Calling Yoko

March 19, 2011

Yoko Ono popped into my head the other morning.

Are there more than a handful of people in the world – at least in places with electricity – who don’t know the music of The Beatles?

And, I suppose, most people shudder at the name Yoko Ono, associating her with The Beatles and bad things.

But I like Yoko.

Well, I don’t know much about her as a person. She seems like a groovy, little woman and I think that the way she’s usually rockin’ those shades is kind of cool.

I thought that I’d read somewhere that she doesn’t sleep much and spends a lot of the nocturnal hours on the phone with friends around the globe.

None of that is really here or there, though.

I’d been curious to hear Yoko’s music – other than the stuff she’d done with John Lennon – ever since reading a positive review of her 1985 album Starpeace when it was released.

During the first half of the ’90s, I was the head buyer for a large record store and I’d accumulate enough store credit that, every three or four months, I’d burn one, spend an hour or two wandering the aisles and leave with several hundred dollars of new music.

(after the employee discount, I might end up with forty or fifty CDs – a mix of classic stuff and more obscure acts about which I was curious)

And that is how the first music I owned by Yoko Ono was the six-disc Onobox.

The collection was a random walk through blues, rock, reggae, and jazz blues, jazz and spoken word with elements that both foreshadowed and incorporated punk, new wave, and even rap.

Most of it was decidedly avant-garde.

The list of musicians that had performed on the twenty years of material was staggering and impressive – Eric Clapton, Ornette Coleman, Delaney & Bonnie, Sly Dunbar, George Harrison, Nicky Hopkins, Keith Moon, Bernie Worrell, Frank Zappa…it went on and on.

I didn’t like all of it. It was challenging, sometimes dissonant stuff, and Yoko’s vocal style was an acquired taste, but there were definitely a good dozen tracks that did connect with me.

The following summer, she released Rising, her first new music since Starpeace a decade earlier. I dug the album’s primal howl and attitude.

Rising, on which Ono was backed by son Sean’s band IMA, drew praise from a host of alternative acts, many who claimed Yoko as an influence. The album would be reissued a year later with remixes by Cibo Matto, Ween, Tricky, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and Beastie Boy Adam Yauch.

“The best rock record of the year,” The Drunken Frenchman – the most devoted Beatles fan I’ve ever known – noted after hearing Rising, “is by a sixty-two year-old, Japanese woman.”

(months later, Yoko appeared on the sitcom Mad About You and he declared that “All America now loves Yoko”)

It was one afternoon not long after Rising was released that I was sitting in my living room with Tree Boy who, like the Drunken Frenchman, was also a passionate Beatles fan as well as an admirer of Yoko’s music.

I think he made the suggestion to phone Yoko.

“Sure,” I replied. “I’ll simply dial information for New York City. I’m sure she’s listed.”

In fact, there was a listing for a Yoko Ono.

The phone rang and rang and rang.

Apparently she was out.

To this day I suspect that phone wasn’t ringing in the Dakota but rather as part of an exhibit in some gallery.

Yoko Ono’s catalog is so unusual and eclectic, I struggled to select a handful of songs. Instead, I’ve opted for a double dose that might be a chance for the uninitiated to check out some of her – mostly – more accessible material…

Yoko Ono – Woman Power
from Onobox

Woman Power first appeared on Yoko’s 1973 album Feeling The Space, which was released shortly after she reunited with John following his “lost weekend.” The album focused on the plight of women and Woman Power is a dense anthem to feminism.

Yoko Ono – Goodbye Sadness
from Onobox
Yoko Ono – Toyboat
from Onobox

Both Goodbye Sadness and Toyboat were tracks from Season Of Glass, which Ono released shortly after the murder of John Lennon.

Understandly there is plenty of grief and darkness to be found in the album, but Ono opted to open the record with the hushed Goodbye Sadness on which the singer bids sorrow farewell and expresses a need to return to the land of the living.

Toyboat is fragile and lovely, sounding almost like a surreal nursery rhyme, as the lyrics ask for rescue.

Yoko Ono – Never Say Goodbye
from Onobox
Yoko Ono – Let The Tears Dry
from Onobox

Issued a year after Seasons Of Glass, 1982’s It’s Alright (I See Rainbows) drew on the sounds of the New Wave movement that was reaching critical mass in its influence on and entry into mainstream pop culture.

Yoko Ono’s vocals have been mentioned as an influence on some of the New Wave artists including Lene Lovich and the B-52s (who apparently were fans). If the vocals were stripped from Never Say Goodbye and I was told that the spacey, handclap-laden song was by Gary Numan, I wouldn’t have argued differently.

(though Yoko’s vocal mannerisms and New Wave was a copacetic union)

The trippy Let The Tears Dry is haunting – bomb blasts as percussion, eerie whistling synthesizers, handclaps, and choir-like, chanted vocals. It’s pretty in a strange, troubling way.

