve had to go through what I’ve had to go through,” she says, in her still noticeable Japanese accent. “But, you know, I’m not really…” She trails off and lights a cigarette. “I mean, you can either feel sorry for yourself and go though life that way – which is what a lot of people who go through these things have the right to do – or you can just sort of decide that, in the big picture, the fact that you have your health, a roof over your head and a few nice friends, these are things you can cherish and be thankful for. We really don’t have much of a choice, do we? We could wallow in our pain, and then what? The next step is, well, you know, okay, kill ourselves so it will be easier. But I think this is just how we have to live our lives: by not dwelling on these things and just going on.”
It’s been said that falling in love with John Lennon was the worst career move Yoko could have made. Her association with the Fluxus art movement of the ’60s, her experimental music, conceptual film work and performance art had just begun to gain international attention. When she started hanging out with rock musicians, the avant-garde people, who already had looked down on her work, dismissed her behavior. Moreover, Beatles fans saw her as the woman who destroyed their heroes, the avant-garde singer with a shrill voice but no conventional reference point for comparison. At the times, almost no one considered Yoko on Yoko’s terms – no one, that is, except for John Lennon.
She leans forward in her chair, as if to emphasize what she’s about to say: “John was the first guy who really understood that it was okay that I’m just screaming and shouting, you know? ‘Too dramatic’ was the way the avant-garde was looking at my work; that was kind of looked down on, you know. But now I went over to rock, so the old avant-garde people – I mean, they don’t mean it badly or anything – they said, ‘Oh, it’s too bad that you’re fooling around with that sort of scene. You should come back, because you’re too important for that.”
After dropping out of Sarah Lawrence College in 1957, the wealthy Japanese banker’s daughter moved to New York City in search of a circle of artists who shared her unconventional ideas about music. In college, Yoko had studied composition, but had run into a brick wall. “I was fascinated by the birds singing every morning from my window,” she says, “and was trying to translate it into regular musical notation. But I couldn’t be done. So I explained this dilemma to my teacher and he said, ‘You know, the direction you’re going in is similar to some of the sort of left-field people in New York City.’ And he mentioned a few names: Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, John Cage, people like that.”
When she arrived in New York, Yoko married fellow Japenese music student Toshi Ichiyanagi, and the two jumped head-first into the burgeoning avant-garde scene, meeting Cage and Feldman, as well as electronic music pioneer Richard Maxfield, minimalist La Monte Young, and Henry Flynt, the father of “concept art.” At the time it was difficult for fringe musicians to find places to perform, because the uptown concert halls had not yet opened their doors to the avant-garde. “There was nothing downtown, either,” Yoko recalls. “So I was thinking that there should be some kind of alternative to places like Town Hall and Carnegie Hall.”
Yoko mashes out her cigarette and glances up into the space of her office. “I remember exactly when I thought about doing it,” she says, of her idea to open up a concert space. “I was walking with a friend of mine on Broadway, somewhere around 108th Street, and the evening light was shining on the window of this…I dunno, I think it was this dance studio or something. I told my friend, ‘You know, if we could get a place like that to do concerts in, it’d be great.’ I thought I could get all these friends of mine and we could all perform together.”
A smattering of painters and sculptors had already started renting loft spaces downtown and turning them into studios. But it was still a long time before the word “loft” carried any kind of musical connotation. Says Yoko, “I’d never even heard the word.” Today, it’s fairly well accepted that Yoko’s fifth-floor walk-up at 112 Chambers Street was the precursor to the Soho lofts that later would nurture the likes of Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson, and contribute to Soho’s boom during the 1980s. But this was 1960, and to the 27-year-old Yoko, downtown seemed a million miles away. “It was the first time I’m going that far downtown,” she says, “and it felt really strange.” The loft Yoko rented cost $50.50 a month, 40 or 50 times cheaper than those of Soho’s ’80s heyday. “It sounded very cheap to me, but it wasn’t really that cheap, because I was probably earning only about $25 to $50 a week. But I thought, ‘Okay, I can afford it.'”
She describes the obsession she felt about acquiring the loft in a near whisper. “The night after I looked at that space, I felt my whole fate was sealed,” she says. “I mean, I don’t know why I felt that way, because it was only just one option, right? Also, I should not have known the significance of it at the time, but it seems like I did. It’s almost like…” She pauses to take a sip of water “You know, people are kind of like animals: there’s stuff that you just instinctively know, but you don’t know exactly why. That night I was rolling in my bed. I could not sleep. I was thinking, ‘I have to get that place, I have to get that place.’ And then I’d think, ‘Oh, god, I’m not going to get it! I’m not going to get it! Somebody’s going to get it before me! What am I going to do if I don’t get that place?’ I just couldn’t sleep.”
Yoko did get the loft, and immediately began holding concerts there. “I got all these orange crates and during the days and evenings they became chairs for people to sir on,” she explains. “At night, I would pull all the crates together and that was my bed.”
The space had no electricity, though, so she had to wire it from an outlet in the hallway. “We did the first concert without light because I hadn’t figured out how to wire it yet. But it was beautiful; we did it under candlelight. It also snowed very heavily that day and I thought, ‘Oh, God, no one’s going to come.’ But about 20 people showed up. Most of them had come down from Stony Point, New York, where John Cage and Merce Cunningham had this sort of commune. It was funny; everyone was wearing heavy coats and all. It was really great.”
By the mid-’60s – during which time Yoko had divorced her first husband and remarried, performed with a number of experimental artists, including Ornette Coleman, and done lots of conceptual art and film work – she had become disenchanted with the avant-garde, feeling it was too cool and academic. “That’s what I was sort of rebelling against at the time,” she says, “I mean, I like the music of Schoenberg and all, but I don’t care about the 12-tone stuff; that’s just shit they like to talk about. Schoenberg’s music has soul. It’s great and I was impressed with that. But among the New York avant-garde, it was all so theoretical, it was all just a head trip. Among that circle, my stuff, they thought, ‘What’s she trying to do?’ I mean, I’m coming out with…’AH-ee-YAH-ee-YAH-ee-YAH-ee’…and to them, that was just…I dunno. First of all, the avant-garde guys didn’t use the voice. They were just so cool, right? And there was also that very asexual kind of atmosphere in the music. And I wanted to throw blood.”
All that was years ago, though, and after about half an hour on the subject, Yoko suddenly stops. “I think some of the things I’ve said might sound like I’m bitter or whatever,” she says. “I don’t want to put down the avant-garde. I mean, why should I? They don’t need that, they need encouragement. It’s just that this is what happened to me; it’s my experience, my evolution as an artist. So perhaps you could edit out some of the things that I’ve said about the avant-garde, anything negative. They’re all very nice people.” And then Yoko drops a word she uses often in her conversation: “I think we should be more positive.”
