on thin ice – the music of yoko ono

Written by Robert Palmer

The Loft

One chill, brittle October day in 1960, a small young Japanese woman stood at the bottom of an endless flight of stairs. Though not truly endless, the stairs led to what is referred to in New York City as a “fifth floor walkup,” and in New York you can’t get to a fifth floor walkup by climbing five flights of stairs. Ten flights is the norm in buildings like this one, fifteen not uncommon. How could stairs following such an apparently leisurely gradient, be so broad, so solid, and still be so steep? Five, ten, fifteen, the stairs were, for all practical purposes, endless.

But they did end, on the top floor, in front of an industrial-strength door. Inside was one big bare room. “It was a cold water flat, there was no electricity, the ceiling wasn’t very high, it was just a very long room,” says Yoko Ono, the woman who had bounded up the stairs as if they were a path through the woods. “It had something for bringing heavy things up, not an elevator, you hooked this huge hook onto what you wanted and pulled it up. The windows in the back were hopeless, nothing but grime and soot. But there were windows facing the front, those old kind of windows that have wire in the panes, and they aren’t transparent. And there was a skylight. You could look up and almost feel more connected to the sky than to the city. I liked the place, and the man who owned the store on the ground floor said I could get it. The price was $50.50 a month. Getting that together to pay him every month was hard…he ran a kind of sports store, not like the kind you see now. They sold hiking equipment.”

The loft was at 112 Chambers Street, in a rapidly-changing area far downtown in Manhattan, a jumble of former loft-building sweatshops and storage warehouses, disintegrating ethnic neighborhoods, fish and produce markets. It was just what Yoko was looking for; an ample space in which to build her art and her life. The daughter of a westernized Japanese banker and his traditionally-Japanese wife, Yoko had dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College, where she was studying composition, and decamped to New York to become an artist in 1957. In the next two years, she met large number of artists, particularly musicians. All of them had been drawn to New York, where something new was about to happen.

Does this sound like punk rock, in intent if not in execution?

Yoko has a theory about all these radical young music makers showing up in downtown Manhattan just as the Sixties were dawning: disparate as they were, they shared a dissatisfaction with the impossibility of notating on musical staff paper the sounds they heard in their heads. “You can’t translate the more complex sounds into notation,” says Yoko. “The minute you do notate it and someone plays what you’ve written, the sound becomes totally different. I wanted to capture the sounds I’d heard of birds singing in the woods, things like that. And I think the reason all these artists came to New York and got together at this time was that all of them had this dissatisfaction about just writing musical notes. They were venturing into a different area, and that’s why we all got together.” (Another kind of music that cannot be notated with any significant fidelity or accuracy is rock and roll.)

John Cage was the oldest and most celebrated of a group that included La Monte Young (founding minimalist composer, whose first performing group left to join Lou Reed in the original Velvet Underground), Henry Flynt (composer, violinist, sometime rocker, and the theorist who coined the term “concept art”), and a brilliant but now little-known electronic composer, Richard Maxfield. All of these artists were shunned by the uptown classical-music world. The lines were drawn somewhere around 14th Street. “In those days,” Yoko recalls, “when you said ‘concert,’ it meant Town Hall, Carnegie Recital Hall, that was it.”

Only a few painters had hazarded the urban pioneering required to turn a downtown industrial or storage loft into a combination art studio and place to live when Yoko found her loft late in 1960. The experimental loft music scene that would help make artists such as Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass into stars and Soho real estate some of the most expensive in New York was still some twenty years in the future. When she was looking for her loft, Yoko had finding a performance space in mind. It had also not escaped Yoko’s notice that none of her friends had suitable venues for giving concerts in New York City.

It was explicitly inspired by the work Karlheinz Stockhausen and other “classical” composers were doing at the time.

Yoko decided to initiate a series–New York’s first loft concerts. Then one day, Richard Maxfield called her and asked if “they” could join her, since he and La Monte Young were trying to put together some evenings of the new music. Yoko planned the initial event for December. “Everybody had advised me not to do this,” Yoko recalls. “They said, nobody’s going to go all the way downtown to listen to this, it’s just a total waste. But I had an electricity line run in from the hall, and an old gas stove that had a fan to sort of spread the heat around the room. And I had empty orange crates for chairs. At other times, I would put all the crates together to make a large table, and at night I just collected them and made a bed out of them.”

“The day of the first concert, it snowed very heavily, and you know how it is, when it snows you don’t get a crowd. Twenty-five people came, most of them from Stony Point–John Cage, David Tudor, people like that.” People hadn’t come all the way from uptown after all; but they had driven down from the wooded area north of the city where Cage, Tudor and several of their friends and collaborators lived. Cage had created the first effective, deep-structure blends of Western and Eastern musical traditions and pioneered electronic music before there were electronic instruments, using radios and similar hardware as sound sources. Somehow he seemed to belong there, listening intently, head cocked in that sage way of his, sitting on an orange crate. The concert may not have been a smashing success, but for Yoko Ono it was an auspicious beginning.

There must have been some skull-rattling cognitive dissonance along the way, but looking back at it, what a musical education!

