Yoko Ono discusses first-ever L.A. shows
On Feb. 16, two days before she turned 77, the incomparable Yoko Ono, who by now has released nearly as many albums as her venerated late husband, served as both performer and honoree at a guest-heavy fête at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
I’ve pointed this next part out before, but it bears repeating: Bette Midler sang, as did Paul Simon and his son Harper. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth showed up. Most impressively, members of the original Plastic Ono Band -- including Eric Clapton, renowned drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Klaus Voorman, known for designing the cover of the Beatles’ "Revolver" – were reunited for the occasion.
The event, dubbed We Are Plastic Ono Band and arranged under the musical direction of Ono and John Lennon's son, Sean Lennon, was a hot-ticket smash success in NYC, and it’s about to have an L.A. encore, Friday and Saturday at the Orpheum Theatre, the opulent downtown venue that most people (apart from indie-music concert-goers) primarily known these days as the home of Hollywood Week on "American Idol."
The roll call for this weekend’s tributes has changed, but the caliber of artists who will salute four decades of music and performance art still speaks to Ono’s enduringly daring and idiosyncratic style. Iggy Pop, Mike Watt of the Minutemen and Nels Cline of Wilco take part Friday, while Lady Gaga -- whose calculated outrageousness owes at least as much to Ono as it does Madonna -- will appear Saturday night, along with Moore and Gordon.
Appearing at both performances will be an array like you never see on the same stage: Perry Farrell, the RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, actors Carrie Fisher and Vincent Gallo, Pitchfork darling tUnE-yArDs, electronic music pioneer Haruomi Hosono of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, and the current, Japanese-rich incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band, led by Sean but also featuring avant-gardist Cornelius and Yuka Honda of the group Cibo Matto.
“Isn’t it great?” Ono enthused during a phone chat two weeks ago. “It’s the first time I'm going to do it in L.A.”
“Do it” doesn’t just apply to these unique shows. She means ever.
“You’ve never played L.A. before?” I asked, surprised.
Surely back in the early ’70s, when she and John were at their most politically active and made appearances at rallies and benefit concerts, there must have been one gig somewhere in Southern California.
Ono is adamant: “Nooooooo! And I didn’t even think about that. It’s, like, I never thought about that John is going to be 70 this year. When people say, ‘Oh, he’s going to be 70’ – I think, ‘Oh dear, is that what it is?’ There are many things that I don’t really have in my consciousness.”
Naturally, though she’s participating in these testaments to her career – as opposed to watching from the balcony as if at the Kennedy Center Honors – Ono never would have thought to stage something like this for herself. The Orpheum, she loves: “Such a beautiful theater. … I like that kinda thing. … I go for classic, historical places.” But to gather high-profile friends and admirers to re-create her songs live, well: “Who would think of doing a show that way?”
It’s much too conventional, “and I’m not the most conservative person. I felt sort of like … well, maybe embarrassed, I guess, that all these big musicians and composers and singer-songwriters (wanted) to sing my songs. You know, I do shows because I like to just do my own thing. So when they all came to me and said, ‘What about this?’ … I mean, Paul Simon is going to sing my song? You’re going to bring back Eric Clapton? I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘I don’t think they would want to do it. Why should they do it?’ Because I’m that person, I don’t see it objectively.”
Surveying a Neglected Past
She may not have dreamt it for herself, yet Ono says she’s nonetheless touched by the show of support, and has found joy in the process of spotlighting her work for these shows. There are, after all, any number of directions this material could go, as hers is a wildly varied catalog that ranges from difficult, often ignored but punk- and alt-influencing ’70s efforts like "Fly," "Approximately Infinite Universe" and "Feeling the Space" (her second, third and fourth solo records) to the increasingly acclaimed avant-pop and dance music she has made since John’s death in 1980 and the release of their swan song together, "Double Fantasy." (That unique classic, by the way, returns Oct. 5 as part of a Lennon reissue campaign in a “stripped down” version that wipes away the polished production of the era.)
