Ono chats Lennon, Beatles and her many musical personalities
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of Illinois Entertainer
Many know Yoko Ono as leader of the Plastic Ono Band, others for solo tracks spun in dance clubs across the globe, some as an avant-garde artist, and to local hipsters, the co-headliner of 2007’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Of course, she’s more regularly linked in the mainstream press to her famous (and occasionally infamous) romantic relationship and eventual marriage to John Lennon, much of which was anchored in social and political activism.
“I just want to live 150 percent whatever I do; I just want to do my best and I’m just very happy that I’m alive,” says the singer/songwriter/cultural icon, phoning in from her New York office at 76 years young (as she specifically emphasizes). “We don’t have much of a choice. We just have to be positive, I mean, what else do you want to do, kill yourself? Please!”
It’s a curious choice of words for someone who’s been shunned by some Beatles fans for arguably being a factor in the band’s break-up, but also a witness to her beau’s shocking murder nearly thirty years ago. And though she’s shy about discussing those subjects, the current season finds her resurrecting another psychedelic-era scenario in the form of her Plastic Ono Band, which originally housed her late great husband, Eric Clapton and Yes’ Alan White (to name a few), but now features the couple’s 33-year-old son Sean Lennon and several players from his touring band.
“Well he would’ve loved it, but I think he would have wanted to participate in it,” she suggests of what John might have thought of the brand new Between My Head and the Sky. “I decided on the Plastic Ono Band title after being initially advised by the Japanese music people, who asked if I could do it as the Plastic Ono Band. I said ‘that’s fine,’ and the reason I said that is because I remembered the first Plastic Ono Band, which was kind of breaking the sound barrier. So this one is equally kind of revolutionary in a sense, but in a totally different way, so I said, ‘well, this is Plastic Ono Band’ [because] it’s so diverse.”
As a result, new tunes run the gamut of the punk-tinted “Waiting For the D Train,” the dance-doused “The Sun Is Down,” the unconventional acoustic ballad “Feel the Sand” and the somber, piano-centered reflection “I’m Going Away Smiling.” It’s that type of unpredictable amalgamation that Ono thrives on, especially in a day and age of sanitized radio formats and many record labels demanding homogenous recordings.
“On most albums, what they do is they decide ‘okay, this is classical music so we’ll stick to classical music,’” she observes. “But in life, you hear classical music and then you hear jingles, but they sanitize it and edit it out so it’s really boring. I didn’t want to do that, so this album is kind of hodge-podge, which is what I like and what I’m proud of.”
Much of that direction comes at the hands of Sean, who aside from serving as band leader, was also the producer for the new Plastic Ono Band project, a role which stemmed from a one-off he performed with his mother. “I went all the way to Japan for one night of concert,” she continues, citing the chain of events that led to their collaboration. “So I did it and I thought the band was very good. When Sean said, ‘I think we should do your album, I said invite those [players].”
Those musicians include Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada (guitars, bass), Yuko Araki (drums, percussion) and Hirotaka Shimmy Shimizu (guitars percussion), plus a plethora of Manhattan session men like Shahzad Ismaily (guitar, bass, percussion), Erik Friedlander (cello), Michael Leonhart (trumpet, vibraphone), Daniel Carter (tenor saxophone, flute) and Indigo Street (guitar). But Ono trusted her son to reel those seemingly diverse factions together, even if she had to relinquish a bit of control.
“I was biting my tongue the whole time,” she ventures with a laugh. “No, not really. I felt I should not be too overwhelming about this thing and I didn’t want to be a control freak, so I was controlling myself in that sense. I didn’t have to really because he wanted to not be controlling either, so it just worked out very well. I was so amazed that he knew about my work so well. He got a very good studio and we invited all of the musicians in, some of whom were very left field, but very cutting edge, and they just really knew what to do with my stuff. They were very professional musicians, but each in their own way had a little weirdness that was good.”
As with all of Ono’s projects, both those of musical and fine art associations, she revolved Between My Head and the Sky around a thesis, though this time through, she paints with wider brush strokes than more specialized concept albums. “I always have a theme for my records, as you know, and the theme is me- me now,” she asserts. “Every song respects what I’ve received and what’s accumulated in me in 76 years, whatever that is. I think it’s interesting and I’m being more real. I don’t want [to be] phony.”
Perhaps more than any other attribute in Ono’s career, she’s regarded for a personal authenticity that seeks to bring all cultures together and promote peace to the world at large. In one sense, she feels the messages spread with John during 1960s and ‘70s have finally sunk in, though she’ll also readily acknowledge the couple’s methods weren’t always readily accepted.
“First of all, when John and I started saying ‘peace,’ people were laughing at us and it was a bit humiliating,” Ono admits. “We thought ‘The Bed-In’ was great and exciting and that people would understand it as great and exciting, but they didn’t. But now I think 99 percent of the world is ready for world peace. One percent is not into getting it- I don’t know what they’re trying to get- but come join us and you’ll be happier. You won’t loose arm or anything!”
In recalling their days of activism, Ono also reminiscences about John’s personality both in their day to day relationship and during joint professional pursuits. “He was a very kind person, very gentle and kind to me and protective,” she gleans. “Professionally, he liked what I did and he wasn’t messing around with it. He didn’t tell me what to do, which is really an important element, especially for a macho guy!”
While Lennon’s legacy has always burned bright both as a solo star and in Beatles terrain, additional spotlights have shined on his musical contributions as of late. This month not only finds the band’s entire catalogue earning remastered treatment, but also the video game release “The Beatles: Rock Band,” the latter of which Ono oversaw with the other spouses and Fab Four survivors.
“I really think it’s fantastic and we were all very careful and caring about the details,” she contends. “I’m very happy about this [game] because it’s gonna change the world and so many kids will benefit from it. It wasn’t my idea, but it’s right up my alley, and I thought ‘wow, this is great.’ In the old days when John and his friends were playing in the band, guitar was a special thing. Now so many kids can play and this is going to promote the next generation to really become musicians.”
As for the youth of today, a call with Ono can’t be complete with one last piece of advice, which also seems to be her mantra these days, despite her highly publicized roller coaster ride thus far. “Each time when they knocked me on the floor, it took about ten seconds to get up,” she assures. “Whatever you’re doing, just trust in yourself and be proud of yourself.”
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