Fear and Stuttering

It is quite likely that having John Lennon fall in love with her was the worst thing that could have happened to Yoko Ono’s career as an artist. By the time she met the then-Beatle, at her one-woman show in London’s prestigious Indica Gallery in 1966, she was controversial but internationally known and recognized for her work in music, film, and the sort of conceptual presentations a later generation would dub “performance art.” By the mid-Sixties, she had given performances at New York’s Village Gate, the Bridge Theater, and, yes, far above 14th Street at the Carnegie Recital Hall. Her first one-woman art exhibition had been presented by George Maciunas, the same gallery owner who had given Yoko and her loose band of confederates a name, the kind of name you give an art movement: Fluxus. There were further exhibitions at American universities and galleries and in Europe and Japan.

The Carnegie Recital Hall concert of 1961 must have been particularly memorable. There were electronic sounds, complete darkness, performers with contact microphones taped to their bodies hauling heavy objects across the pitch-black stage. “There was a point,” Yoko told Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Cott, “where two men were tied up together with lots of empty cans and bottles around them, and they had to move from one end of the stage to the other very quietly and slowly without making any sounds. What I was trying to attain was a sound that almost doesn’t come out. Before I speak I stutter in my mind, and then my cultured self tries to correct that stutter into a clean sentence…and I wanted to deal with those sounds of people’s fears and stuttering…and of darkness, like a child’s fear that someone is behind him, but he can’t speak and communicate this. And so I asked one guy to stand behind the audience for the duration of the concert.”

Does this sound like punk rock, in intent if not in execution? The sound of Yoko singing original songs like What A Bastard The World Is, I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass Window, Woman Of Salem, Coffin Car, Hell In Paradise, and Walking On Thin Ice is innovative, dangerous rock and roll that seems to want to grab your soul by the throat. There is great beauty in Yoko’s music as well. But there can be no doubt that the woman who wrote this music has known fear and darkness. The man who wrote, in one of his own more celebrated songs, “I know what it’s like to be dead” fell in with a perfect match.

One of the things art is uniquely suited to is confrontations with the fear, the darkness. Some people find art that deals with such themes “depressing,” presumably because thinking about their own mortality gives them the willies. For most, probably all artists, confronting this kind of material takes courage. And Yoko Ono and John Lennon hadn’t just read about or imagined dark, fearful things: they had lived them. John’s first four years coincided with World War Two. One night in 1945, when Yoko was a child, she huddled with her mother and two tiny siblings in an underground bunker while the largest number of American B29’s to attack a single Japanese city rained incendiary bombs on Tokyo by the thousands. Eighty-three-thousand people died; a quarter of the city burned. Yoko’s mother Isoko and the three children joined many of their neighbors in a headlong flight away from the burning city, out into open country. But the farmers in the countryside were starving and unenthusiastic about sharing whatever food they had hoarded with this tide of urban refugees.

Yoko’s father was missing and possibly dead in Hanoi. The Onos were reduced to foraging from farm to farm for food, which they pulled along, with a few belongings, in an ancient-style wheeled cart. Yoko’s father survived the war and when Yoko was 19 she joined her family in Scarsdale, New York. The contrast between war torn Japan and Red-spooked America–as well as the “never the twain shall meet” cultural mentality that had made Eastern and Western art and thought seem as foreign as their respective languages–had been looming, unavoidable perplexities for Yoko since early childhood. The twentieth century, with its industrialization of the East and the attendant influence of materialism played off against the steadily Eastward drift of Western culture, art, and even theoretical physics, was a century of drastic reversals and the constant, unsettling tectonic-plate rumble of cultural schizophrenia. Yoko’s family embodied it perfectly. Their musical values alone adequately tell the tale. Her father’s passion was Western classical music. Bach, Brahms and Beethoven were as central to his musical values as they were for any European. He saw to it that Yoko had lessons in piano, music theory, harmony, all from the Euro-classic rulebook. But he didn’t believe a woman would ever be an exceptional composer. Her mother played a number of traditional Japanese instruments and knew several archaic vocal styles, and these she imparted to Yoko. There must have been some skull-rattling cognitive dissonance along the way, but looking back at it, what a musical education! Especially for an artist whose most important music would encourage and embody the emergence of the first truly global popular music, jump-started by rockers.

John had sized me up in about 60 seconds of eye contact, and both he and Yoko had been open, friendly, down-to-it with me.

A Night at the Dakota

I was writing for The New York Times in 1980, when Yoko Ono and John Lennon returned to songwriting and recording for the first time since the birth of their son Sean, in 1975. When I learned the Lennons were back in the studio, I wrote a news item about it, and the next day I was surprised to receive a call from Yoko. I had never met her, or John, and friends had told me, “Don’t even try to get an interview. They don’t see anybody.” Over the phone, Yoko said, “Well, do you want to come by the studio tonight?”

