Yoko Ono Forever

On her 89th birthday, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of her classic Onobox

Yoko Ono in an ad for her 1973 LP Feeling The Space (Image: Pinterest)

There are 10 reasons we hated that Yoko Ono/Spotify meme that was going around at the height of the Neil Young/Joe Rogan mishegas.

1. It’s a cliché. It was already a cliché over 50 years ago. Don’t perpetuate clichés.

2. Your musical taste and experience are probably not greater than John Lennon’s, or Ornette Coleman’s and Frank Zappa’s, musical geniuses who willingly and respectfully collaborated with her, so why are you so sure they were wrong and you’re right? Others who’ve been happy to work with her include John Zorn and the Flaming Lips. Her support in the creative community comes from quite a wide range.

3. Don’t you have somebody better to pick on than a retired 89-year-old widow whose husband was murdered right in front of her?

4. Sure, you’re not racist or misogynist, but ask yourself why so many people are so invested in hating Yoko Ono and sharing this meme instead of making a meme about hating the B-52s or Diamanda Galas, both influenced by her singing. Go watch Bill Burr’s impersonation of her on YouTube if you think racism isn’t part of the hatred, and then get back to me.

5. Her music’s already on Spotify, so the meme isn’t even accurate.

6. Nobody’s telling you that you have to listen to her or like her singing, just leave her alone (see #3).

7. Her 89th birthday is on February 18. How would you like it if a meme singling you out as specially awful were to trend around your birthday?

8. There’s not just one way to sing. Try being a little more open-minded. Yoko Ono’s singing is influenced by traditional Japanese music (Noh theater and Gagaku music of the imperial court). There are centuries of tradition backing her up. Maybe exposing your cultural ignorance isn’t a good look.

9. The meme is “just a joke”? Aren’t jokes supposed to be funny? That meme is not funny.

10. Yoko Ono has made more great albums than any ex-Beatle.

 

For those readers who don’t follow social media, this is prompted by a meme which says Ms. Ono will protest by putting her music on Spotify.

So much for the current events portion of our presentation. There are also two anniversaries to mark, as we are wont to do:

The 30th anniversary of the release of Onobox on January 28, 1992.

Ms. Ono’s 89th birthday is coming up on February 18, as noted in #7.

Yoko Ono Onobox, Rykodisc 1992

Onobox, on the Rykodisc label, put much of her music on CD for the first time, when most of it was out of print in any format. It prompted a crucial critical re-evaluation of her work. It’s interesting to see her re-evaluating her past as well, omitting some tracks, revising running orders, and bringing some music to light for the first time, notably the complete version of Feeling the Space (which EMI refused to issue as a double LP, resulting in five tracks being omitted) and the first release of A Story, recorded in 1974.

By 1992, conditions were good for a fresh look at Ms. Ono’s legacy. Some aspects of her ’70s music that were shocking at the time had moved beyond the realm of the abstruse avant-garde to become, if not quite mainstream, an accepted musical vocabulary in at least the more adventurous regions of the indie-rock landscape, most notably the various strands of post-punk (and in the wake of Nirvana’s success, much more attention was being paid to indie-rock). In that context, Ms. Ono was something of an elder statesperson, with younger acolytes praising her influence. There was also an unrelated but contemporaneous re-evaluation/post-mortem of the Fluxus art movement that Ms. Ono had been an important actor in since the vibrant ferment of the early ’60s in New York, with her 1964 collection of “event scores” Grapefruit a particularly iconic manifestation of the movement. Yes, she was a creative icon in such circles long before she met John Lennon; after all, he met her at an exhibition of her work, not the other way around. (And, it must be said, by then fewer people cared that the Beatles had broken up, much less whether she was to blame for the breakup—and in case you’re wondering, no less an authority than Paul McCartney has said that she did not.)

Onobox presented an overview of Ms. Ono’s discography in roughly chronological order. At that point, her musical trajectory went from most avant-garde to gradually more and more refined. People hearing her classic Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Fly (1971) tracks on the box’s first CD for the first time in 1992 might even have wondered why she had been so reviled. The gritty, anti-virtuoso guitar riffs; the non-melodic screaming vocals; the non-narrative conceptual-art lyrics; the droning chord progressions—all of these musical tactics and gestures had been taken over by younger generations even as her own work had largely (though far from entirely; think of “Kiss Kiss Kiss” on Double Fantasy) mellowed. One can even position the box’s omission of “AOS,” the Plastic Ono Band track recorded in concert with Ornette Coleman in 1968, as a decision to focus on her more influential rock material rather than that fascinating yet clearly tangential moment. Quite properly, two-thirds of the set draws on her ’70s work (plus one small excerpt of the vastly more conceptual and less musically-oriented 1969 release Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions).

 

AUDIO: Yoko Ono “Walking On Thin Ice” (Onobox version)

Disc 4 may have seemed unnecessary, recapping as it does Ms. Ono’s songs on the Lennon-Ono LPs Double Fantasy (1980) and Milk and Honey (1984), but conceptually it is important to present them in this running order without the Lennon tracks as an uninterrupted vision of Ono’s music at that time. Disc 5 covers her three post-Lennon solo albums to that point, with Season of Glass most crucial, not least because it shows her still wielding avant-garde techniques more often than on her other two ’80s albums.

Even though Secretly Canadian is now reissuing Ms. Ono’s classic albums, Ryko’s Onobox is still in print and remains valued by Ono collectors.

The critical acclaim it garnered may have nudged Ms. Ono into renewed creativity after that, along with a return to her avant-garde roots.

 

VIDEO: Robert Klein and Yoko Ono talk Onobox

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Steve Holtje

Steve Holtje is a composer (classical and soundtrack) and improviser (keyboardist in the Caterpillar Quartet and This Humidity). His classical compositions have recently been performed by pianist Tania Stavreva and the Cheah-Chan Duo; one of his soundtracks can be found on Bandcamp. His day job since 2013 has been running ESP-Disk, first under founder Bernard Stollman and, since Mr. Stollman's passing, doing his best to perpetuate and publicize the indiest indie label's unique legacy. He has produced albums by Matthew Shipp, Amina Baraka & The Red Microphone, Fay Victor, etc. Previously he worked at Black Saint Records, where he was present at the last studio session of Sun Ra. Other jobs have included editorial positions at Creem, The Big Takeover, and The New York Review of Records; inevitably, he also worked at a record store in Williamsburg (Sound Fix), where one night after closing, while drinking across the street at Mugs Ale House, he preached to some tourists about the greatness of jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley, which led to him reopening the store and selling them a copy of Harley's Re-Creation of the Gods. This is widely considered the most Holtje-esque occurrence ever. (Photo by Dale Mincey)

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