Vol. 2, Issue #4 March 16th - March 29th, 2007

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

Yoko Redux

“BODY PIECE: Stand in the evening light until you become transparent or until you fall asleep. -1961 Summer”
-Yoko Ono, “Grapefruit”

Yoko Ono has been as great an influence on my life as The Beatles. Is she as great as an artist as The Beatles were collectively? No.... but to have someone out of the art world involved in such a high profile group at that particular time in history changed rock’n’roll and “art” forever. The next thing we knew Andy Warhol was being treated like a rock star and The London Symphony Orchestra was showing up for Moody Blues sessions.

Usually when I praise Yoko (or ONO, as she’s now calling herself – but I’m calling in the same “Grandfather Rule” I invoked when Prince started that name-change crap) people either thinks I’m joking, or they become angry. A lot of men hold a grudge against Yoko because she’s a woman and a lot of women are still pissed off because they had planned to marry John Lennon. As our country was in the middle of it’s third Asian war when Yoko came on the scene, it was obvious that a lot of Americans hated her simply because she was Japanese. As an artist, she’s always been one of the most challenging, even to those who consider her a genius.

The main influence Yoko had in sculpting my future was in introducing the avant-garde into the pop world. The first time I heard of performance art, conceptual art, experimental film, free jazz, happenings, John Cage, La Monte Young, The Ornette Colman Quartet, or even Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention was by reading about, or listening to an album by Yoko. Even the last recording of John and Ringo really giving it their all was on “Touch Me,” which was five minutes of Yoko’s primal screaming to some of the most intense music ever created by Beatles.

Yoko was a beatific princess who enigmatically strolled next to the rock god in an opiate haze behind a wall of hair and sunglasses that were larger than her face. Her art was antagonistic, elitist, Zen, passive aggressive, and infused with a brilliant, if mocking, sense of humor. She didn’t mind that only a small minority of the audience got the joke while the rest were left in a state of confusion that often led to hostility, quite the contrary; if everyone liked it she would have seen it as a failure. Her art was not revolutionary in the sense that it furthered left-wing causes (though it attempted to) but rather in the way that it threw koans in the face of a less-than-Zen-like mainstream media that actually had to think about her wild publicity stunts/happenings (as if there is a difference) if they wanted to make any kind of sense of it. Of course many simply discredited concepts like “bagism” (John & Yoko doing a press conference from inside a black bag) as demented cries for help from a drug-addled mind.

It was Yoko’s drug-addled influence that caused the Beatles to create “Revolution No. 9,” which in retrospect was probably one of their most important recordings; it opened the gates on our sacred blues, so that anything could fit into the concept of rock’n’roll. Her “Unfinished Music” albums with Lennon, “Life With Lions,” and “Two Virgins,” along with “The Wedding Album,” broke down every concept ever expected in a pop idol’s work. While this might all seem indulgent, she also introduced the rock album as a work of art; each record was released in a limited edition and commands high prices today because of their scarcity.

Yoko always had her cult following, but in the last years of his life Lennon heard performers like Lene Lovich and The B-52s and realized the generation that was too young to have a grudge against Yoko was all grown up, and they had been listening to her B-sides to his hit records. Had he lived a few more years he would have heard the vocal onslaughts of Anne Magnuson of Bongwater and Diamanda Galas doing full on “Yokos” with their voices.

“Double Fantasy” was the turning point, the last completed album before Lennon was murdered. Two of Yoko’s songs particularly stood out, which beautifully demonstrated the two extreme sides of her personality; the 1930s cabaret “la-la-la-everyone’s-happy” camp of “I’m Your Angel,” and the apocalyptic “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss,” a dark disco track featuring Yoko’s overdubbed screaming (having two orgasms?) on the stereo tracks simultaneously. It was the B-Side to Lennon’s hit “Watching The Wheels,” and a personal favorite of mine to play on jukeboxes at unsuspecting Pizza Huts. One time I heard a woman in the back of the restaurant exclaim “That just ‘bout freaked me out!”

That was a quarter well spent!

Lennon always attempted to promote Yoko, but each duo release always ended up being more about his own contributions. Over the last few years there have been a series of remixes of Yoko’s work and it all seems to fall into the same category; the selling point lies in the contributors almost as importantly as in Yoko’s involvement. The latest “Yes, I’m A Witch” (Astralwerks) has a lot of magic moments, but once again it’s all about the collaborators. Each artist or group took an original vocal track by Yoko and either created a new arrangement or made a completely new music track for it.

Highlights include Porcupine Tree’s haunting prog rock arrangement of the formerly funky “Death of Samantha” and Apples in Stereo’s selection, where they turned the simple “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do” into a Phil Spector mini-opera. The Sleepy Jackson’s re-imagining of “I’m Moving On” is an epic that brings in string quartet, slinky blues, and contemporary beats into one mix. However Oklahoma’s own Flaming Lips get special kudos for not only taking Yoko at her most challenging (which is also her “most Yoko,”) the primal scream and feedback piece “Cambridge 1969,” but also for turning the piece into something melodic that even has a key resolution.

The album is fascinating, and many will find it more entertaining than Yoko’s original albums –Yoko had great moments, but only a few of her early LPs hold up well as fully realized album-length works. Next month a new album of remixed Yoko, will be released, featuring both previously released and unreleased mixes, “Open Your Box.” The line up on that one will include Basement Jaxx and The Pet Shop Boys.

Maybe after forty years the world is finally ready for Yoko. Even if an album of all-new material never gets released, “I’m a Witch” stands as a fitting tribute to Yoko’s body of work. Much like the artist herself, it’s unflinching, daringly experimental, devoid of sentimentality or consumer preference, yet charming and beautiful in it’s own unique way.

And regardless of what you think about Yoko, she sure seems a lot cuddlier than Heather Mills McCartney.

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©2006 NONCO Media, L.L.C.