When I walked in the only people in the room were, an engineer, Yoko and her co-producer Jack Douglas. Yoko was absorbed in making production notes on one of her ubiquitous yellow legal pads. Over the speakers came the immediately accessible sound of Just Like Starting Over. I looked out into the studio, and there was John, singing vocal overdubs on the song, layering his voice over and over again on the chorus. Yoko briefly introduced herself and offered me a seat. I watched, I listened.

When he was finished singing, John came into the control room. “You must be the guy from The New York Times,” he said. “I figured because when you walked in, I got nervous.” I stood and shook hands and those penetrating Black and Decker eyes drilled right into mine. I said something about being a little nervous myself, maybe it was contagious? John looked into my eyes one more fraction of a second, and then we all relaxed and laughed. “You were right about this one,” he said to Yoko. They invited me back to their apartment after the session. A compact station wagon, kind of an econo-limo, deposited us on the street outside the Dakota’s dark, forbidding entrance tunnel around 2 a.m. and we walked in, unnoticed, unmolested. Over the next few months, I would walk down it with John and Yoko many times. In December, John would die in that tunnel.

Upstairs, on that first night, we drank great coffee, gorged on chocolate cake, and talked music and art. There was non-stop conversation. John and Yoko shared the wit that had been John’s trademark at the Beatles’ press conferences. John and Yoko were surprised and pleased to meet someone who knew Yoko’s art and many of her early associates in the Fluxus movement, as well as rock and roll. I had a passion for both, but as we talked, and the conversation turned to their work together, I began to get nervous all over again. Yoko’s records hadn’t exactly been pushed by Apple. And when the two were working together so prolifically, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I was playing in a band myself, too broke to buy many records anyway. The fact was, I didn’t know John’s solo albums intimately, and Yoko’s hardly at all. John wanted to know what I thought of his guitar playing on Yoko’s records, his favorite subject. “Have you heard the guitar on Why?” he asked. “And O’Wind and Midsummer New York off of Fly?” Should I tell these people that I really wasn’t familiar with the music? These people? Would they throw me out?

John had sized me up in about 60 seconds of eye contact, and both he and Yoko had been open, friendly, down-to-it with me. I figured I owed them the same honesty and trust. Not without fear and stuttering, I told them that I had heard the records they were talking about–their records–quite long ago or not at all. I waited for a response. John and Yoko looked at each other. They looked at me. Silence. I was considering melting into the carpet when they suddenly broke into howls of celebratory laughter. “He hasn’t heard it yet!,” they were shouting at each other. They jumped up and began scanning shelves, searching cabinets. The search soon spilled over into adjoining rooms. “John, I found a copy of Fly,” Yoko would call from one room. “Great,” said John from high atop a step ladder. “I’ve just finally got Feeling The Space and Live Peace in Toronto.”

The search took nearly half an hour. Closets were ransacked, and a copy of Approximately Infinite Universe was finally found on a high shelf near the ceiling. Smiling broadly, out of breath, they presented me with the records: all of Yoko’s solo albums, most of John’s. “Here’s your homework,” John told me, mock-stern but with a glimmer in his eyes. “Listen to Yoko’s first. We’ll be expecting a report. And…” He went into a list of songs from Yoko’s albums that he knew I would find highly unconventional in sound and execution and as fresh sounding as 1980’s downtown New York post-punk scene. “We want to get your reactions,” John explained, “you know, this is me favorite stuff of anything I’ve done.”

As he showed me out into the grey light of morning, he told me, “It really stretched me, playin’ with Yoko, just improvising, opened me up. Give a listen and tell us what you think.”

Music in a Jam

The Sixties were a period of feverish experimentation and exploratory mixing of media in all the arts. In pop music, cutting-edge records–by the Beatles, the Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix, and many others–often topped the charts, a situation that has not really been duplicated before or since. The audience for rock and roll was willing to sit still while artists searched, groped, and noodled their way toward the occasional epiphany, especially if well-known and much-loved musicians were doing the searching. Revolution No. 9, for example, did not seem to affect sales of The Beatles, better known as “The White Album.” Some listeners may have skipped over it after the first few listens; for many others, it was simply “far out, man.” But–and this is a big but–Revolution No. 9 was on a Beatles album. In fact, it was the first John + Yoko music to reach the public, but nobody let it out of the bag at the time, and even the cognoscenti took it as “John being far out.”

Nobody, including John and Yoko, seems to have comprehended the vastly different contexts in which this music was made and received. Both were acutely aware of, and well informed about, the experimentation that was going on in all the arts at the time. Yoko had played an important part in creating a receptive climate for this experimentation through her work in the avant-garde. John had been aware of at least some vanguard art as early as the Beatles’ Hamburg days, when bohemian art students formed an important part of the band’s coterie.

The tape loop/sound collage mania that struck with Revolution No. 9 and other early work on Unfinished Music No.s 1 & 2 wasn’t just a byproduct of LSD trips; it was explicitly inspired by the work Karlheinz Stockhausen and other “classical” composers were doing at the time. The most intensely abrasive of Yoko’s vocal improvisation had as its own wider context the “free jazz” or “energy playing” that was then widespread (and controversial) in the jazz world. Indeed, Yoko had initially given such vocal performances in the company of free jazz innovators like Ornette Coleman. Hostile jazz critics charged Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and the other leading lights of free jazz with simply “screaming,” an accusation Yoko soon found herself contending with.