In other words, Yoko wants to talk about the work she’s done since November 7, 1966, the day John Lennon walked into her one-woman show and into her life. “There were various reasons why I left the avant-garde,” she explains. “But I hadn’t really left it. I had gone to London and was still doing this one-woman avant-garde show. And then later, after I got with John, we started doing music that was different from anything either of us had done.”
This is where Onobox comes in. The first disc, called London Jam, is an all-out avant-rock bonanza. It has Yoko doing her voice improvisations over basic blues jams featuring Lennon, Eric Clapton, Ringo Star, percussionist Jim Keltner, bassist Klaus Voorman, and various other English and American rockers. Throughout the disc, you can hear Lennon doing things with his guitar that he rarely did in his solo work, let alone on a Beatles album. The jams are as close as pop or rock had gotten at that point to the downtown avant-garde world, save for a few albums by Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. “Of course, when John and I first starred doing that kind of music together we thought it was great and that everybody else was going to automatically understand how great it was,” Yoko says, with an I-shoulda-known-better smile. “We were thinking, ‘Okay, let’s show them!’ And we did.” She giggles like a child, “But it wasn’t like that at all. Nobody listened to it. So there was that big difference in our two realities: the reality that John and I lived in and the reality that the world was in. And there was a certain feeling of isolation.”
Coming from the avant-garde, however, Yoko was better prepared for the criticism than John was. “You know, part of me sort of comes from the tradition of knowing that there were many composers who would compose things and no one would pay attention to it during their lifetime,” she says, pausing to light another cigarette. “So, okay, a lot of people didn’t listen to my music, right? But that’s just a given when you’re an artist who’s doing something that’s a little far out. So I didn’t sit all that uncomfortably in that particular role. It was okay, in a way. And when you’re exchanging your musical ideas with other musicians, you know when they’re getting it. I had a nice rapport with those musicians, and you can hear it on London Jam if you listen. There was no way that those guys were just playing with me out of politeness or anything. There was a real kind of ‘getting into it’ thing going on, it was a nice groove. That’s something that you just can’t fake.”
Drummer Jim Keltner recalls Yoko’s musical single-mindedness during those sessions on a press page that went out with Onobox. “She told the horn player next to me to throw away his mouthpiece and make his instrument sound like a wind that was sliding down a frog’s hack. I rolled my eyes because it all seemed so strange and ridiculous. When we were finished, the track sounded perfect.”
Other parts of Onobox are equally as interesting, if perhaps spotty in places. The New York Rock disc is an edited and resequenced version of Yoko’s 1972 album Approximately Infinite Universe, done with the Plastic Ono Elephant’s Memory Band. In its attitude, danger and vocal execution, the music clearly prefigures punk on many of the tracks: ‘What a Bastard the World Is’, ‘I Felt Like Smashing My Face In a Clear Glass Window’, and ‘Don’t Worry, Kyoko’. Though the music sometimes sounds dated (for instance, on ‘Catman’) or overly lush (‘Winter Song’), her singing remains consistently forward-looking. Some of the best material of the boxed set appears on New York Rock, like the song ‘I Want My Love To Rest Tonight’, a feminist ballad that’s at once strongly pro-women and sensitive to men’s issues.
The disc Run Run Run is Yoko’s 1973 album Feeling the Space, plus five tracks left off the original. It goes from the menacing sounds of ‘Coffin Car’ (“Life is killing her/Telling her to join the dead”) to the campy cocktail jazz of ‘Yellow Girl (Stand By For Life)’. Disc 4, Kiss Kiss Kiss, jumps straight to 1980, including tracks cut during Yoko and John’s Double Fantasy and Milk & Honey period; No No, No consists of excerpts from Yoko’s post-1980 albums Seasons of Glass, It’s Alright and Starpeace, with much of the material produced by either Phil Spector or Bill Laswell. The final disc, A Story, is an unreleased album Yoko did in 1973 and 1974, during Lennon’s “lost weekend.” Like the second and third discs, the music on it is folky and arty in nature, with an eclectic assortment of odd melodies, acoustic guitars, piano, and even pedal steel guitar. The lyrics document Yoko’s feeling during the separation.
Onobox, and in particular the London Jam disc, has received accolades from the mainstream music press. But it wasn’t always like that. Just as Beatles fans and the avant-garde had dismissed Yoko, most pop and rock critics of the ’60s at first carelessly dismissed her music as the eccentric warblings of a “too dramatic” avant-gardist who had interfered with the Beatles’ creative process. (In fact, not only are Yoko’s releases not mentioned in the New Rolling Stone Record Guide, but there’s also no mention of her in the more adventurous Trouser Press Guide, the Bible of alternative albums; accordingly, you won’t find Yoko’s early records in Robert Christgau’s Rock Albums of the ’70s.) “Maybe it was because there were more men critics back then,” Yoko says, “I dunno.”
Donita Sparks of L7 believes the criticism Yoko got was the result of a variety of factors. “I think it had as much to do with racism as anything – her being Japanese and John Lennon being white. And the fact that people said she broke up the Beatles and all that bullshit.” L7 actually used a sample of Yoko’s trademark scream in the song ‘Wargasm’ on its latest album Bricks Are Heavy (Slash). “Her avant-garde-ness was amazing,” Sparks says, “and what she did for music was great. Yet she was totally ignored.”
But Yoko says musicians, as opposed to Beatles fans and music critics, were always more accepting of her music. “John and I heard the influence even back then,” she says. “Even after Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band was out for, like, two weeks or something, John turns the radio on and somebody’s playing, right? And he says to me, ‘Listen to that, Yoko, they’re already copying it.’ The copying was going on from the beginning. The beginning! When we put out Approximately Infinite Universe, right away people were listening to it. While all the journalists were saying, ‘Oh, nobody’s listening to her music, ha, ha, ha,’ a lot of musicians were listening.”
Notwithstanding all the gushy, sentimental accounts of the ’60s we hear about today, for Yoko, being not only the wife but also the musical partner of one of the four most famous pop stars in the world, the pressure was tremendous. “John was white and I was yellow, I was a woman and he was a guy,” she says. “But that also created a kind of awareness in us. I had not been so aware of feminism until…” She stops and corrects herself. “Actually, I knew of feminism because my grandmother was a feminist; there was a Japanese feminist society, and she was one of them. But I didn’t think it applied in my life until I went to London and met all those macho rockers. It was then that I thought, ‘Christ! Women really are suffering.’
“John was a macho guy who didn’t understand at all about women in that sense,” she continues. “But when we got together he went through a real change, a real process of realizing, ‘Oh, so that’s what women are going through?’ So, in a way, we were fortunate to be in a situation where such an awareness was promoted in our lives. But it was a bit of a lonely trip at the same time.”
