Most listeners, if they have come across Yoko Ono’s music at all, remember the squeals of her “bag” music on Side 2 of Live Peace in Toronto 1969, the intense B-sides found on early-’70s John Lennon singles or as Lennon’s equal partner on Some Time in New York City and Double Fantasy. (Although the former suffers from excessive sloganeering, some of her music — “We’re All Water,” “Sisters, O Sisters” — stands up; sixteen years and a tragedy later, while Lennon’s half of Double Fantasy sounds treacly and soft, songs like “Kiss Kiss Kiss” feel utterly contemporary.) Still, Ono’s solo albums of the early ’70s were taken quite seriously by many musicians who have since incorporated some of her ideas into more commercially accepted work.
Ono came to her marriage with Lennon a fully formed artist and composer, a member of the Fluxus group who had collaborated with John Cage, LaMonte Young, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden. Yet, until recently, Ono has never received due consideration as a musician. In the popular imagination, she has been variously portrayed as John Lennon’s weird girlfriend, the woman who broke pp the Beatles and famous rock widow. But it is possible to argue that it was her fame — and her connection with the Beatles, in effect — that kept Yoko Ono from becoming a serious modern composer.
If that’s overstating the case, there’s no denying the sheer power of Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (released simultaneously with John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band), Fly, Approximately Infinite Universe and Feeling the Space. Usually produced as adjuncts to John’s albums, often drawing from the same pool of musicians and working as variations on the themes in each other’s work, these albums were profoundly influential. Beyond the new wave bands that took notice at the time, echoes of Ono’s attitudes, vocal styles and bluntly honest, self-referential lyrics can still be heard in the music of such artists as Tori Amos, the Boredoms, Sonic Youth, Cibo Matto and Courtney Love, the other famous rock widow, who has somehow managed to find commercial success while learning nothing from Ono about dignity.
Those albums and her post-1980 solo work (Season of Glass, It’s Alright and Starpeace) are out of print, but the six-CD Onobox contains most of their music. The exemplary package, compiled by the artist herself, is comprehensive, well organized, extensively annotated (with a thoughtful essay by Robert Palmer), beautifully designed (the back covers of the individual CDs can be arranged to form a portrait of Ono, just like the old Beatles trading cards); listening through it in a sitting instills new respect for Ono’s career. (Walking on Thin Ice is a single disc distillation of the box set that provides a well-chosen flyover for those lacking the time, money or inclination to suffer the full set.)
The first disc, London Jam, contains her most compelling and avant-garde work, the music detractors usually think of when discussing Ono. And it is strong stuff — dense, uncompromising and emotionally unguarded. Like many composers of the ’60s, Ono disdained “written” music; her interest was in ideas — totally improvised, fearlessly exploratory — rather than songs. With bassist Klaus Voormann and Ringo Starr providing a solid yet supple bottom, Lennon and Ono (with occasional help from Eric Clapton, Jim Keltner and Bobby Keyes) move through the music, endlessly trying new ideas. The vocals are wordless or use simple, repeated phrases like a solo instrument, finding unexpected melodic or harmonic lines, closer in effect to Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler than a pop singer. To Beatle fans who picked up either volume of Unfinished Music or Fly, they probably sounded unfathomably strange, but to the contemporary listener they sound amazingly of a piece, on a par with Beefheart, Can and Public Image. The exploded song forms anticipate techno and rock music’s interest in dub production techniques (“Mind Train”) and the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Yet, “Midsummer New York” and “Is Winter Here to Stay?” — either of which would sound at home on a Fall or Sonic Youth album — show that Ono can nail a twisty rocker.