The result plays like a suite, or a continuous, densely woven tapestry of sounds.

The important thing is that the music Yoko was making at this time was part of a musical revolution already sweeping both classical music and jazz. It was not conceived in a vacuum, nor was it intended as willful provocation. It had a context, and it built on an already existing tradition, or more precisely, on several traditions: Varese, Stockhausen, Coleman and Coltrane, Little Richard and Bo Diddley. The mass audience for pop music was largely unaware of these traditions. Rock criticism was in its infancy and was no help at all; the press attention Yoko got was largely sensational in nature. The rock audience seemed to be tolerant concerning the eccentricities of a few cherished performers who were virtually brand names in the context of the pop marketplace. This tolerance had its limits; Yoko exceeded those limits.

But the controversy concerning Unfinished Music No. 1, Unfinished Music No. 2, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and Fly should be long past. The result plays like a suite, or a continuous, densely woven tapestry of sounds. Listening to it, one gains a new appreciation of just how acutely Yoko anticipated subsequent developments in rock and free improvisation. To me, this music sounds as contemporary in 1991 as it did when Yoko and John proudly presented it to me at the Dakota in 1980.

Recording long free improvisations and then editing them into shorter, more contained and formally balanced composition was one early Ono/Lennon strategy. In effect, the recording studio becomes a composer’s tool, roughly analagous to the notation and scoring classical composers use to formalize their own of-the-moment inspirations. An exceptional passage can be pulled out of the longer improvisation; additional parts may be overdubbed later to clarify structure and groove, or simply to add sonic density and impact.

In jazz, composer-performers of the highest stature–Charles Mingus, Miles Davis–had been using tape-splicing and other editing techniques to shape, hone and tighten recorded performances since the late Fifties or very early-Sixties. Going into the studio with a rock band and little or no preparation, as Yoko did, may have been a riskier proposition. But this strategy eventually yielded some of the most intense and prescient performances –Why, and its companion Why Not are good examples.

Why sounds especially contemporary. This is partly the result of the free and open atmosphere that Yoko encouraged and its liberating effect on the musicians. Klaus Voorman’s bass playing charges along, giving the piece an Eighties/Nineties dance-punk feel, and Ringo Starr keeps coming up with shifting textures and accents while rocking (and swinging) like crazy. You won’t hear him playing like that on any Beatles records.

“O’Wind”, “Don’t Worry, Kyoko” from Fly. John, who never considered himself a lead guitarist, was justifiably proud of his playing in many of the songs. In effect, for Yoko’s music he was forging a new style–extrapolating from, or imaginatively fracturing, an encyclopedic inventory of rhythm-guitar syntax; by using unconventional playing techniques to produce utterly original sounds and tone-colors; and, because of his utter commitment to the music, simply by cutting loose and letting his remarkable creative energy power his imagination up to peak intensity. He unleashes shattering sonics, sounding at times like the metal-stress harmonics of a machine shop, or like William Burroughs’ “screaming glass blizzards of enemy flak,” on a number of selections–Why and the latter portions of O’Wind are immediately impressive but the guitar playing throughout this first disc is a special treat. Most of it is John, but when another guitarist is brought in–Eric Clapton shines on Don’t Worry Kyoko, and the lovely, occasional slide playing is Chris Osborne on dobro–the mesh seems equally seamless.

As far as influences in my singing, I got a lot of influence from (Alban) Berg’s operas, like his Lulu.

Yoko’s singing may have sounded unrelenting to early Seventies listeners who were unaware of the parallel directions being taken in free jazz. But today, in the early Nineties, with artful noise enthusiasts like Public Enemy and Sonic Youth selling records for the major labels, the astonishing variety of her vocal techniques and textures can be more readily appreciated. Her prolific inventiveness is in no way diminished by a keener understanding of her music’s inner and outer sources, and she can best explain what this music was all about. During a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Cott, she described the inner, emotional core of her music this way:

“The older you get, the more frustrated you feel. And it gets to a point where you don’t have time to utter a lot of intellectual bullshit. If you were drowning you wouldn’t say: ‘I’d like to be helped because I have just a moment to live.’ You’d say, ‘Help!’ but if you were more desperate you’d say, ‘Eioghhh,’ or something like that. And the desperation of life is really life itself, the core of life, what’s really driving us forth.”

In the early-Seventies, recordings of the world’s traditional musics were almost impossible to obtain, sources were severely limited even in New York City. Again, today’s widespread availability of recorded music from around the world, and its assimilation into rock by Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and many others, make Yoko’s music and its influences more accessible. More than a decade after Cott’s interview, she enumerated some of her influences when I interviewed her for another Rolling Stone piece:

O’Wind is noteworthy for its effortless-sounding blend of Indian and African percussion sounds and rhythms and its constantly mutating instrumentation. It includes percussion dialogues, a tabla-and-voice duet section, the freest, most imaginative solo in the extensive discography of longtime Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keyes, and a John Lennon guitar that chops, splinters, and finally “goes outside” or “takes the music out,” in early-Seventies musician jargon.