It was an atmosphere in which John and Yoko felt at once isolated from the world and totally free to air their dirty laundry in a blend of performance art, political expression and personal confessions, such as the bed-ins, the “War Is Over” gigs, the bag-ism, fagism, this-ism and that-ism. “For me, in my private life, I’m not a particularly open person,” Yoko allows. “I have a very difficult time communicating my feelings; it chokes me up. It’s easier for me to say it in songs or in artwork, or films, or performances or whatever. And I think maybe John was a bit like that, too. I mean, we tried to be honest with each other and we tried to confront each other. But, say, if he didn’t like something that I did, and he wanted to communicate to me that he didn’t like it, it would take him maybe a week to finally come out with it. And I was like that, too.
“But on the level of songs, it’s much easier to be extremely honest, and it’s also easier with stuff like the bed-ins and Two Virgins [the album cover on which they posed nude], which were more like performances. I don’t really know why that is. I don’t know why, being two very introverted people, we could be so extroverted in public life. But that’s often the case, isn’t it? Most extroverts in public life are very introverted in private. It’s not really contradictory, because the reason you thrive on creative work is because that’s where you know that you’re more eloquent; whereas in your private life you have more difficulty, there’s a certain repression. Lots of people are like that: Elvis Costello, Phil Spector, those kinds of people who, in real life, are actually very shy. It’s like, if you’re so versatile and eloquent in your real life, why should you need to be so eloquent in another medium? There would just be no need for that kind of outlet.”
To some, its almost inconceivable that the woman who gives her songs such titles as ‘What a Bastard the World Is’ ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’, ‘I Felt Like Smashing My Face In a Clear Glass Window’, and writes lyrics like “Are we going to keep digging oil wells and gold?” would turn right around and jump into bed with the corporate world. Over the past five years, Yoko has sold John Lennon’s songs to companies including Nike for use in TV advertisements. Yet Yoko has always demonstrated incredible business acumen. When she took over the business management of John Lennon’s career, she made investments that quadrupled his wealth. And while much of her own material has been astonishingly naive in its political and social idealism, there’s a deep cynic lurking within Yoko Ono. Of course, cynics are mostly just frustrated idealists.
Yoko raises up in her chair, her face and voice growing stern. “Listen,” she snaps, “you have something against big business? Well, so do I. But, look, even if we have something against big business, big business is going to thrive. It’s going to be there. The way I see it is: I’ve got an access there for millions of people to hear ‘Instant Karma’; and I got $800,000, which went to the United Negro College Fund. That’s what I got for that song. You have a problem with that? What’s the alternative?” She switches to a singsongy voice: “‘Oh, we don’t like big business.’ Well, OK, sure, but big business is going to be there no matter what we do. So if it’s going to be there, why don’t we use it for positive things. To say this is wrong is the same kind of snobbery as, like, an avant-garde composer saying, ‘Ah, we should not do that commercial deal; it’s bad.’ I don’t buy that. I mean, what is sell-out? What does sell-out mean?
“For instance, there was that big thing about Mapplethorpe, right? People were saying it was so horrible that museums weren’t showing his work. But I come from the background and tradition of, like, if a museum doesn’t show your work, then show it in a subway or put it on TV and sell it mail-order. To me, artists have to be aware of constantly creating new ways of showing their stuff. John’s not going to be on the charts anymore with new music, right? And I can’t go to EMI and say, ‘Would you please put out ‘Instant Karma’ as a single again?’ So if this ad can get that song out to millions of people, what’s the harm? And it’s a very important message today for young kids; it’s not like it’s a perfume ad or anything.” (Nonetheless, Nike is an expensive brand of sneakers that urban kids fight, steal and have even killed to acquire because they’re presented as being so hip and desirable.)
Lennon’s songs aside, Yoko hopes to release some of her own new music after the buzz on Onobox and her recent visual art show at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery settles down. “I’ve already gone into the studio and I’m starting to do something with a few songs that I made during that period when I wasn’t doing anything. But I don’t know where it’s going. I’m not very happy or satisfied with the way it’s going at the moment.”
I ask if she’s ever thought of doing music with Sean, who at 16 has begun to write songs himself. Yoko just smiles. “I’ve never really thought about it,” she says. “Like both of his parents, Sean is fiercely independent. And I think that’s good. But it means that I would hate to even suggest that we do something together. I don’t think he needs me and I think it’s better that he does it on his own. He’s really incredible. He plays guitar and piano and he has a good voice, too. But mainly he’s a good songwriter.” You figure she’ll bring out the snapshots at any moment. “I don’t know how he manages it,” she continues, “but he writes songs in a way that’s not at all like John and not at all like me. It’s like there was a crack somewhere in between and he’s filled it.”
Like the course of her life, the conversation returns to the subject of Yoko’s inner pain. A few years ago, Yoko published an open letter to her daughter Kyoko in People magazine. It encouraged Kyoko to get in touch with Yoko if she wanted to – but only if she wanted to. If she didn’t, the letter said, Yoko would understand. “There are two things that I have to deal with: one is my daughter and the other is John. Losing my daughter was a pretty heavy experience and uh…” she pauses. “But, you know, I’ve totally gotten used to it now, because I have Sean. Sometimes he’ll say someting like, ‘Well, I’ve got this sister that I don’t even know.’ But I’m totally into Sean, you know, and I’ve totally accepted the fact that I lost my daughter.
“There were times that I couldn’t stand it,” she continues, “but that was, like, until 1978. By then I was sort of getting used to the idea. And then the big tragedy that replaced that sort of feeling sorry for myself and all was John’s death. After John died, it seemed like nothing could be that bad again. That’s sort of the ultimate, isn’t it? At least let’s hope so. I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I’m not asking for another tragedy. I’ve had my fill, thank you very much.”
In an awkward moment right at the end of our conversation Yoko’s eyes begin to well up slightly. Suddenly, very quietly, and without any prompting, she murmurs, “I guess I’m still living in a lot of pain. Yeah…um, um…like, just the other morning in London I woke up in a hotel and was very frightened. I’m thinking, ‘What am I frightened of?’ And then I’m thinking, ‘Well, I guess I’m just frightened of being me.’ That’s a lot, you know? It’s like, if you’re frightened of being yourself, then nobody can stop it. I didn’t try to make it difficult on myself. Even in the beginning, I suppose…” She trails off and looks down at the now-overflowing ashtray. “I guess I’m just one of those people who, no matter what, could never have been comfortable with a mainstream kind of life. Yet all of us – every one of us, really – are looking for some kind of comfort level in our lives.” She smiles, disconsolately. “And that level is not very easy to find.”
John Lennon’s anthem, dedicated to all the people protesting in the Occupy Wall Street marches across the country right now. Power to the people… right on!
Also, we celebrate Lennon’s 71st birthday on the 9th. Happy birthday John!!!
