MusicWeekend

Yoko Ono Sings As If Our Lives Depended on It

With Warzone, the artist revisits some of her older anthems, whose themes are more timely than ever.

Yoko Ono in a New York studio this past summer during the Warzone recording sessions (photo by Connor Monahan)

As millions of her Twitter and Instagram followers know, even now, at 85, the multimedia artist Yoko Ono is still deeply involved in making art and music, and in activism on behalf of women’s rights and the environment, including campaigning against fracking. Her decades-old call for putting an end to war and giving peace a chance has become more timely than ever.

Now, against the current backdrop of out-of-control hostility, destruction of nature, political lies and chicanery, repression of human rights, and corruption without impunity of all kinds, Ono has emerged with Warzone (Chimera Music), her newest musical project. Executed over a short period of time this past summer, Warzone features dramatically reworked versions of some of the artist-composer’s own songs from her past albums.

Produced in collaboration with the young American keyboardist Thomas Bartlett (who usually performs as “Doveman”), Ono’s Warzone comes as a somewhat unexpected missive from this grandmother and modern-art doyenne, whose roof-busting scream in “Why” on her debut album, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970), announced a radical fusion of the avant-garde and rock, and whose inventive use of mass media and celebrity helped create new delivery methods for conceptual art.

“It feels like we’re all living in a warzone today,” Ono told me during a recent interview at her home in the Dakota, the hulking apartment building in uptown Manhattan, where she and John Lennon settled in the 1970s. She explained that, a few months ago, acting quickly on an impulse in response to an inundation of ugly, dispiriting news, she combed through her large body of recorded music and selected a batch of songs whose themes and messages still sound urgent right now.

Cover of Yoko Ono’s new album, Warzone, featuring an original ink drawing by the artist (©Yoko Ono, image courtesy Chimera Music)

Ono, who was concerned about her voice after recovering from flu-like symptoms that slowed her down in 2016, said, “At first I thought I would wait until next year, but then, every day in the newspaper, it’s this and that — and I thought, ‘Are you kidding? I’m not going to wait.’”

In enlisting Bartlett, who is known for his stripped-down interpretations that reveal the essence of other songwriters’ compositions (material as diverse as David Bowie’s “Lazarus” or the soundtrack of the 1984 film Footloose), Ono found a collaborator who instinctively cut some fat from her original recordings to expose her songs’ structures and showcase their melodies. Bartlett also gently calls attention to the distinctive character of her songs, which sometimes feature quirky chord changes or phrases. (“I’m just living on tiptoe, feeling like so-so,” she sings in “It’s Gonna Rain.”)

Ono said, “I knew about Tom, who had done a few of my songs before, and I knew his sensibility.” She decided that assembling a conventional backing band “was not the way to go” this time and recalled, “I said to Tom, ‘You and I are going to make this record — along with the animals.’” The sounds of elephants honking, monkeys screeching, and other beasts cooing, whining, and wailing open and close the album, and punctuate various passages of Warzone’s songs. Ono said, “Animals are musicians, too.”

Warzone revisits songs from such Ono albums as Approximately Infinite Universe (1973), Feeling the Space (1973), Starpeace (1985), and Rising (1995). From Approximately, “Now or Never” is an unabashedly political song, originally performed in a folk-music style and first released when the Vietnam War had become an ever more costly, desperate, aimless mission. Dismissed by some critics at the time as both idealistic and naive in its message, in the face of the Trump fascists’ destruction of democracy, its lyrics could not be more timely.

Now delicately propelled on gusts of synthesizer and the gurgle of an electric piano, in Warzone’s version of “Now or Never,” Ono sings:

Are we gonna keep pretending things are alright?
Are we gonna keep our mouths closed just in case?
Are we gonna keep putting off until it’s too late?
Are we gonna be known as the century of fear?

Isolating the electric-guitar riff that anchors Ono’s feminist anthem “Woman Power,” from Feeling the Space, Bartlett pushes her voice forward in the mix; here, she declaims as much as she sings, like an older woman, mother, and observer of human foibles who has witnessed a lifetime of power plays by macho men and beer-soaked bromancers:

Every woman has a song to sing.
Every woman has a story to tell.
And make no mistake about it, brothers,
We women have the power to move the mountains!

For such songs as “I Love All of Me,” an empowerment anthem for the bullied, overlooked, and powerless; “Children Power,” a jaunty march whose all-embracing spirit offers a lift for little ones from the playground to the boardroom; and “It’s Gonna Rain,” in which Ono, with little-girl glee, runs outside into a drenching downpour, Bartlett peels away the drum machines and bombast of their original 1980s versions.

Such new arrangements give Warzone the feeling of an intimate recital, with Ono and Bartlett capturing the essence of each song in one or two takes, and only minimal layering-on of additional instruments, effects, or vocals — children’s voices, animal sounds, or the replicated sound of machine-gun fire.

Into the overall mix Ono drops her familiar yelps, gulps, chortles, whoops, yodel-like cries, and full-throttled caterwauls, providing remarkably appropriate textures to several songs’ new settings. Her detractors will never like — or understand — her music, and that, she knows, is okay.

