FAMILY AFFAIR Yoko Ono & Sean Lennon

“She’s high octane”:
The late Beatle’s widow and son collaborate. The results are, indeed, high
octane.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

In order to achieve the feeling in which these events
occurred, let’s hit this one running. Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon certainly did
when approaching Between My Head and the
Sky
, the brusque noisy first Plastic Ono Band recording since 1973’s Feeling the Space.

 

“It really is a sweet story,” says Lennon, 34, of how his
mother’s aggressive flywheel new POB band CD – recorded with Manhattan’s
avant-garde finest and, in a rare treat, Japanese musicians from Cornelius –
became his new label’s debut effort.

 

The young Lennon had put together a Chimera Music sampler
with music from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
are Undead
(his Nino Rota-like soundtrack to a film directed by a childhood
pal) and The Ghost Of A Saber Toothed Tiger with his girlfriend Charlotte Kemp
Muhl. “Just to introduce the label to the world – hi how are you-type stuff,”
says Lennon.

 

Then his mom heard it.

 

“She thought it was really great but that it had one problem
– all the songs were really soft. They all had this mellow vibe.”

Yoko’s solution was something that, in her words, had the energy of fire.

 

“Suddenly my own face flashed in front of me,” Lennon
recalls his mother saying to him. “I realized it had to be me” is what she
said. Then she said “I want you to put this together for me starting tomorrow.”

Twenty four hours passed, a band of crack musicians devoted
themselves to the cause, and Between My
Head and the Sky
– in this author’s estimation, Ono’s best, most frenetic
work – took shape; rapidly recording its savagely shaped viciously execute lot
in six days (16 songs to be exact, with six recorded in one afternoon), with
another ten days of mixing on top of that.

 

“I always work fast – so much so I can get enough for a
triple album,” teases Ono. “Yet when I’d try to release it, the labels always
say “no.” And I say “Why not? They never sell anyway.”

 

“She doesn’t second guess anything,” says Lennon. “She’s
high octane and when she decides on something, she moves fast and decisively.”

 

***

 

For one of popular culture’s most polarizing figures, her
son’s comment is a rich and (shamefully) rarely won compliment. But for this
writer and many like me, Yoko Ono, 76, is an avant-garde-ist who needs make no
apology for her work or life.  It’s no
easy road, life. Then again, Ono sees the whole mess as the fodder which drives
this new effort. “I really do want people, friends, strangers to enjoy all the
angles of this CD, the hodgepodge, the abstractions,” she says in a small but
direct coo. “It’s like life – unsanitized and unphony.”

 

If you dare to harm or malign her, now, in any form of
media, the Yoko Defense League operated by poets and bloggers (http://phillysound.blogspot.com/2005/12/ydl.html)
throughout the East Coast will come to her aid. Ono found that to be charming –
that would someone would rush to her side in confidence. “She corresponds with
everybody so very easily,” notes her son, Sean Lennon. “I’m pretty good with
people on my message boards and such and try to keep a constant dialogue going.
But she answers every letter and every Christmas card personally. I’m
communicative but not THAT communicative.”

 

If a man had crafted such abrasive experimental art as she
has – whether as a member of the Fluxus conceptual art movement or across one
of her 14 stark raging recordings – they’d be lionized. But for Ono – famously
the wife and widow of John Lennon – her experiments have long found themselves
mired in controversy. Still, for all the troubles come her way for her art and
the wariness it must bring; for all of her communication skills and that of the
latter day work executed by she and her late husband in the name of art and
peace; she has an unflappable sixth sense and business savvy as to what to hit
and not hit.

 

Events for “Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John &
Yoko” to mark the 40th anniversary of Lennon-Ono bed-in; the Microsoft’ E3
press conference for The Beatles Rock
Band
; events in-and-around The Beatles’ long-awaited remasters and Apple
iTunes opportunities – what make her make herself available is as fascinating
as the history of music that forged such momentum.

 

“I see myself as a conduit, a bridge between the conceptual
situation and reality when attending these things,” says Ono. It’s purely
instinctive as to whether or not I’ll participate, intuitively I either know or
know.” Ono laughs at the thought of The
Beatles Rock Band
game (“John would’ve loved it. We always went for the new
media.”) and how slowly her partners in the Beatles’ shareholding move to make
something a possibility. “None of the four of us ever go, ‘Oh, is that what’s
going on?'” Yoko mocks surprise. “When it comes to the Beatles, everything
takes time to make sure it is exactly right.”

 

***

 

Yoko Ono’s Between the
Sky and My Head
– like a lot of her work – came to her through the air, the
vibrations. It might take years to come, those vibrations. Her last true solo
album, Blueprint for a Sunrise was
released in 2001, and even that featured Ono cutting up her past works so to
find something crisply new. She enjoys re-ripping her past as Blueprint and even Yes, I’m a Witch‘s collaborations on old tunes with new guests
prove. One couldn’t help but imagine that perhaps there was something about the
original floating membership and sharded avant-blues of the initial Plastic Ono
Band (circa 1970) she hoped to reveal and relive.

