That scream heard 43 years ago around the rock music world — and in various precincts of the art/music/high-concept avant-garde, too — came from the Japanese-born artist, composer, filmmaker and performer Yoko Ono in “Why,” the blistering opening track on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (Apple Records, 1970), her first solo record album.
Against John Lennon’s twanging guitar licks and the galloping rhythm section of drummer Ringo Starr and bassist Klaus Voorman, Ono wailed, shrieked, yelped and gurgled the vigorous jam’s one-word title lyric, spitting it out and stretching it across octaves in gasping, guttural bleats before letting it go and then seizing it again.
In interviews published after the album was recorded in October 1970, at the same time its companion album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, was recorded, Lennon pointed out that, in his playing on “Why,” he had relished allowing his guitar to sound as unbridled as Ono’s vocal acrobatics. He pointed out that the music she was making had given him license to cut loose in ways conventional pop-rock had not. In 1971, Lennon told Rolling Stone: “You see, with Yoko’s and my album[s], we’re both looking at the same thing from different sides of the table. Mine is literate, hers is revolutionary.”
Today, Ono is no longer, as Lennon quipped in the late 1960s, “the world’s most famous unknown artist”; at the time, he added: “everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.”
At 80, the New York-based Ono is more active and visible than ever, with a career-spanning retrospective, “Half-a-Wind Show,” named after her seminal 1967 solo presentation at London’s Lisson Gallery, currently touring museums in Europe (it’s now on view at Kunsthalle Krems, in Krems, Austria, through February 23, 2014). Another retrospective, also on view through February 23, 2014, is being shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia.
Ono has also released a new record album with her Plastic Ono Band, Take Me to the Land of Hell (Chimera Music) and a new book, Acorn (first edition, OR Books; republished first edition, Algonquin Books; both 2013). There are other projects on her agenda as well, such as her participation in an anti-fracking campaign targeted at the upstate New York region.
Both Take Me to the Land of Hell and Acorn reprise and amplify a variety of themes that have percolated, in overlapping ways, in Ono’s work in diverse genres for many years. These include the power of the imagination; the self as part of a universal scheme; the inherent dignity of the individual as a member of the human family; and a call for an end to war-making.
The rock-funk grooves, the experimental sound collages (with their affinities to musique concrète), and the whisper-to-scream vocal range that characterized Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (and that made it so outrageous and incomprehensible to many listeners when it first appeared) have persisted as signature elements of Ono’s music-making. Some critics compared the sound of Ono’s voice on YO/POB to that of a snake slithering through the grass; her detractors’ default criticism was to call her a banshee.
In the post-YO/POB decades, though, she has enjoyed the last laugh — or triumphant caterwaul — as legions of punksters (the late Poly Styrene, lead singer of X-Ray Spex, for example), new wavers, dance-music queens (check out Taylor Dayne’s gut-clearing shrieks in the Thunderpuss 2000 Club Mix of her 1999 hit, “Naked Without You”), riot grrrls and alternative rockers knowingly or unwittingly have echoed or emulated her vocal stylings.
Since the early 2000s, many young, contemporary producers have dipped into Ono’s music catalog, creating remixes of “Walking on Thin Ice,” “No, No, No,” “I’m Moving On” and other songs that have become dance-club hits for a new generation of fans. (A few days ago, a friend reports, the piped-in music at the discount store Nordstrom Rack at Union Square was Ono remixes, not Christmas carols.)
On Take Me to the Land of Hell, Ono brings together many of the sound-collage and song elements she has developed over the years on more than a dozen albums. Among them: Fly (1971), Approximately Infinite Universe (1972), Feeling the Space (1973), Rising (1995) and Between My Head and the Sky (2009).
Produced by Ono, her son and Plastic Ono Band guitarist/musical director Sean Ono Lennon, and Cibo Matto multi-instrumentalist Yuka Honda, TMTTLOH finds Ono having some obvious fun. It’s a feeling that has come across vividly in her live performances with the Plastic Ono Band in recent years. (I’ve caught numerous YO/POB concerts since 2009 in London and New York, including this past summer’s headliner at London’s Meltdown Festival, which Ono curated. This annual music fest’s previous “curators,” as they’re called, have included Ornette Coleman, Patti Smith, David Bowie and Jarvis Cocker, among others.)
Ono is joined on her new album by a wide range of music-makers: Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada, Hirotaka “Shimmy” Shimizu, Yuko Araki, Nels Cline, tUnE-yArDs (Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner), Questlove, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond of the Beastie Boys, and Lenny Kravitz are just a few of them.