Thirty years ago today….gone but never forgotten…
This article comes from the Jan. 22, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone, a month and a half after John Lennon’s untimely passing…
The night after John Lennon was murdered, I happened to attend the Broadway musical Evita. At the curtain call, the show’s star, Patti LuPone, asked for a moment of silence for the slain ex-Beatle. Other than as a simple gesture of respect, it surprised me at first. While I couldn’t think of a single rock & roll genre — from the most conservative crooning to the most radical punk rock — that hadn’t drawn a good deal of inspiration from Lennon, I didn’t quite understand this tribute from the Great White Way. Bruce Springsteen launching into a turbulent “Twist and Shout” from a Philadelphia stage that same night made perfect sense. But Evita? As I stood there, I began to realize the extent of John Lennon’s artistic influence — that, even on Broadway (whose aesthetics are, for the most part, diametrically opposite every-thing Lennon stood for), he’d made some kind of mark that would not or could not be forgotten. Indeed, without Lennon’s early and bold fusion of politics and pop, a play like Evita, in which Che Guevara is a major character, probably wouldn’t exist. Truly, the man’s stamp was everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »
My favorite song by my favorite artist…. Happy 70th birthday to John Lennon. He will never be forgotten…
A Sept. 1971 Village Voice article dealing with the aftermath of The Beatles’ untimely breakup in 1970 and the fallout that occurred in its wake. Christgau also critiques the first solo recordings of the 4 Beatles…
Not one but two of George Harrison’s friends got more applause than the best-selling ex-Beatle at the Bangla-Desh concert at Madison Square Garden. Dylan did, of course — New York is his turf — but unless I am deceiving myself, so did Ringo. Admittedly, self-deception is a real possibility. I clapped and shouted enough to provide Ringo’s margin of victory all by myself, and that epiphany exhausted, sat and gazed upon my hero through opera glasses. I was only twenty rows back, among the industry freebies, but I craved detail, and wouldn’t you know? George kept getting in the way. His white suit had obscured Ringo’s grand ole black-on-black for most of “It Don’t Come Easy” as well, but both times Ringo seemed aware that he was being upstaged. He looked calm and even complacent, brimming with quiet happiness, as if after eight years he still couldn’t quite believe his own good fortune — a seat right up on stage, the best industry freebie of all. That’s why we love him, after all, and why unlike the others he remains immune to the vagaries of our affection. Ringo is our representative on the Beatles.
Think about it. Ringo joined the group in the summer of 1962, replacing the corny good looks of Pete Best with a homely corrective to all that genius. The Beatles were on the brink of their fame. They had just signed with George Martin and EMI and dominated the thriving Liverpool pop scene. In less than a year they would become a national craze, with international Beatlemania already imminent. What a time that must have been for Ringo, a continual up among three intimidating near-strangers. In retrospect it must seem the high point of his life, but if he’s passed his peak, he’s not complaining. Ringo may not be able to describe the dark chamber of his future, but he knows it’s his, and that suffices. He is a family man now, unalienated from his lifework and identity. Four or five years ago, when John was talking about expanding into films and George was learning sitar and transcendental meditation and Paul was turning in on himself in a London town house, Ringo also had plans of his own — he wanted to start a Beatle museum. And now that the breakup is real, he has written a song, his fourth, called “Early 1970,” the B side of the best single any ex-Beatle has released. Perhaps you saw the lyrics in Howard Smith’s column. After devoting a stanza each to Paul (“When he comes to town, I wonder if he’ll play with me”), John (“When he comes to town, I know he’s gonna play with me”), and George (“He’s always in town, playing for you with me”), he goes on to himself: “I play guitar, A D E/ I don’t play bass cos that’s too hard for me/ I play the piano if it’s in C/ And when I go to town I want to see all three.” He really is the ultimate Beatle fan.
Conversely, George is the ultimate ex-Beatle, exploiting his Beatleness to assert his own identity. The old mediator and business head has turned into a superduperstar, and even as he talks of getting the group together again, he relishes his ascendancy as an individual. It may be that John first wanted to break up the group and was persuaded to stay by the insidious Paul, as John claims, or that Paul was shut out by the others until he had to leave, as Paul claims, but it is silent George who has adapted best to being out on his own. The catch is, he isn’t out on his own, for unlike the other three, George feels totally at home in the new condominium that dominates rock–I.P.M.C., the International Pop Music Community. George fits in because he knows how — he always played lead guitar and second fiddle — but even more because the prevailing trend suits his predilections. John is a media artist, Paul a composer, and Ringo just a Beatle, but George, ahh, George is a musician, he likes to play his ax, he likes to jam.
The ascendancy of I.P.M.C. represents a fundamental changeover, from Pop to Music. Five years ago, rock was created by integral groups, each of which directed its own organic identity at the audience. It’s true that that identity was often filtered and distorted by friends and outsiders, and that group members did create individually and interact with each other. But the group was still an aesthetic unit that communicated vertically, toward us, and thus related primarily to us. From the Beatles’ earliest success, when their lively-but-harmless moptopness was manipulated by Brian Epstein, through all the spontaneous changes of their collective genius, what went on among them came right down to us as a self-contained but multifaceted and evolving whole. In contrast, the aesthetic unit of I.P.M.C. is the individual musician, who communicated horizontally in continuing semispontaneous improvisation with his coequals. We in the audience are only incidental beneficiaries of his flirtations and affairs, at least until we stop buying. George is an I.P.M.C. man as regards both the public and his fellow superstars. In Let It Be, remember, it was George who rejected touring because he thought the Beatles, like Stravinsky, were responsible only to the art of music. Later, when Paul broke up Stravinsky, George reportedly made the perfect joke: “Well, I guess we need a new bassist.”
Although I.P.M.C. is vast enough to defy efficient generalization and is the locus of some of my favorite rock — Delaney & Bonnie, Layla, Mad Dogs & Englishmen — I strongly suspect the new mainstream of draining back toward an individualism that rock and roll once seemed to challenge. That’s a big argument, however. For now, allow me to note that there really is something about music-for-its-own-sake (read: I.P.M.C.) that transcends life’s harsher details, and that this is not true of music-as-popular-communication (read: group-rock). George’s religiosity is tellingly appropriate. Don Heckman referred to George as “the most introspective of the Beatles,” but that’s just I.P.M.C. claptrap. Playing headsie with the Universal Mind is not introspection; more often, it constitutes an evasion of hard inquiry by heirs of privilege with access to easier rewards, like riding the hounds or playing the guitar. The Bangla-Desh benefit started a lot of money on its way to people who plainly need and deserve it and established an awesome moral precedent, yet I find it hard to take seriously as politics because George has specifically disclaimed political motivation. “The political side is not my concern,” he told the trades. “Any war is wrong.” George’s know-nothingism is admirably candid, but it is also embarrassing and infuriating. Listen to the music. He can’t feel the pain, has never known such distress, doesn’t understand, but it sure looks like a mess quote unquote, free the people of Bangla-Desh. The flip of the “Bangla-Desh” single, “Deep Blue,” an unoverdubbed quickie that I consider George’s most affecting piece since “Here Comes the Sun,” amplifies his almost comic intellectual gaucherie. Written for his ailing mother, but by implication applicable to all suffering, including Bangla-Desh, it ends up another piece of lordy-lordy-lordy, with all that suffering reduced to so much Eternal Recurrence. It makes sense. The man who seeks after transcendence wants to avoid the ugly, immanent contingencies that taking sides involves. But maybe avoiding the contingencies is even uglier.