However, for numerous alternative-rock acts, there are lessons to be derived from her take-no-prisoners candor and unflagging experimentation. Listen, for example, to “Gold Rush,” from Death Cab for Cutie’s recently released Thank You for Today, which samples the underlying riff from Ono’s funk-romp “Mindtrain,” from her 1971 album Fly. Or “This Cities Undone,” from Moonlandingz’s debut album Interplanetary Class Classics (2017), in which Ono cries “Wake up!” and “Get on with it!” throughout a spaced-out sonic ride.

Then there is the British DJ-producer Hifi Sean’s “In Love with Life,”   from his 2016 album Ft., which features Ono lamenting, over a fluid-seductive, inescapably danceable groove, humanity’s tendency for self-destruction. “It saddens me, because I am really in love with life — and with people,” she observes. “They’re beautiful.”

Such humanistic strains have long been present in Ono’s art. Today, the spirit of the written, kōan-like instruction pieces she produced early in her career has given way to the nuggets of wisdom or well-meaning provocation Ono telegraphs via Twitter to the world. “Healing yourself is connected with healing others,” a recent tweet advised. Another observed, “Music is in all our blood. Some of us just haven’t discovered that yet.

Yoko Ono and her son, Sean Ono Lennon, at the unveiling in Central Park of the U.S. Postal Service’s new John Lennon stamp in its “Music Icons” series, September 7, 2018 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

For someone who ostensibly has been lying low, Ono is lately everywhere. Along with granting younger music-makers avant-garde cred through guest appearances on their records or samplings from her own recordings, Ono last year was recognized by the National Music Publishers’ Association in the US as the co-author, with John Lennon, of the song “Imagine.” (In a 1980 BBC interview, Lennon had said, “That should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song because a lot of it — the lyric and the concept — came from Yoko.”)

Now, Imagine John Yoko (Grand Central Publishing), a new book chronicling the creation of Lennon’s Imagine album and its now-classic title song, has just come out. Ono compiled its never-before-published selection of photos and documents from the Lennons’ archive and sought recollections from the musicians who played on the record, whose production began at their Georgian-style mansion near London, in 1971. The book illuminates the breadth of Lennon and Ono’s exchange of ideas and influences in the early years of their partnership and, in retrospect, adds to our understanding of the roots of many of their later art and music projects.

For inquisitive Ono-ologists, a last batch of re-releases from the labels Secretly Canadian and Chimera Music of her past solo albums, including Wedding Album (made with Lennon in 1969) and those of more recent decades, will be issued next year. Meanwhile, the film Imagine, which Lennon and Ono made to accompany Lennon’s album has been restored and released in theaters.

First seen in 1972, it is now regarded as a pioneering, long-form music video, consisting of segments illustrating each of the album’s songs. In them, Ono’s familiar references to skies and water, and her earlier experience as a maker of experimental films, are evident.

For all the heady idealism of “Imagine,” which she also records on Warzone, and, for that matter, of much of Ono’s work, there is grit and unsettling candor in her music, too. “Are we getting tired of blood and horror? Are we getting ready for God and terror?” she sings in “Where Do We Go from Here?” In “Warzone,” she pleads, “It’s a warzone. Men flashing their guns and balls. Women looking like Barbie dolls. […] Help us. Help us.”

Yoko Ono at her home in New York earlier this year, holding a printout of the lyrics of her song “I Love All of Me” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

As our conversation shifted back to current events — it took place before Trump’s latest pronouncements against women and a free press; the latest suicide bombing in Afghanistan; and the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul — Ono alluded to such horrific news and the sense of darkness and hopelessness it engenders: “We’re all stuck in it. We’ve got to wake up. It’s terrible, and I’m very sad and angry about it, about grown men who still do not seem to understand that getting money isn’t everything. But still, I understand them. When I say, in one of my songs, ‘I love all of me,’ I’m really talking about loving everyone — and that includes those asses.”

Whether in its original, big-beat, 1985 version on Starpeace or now, on Warzone, enveloped in an ethereal overdub of Ono’s voice, peppered with sinister background laughter and the singer’s guttural spurts, “Hell in Paradise” captures the peculiar mix of hopefulness and foreboding that is the new album’s signature. With the chilling accuracy of a song like Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” (1987), Ono sings:

This is hell in paradise
We’re all asleep or paralyzed
Why are we scared to verbalize
Our multi-color dreams?

When will we come to realize
We’re all stoned or pacified
While the boogeymen organize
Their multilevel schemes?

We’ve become, she sings, “Mesmerized by mythology. Hypnotized by ideology. Antagonized by reality. Vandalized by insanity. Jeopardized by lunacy.”

I asked Ono about the positive vibe that pulses through her work even when it takes on heavy subjects — domestic abuse, gun violence, war (the impact of which she witnessed firsthand as a child in Japan) — and if she still has a sense of optimism.

“Of course, I do,” she said. “But it’s very hard.”

So, how or why, I asked her, despite the unfathomable crisis in which the world finds itself today, does she remain optimistic?

Ono leaned forward and, as though revealing the most obvious-than-ever answer to the knottiest of kōan riddles, matter-of-factly replied, “Because I’m alive.”

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