The rest of her post-John discography contains some of her strongest achievements, including the occasionally wrenching widow’s lament "Season of Glass" (1981); the political activism of "Starpeace" (1985); the experimental rock of "Blueprint for a Sunrise" (2001); two sets of remixes and re-imagined material from 2007, "I’m a Witch" and "Open Your Box," featuring contributions from, among others, Pet Shop Boys, the Flaming Lips, Basement Jaxx, Cat Power and Peaches; and last year’s noted return with Sean’s restructured Plastic Ono Band, "Between My Head and the Sky." She also has become something of a dance diva, having racked up several chart-topping singles on the Billboard dance music chart -- including two this year alone, “Give Me Something” and her latest hit, “Wouldnit (I’m a Star).”
Yet Ono insists she’d never have agreed to such a survey of her past if these shows didn’t also serve as a showcase for Sean’s talents -- “because he is really a very good musician, and most people don’t know that,” despite positive notices the youngest Lennon has garnered for his albums, notably 2006’s sadly beautiful "Friendly Fire." Among his most recent efforts is yet another project, the Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger, which has issued a self-titled disc.
“He doesn’t just do guitar,” Ono boasts proudly, “he does piano, he does drums … and he has a good voice, too … and I felt badly that, you know, because of being John’s son and all that, he has a hard time, actually.”
As in New York, it was Sean, soon to be 35, who brought together such an eclectic lineup to take part in We Are Plastic Ono Band in L.A., about which Ono has the most to say regarding -- who else? -- Lady Gaga.
“I think she's fantastic. You know, she thinks of something and she does it, without any sort of hesitation. Whatever comes into her head, she brings it out, without fear. Really great. And you know she’s totally getting the same inspiration that I did, from somewhere very high, so maybe she doesn’t even know what it is.
“That’s how it should be.That way, you don’t really limit your work or start to make it smaller … make yourself a good girl, something like that. There’s no point in showing yourself that way to the world. We’ve seen it all. Why bother, you know?
“She has that kind of courage, but it’s not just courage -- she’s a very good singer and musician. She’s a professional, let’s put it that way. Most people think she’s just a spectacle, but no, no, she’s professional.”
Dealing with Haters
In her time most people have thought far worse of Yoko Ono than “professional,” of course; her occasionally wailing manner has never sat especially well with traditional pop consumers ... and then there are all those ugly, misconstrued myths about her breaking up the Beatles. I wondered if she’s developed a thick skin about it over the years.
“Well, thick skin is not really the word for it,” she says, “but you handle it because you believe in your artwork. You believe in you being an artist. It only matters to give good work.”
And maybe slyly confront her haters now and then: “You know, in old days, when I made that song ‘I'm a Witch' -- oohhh! Musicians got scared, you know. They were saying, ‘You can’t put this out!’ Because, you know, the concept of a witch, that I’m saying I’m a witch … and also that witch is rhyming with bitch … and they were saying, ‘You have to drop the bitch’ … .”
I thought that was the point: to throw it in the faces of people who had called her such things.
“No, I know, I was speaking to them.” She started singing: “I’m not going to die for you! But that was how I was when people didn’t understand me.”
So is it because more people appreciate her unpredictable spirit now -- is that why she has decided to revive the Plastic Ono Band moniker? “Well, I didn’t, actually. It was very funny: Sean came to me and said, ‘Mommy, do you mind?’ And I was thinking, OK, it means a lot to him, probably because his dad and mom created it, you know? So I said, ‘OK, OK … but why do you want to do that now?’ That’s how I felt, anyway.”
“It’s a legacy,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, yeah, you know, but it’s an in-house legacy. Especially because he lost his dad when he was 5, so there’s a sentimental side of it to him.”
“What do you think John would make of these shows?” I asked as we ended our chat.
“Oh, he would be so happy! He would be saying, ‘I told you so!’ He’s the one who, you know … the world first attacked me, and then they attacked John for being crazy to be with me or something. They made John out to be crazy and he wasn’t. But I think he must be so happy now if he’s somewhere around there in the atmosphere, to think that he was right. He was the only one who was right!”