Despite the puffs of I.P.M.C. stalwarts like the New York Post‘s Al Aronowitz and Rolling Stone‘s nameless hydra, the Bangla-Desh concert was far from an unqualified aesthetic success. Because rock and roll is happy blues, there is something intrinsically awkward about the idea of a rock benefit, unless the cause is revolution for the hell of it. The only way Leon Russell performing “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Young Blood” (brilliantly, too) can be said to relate to a few million starving dark-skinned people on the other side of the planet is by fiat, yet there he was; it’s hard to blame the confused minority who clapped in time to “Bangla-Desh” as a film of the mutilation came on during intermission. With his never-failing critical acuteness, Dylan defeated this quandry by reverting to folk music, but Harrison’s disinclination for hard inquiry told. The plethora of musicians may have been necessary — how else render George’s I.P.M.C./wall-of-sound synthesis on stage? — but was still an excess wretchedly inappropriate in context. In fact, the whole production was anachronistically showbiz.
Of course, the same overblown fatuity characterizes All Things Must Pass, which sounds more like Muzak to my ears than Ram does. I’m not even sure that the prodigious flatness of Harrison’s new music — probably attributable to monomaniac Phil Spector, whose production work continues to sound best on a car radio as it approaches cosmic vagueness — can be adapted to the dynamic depth of live performance at all. Maybe George don’t need no wah-wahs, but he is a man of the recording studio more than ever — after all, how else can he make his voice do that? I.P.M.C. encourages a profitable mystique of concert jamming, but for every Mad Dogs & Englishmen, puts on half-a-dozen shoddy shows. Derek and the Dominoes are terrific when an extra guitarist hypes them up, uninspired otherwise. Leon Russell pumps away stage right like a coiffed locomotive, flanked by two women singers selected primarily for the mobility of their tits who function as a kind of tender, fueling Leon with attention, while the rest of the band cabooses desperately behind. And despite Al Aronowitz’s smug exultations about the “respectful and appreciative” crowd that responded to the “exercise in charisma” by performers who would never “invite a crowd to bedlam and hysteria” — as do group-rock holdouts such as Sly and the Stones and Grand Funk, all of whom excite Aronowitz’s disapproval — the music at Madison Square Garden, excepting Dylan and a few wonderful moments here and there, was competent at best. Since I.P.M.C. is thought of as an antidote to pop image and hype, it would seem strange that the ultimate I.P.M.C. concert should succeed as an event, which it certainly did, but not as music. The fact is, however, that concerts in Madison Square Garden are rarely more than events up in the cheap seats, and I’ve heard nothing from my sources in the cheap seats to indicate that this one was an exception. Here is fan Karin Klein: “The songs were very cut and dried, without particular flair or warmth. The basic result seemed to be a put-down of the audience’s mood, and the impression that George and Friends would like to do their piece and go.”
They did their piece, and they went.
2. Like a Horse and Carriage
In early 1970 Tom Paxton released a single called “Crazy John.” Paxton is one of those ex-purist folk singers whose major talent is persistence: When Dylan went electric, Paxton commented, “Where it’s at is a synonym for rich,” but a few years later he was riding the heretic’s tail at the Isle of Wight. “Crazy John” was evidence of Paxton’s new vocation, offering that wonderful nut, the John Lennon of bed-ins and peace billboards, some sage folk advice: “They never can hear you, John/ So how can you teach them?/ They never come near you, John/ So how can you reach them?” It’s appropriate for a folk singer to offer such a sterling example of that contemporary usage, the paranoid “they,” because the very idea of the folk connotes an integral audience, us, separated by time and/or values from the shapeless mass, them. Paxton thinks John is crazy because he does not recognize this dichotomy, and in an ass-backward way he is right, for if John were capable of such easy formulas, he might be almost as boring as Paxton himself. But John is a media artist, and like any media artist he continually confronts a maddening question: Where is my audience? More than any other pop star (except perhaps Dylan) he enjoys a creative relationship with his own celebrity, plying it not merely out of ambition or self-protection but because the process piques him aesthetically. John Lennon in public is like a filmmaker at the Movieola or Yoko Ono at a happening in 1963.
New York artists used to look at the six o’clock news or, perhaps, some wonderful new rock and roll group from England and think, “Huh, what a weird thing to reach so many people at once.” They perceived mass-cult outreach as a basically formal quality, irrespective of content, and experimented with it by devising art events that if they were very clever, might make Howard Smith’s Voice column, once Howard Smith had devised a column to deal with such phenomena. In this context the Lennon/Ono marriage was the most successful multimedia move of the decade. Yet the taint of the avant-garde has stayed with Yoko, for after all, the cover of Rolling Stones or Crawdaddy just ain’t the cover of Life, and if Ono/Lennon appear on Cavett, you can expect McCartney/McCartney to show up on Carson any time now. Ex-groupie or no, Linda Eastman McCartney has class, and banker’s daughter or no, Yoko Ono doesn’t. John married genius, and Paul married power, and in the world of public media it’s hard to be sure which is more important.
None of this is to imply that Paul, or John, married for convenience. Like all artists, great popular artists believe their own myths, and for popular songwriters of the pre-Beatle era — which is exactly how Lennon and McCartney began — there was only one of these: romantic love. Repeat: They were popular songwriters. Even though the staple of rock and roll in the fifties was teen schmaltz of wondrous innocence and vapidity, and even though the popularization of black music meant romanticizing the hard-assed realism of rhythm-and-blues, the sheer physicality of rock and roll, its sexual underpinnings, always implied a negation of such escapist rhapsodies. But the Beatles, unlike blues-influenced fellow geniuses Jagger and Dylan, never showed much interest in this negation. Instead of projecting sexuality, they evoked it and made fun of it simultaneously, just one more example of the insistent popness that always tempted the cynical to suspect they were the finks. After turning out enchanting variations on the permissible themes of union and parting for three or four years, their version of the myth gradually became more acerbic (“Girl,” “If I Needed Someone,” etc.), but their formal commitment to pop remained unchanged — those later songs are reminiscent of the down Smokey Robinson, especially on the all-important pop surface.
It was only during their mature period — including Sgt. Pepper, their best album, and The Beatles, their most consistent and probably their worst — that they abandoned the subject altogether. Great popular artists believe their own myths, but like all artists, they do so from a distance. As his relationship with Jane Asher became more problematic, Paul’s romantic experiments became more outré. He never quite gave up on romance, but it is significant that “Hey Jude,” one of his truest and most forthright love songs, was omitted from The Beatles, whereas “I Will,” a piece of fluff that seemed designed to fit unobtrusively into that pastiche of musical exercises, was included. When Paul took up with Linda, however, he also took up the love theme with fresh enthusiasm. Typically, John’s withdrawal and return were more extreme. He discovered Yoko well before the white album, but not until “I Want You,” on Abbey Road, did he signal his renewed embrace of the myth. For both moderate Paul and manic John, romance was a lot of what getting back was about. After desperate years, each decided love is all you need, because each found his one-and-only, doo-wah doo-wah.
