Yoko Gets a Bum Rap

In comments tied to this blog’s posting of my article about the Best Shows of 2007, several readers have scoffed at the very notion that Yoko Ono has ever recorded anything worth hearing, or that she might have done anything worthwhile onstage at last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival.

I’m totally willing to grant that Yoko’s music may not be everyone’s cup of tea (or favorite brand of caterwauling). But whatever your think of her recorded legacy, there’s no denying that she was and is a serious musician, one who started her career by jamming with the likes of Ornette Coleman, and who was viewed as a full and equal partner and collaborator by her late husband, John Lennon, who I’m sure the most skeptical reader will grant made some pretty great music himself.

Anyway, here’s a brief appreciation of Yoko that I wrote as a preview to last year’s Pitchfork fest. It was a pleasure to talk to her, but I went to her show as skeptical as I might be going to see, say, Hannah Montana. That is to say, I never prejudge: If Yoko had been lousy, I’d have said she was lousy. But it was a phenomenal show.

Oh yes! Ono sought out Pitchfork

July 8, 2007


While Yoko Ono periodically has continued to make music in the nearly 27 years since she lost her husband and collaborator John Lennon, live performances have been few and far between. But the artist’s headlining slot at the Pitchfork Music Festival next Saturday will be special for another reason besides the infrequency of her shows.

Ono’s most successful song as a solo artist is about an incident involving a friend and Lake Michigan. “A song that I wrote called ‘Walking on Thin Ice’ was inspired by Chicago, of course,” the 74-year-old artist said during a recent interview from her office in New York. The lyrics: “I knew a girl who tried to walk across the lake / ‘course it was winter when all this was ice / That’s a hell of a thing to do, you know / They say the lake is as big as the ocean / I wonder if she knew about it?”

Arguably the most haunting song in Ono’s catalog, the prescient musing about the fragility of life will always resonate even more because it was the tune that she and Lennon were working on in the recording studio only minutes before they returned to the Dakota on the night of Dec. 8, 1980, when Lennon was gunned down by a deranged fan.

A few days before we spoke, Ono had traveled to Las Vegas to attend the first-year anniversary performance of the much-ballyhooed “Love,” the Cirque du Soleil production based on modern remixes and mash-ups of Beatles classics. That night turned into a family reunion when Ono exchanged pleasantries with her husband’s surviving bandmates, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and George Harrison’s widow Olivia.

But Ono always has been reluctant to live in the past. As an underground artist and dedicated futurist, she long has pushed the envelope for what can be considered rock ‘n’ roll. Now, after years of being ignored by the mainstream and derided by Beatles fans, her work is being embraced by cutting-edge musicians in the electronic dance and noise-rock undergrounds, many of whom weren’t even born when she and Lennon met in 1966.

Released last February, “Yes, I’m a Witch” is a collection of remixes of Ono songs by artists such as Peaches, Le Tigre, Porcupine Tree, DJ Spooky, the Apples in Stereo and the Flaming Lips. It’s a fitting companion to the recently issued “Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur,” which features two discs of artists covering songs by Lennon. Some bring a new perspective to the originals (R.E.M., Green Day, the Flaming Lips), while others fall flat (Christina Aguilera, Lenny Kravitz, Jack Johnson). But both albums are still vastly preferable to “Love.”

I asked Ono if there isn’t something a bit insidious about the Beatles nostalgia that continues to reign supreme among the Baby Boom generation — especially in contrast to the younger musicians who’ve been free to discover her music and that of her husband on their own terms, free of rose-colored reminiscences about the Summer of Love.

“I don’t want to be that person who lives in the past,” she said. “Even with Sean, I would never want to say, ‘Oh your mom did that one, your dad did this.’ No, you are your own inspiration, and Sean discovered [our music] on his own. It’s a famous story, but when he was very young, somebody told him, ‘Your dad was a Beatle.’ He came running into the kitchen, saying, ‘Daddy were you a Beatle?’ And John was like, ‘Well … yeah.’ ”

According to Pitchfork promoter Mike Reed, Ono approached the festival after all of the acts had already been booked. She had wanted to perform with her friends Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) and Cat Power (who appears on “Yes, I’m a Witch”) at South by Southwest last March, but organizers there shut down the show because it wasn’t a festival-sanctioned gig. So it’s a safe bet she’ll be joined by Moore and Cat Power here, since they’re both on the Pitchfork lineup.

“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to be doing — I mean, I do know that, yes, there are some things I’m going to be doing with some friends, but I don’t want to say that now, because I think there should be surprises. [In recent years,] I’ve felt more relaxed in the studio. But in the old days, I really loved [live performance]. I’m getting into it again now, and it’s really good to get back into it.”

Ono added that a project like “Yes, I’m a Witch” feels like a vindication, though it hasn’t entirely registered yet. “I feel good that the superstars of the indie scene wanted to do that, and each one of them really did a great job. Because of that, I just feel that it’s time that I should just come out and [perform again], and this will be a great chance to meet some of them.

Yoko Ono performs at the Pitchfork Music Festival at 9 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are sold out.

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