“There are so many ways of using the throat and the vocal chords; you can use different areas, different parts of the body to express different emotions. As far as influences in my singing, I got a lot of influence from (Alban) Berg’s operas, like his Lulu. I think you can hear that very strongly on some of Approximately Infinite Universe, and I think I’m still very influenced by it. There’s also a lot of Japanese kabuki influence, from the old Japanese way of singing. There’s one particular kabuki singing style called hetai, a kind of storytelling form that’s almost like chanting and requires you to strain your voice a bit. I also listened to tapes of my voice playing backward and tried to make sounds like that. And I listened to Indian singing, Tibetan singing…all that mixed.”

In that particular interview, we had already talked about another influence that seemed much more obvious: rock and roll singing. John was her teacher in this particular tradition. If this influence doesn’t seem immediately evident, go right to Midsummer New York. The song is a bit like a cross between John Lennon’s Cold Turkey (especially the bootlegged John and Yoko home demo of the song, though addiction/withdrawal imagery are common to both) and Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel. It’s frightening, intensely real. Midsummer New York showed Yoko the avant-gardist and Yoko the budding rocker already meeting each other halfway.

The 1968-1971 music has it moments of quiet, part of a shifting array of textures and moods. Yoko’s arrangements have elements that anticipate ensuing developments in rock by at least a decade. At a time when only a few bands used percussion instruments other than the standard drum kit, the assimlation of ethnic percussion instruments and rhythms was well underway in Yoko’s music, beginning with the Fly album, the source of most of these early pieces. One hears Cuban claves, Indian tabla drums, other tuned drums of various sorts, bells, and the one-of-a-kind percussion instruments, made of metals and other materials, that Fluxus artist Joe Jones brought to some of the sessions. O’Wind is noteworthy for its effortless-sounding blend of Indian and African percussion sounds and rhythms and its constantly mutating instrumentation. It includes percussion dialogues, a tabla-and-voice duet section, the freest, most imaginative solo in the extensive discography of longtime Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keyes, and a John Lennon guitar that chops, splinters, and finally “goes outside” or “takes the music out,” in early-Seventies musician jargon. Sparser percussion is heard on several other pieces. If Yoko’s emotional intensity dominates, she also reveals an affinity for an almost Miles Davis-like pacing of sounds and silences in the quieter moments.

The listener should remember that Yoko’s various vocal techniques sound different because Yoko’s sources are different. If one has heard these techniques applied in atonal opera and traditional Japanese vocal music–or through Yoko–then the various vocal approaches she uses in her songs are considerably more comprehensible.

Songs And Stories

Superficially, the music on Plastic Ono Band and Fly and Yoko’s later releases seem very different. Most of the Plastic Ono Band performances are improvisations, deliberate leaps into the unknown. The performances on the other five discs are songs. The emotional intensity and experimental edge are still there, but they have been modulated through predetermined structures of verses and choruses that confirm, though sometimes rather eccentrically, to the accepted Western notion of song forms.

In a larger sense, Yoko’s pre-1971 work provides the foundation for everything that follows. The music is a direct rendering of her emotional state at the time of the recording, without song forms or other obvious predetermined structures to mediate between artist and audience. Any listener familiar with this material will be equipped to sort out and understand everything that follows.

Conversely, listening without this grounding in the basic elements of Yoko’s vocal artistry has often led to puzzlement, misunderstanding, false assumptions. Hearing her strain her voice slightly, for example, can lead to the conclusion that her vocal abilities aren’t quite up to the demands of the music. But Yoko wrote these songs specifically with her own voice in mind. As in the Japanese hetai singing mentioned earlier, the occasional semblance of vocal straining is deliberate, an approach in keeping with the emotional imperatives of the songs in which this “straining” occurs. Other songs find her voice gliding smoothly, with perfect ease, from note to note, and her sense of pitch is impeccable.

If the listener is more accustomed to the sort of vocal straining one hears in blues and soul music, Yoko’s use of comparable techniques can sound harsh or strange. The listener should remember that Yoko’s various vocal techniques sound different because Yoko’s sources are different. If one has heard these techniques applied in atonal opera and traditional Japanese vocal music–or through Yoko–then the various vocal approaches she uses in her songs are considerably more comprehensible. It’s just that most pop listeners aren’t used to hearing multi-cultural and avant-garde vocal techniques used in what are unambiguously pop-rock tunes. The application of these techniques to pop-rock material is actually one of the genuinely original innovations that help keep Yoko’s recordings sounding immediate.

Songs recorded in October and November of 1972 were released on the double album Approximately Infinite Universe. Earlier that year, Yoko and John had recorded their collaborative album Sometime in New York City. They had only recently relocated in New York and, through Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, become heavily involved in political activism. One result was the intentionally telegraphic songs–more like political broadsides, really–on Sometime, with their almost slogan-like lyrics. Another result of their activist stand was their collaboration with Elephant’s Memory, a lower east side “people’s band” that played at anti-war rallies and benefit concerts and was closely associated with the “Yippie” underground. Having “broken in” the group on the Sometime sessions and at the Madison Square Garden benefit, (captured on the John Lennon/Live in New York City video) Yoko and John were working smoothly with the Elephants when they co-produced Approximately Infinite Universe near the end of that same tumultuous year.