But the revitalization of the myth of romantic love almost inevitably contributed to the disintegration of another myth, the myth of the Beatles. It is significant that it was the group’s songwriters and resident movers who swung so precipitously from one myth to the other. In Hunter Davies’s official biography Cynthia Lennon chides her husband for preferring the group to his family. “They seem to need you less than you need them,” the quote goes, and John admits it: “I did try to go my own way after we stopped touring, but it didn’t work. I didn’t meet anyone else I liked.” At that time, according to John, Paul had just about taken over leadership of the group. Engaged to Jane Asher, Paul regretted that he was still so much a bachelor, but he wasn’t — he was married to the Beatles: “We’re really the same person. We’re just four parts of the one.” At that time Pattie Harrison was thought of as the independent Beatle wife because she still did some modeling. Now Ringo describes her as “a long-legged lady in the garden pickin’ daisies for his suit,” and the marriage seems ornamental, the sort of show-business union that might just end sometime. The impression may not be factual, of course, but there’s no doubting the accuracy of Davies’s description of Ringo as something of an Andy Capp, albeit solider and more devoted — Ringo is a common man in ways that don’t inspire our ready identification as well as in ways that do. In any case, we realize in the context of more recent history that George and Ringo did not separate themselves from the group by marrying, although each gained a margin of autonomy. That margin proved necessary, because when John and Paul married, they married hard, replacing the Four Mates with “Man We Was Lonely” and “Love is you/ You and me.” It was as if their ambivalent relationship to the sexuality of rock and roll finally caught up with them. Men in groups gave way to couples.
John started it, of course. His mates mated with suitably mod types–an actress, a model, a hairdresser. Yoko, whatever else you might think of her, was a rather unbirdlike original, from her mature body to her obsessive creativity. She was strong — too strong. It is possible, I suppose, that the other Beatles bore her some faint racial or (more likely) artistic prejudice, but her deepest offense was to their male chauvinism. She aroused John’s male chauvinism, too, but because he was in love with her he responded differently: He actually thought she could become the fifth Beatle. And when he found he couldn’t work her into the Beatles, he began to rework the other available myth instead. Like all artists, great popular artists not only believe their own myths but carry them to new extremes: The dream is over; long live the dream. The myth of romantic love is usually a trap for women, but a sufficiently potent woman can transform it (it has been transformed before, after all) by compounding it with that vague notion of the perfect equality of all free spirits that can also be descried lurking around our culture. Actually, the combination isn’t so much a compound as a colloid, mixing disparate elements in suspension. Nobody just screams away his entire oedipal heritage, and even as John acts out the fierce symbiosis of his marriage, he remains a jealous guy who interrupts his wife on Howard Smith’s radio show.
Paul, the born romantic, came more readily to the new romanticism, but naturally in a much more sentimental way. John has dedicated an album to Yoko, but it is hard to imagine him doing something so cutesy as concealing a Y.I.L.Y. on some secret border. Paul and Linda are also much more moderate — in fact, it might be argued that they cop out on the new dream altogether. Linda is a creative partner but in a traditionally subordinate way, not just in the view of her husband’s fans but in the view of her husband. Her work is the mod art-craft, photography, and she has looked to rock as an energy source for years; in contrast, Yoko is a conceptual artist who was completely outside the music when John came to her. John now calls himself John Ono Lennon, but it’s Paul and Linda McCartney, or even (on their first coauthored song, “Another Day”) Mr. and Mrs. Paul McCartney.
In its radical or liberal version, however, romantic marriage has destroyed the group. The Beatles were an aesthetic unit, but what did they transmit in common? Exuberance, yes. Cheek, although George’s head change changed that somewhat. Youth, and then youthfulness; rock and roll, and then rock. But above all, what the unit transmitted was unity, the possibility that four very different individuals could constitute a harmonious and functioning whole. That image was very important to the way we thought in the sixties, and Yoko and Linda have made it impossible, not only by inspiring a countermyth but also by intensifying their husbands’ divergences. John and Paul complemented each other: Paul was conservative, John mercurial; Paul was fascinated with the silly history of pop music, John with its grand future; Paul was more comfortable with money, John with fame. But their women augmented rather than complemented. In class terms Paul married up to Linda and her show-business wealth, whereas Yoko married down to John, who seems unlikely to abandon his scrappy lower-middle-class heritage no matter how many possessions he accrues. But psychologically, the spirit of the husband, focused by the wife, dominates each marriage.
These personal changes are reflected in their musical work, except perhaps for McCartney, which despite its melodic interludes I find difficult to take seriously as anything more than a million-selling wedding announcement. In a way, though, McCartney can be said to have provided impetus for John’s Plastic Ono Band, from egocentric title to spare production. It’s as if John is saying, “This is what personal minimal music ought to sound like.” Plastic Ono Band is conceptual in the Yoko Ono rather than the Sgt. Pepper sense. It is one of the few albums I admire that does not permit casual enjoyment. You have to listen to it. Those who can do that — and there are many not in the category — customarily praise its lyrics, whereupon those who can’t, conclude that John has not only gone off the deep end but also dragged his friends with him. It is distressing that anyone can take a collection of psychotherapeutic truisms as revelation, although “I Found Out” and “Well Well Well” are more than that on even the most obvious level. It is even more distressing, however, that others consider John a simpleton (or perhaps a wonderful nut) who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Anyone who loves Rosie & the Originals the way John does understands the value of dumbness. Of course the lyrics are crude clichés. That’s just the point, because they are also true, and John wants to make very clear that right now truth is far more important than subtlety, taste, art, or anything else.
I am not encouraged by John’s admission that he now writes melodies for lyrics rather than the opposite, because I believe music will get you through times of no lyrics better than lyrics will get you through times of no music. I also believe, however, that music overwhelms lyrics on Plastic Ono Band. Carman Moore, who is a composer as well as a critic, thinks John has emerged as the most musical Beatle in terms of chords, melodic lines, and other such arcana, which only shows what I’ve said all along — that you can perceive that stuff without analyzing it. For me, the musicality of Plastic Ono Band can be summed up in one word: strength. At first, of course, what came through was crudity. The music sounded stark and even perfunctory compared to the free harmonies and double guitars of the Beatles’ rock and roll. But the music of the album inheres not in its instrumentation but in the way John’s greatest vocal performance, a complete tour of rock timbre from scream to whine, is modulated electronically. Like so much great rock and roll, it depends on studio gimmickry, with the greatest of the gimmickers, Phil Spector, providing the expertise while stripped of his power to grind sixteen tracks down to mush. John’s voice unadorned appears only twice: on “Working Class Hero” and after the nonbelieving malediction of “God,” when John says, “I just believe in me/ Yoko and me/ And that’s reality.” Elsewhere it is echoed, filtered, and double-tracked, with two voices sometimes emanating in a synthesis from between the speakers and sometimes dialectically separated. In addition, the guitar and even the drumming is distorted.
