Music: Vanguard of avant-garde
My mother died at 80. Yoko Ono is that age and is still singing maniacally like one, if not all, of the witches in MacBeth. Unless you can tell me otherwise she is the most avant-garde octogenarian on planet Earth -- happily obscuring the lines between music, art and writing, gender, conformity and taboo. The Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band's new album Take Me To The Land Of Hell is exactly what you would expect from the woman whom John Lennon fell in love with all those decades ago. (And before I'm accused of reductive misogyny, Yoko had an illustrious career as a conceptual artist many years before she met the late Beatle -- he came into her art show at the Indica Gallery in London on November 9, 1966.)
Unsurprisingly, the album is a conceptual noise fest -- equal parts Frank Zappa and hip hop jazz, surreal haiku-like lyrics and shouting set to music that makes Bjork sound like one of the duller ones in Girls Aloud. More of a club mash-up of insights into what's going on in Yoko's head than 13 actual songs per se, it comes, too, with an anti-war message that is not surprising, given her past.
With everyone from Beastie Boys Mike D and Ad-Rock to tUnE-yArDs, Nels Cline, and ?uestlove and Lenny Kravitz doing star-turns on the album, you can see why Rolling Stone wrote that guesting on a Yoko Ono LP has become "like getting cast in a Woody Allen film: an artistic validation and New York City-branded right of passage".
Tracks like Bad Dancer, There's No Goodbye Between Us and 7th Floor go from sadness to madness. Cheshire Cat Cry is pro-peace art-noise psychosis -- she did a great version of it on The David Letterman Show before Christmas with The Flaming Lips. "Stop all wars! Stop the violence! Stop all wars America!" she yowled as Middle America squirmed and Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, sitting on the floor, wearing a hood as a disguise, spoke into a megaphone.
Yoko had the aforesaid Lips, as well as Cat Power, Antony Hegarty, Spiritualized, Le Tigre perform on her 2007 album, Yes I'm A Witch (inspired by her 1974 song of that name).
At the South Bank's Meltdown Festival she curated in London last summer, Yoko had Peaches, Savages, Deerhoof, Patti Smith, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. So it is a given that Yoko is something of a cultural, spiritual and sonic attraction for musicians of every genre and vintage. At Meltdown, Yoko performed the song Yes I'm A Witch with The Plastic Ono Band and New York rapper/exhibitionist Peaches. Scowling like she was emoting some pain deep within her, she sang: "Yes, I'm a witch / I'm a bitch/ I don't care what you say / My voice is real / My voice speaks truth / I don't fit in your ways."
At the close of the song, Yoko told the crowd: "I wrote that song when you guys were really attacking me."
On Moonbeams from the new album, she sings just as poignantly: "I hurt, too."
I spent a summer afternoon in 2003 with Yoko at the New York apartment in the Dakota building she lived in with Lennon. She told me a lot about hurt that day: the hurt of being mocked by people as she and her once wealthy family begged for food as they pulled their earthly belongings in a wheelbarrow after the bombing of Toyko in 1945; the hurt of losing Lennon at 10.50pm on December 8, 1980, when he was murdered outside the Dakota Building. Gabriel Byrne, who was also with me that hot day in Manhattan, remarked that Lennon's last act on earth -- signing an autograph for mentally insane fan Mark David Chapman -- was "an act of kindness and selflessness".
His widow has perhaps kept that sense of selflessness alive with her music.