Yoko Ono – I Love You Earth
from Onobox

As I noted, Starpeace was the album that made me curious about Yoko Ono’s music and has been noted in a lot of reviews online as a bid for a wider commercial audience. I never acted on that review I read when the album was new in 1985; the only songs I know from the album are the few that were on Onobox.

Despite the talent assembled on Starpeace – musicians including co-producer Bill Laswell, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, reggae notables Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, drummers Tony Williams, and Anton Fier – the songs I have heard are a bit touchy-feely and lack the adventure of the rest of Yoko’s catalog.

Yoko Ono – Revelations
from Rising

The song that closes Rising is a gentle, quiet track that is a series of spoken mantras offering a dose of perspective and an expression of gratitude.

Personally, I find the song to be quite poignant.

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Evolution Isn’t Pretty

November 22, 2009

Paloma bought me an early birthday present yesterday, a copy of Andre Agassi’s new autobiography Open.

The book has caused a bit of an uproar in the sports world for some of its revelations and even rippled beyond as the man’s celebrity transcends the tennis court.

As a reformed jock, I played a fair amount of tennis growing up, but a lack of self-discipline – I smashed more than a couple rackets – hindered any natural ability I might have had. Ironically, the player I most admired was Bjorn Borg, the cool, unflappable Swedish great.

I was playing less tennis by the time Agassi began rising through the ranks. I was in college and other things were occupying my time. I wasn’t even following the sport as much.

In fact, I first really took note of Agassi when I was mistaken for him while traveling in Southeast Asia. It was 1989 and I had a mullet-like hair, a bit spiky on the top that was similar to his. In Singapore, some German tourists wanted an autograph. In Thailand, some local tried to dupe me into a common ruse to purchase worthless jewels – “You wealthy tennis player.”

I’ve read plenty about Agassi over the years inclduing an amazingly poignant piece in Sports Illustrated a few years back which I wish I could find. Driven from the time he was a small child to be a tennis machine by a father who had boxed for Iran in the Olympics, his tale reminded me of that of Michael Jackson.

I’ve also read excerpts from Open, including Agassi’s admission that he used crystal meth in an attempt to destroy/escape from a career that he, for the most part, never wanted.

I won’t discount that his career has afforded him a life that most of us would envy, though I imagine few of us would have had the fortitude to achieve. That said, I find the ballyhoo surrounding his tome to be missing the point.

The man wasn’t driven by blinding greed to pilfer and destroy the economy, placing the lives of millions in a precarious position. He didn’t manipulate facts in order to launch an illegal war to invade a sovereign nation, treating the lives and treasure of millions as his own toy chest.

The man hit tennis balls and did so well enough to become one of the best to ever do so. His mistakes were his own and though those mistakes likely caused those around him hardship and pain, they didn’t cause the average person watching him perform his athletic feats hardship or distress.

By all accounts, Agassi owns those failures in his book. There’s no, “Yeah, but…”

Since 1994, Agassi has been described as perhaps the most charitable athlete of his generation, founding a tuition-free charter school for at-risk children in Las Vegas as well as several other endeavors. And, as he played his final US Open match in 2006, he was arguably the most beloved US athlete.

In short, Agassi has travelled a star-crossed path from there to here, arriving a better person, an admirable person, flaws and all. If he’s to be held accountable for the hiccups along the way, he should also be applauded for rising above them.

It’s an interesting twist of fate that his book should arrive at the same time as another autobiography, that of someone who’s greatest attribute appears to be the ability to gut a moose, a woman who did quit when facing adversity, has no shortage of folks she blames for her failures, and apparently craves revenge more than redemption.

But, I suspect that Sarah Palin doesn’t believe in evolution.

Aimee Mann – Save Me
from Magnolia soundtrack

Sometimes it takes a while for the light bulb to go on. And, sometimes people need a hand. The closing scene of the movie Magnolia expressed those sentiments as powerfully as any film I think I’ve ever seen and Aimee Mann’s heartbreaking song Save Me was the perfect accompaniment.

Fiona Apple – Better Version Of Me
from Extraordinary Machine

Fiona Apple’s third album found the eccentric artist working with long-time Aimee Mann collaborator Jon Brion. The record had a troubled birth, rejected and held up by Apple’s label for a belief that it lacked commercial appeal.

It went on to be one of the most critically acclaimed releases of 2005.

Yoko Ono – Revelations
from Rising

Personally, I like Yoko’s music – not all of it, but there’s some compelling stuff in her catalog – and Revelations is simply lovely with lyrics that are words to live by.

Garbage – When I Grow Up
from Version 2.0

When I Grow Up is twisted fun from Shirley Manson and crew.