This trickery slips by because Plastic Ono Band just isn’t a tricky album. It does sound strong, even primal; there really is something quintessentially raw about it. Yet it isn’t. John is such a media artist that even when he is fervidly shedding personas and eschewing metaphor, he knows, perhaps instinctively, that he communicates most effectively through technological masks and prisms. Separating himself from the homemade pretensions of, say, McCartney, he does not bullshit himself or his audience about where he is in the world — namely, on some private pinnacle of superstardom. As always, he wants to reach us with a message that is also a medium and really equals himself. Like any great artist, the great popular artist feels compelled to embody his myth in a form that offers its own pleasure. Plastic Ono Band had to be a one-shot, and in retrospect, Imagine follows it as inevitably as New Morning followed Self-Portrait. Its myth is twofold: Yoko plus the movement. The word “imagine” is a Yokoism crucial as well to Marcusian theory, which regards the ineluctable utopianism of the artistic imagination as essential to social transformation — we cannot change unless we can envision change. If “Working Class Hero” is John’s movement credo and “Power to the People” his movement marching song, then the title cut of the new album is his movement hymn.
Chances are the movement is just another of John’s phases, though he has always shown that mix of genius, indignation, and pugnacity that characterizes the movement media heavy. In any case, it is certainly an invigorating development for those of us who have been straining to link rock and politics. Yet the movement’s ability to get across to masses of people has proved so sporadic that a part of me suspects John’s new stance portends his downfall. The thing is, Imagine doesn’t quite make it. At its best it is richer and more exciting than Plastic Ono Band because its potential appeal is much broader. “Gimme Some Truth” is the union of Lennon unmasked with the Lennon of Blunderland wordplay, the kind of venom Dylan never quite managed to spew. “It’s So Hard” is the perfect blend of big blues and metapolitical despair. “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” is a proper Spectoral extravaganza. “Oh Yoko!” is pure spontaneous joy and captures more of the spirit of fun than all of Ram. And other songs succeed, too. But the combination of nasty lyric and good-timey ricky-tick on “Crippled Inside” has been exploited by every ex-purist folk singer since Phil Ochs, and “How?” is so psychotherapeutically lugubrious that it might not even have worked on Plastic Ono Band. Nor are these mistakes simply bad tries. They are symptomatic of Lennon’s limitations as an individual artist, limitations that, contrary to suggestion, are not musical. John’s music suits his vision perfectly. It’s his vision that is lacking.
As indicated, I think Ram is a bad record, a classic form/content mismatch. If music is just gentle, fey, and occasionally funky, then why labor over it so assiduously? If you wanna have fun, then have it; don’t just succumb to conspicuous consumption. I am infuriated by the McCartneys’ modern young-marrieds image — just normal folks who happen to have a wee recording setup on their Scottish estate. Since Paul’s political perspective seems limited to Zero Population Growth, the production lavished on this album amounts to an ecological obscenity. Yet Ram is far from Muzak and offers amenities that John could use. Paul’s voice conveys a warmth and sophistication that might make John’s manic-depressive extremism more palatable at those times when we just feel like lying around and listening to the stereo. Also, Paul uses Linda well. John seems unable to understand that although Yoko is a good artist, all that distinguishes her from a number of her fellows is access to media. This is indeed an important, and legitimate, distinction, but it ought to demonstrate once and for all that the function of avant-garde art is to inspire other artists, not the public. Yoko has entered John’s music successfully twice (on “Cold Turkey” and on “Do the Oz,” by the Elastic Oz Band), and although her own records are interesting, they will never reach a large public unless she makes the move. But Linda’s participation on Paul’s records works in a good way, another example of the trend to allow women as well as men to sing in their everyday voices. It is not his commitment to yesterday or another day but to everyday that might eventually render Paul’s music pleasant again. Let’s hope so.
What John needs most, you see, is just that acceptance of the everyday that in Paul-without-John appears to us as repellent complacency. He needs further rapprochement with the reality experienced by his audience. He needs continual reminder of his pop heritage, to balance his oedipal heritage and his lower-middle-class heritage. That balance is what the Beatles always reflected back to us, because we’re all like that and tend to forget it. It is missing from the New York artistic/political avant-garde, which is why that avant-garde never lives up to its genius. John really does need it. But it’s obvious that John doesn’t want to get it from Paul ever again. “How Do You Sleep?” is the kind of public act committed by a lover who wants to make sure he will never return in momentary weakness to the one who has rejected him so cruelly, the best proof yet of how deep the Beatles’ unity once was. Perhaps he’ll find it in himself or in George, who is capable of songs of rare beauty, or elsewhere, but although I’ll always love him, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were lost to him forever. It is strange to foresee the artistic death of an artist who is still so vital, but I often do.
What the breakup of the Beatles represents on the largest symbolic scale is a central problem of our time — the inability of couples to coexist within cooperative groups. Perhaps they’ll all survive to lead happy, truly productive lives, or perhaps like so many of us, they will be trapped by this dilemma. John will be a tragedy, George and Paul something not so affecting. But for Ringo it will be worst of all, and since Ringo is all of us, we’d better figure out what there is for us now that we can’t be Beatle fans any longer. Find our own love, maybe — and form our own group.
Yoko’s first album after John’s death. It definitely dealt with the pain she was feeling at the time, even though some of the songs were actually written years earlier. This review comes from Rolling Stone, July 9, 1981 (issue #347) and was written by Stephen Holden…
Besides being an eloquent elegy for John Lennon, Season of Glass is Yoko Ono’s most accessible and assured album. Produced by Ono and Phil Spector, whose connection with the project ended before its completion, the LP is an intelligent blend of aesthetic experimentation and pop form, in which each genre complements and illuminates the other. As a personal expression of grief and rage over a violent and senseless tragedy, Season of Glass is remarkably restrained, so that when the inevitable outburst comes, it has the shock of sudden horror erupting within a relatively tranquil setting. It might have been easier – and probably also more emotionally tempting–for Yoko Ono to dwell on John Lennon’s murder. Instead, she’s fitted the events ??st December into the broader framework of an artistic vision that hasn’t changed substantially in the eleven years of her solo recording career.
Season of Glass’ fourteen compositions are a fascinating montage of memories, dreams and incantations, most of which seem to touch on the tragedy, even though many were actually written much earlier. John Lennon’s name isn’t mentioned in any lyric, but his presence is everywhere–from the cover photo of his shattered eyeglasses to Ono’s moving liner notes, which explain that the album wasn’t dedicated to Lennon because “he was one of us.” There are several highly charged fragments that relate directly to the murder. “I Don’t Know Why,” Yoko Ono’s one song of outright grief, is a compelling incantation with a coda in which her voice rises in fury: “You bastards! Hate us … /Hate me… We had everything….” It’s a devastating moment, because its nonspecificness underlines its universality. “You bastards” could be everybody who ever resented the couple for their happiness and success. They could be the critics and commentators who scorned Ono’s art and blamed her for breaking up the Beatles. They could be the fates themselves. They’re probably all this and more.