For Ono, the album is a romp from its opening rave-up, “Moonbeams,” which, after a poetic recitation backed by gentle birdsong, erupts into her gasping yelps and a blast from the band, through “Shine, Shine,” a hard-charging call for everyone to, well, shine.
“Cheshire Cat Cry,” whose lyrics Ono published in a full-page ad in The New York Times last September, issues a call for peace over a creeping, funky groove. Alluding to both the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence, Ono sings, “We, the expendable people of the United States, hold these dreams to be self-destructive.” Later, she adds, “We, the expendable people of the United States, ask for the violence to disappear. […] Stop the Violence. Stop all wars. Who needs violence? Who needs war? Who needs it?”
“Bad Dancer” finds Ono self-mockingly cutting the rug, and its accompanying video, which features her TMTTLOH cohorts, plus Roberta Flack, Justin Vivian Bond and This American Life radio host Ira Glass (Ira Glass?), perfectly captures its spirit. “7th Floor” keeps the bop alive with a throb, punctuated by spooky-groovy synth lines and gasping wails floating to the surface of its sonic stew. For all its joyousness, though, the song’s lyrics refer to a body splayed on the pavement, a lurking shadow and Ono’s own naked self, conflating all of these images like the fog of a dream. In the chorus, Ono sings:
Don’t but my hands—can’t strangle you.
Don’t cut my legs—can’t walk out on you.
Don’t cut my tongue—can’t spit on you.
Don’t cut me off—I’ll kill you.
In a recent interview with composer David Garland on his “Spinning On Air” radio program on WNYC in New York, Ono pointed out that the seeming incongruity on TMTTLOH between the spirit of the music of some of her new songs and their lyrics reflects a certain edginess that interests her. With this in mind, she noted that the album’s title song, “Take Me to the Land of Hell,” alludes to a sense of personal freedom that can come from confronting whatever provokes fear, pain or discouragement. The song, she said, is about “risk, daringness, being truthful and not being afraid of being truthful.”
“Thank you for not being discouraged by all the negativity that is launched your way sometimes,” Garland told his guest.
Ono replied, “I suppose it’s very, very difficult to discourage me. One can only discourage one’s self.” Garland, always soft-spoken, responded, “That is basically the truth, isn’t it?”
That sense of unsinkable optimism, which has long characterized Ono’s art and public pronouncements — and has driven her detractors crazy for what they see as naïveté — wafts through the pages of Acorn. Like Grapefruit, her book of instructional texts, which was first published in 1964 and is now considered a seminal work of conceptual art, Acorn invites readers to take part in collective imaginings. As the artist has often stated, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” Acorn’s texts are accompanied by Ono’s abstract, pen-and-ink drawings.
Ono began her artistic career as a musical-composition student. One of her earliest ideas, which spilled into Grapefruit and has informed much of her later creations, was that of the “unfinished” work of art that can and even must be completed by others. She dubbed some of her earliest compositions “unfinished music,” and everything from Grapefruit’s simplest instructions (“Go on transforming a square canvas in your head until it becomes a circle,” proposes Painting to Be Constructed In Your Head (I), from 1962) to Ono and Lennon’s 1969 “WAR IS OVER! IF YOU WANT IT” billboards project has invited an audience’s participation in order to complete and effectively realize a proposed artwork.
Promoting Acorn this past summer, Ono said, “It’s a kind of reading material for the future, because you don’t have to read ten paragraphs.” The book “explains the universe,” she noted, in a few “short lines.”
Among its entries, Watch Piece I states: “Watch a hundred-year-old tree breathe. Thank the tree in your mind for showing us how to grow and stay.” Earth Piece I proposes, “Listen to the sound of the fire burning in the center of the globe.” Connection Piece I says, in part, “Whisper your name to a pebble.”
But it’s Earth Piece VIII that calls for some super-duper audience participation. Put your imagination on steroids for this one. It states, in part:
Imagine two billion universes.
Visualize yourself on a planet in each universe.
Imagine what all of you are doing and thinking
in this moment in time on the different planets.
A reader can become dizzy just thinking about thinking about such an expansive concept. Take me to the Land of Hell, indeed! But Ono is not one to be deterred. After all, this is an artist who once observed, “You may think I’m small, but I have a universe inside my mind.”
If that’s an assertion that sounds as big as the notion it describes, I don’t doubt its veracity. For Ono still has a lot going on, both inside her ever-active mind and out here in the real world — and given the scope and diversity of her creativity at the fit and feisty age of 80, the way I see it, that’s something to scream about.
Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band’s new album, Take Me to the Land of Hell, is available from Chimera Music.
OR Books first published Ono’s Acorn this past summer. The same first edition of the book was recently republished by Algonquin Books.