The most accessible Yoko Ono album was made in the immediacy of her heartbreak over John Lennon’s murder
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
The 40th anniversary of Season of Glass finds the album at an odd point, historically.
It is arguably the best of the few Yoko Ono albums not currently available on Spotify or other streaming services (the other contender for best being 2001’s Blueprint for a Sunrise). And it is certainly the most interesting as well, given that the making of it was her reaction to the murder of her husband, John Lennon.
On the back cover is an Ono poem:
On the front cover, Lennon’s blood-spattered glasses face us.
Ono also wrote a note on the inside as well, “Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. Music was my salvation. I am thankful for all the help I got on this album from above & around. … When I started to sing I noticed my throat was all choked up and my voice was cracking. I seriously thought maybe I should quit making the album because, as some people had advised me, ‘It was not the time.’
“But the question was, when would it be the time? I thought of all the people in the world whose voices were choking and cracking for many reasons. I could sing for them. I could call it a ‘choke’ or ‘crackle.’ Well, wasn’t that what the critics had been saying about me for all these years anyway? That gave me a laugh, and it became easier. Many amazing things happened during the recording session. All I can say is that John was right there with me, busy trying to arrange things for me. That is why this album is not dedicated to him. He would have been offended. He was one of us.”
Only two songs on Season of Glass were written in the wake of Lennon’s death: “No, No, No” and “I Don’t Know Why.” Compared to the rest of the album, they are starkly different to the point of being, respectively, disturbing and heartbreaking. “I Don’t Know Why” is very pointedly about the deadly event that had stunned Ono and the rest of the world; the Rykodisc CD edition includes as a bonus track the demo she sang into a tape recorder at home two nights after Lennon’s death. (More on those later.) Even the songs that had been recorded in the ‘70s were re-recorded in the 1981 sessions. Furthermore, being recorded and released after December 8, 1980 changed their reception in the sense that listeners read subsequent events into them.
VIDEO: Yoko Ono “Walking On Thin Ice”
As Robert Palmer (the critic, not the British pop singer) wrote in his notes for the 1992 six-CD set Onobox, “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.” (Given the time Palmer had spent together with Yoko and John, socially and in the recording studio, and the official nature of such booklet notes, it seems safe to assume that he knew enough of Ono’s mindset that he is not merely guessing about this, or at least that he guessed correctly and Yoko agreed.)
Why are they “appropriate”? Take “Goodbye Sadness”: written in 1974, when John and Yoko were separated, but in the context of Season of Glass it has a more deeply poignant sense of valediction. It’s not at all avant-garde; it’s a pop ballad, albeit with a rather sparely arranged accompaniment. Ono’s vocal is not the sort of aggressive outburst that made her famous; it’s a quiet voice that sounds touchingly vulnerable. “Mindweaver” is similarly hushed, with a flamenco-flavored arrangement; “Even When You’re Far Away” is a sweetly low-key portrayal of love. All of them have a slightly bittersweet sense of loss about them, a feeling of wistful reminiscence. But the last of these three closes with a slightly more assertive guitar solo (by Earl Slick?) that seems to spill out unspoken feelings.
“Nobody Sees Me Like You Do” is, finally, Ono’s perfect pop ballad, a paean to the profound connection of true love, and yet, when she sings, “I wanna quit moving / I wanna quit running / I wanna relax and be tender / I wanna see us together again / talking away in our walnut chairs,” the sense of loss leaps out from the music’s mellow groove (are the piled-up harmony vocals a Phil Spector touch? He helped with some of the production). “Turn of the Wheel,” with a touch of old-fashioned English dancehall pop in the arrangement that’s oddly reminiscent of some Paul McCartney songs, reminds us in the lyrics that the John-Yoko relationship had gone through a difficult period in the mid-’70s and that dealing with him could be fraught with challenges; interestingly, it’s one of only two Season of Glass songs left out of Onobox. “Dogtown” is one of two songs from the long-unreleased 1974 album A Story, and changes the mood with some pointed musings on her place in the world and the greater acceptance her dog has compared to her, while also showing Ono’s quirky sense of humor. “Silver Horse” is another quiet one, with a tone of disappointment yet also acceptance of disappointment, closing the album’s first side.
After all that mellowness, “I Don’t Know Why” explodes with loss and anger, and the music, if hardly as powerful as her early ‘70s avant-garde masterpieces, takes on a roughness to match the stronger emotion in Ono’s words and singing. “Extension 33” also has avant-garde touches, especially in her manipulation of vocal timbres. Then comes “No, No, No.” If “I Don’t Know Why” explodes, “No, No, No” burns furiously. The new-wave influence heard on the February 1981 single (and Ryko CD bonus track) “Walking on Thin Ice” – the song she and John had been finishing up in the studio on December 8; Lennon was carrying the tapes when he was shot – is taken even further in the music of “No, No, No.” Yet even though it opens with the sound of gunshots and a scream of “noooooo!” it is not about the shooting, rather about the difficulty of trying to move on afterwards. One of the threads that runs through several of Ono’s greatest musical statements is sexuality; here the attempt to move on to a new sexual relationship is haunted by painful memories. In the wake of the success of the “Walking on Thin Ice” single, “No, No, No” was the first single taken from Season of Glass, clearly a choice to pick the song most similar in style to “Walking on Thin Ice.” There was a video made for it (MTV launched on August 1, 1981; “No, No, No” was released as a single on August 8) that emphasizes the clash between sexuality and trauma:
VIDEO: Yoko Ono “No No No”
Ono spends the whole video in front of a mirror, fingering her mouth in something halfway between lasciviousness and a psychologically obsessive fugue state, as the lyrics ping-pong between an attempt at intimacy and interruptions of memories, between “don’t touch me” and “touch me,” culminating in “I’m seeing broken glass when we do it.” It’s a raw, frightening masterpiece, and a reminder that Ono was punk before punk was a genre.
Perversely, the cheesy “Will You Touch Me” follows. It’s a good guess that the arrangement is ironic. We’re back to confronting uncomfortable truths on “She Gets Down on Her Knees” (“to throw up life”), with bird-like cries in her vocals echoed by the guitar. “Toyboat” sounds like it wandered over from the first side and got lost on side two. “Mother of the Universe” was probably intended as a life-affirming album closer modelled on a hymn, but after the intensity of much of side two, it falls a bit flat – perhaps it’s not coincidental that it’s the other song that was omitted from Onobox. The sequence of the Season of Glass material on Onobox is also suggestive of second thoughts, opening with “I Don’t Know Why” and ending with “Goodbye Sadness.”
While Season of Glass is not flawless, it is the best of Ono’s relatively accessible albums, and it’s unfortunate that it is not available even on its anniversary. Here’s hoping Geffen realizes its worth and reissues it, or lets another label more appreciative of its value do so.
AUDIO: Yoko Ono Season of Glass (vinyl rip)