Approximately Infinite Universe has been a favorite among Yoko’s longtime fans, a double-album with striking songs in a variety of modes, from ballads to street funk to gritty rock and roll. Many of the lyrics reflect the conflicts of the time, mixing personal, political, and explicitly feminist concerns, often in the same song. Feminism had only recently arisen as an issue within the very street-macho, male-dominated radical activist community, and for many male politicos it was not a welcome addition to the agenda.

“What A Bastard The World Is”, “I Want My Love To Rest Tonight”, “Yangyang”, “Death Of Samantha”, “What Did I Do!”, “What A Mess”, “Looking Over From My Hotel Window” from Approximately Infinite Universe.

For more information on the band Death Of Samantha. The woman represented in What A Bastard The World Is feels the conflicts of the early feminist movement deeply, as an interior struggle. “You pig, you bastard, you scum of the earth,” she rails at her man, only to abruptly temper her outburst with compassion and need: “Please, don’t go, I didn’t mean it, I’m just in pain.” Compassion is the dominant emotion, though not the only one, in I Want My Love To Rest Tonight. Musically, these songs reflect Yoko’s extensive training in classical music.

It’s as if Yoko is inventing her own personal equivalent of the blues, getting a blues feeling without copying any traditional blues licks or song forms; this is an impressive achievement.

But the classical influence is by no means typical of this group of songs and arrangements. Yangyang is an intense, deliberate out-of-kilter rocker that features stinging guitar leads and an Eastern European-style clarinet. Death Of Samantha, which inspired the outstanding 1980s postpunk band of the same name, is a kind of minor-key torch rocker. The mood recalls the powerful minor-key blues of singer-guitarists such as Otis Rush, a major influence on Eric Clapton. But the song is not blues, and neither is the style of the vocal. It’s as if Yoko is inventing her own personal equivalent of the blues, getting a blues feeling without copying any traditional blues licks or song forms; this is an impressive achievement. What Did I Do! is mutant funk, New York style. Overdubbed vocal lines weave a criss-cross pattern, mirrored by the interlocking rhythm guitar patterns contributed by John Lennon and the Elephants’ Tex Gabriel; John would return to this idiom some years later with his guitar work on David Bowie’s Fame. What A Mess is more along the lines of piano-driven gospel. Peter The Dealer is one of the best rock and roll songs explicitly about drugs and the drug subculture, and Looking Over From My Hotel Window is a gorgeously lyrical meditation whose lyric has an astonishingly naked emotional candor.

Yoko had staked out virtually the entire rock and pop spectrum as her own musical turf on Approximately Infinite Universe, and was creating a body of work as diverse, and as excellent, as anyone’s. The next step was working with an even more versatile, and more accomplished, group of musicians, all studio pros. Among other things, 1973’s Feeling the Space is a lasting testament to the originality of two brilliant musicians, drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist David Spinozza, who made fine music with Yoko on other occasions as well. Her music challenged and brought out the best in these and the other professionals.

One might imagine that the music Yoko made with these triple-scale musicians would differ radically from her work with the street hippies in Elephant’s Memory. If you listen to the music back to back, the differences seem strikingly minor. Yoko’s unwavering sense of artistic identity overcomes both the uneven, sometimes disorganized playing exhibited by Elephant’s Memory on their own and the potential musical overkill of the studio musicians’ superchops. The style, sound and feel common to both discs show us just how indelibly Yoko put her personal stamp on everything she recorded. Despite the variety of musical idioms present on both discs, her individuality shines brightest.

“What A Bastard The World Is” from Approximately Infinite Universe. Run, Run, Run and Coffin Car are nightmarish rockers, with all the emotional immediacy that had characterized Yoko’s music since the beginning. Angry Young Woman digs even deeper than What A Bastard The World Is in illustrating the consequences of a heterosexual woman taking a strongly independent feminist stance. Its subject is women whose wracked emotional lives and compromised personal identities have fallen victim to the patriarchy that continues to hold onto the real power in our society–casualties in an undeclared war. Men, Men, Men parodies the idiom of pre-World War Two cafe society pop music, but in a lightly satirical manner that treats men as “sex objects.” Woman Power seems to anticipate the heavy metal/rap crossover of the mid-1980’s, with its hard-edged guitars, bass heavy bottom, and funk groove. The choked, whiplashing rhythm guitar sound uncannily like a hip hop disc jockey’s turntable scratching, but in 1973 hip hop and rap were some seven or eight years in the future.