 

“No and yes. I mean, like this one, that first record came
together rather quickly once it started; recording, mixing at night until the
early morning. John’s Plastic Ono Band came out too, remember. But mine was
really special.” She lets out a tiny laugh here. “See in those days, I was very
very cunning. You can even call it arrogant. I really thought I was going to
break the sound barrier with this album. And I really thought I did.”

When you listen to the primal roar of saxophones and twisted guitar squalls on Between the Sky and My Head through
which some of her most poignant lyrics live, there’s that same sense of
adventuresome cunning that was Plastic
Ono Band
and 1972’s Some Time in New
York City
, only tempered with age and rage.

 

Sean Lennon looks at the new album’s “I’m Going Away
Smiling” as a great example of that wizened lyrical aplomb and how over-awed by
the content he allowed himself to be. “It’s an album made by someone in the
evening of their life that doesn’t just look backward but forward always with
introspection,” he claims. “Some of the things she writes can only come from a
certain kind of life over a certain amount of time. It is rare that somebody
her age makes a record this honest.”

 

My personal favorite is the raw, precious and haunting
“Memory of Footsteps” steeped in the spirits of her not-so-distant past. “It’s
about a friend of mine who passed away at a very young age because of that
terrible disease,” says Ono (She never specifies). Ono has long claimed to see
ghosts all the time as well as holding dear her talent for speaking with the,
“We were close in a spiritual way. He was a very beautiful cute guy. It was
hard to see that happen to him.”

Ono claims she was crying in the studio when she sung “Memory of Footsteps.”

 

Yoko Ono feels as if she’s always been this honest and raw
in her recordings. You just weren’t paying attention. There’s as much mythic
resonance as there is musical resonance on those older recordings. Audiences
may have eschewed them then. “But people are still picking them up,” says Ono.
“Each one was powerful in its own way. And when you listen to this new album,
it’s me now. That may sound simple. But that’s very important to me. There are
more forms of music now to toy with. Instead of sanitizing it or making it one
thing, I just kind of made it. Let it happen. Let myself happen.”

 

This time out she wasn’t looking to break a sound barrier.
Instead, like the first Plastic Ono Band record, Between splits its atoms when it comes to busting up mental and
spiritual barriers. “That’s what connects it to the first one,” claims Ono.

 

Is she still arrogant?

“That’s a loaded question,” she giggles. “Maybe arrogance is in my nature. If
it wasn’t I would’ve been dead by now. I kept insisting and making albums and
presenting my ideas – why – who wanted it? But I was not that apologetic about
being so adamant.”

 

***

 

Sean Lennon, Between
the Sky and My Head
‘s producer and musical director, was as much a
motivating factor to this music as was Ono’s own arrogant and vibrations.

 

In creating his Chimera Music label at a time when labels
are at a standstill, he’s showing himself to be a risk taker beyond the softly
spun Pet Sounds-via-Amarcord-like nature of his solo
recordings.

 

The always independent Ono thought Lennon’s move to create
his own label was very Lennon and very Ono of him. “John and I were so
rebellious, we thought like we thought and did what we did when we wanted and
we never worried about what people thought about us or what the condition the
world was in,” she says. “I wanted to support that in Sean.”

 

Lennon, though flattered by his mother, says his real
motivating factor to make a label – beyond his own drive to get his music out
un-fettered – was something more rough hewn: being on the Beasties Boys’ Grand
Royal label for his first several recordings. “That’s what gave me a taste for
independent culture and an artist-run business,” he says.

 

“He did this because he knew my work well and I never knew
that,” exclaims Ono. “John and I never pushed our music on him. We didn’t
explain ‘us’ to Sean. He was busy being independent from me, from us, it was
surprising to find that he cared. He’s a very strange passive-aggressive guy.
He kept pushing me toward more songs and more takes. “

 

While Ono is singing for the first time in some time in Japanese
throughout the album (“You know, my Japanese is quite good,” she jokes. “It’s
not like I forgot how to speak my native tongue.”), it’s also another first
that drives the new album in that she’s never really recorded with Japanese
musicians until her son introduced her to Cornelius’ membership and she fell in
love with the adventurous electro-rock scowl.

“I used to think of going to Japan
as something I had to do – for world charity events and such, “says Ono. “The
music…” she trails off.

 

“But now, in the present, so much of it was fantastic. Now I
look forward to going there and finding other musicians. And my singing in
Japanese is perfect. That’s why I think this album is so strong. It’s as much
about the past as it is the future.”

 

 

 

Leave a Reply