The voice of the Lennons’ son, Sean, is also heard. Between tracks, he starts to tell a story, then pauses to remark: “I learnt this from my daddy, you know.” Wisely, Ono uses such tear-jerking only once. Another number is prefaced by the sound of gunshots. Finally, there is Yoko, disconsolate and terribly alone, as she answers the telephone. Some people will find these references exploitative. But imagine how callous Ono would have appeared if she hadn’t alluded to her husband’s death at all.
Musically, Season of Glass extends the sound and style of Double Fantasy, utilizing many of the same musicians. In these spare, immaculate studio arrangements, Phil Spector’s hand isn’t keenly evident. Only “Mindweaver” evokes the hushed mysticism that was Spector’s aural translation of the Beatles’ spiritual legacy. Stylistically, the new LP is Yoko Ono’s most varied collection to date, with tunes ranging from austere, Fifties-influenced rock & roll ballads (“Goodbye Sadness”) to vaudevillian novelties (“Turn of the Wheel,” “Will You Touch Me”) that show off her girlishness to its best advantage. “Dogtown” sounds like a dadaist update of Kurt Weill, while “Nobody Sees Me like You Do” echoes the compelling starkness of Lennon’s “Oh Yoko.” “Mother of the Universe,” Ono’s feminist “Lord’s Prayer,” boasts strong classical leanings.
The album’s most powerful song, “She Gets Down on Her Knees,” is a hypnotic dance-rocker in the style of Ono’s excellent post-Double Fantasy single, “Walking on Thin Ice.” In both performances, the artist demonstrates that she’s found an ideal setting for her primal singing in the rigid, trancelike atmosphere of this idiom. Contemporary dance-rock’s self-conscious primitivism, with its fusion of technological sophistication and minimalist aesthetics, brilliantly reflects the contradictions between the worldly and the childlike in Ono’s sensibility.
As a balladeer, Yoko Ono can be charming, though her small soprano has its obvious limitations. She’s a terrific experimental New Wave rock singer, however. Ono hasn’t simply strayed into this milieu by accident–indeed, she was instrumental in creating it. Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s, Lene Lovich, Lydia Lunch, even Patti Smith, owe a debt of gratitude to her for helping smash the distinctions between avant-garde vocalese and mainstream rock. (Meanwhile, the avant-garde vocal tradition from which Ono emerged flourishes. Laurie Anderson, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk and Elizabeth Swados, to name four vastly different New York-based performing artists of substantial talent, have, whether they know it or not, umbilical ties to Yoko Ono.)
On Season of Glass, Ono’s lyrics simultaneously subvert and exalt pop-rock conventions. She often eschews the normal cadences of lyric diction for a more direct and intuitive style that borders on speech-song. Frequently, she doesn’t bother with rhymes, and in a genre in which terseness is considered a cardinal virtue, she can fill up whole verses and choruses with repetition. At times, her language is telegraphic in its omission of connective words. Also, there’s a bold, cinematic quality in the way she manipulates tone and imagery, jump-cutting between abstract, panoramic reflections and specific details. This jump-cut technique of assemblage, with its sometimes jarring emotional juxtapositions, characterizes the LP’s form: a core of abrupt contrasts, beginning and ending on a peacefully wistful note.
Between the opening “Goodbye Sadness” and the closing “Mother of the Universe,” Ono deals with the whole range of human emotions. There are sweet dreams (“Silver Horse”) and shattered dreams (“Toyboat”), sexual paranoia (“No, No, No”), naked fear (“Will You Touch Me”), regret (“Even When You’re Far Away”), loneliness (“Nobody Sees Me like You Do”) and despair (“Dogtown”). My favorite lyric, “She Gets Down on Her Knees,” describes brutal self-confrontation with repetitive, aphoristic phrases: “She gets down on her knees to throw up … /She gets down on her knees to make up life….”
Inventing provocative enigmas has always been one of Yoko Ono’s aesthetic strategies. The quintessential conceptual artist in all of her media work, she probes for the positive resonances in ideas by asking questions instead of issuing statements, or by starting statements and then leaving them unfinished. By making it necessary for us to complete what she has begun, Ono, at least theoretically, is eliminating the conventional barriers between artist and spectator, and by extension, between art and life.
Because its orientation is factual and not conceptual, the mass media is notoriously resistant to the abstract and the enigmatic. Ono, with her husband’s fervent support, has helped break down some of the resistance to art outside of its “approved” bourgeois setting. Again and again, in their records and communiqués, the Lennons presented art as an event rather than as an artifact. If their experiments weren’t always successful, they were never less than provocative.
What’s art and what isn’t art varies, of course, according to whom you ask. If Ono didn’t put so much of her feelings into what she does, the art-versus-life, artifact-versus-concept argument would interest only the academics. But Yoko Ono gives us her all. Season of Glass is vivid with her exotic personality, her overflowing emotional life and her idiosyncratic vision. Ono’s universe is a matriarchy where even the Creator is feminine. Her utopia is an idealized, enlightened child world, in which our capacity for wonder and joy is our most precious gift. Here, sexuality is polymorphous, with traditional masculine-feminine roles blurred and lovers achieving union as much through the intertwining of consciousness as through physical eroticism. This idyllic world, where the guiding principle is maternal love, certainly isn’t everyone’s idea of heaven. But, to me, it sounds a lot better than the world we live in. And at least for Yoko Ono, simply to imagine such a world is to admit the very real possibility of its existing. Again.
I’m shouting all about love
While they treated you like a dog
When you were the one who had made it so clear
All those years ago
I’m talking all about how to give
They don’t act with much honesty
But you point the way to the truth when you say
“All you need is love”
Living with good and bad
I always looked up to you
Now we’re left cold and sad
By someone, the devil’s best friend
Someone who offended all
We’re living in a bad dream
They’ve forgotten all about mankind
And you were the one they backed up to the wall
All those years ago
You were the one who imagined it all
All those years ago..
Deep in the darkest night
I send out a prayer to you
Now in the world of light
Where the spirit free of lies
And all else that we despised
They’ve forgotten all about God
He’s the only reason we exist
Yet you were the one that they said was so weird
All those years ago
You said it all though not many had ears
All those years ago
You had control of our smiles and our tears
All those years ago..
All those years ago …
for John Lennon
Straight from The Dakota Country & Western Club…
John’s last big (posthumous) hit, from late 1983…
This song (and “Life Begins at 40”) were offered to Ringo Starr to record (right before John’s death) but then Ringo didn’t feel right about singing them.