John Lennon is playing rhythm guitar on some of these songs, but it’s the rapport between Yoko and the young guitarist David Spinozza that gives the music from this period a special warmth. Of all the musicians Yoko has recorded with over the years, Spinozza is the one whose feeling for the nuances of her songs and her singing comes closest to the Ono/Lennon chemistry. The most immediately impressive example is It’s Been Very Hard. There’s a low but steadily-burning flame alight on this bluesy after-hours mood piece. Spinozza’s sensitive dynamics and immersion in the music enable Ono to dip into the jazzier side of her singing, using many of the techniques from the first disc to create a bluesy but utterly personal brand of improvised vocalese. She uses her voice like a horn; when she and Spinozza improvise together, a genuine dialogue is taking place.

Yoko’s new music received critical praise for being more up-to-date and adventurous than John’s comparatively traditional pop-rock approach.

A Story was recorded around the same time as Feeling the Space, in 1973, and includes more magic. The guitarist takes some killer solos on Onobox’s third and sixth discs. Spinozza sounds as if he’s playing from the depths of his soul on Yume O Moto, a single released only in Japan. But it’s important to note the differences in the musical relationships between Ono/Lennon and Ono/Spinozza. No matter how tightly Yoko Ono and David Spinozza interact, the “voice” of each participant remains distinct. There are moments when Yoko and John go further. They are both reaching for new sonic textures, and at times they find a meeting place where the individual sounds of voice and guitar meld into a single, indivisible sound that’s like nothing heard before or since.

Yoko’s songs from the last Lennon/Ono sessions began in the summer of 1980 and ended in December with John’s death. All the songs appeared, alternating with John’s songs and using the same group of studio aces, on their albums Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey, with four exceptions. Open Your Soul To Me features the same musicians but was recorded later, around the time of Season of Glass. Previously unreleased, it appeared on the Onobox compilation. Forgive Me My Love is from the It’s Alright sessions of 1982 and was also unreleased, as was There’s No Goodbye from 1983. Have You Seen A Horizon Lately dates back to the 1972 album Approximately Infinite Universe. These four tunes and the Double Fantasy/Milk and Honey material add up to a totality that seems even greater than the sum of its parts.

“Walking On Thin Ice” from Season Of Glass (Bonus Track). The last recording Yoko and John made together was the 12-inch single Walking On Thin Ice. This is, arguably, Yoko’s finest hour. John commented shortly before his death that Thin Ice was the beginning of a new and more powerfully charged direction for the music the couple was making together, but this was not to be. Still, we have this last single, a pop masterpiece. It begins as a pounding dance track, but the mood and lyric are hardly the stuff of disco dreams. This is a song of uncertainty, bristling with a sense of danger and foreboding that proved uncannily accurate. “It Happened”, “Tomorrow May Never Come” from A Story. Some of Yoko’s less charitable critics have wondered in print why, if she was gifted with psychic abilities as has often been claimed, Yoko failed to anticipate–and prevent–John’s murder. Walking On Thin Ice plays like a presentiment of the tragedy to come, and several earlier songs on make for chilling listening today. It Happened made a fleeting appearance shortly after it was recorded as the b-side of a Japanese single. It Happened and the song that follows it, Tomorrow May Never Come seem in retrospect to anticipate disaster, and on the same disc, O’OH ends with fireworks sounding like gunfire. Many people have experienced precognitive flashes; the trick is recognizing and interpreting them.

After a tragedy, certain earlier events can seem in retrospect to have been clear warnings. But such warnings specify neither the exact nature of the impending calamity nor its specific time and place. All one feels at the time is a shudder, “like someone’s walking on my grave,” to use a popular cliche. When intimations of doom prove true, the person who felt something of the sort “in the wind” beforehand may be even more devastated. Precognition, in real life as opposed to myth, is more a burden than a blessing. In the autumn of 1980, Double Fantasy reached the ears of an eager public who had had no new music from John and Yoko for more than five years. This time, the couple had braced themselves for hostile responses to their music, especially Yoko’s songs. But public perceptions had changed since the late-Sixties. The first reviews of Double Fantasy surprised the pair as much as the virulent negativity that had greeted their earliest collaborations, but this surprise was a more pleasant one. Yoko’s new music received critical praise for being more up-to-date and adventurous than John’s comparatively traditional pop-rock approach. John was delighted that Yoko was finally getting her due. As the sales reports started to come in, it became evident that Yoko songs like Give Me Something and I’m Moving On and especially Kiss, Kiss, Kiss were having their greatest impact in the rock discos, where bands as diverse as the Rolling Stones, the B-52s, and Joy Division enjoyed frequent play. John’s new songs soon were all over the radio. Musically and in terms of record sales, both Yoko and John were holding up their end in style. Their original decision to work together had finally been vindicated.

Never Say Goodbye finds massed voices drifting in and out of phase with each other, and the concluding portion of the tune isn’t just dissonant, it’s beautiful noise; this is radical stuff.

Moving On

All the musicians who had worked with Yoko and John on the Double Fantasy/Milk and Honey sessions rallied behind Yoko and returned to the studio with her when she decided to get back to work after John’s death. They were a well-chosen group of players, effectively balancing experience and adventurousness. For every versatile studio veteran (guitarist Hugh McCracken, drummer Andy Newmark) the band included a more radical counterpart (former Peter Gabriel/King Crimson bassist Tony Levin, frequent Bowie sideman Earl Slick on lead guitar). If the single Walking On Thin Ice had been Yoko’s single most powerful recording, Season of Glass, a report from grief and delirium, was her most magnificent solo album. Some of the songs had first been recorded some years earlier, these recordings were never released; other songs were new. All of them were appropriate to a moment that was traumatic enough for the rest of the world, and might have proved too much for Yoko had she not thrown herself back into her work. The recording studio was a familiar environment where she could feel safe, collaborating with fellow artists in a known context.