If Ono appears to back off from the implications of Fly, the tracks on New York Rock and Run, Run, Run (Discs Two and Three of Onobox) drawn from Approximately Infinite Universe and Feeling the Space show her working in a more song-oriented format. Using Elephant’s Memory and a coterie of studio musicians, she is still capable of making compelling music. Both albums chronicle the Ono/Lennon relationship and travails with unstinting honesty and a feminist perspective. The personal, self-absorbed lyrics of “Death of Samantha” bring Tori Amos and Liz Phair to mind, while the pain and doubt and anger of “What Did I Do!” and “What a Bastard the World Is” (“Oh, don’t go/I didn’t mean it/I’m just in pain”) could serve as a blueprint for the whole school of self-abnegation rock attended by the likes of Hole, Sebadoh and Pearl Jam. Ono also shows a talent for pastiche, matching the loving, almost submissive lyrics of “I Want My Love to Rest Tonight” to a ’50s girl-group chord pattern and arrangement, and the aggressive “She Hits Back” to a grinding blues. Snatches of the old sonic fire are audible on “It’s Been Very Hard”: her trademark glissandos, trills, moans and screams float over the top of a smoky cocktail quartet.
Ono’s best-known songs show up on disc 4 (Kiss, Kiss, Kiss). These are the songs that appear alongside Lennon’s on Double Fantasy and the posthumous Milk and Honey. More groove-oriented than her previous work, the edgy, cautionary “Walking on Thin Ice” and the frankly erotic “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss” were popular at new wave dance clubs. The loving “Beautiful Boys” musically hearkens back to her Japanese heritage, while a later attempt at pastiche, the jaunty “Yes, I’m Your Angel” led the publishers of “Makin’ Whoopie” to sue Ono for plagiarism. Today, “Hard Times Are Over” and “Don’t Be Scared” teem with an irony that must have been painful for Ono to contemplate. It’s a testament to her passion and commitment to facing hard emotional truths that she included them on Onobox.
That commitment runs below the surface on disc 5 (No, No, No). These songs, written and recorded in the period following Lennon’s murder in December 1980, confront her reaction to his death head-on. At the time, Season of Glass and It’s Alright, with shots ringing out and screams of obvious pain, seemed to pick at open wounds most listeners wanted healed. In the context of Onobox, it becomes obvious that, for Ono, this was the healing process. Like Lou Reed’s most confessional albums, Ono’s post-Lennon songs can concentrate on lyrics to the detriment of the music. But the quiescent “Silver Horse,” the corrosive “No, No, No” and the hauntingly dissonant “Never Say Goodbye” stand out. There’s no denying their power as unsparing documents of memory, mourning and faith. The songs from the anti-Star Wars Starpeace return lyrically to Ono’s early-’70s activism. Her heart may have been in the right place politically, but the results are as heavyhanded as the title; the songs tend toward tepid new wave agitpop.
Onobox also includes as its final disc the previously unreleased A Story, a meditation on love and loneliness written and recorded in 1974 during her separation from Lennon. Subsequently issued as a single disc, A Story contains some of the warmest and most subdued music of her career. From the rueful bossa nova of “Dogtown” to the low-key funk of “Yes, I’m a Witch” and the optimistic pop of “Yume O Moto,” Ono made the perfect VH1 album two decades before VH1.
Rising is Ono’s only album of the ’90s so far. While some of the songs (written for a play about Hiroshima) are OK and try for a modern, grungy sound (“Warzone” sounds like Nine Inch Nails, and “New York Woman” bashes along like 7 Year Bitch), the best that can be said about IMA (the trio led by her son, Sean Ono Lennon) is that it’s no Elephant’s Memory. The six-track Rising Mixes gives four songs from the album an amusing going-over at the hands of Tricky, Ween (!), Cibo Matto and Thurston Moore.
With her idiosyncratic vocals, difficult melodies and personal lyrics, it’s not surprising that few have attempted to cover Ono’s songs. Two albums have tried to very different effect. New York Rock is a collection of Ono’s songs (among them “Midsummer New York,” “What a Bastard the World Is” and “We’re All Water”) used as the score for an off-Broadway production written by Ono; singing her work, these trained voices sound at sea. A tribute album, Every Man Has a Woman is a little more successful, with Elvis Costello’s version of “Walking on Thin Ice” and Harry Nilsson’s take on “Loneliness” leading a roster that also includes Rosanne Cash, Roberta Flack and Eddie Money.