While the overall sound is massive and detailed, the actual musical processes suggest “minimalist” means.

Yoko Ono in 1971. Image by Gijsbert Hanekroot Redferns

“She Gets Down On Her Knees”, “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do”, “No, No, No” from Season Of Glass. She Gets Down On Her Knees is a particularly powerful work that approaches the heights scaled in WALKING ON THIN ICE. Nobody Sees Me Like You Do is the prettiest of Yoko’s love songs, with an indelible melodic beauty and a bittersweet hint of the early-Sixties “girl group” sound John had loved so much. No, No, No is probably the most forthright and penetrating account of sexual revulsion in the history of popular music. Having already worked together so extensively, Yoko and the musicians sound like a real performing band, with arrangements, group playing, singing, and material all evenly matched. Yoko’s next album, It’s Alright (I See Rainbows), recorded and released in 1982. For the first time since Feeling the Space in 1973, she produced an album on her own; she had called in Phil Spector to help her on Season Of Glass.

Like Season of Glass’s No, No, No with its dissonant guitar and other avant-garde touches, several of the songs from It’s Alright find Yoko’s hard-won pop savvy with her heritage of avant-garde experimentation meeting each other halfway. Never Say Goodbye finds massed voices drifting in and out of phase with each other, and the concluding portion of the tune isn’t just dissonant, it’s beautiful noise; this is radical stuff. Let The Tears Dry also blurs the dividing line between melody and indeterminately-pitched sounds, using synthesizers as something other than substitutes for conventional instruments. The song has a spaced-out drift that’s appealingly open-ended.

In Dream Love spacious keyboard textures are expertly blended with oceanic “found sounds” in overlapping sonic densities. While the overall sound is massive and detailed, the actual musical processes suggest “minimalist” means. Dream Love can be compared to the composition Namyohorengekyo. The latter piece, featuring wordless choral singing and piano and previously unreleased, is from a home tape made in 1983, a year after It’s Alright. Together, Namyohorengekyo and Dream Love suggest that Yoko had come full circle, her mature musical vocabulary effectively combined songcraft and the “process music” of her avant-garde period.

“Hell In Paradise”, “I Love You, Earth”, “In Cape Clear” from It’s Alright (I See Rainbows). By this time, it was not particularly unusual for avant-garde composers and musicians to work in pop and rock idioms as well. The outstanding minimalist composer Philip Glass had produced rock albums, and used singers from popular music on an album of his own “art songs.” Another avant-gardist who had been involved in both experimental improvisation and rock and pop album producing was Bill Laswell; Yoko chose him to co-produce her final solo album to date, Starpeace. World music, an important element in her musical mosaic since Fly in 1971, is equally integral to Laswell’s methods. They gathered a group of session musicians who play on his projects; a kind of international smorgasbord. The Jamaican reggae rhythm team Sly and Robbie, Indian violinist Shankar, West African (Aiyb Dieng) and Cuban (Daniel Ponce) percussionists, and various jazz, rock and fusion luminaries work together harmoniously. The three songs from Starpeace (Hell In Paradise, I Love You, Earth and In Cape Clear) suggest that the music world was finally catching up with Yoko. Her early pioneering in these and other areas has turned out to be the leading edge of a now well-established progressive music scene, one that values expression and creativity over labelling and genre restrictions.

Whatever the medium, her work displays a finely-honed whimsy and dryly devastating wit while addressing concerns that strike to the roots of the human condition in the late twentieth century.

Yoko Ono continues to move on. If her later recordings brought her full circle musically, she is now moving in this direction on a broader artistic front as well. Her recent one-woman art exhibits in museums and galleries around the world have been reminiscent of some of the extra-musical work she was doing before she met John Lennon–in a sense. In another, deeper sense, all her work has been of a piece. One suspects her visual art has benefitted from the compression and specificity she acquired as a writer and performer of pop/rock songs.

Yoko has spent her adult life making art in a variety of mediums–sculpture, painting, drawing, performance art, avant-garde and popular music. Whatever the medium, her work displays a finely-honed whimsy and dryly devastating wit while addressing concerns that strike to the roots of the human condition in the late twentieth century–the need for world peace, the constant struggle between creative and destructive impulses, the importance of communication and tolerance between individual humans, between their varying cultures and values. These are serious issues indeed, and Yoko Ono makes a fundamentally serious kind of art. No matter what, she seems to be telling us, keep creating; to borrow a phrase from British author Valerie Wilmer, art can be “as serious as your life.”

Robert Palmer, a writer for Rolling Stone and American Film was former chief pop music critic for The New York Times.

This essay was originally published in Onobox booklet in 1992.