I WON'T BE YOUR YOKO ONO
THE FEMINIST SONGS OF YOKO ONO
By Calliope Kurtz
"It's handy to fuck your best friend" - John Lennon.
It doesn't exactly require a feminism as uncompromising as Andrea Dworkin to observe any demands for female liberation issued from Yoko Ono carry with them a problematic premise. Who better than Ono illustrates the unhappy fact that "[w]omen have needed what can be gotten [only] through intercourse: [...] access to male power through access to the male who has it"? Let us remember, Ono made her mainstream debut (on the 1968 album Two Virgins) unclothed, a sexual conquest (that Ono, now the copyright holder of the infamous album cover photo refuses its ensuing publication except in "censored" form (see Michael Ochs' 1000 Record Covers) assuredly verifies the "concept" of the picture originated with Lennon, not Ono).
With 1973's Approximately Infinite Universe, Ono took the sloganeering of the earlier, more temperate "Sisters O Sisters" ("Freedom O freedom, that's what we ask for" [emphasis mine]), from the collaborative Some Time In New York City (1972), much closer to praxis - and heart. Despite the J&Y photo on the album's back cover (and contrary to the misleading credits on the 1990's Rykco CD version), AIU is, for all practical purposes, Ono's first solo record. That is, AIU started off as another J&Y production, but the sessions were finalized by Ono - as Lennon deserted her to bang babes and live inside a bottle. According to eyewitness Bob Gruen (John Lennon: The New York Years), Lennon, ostensibly depressed over the critical and commercial failures of STINYC and the "One-To-One" Madison Square Garden concert (both of which presented Ono in full partnership), began to drink heavily - and helped himself to sexually available women - during the time of AIU's recording.
I asked Elephant's Memory guitarist Wayne Gabriel about the AIU sessions, and he said:John and Yoko showed us the basics but we - Adam [Ippolito, keyboards], Stan [Bronstein, sax], Gary [Van Scyoc, bass] and me - collaborated to come up with the arrangements. It was just a skeleton, we often added chords, and riffs; embellishing. John had faith in us to do it - we were pretty experienced by that time - and Yoko had faith in us, too.After paying a heavy price for her (admittedly) opportunistic collaboration with Lennon - posing nude to the world only scratches the surface; there's the implicit sexuality of the "bed-ins," or consider the J&Y photos on the back cover of the paperback edition of Grapefruit, where Lennon jabs his hand down Ono's shirt (another photo excised by Ono in post-Lennon republication), the 'erotic' lithographs, etc. Ono, with AIU, was afforded her great break, a momentous indulgence. Ono finally gained artistic liberty and a stage larger than any she could have enjoyed during her 'avant-garde' years. She finally had the power to "do her thing - all over you" (as Lennon suggestively told the Toronto Peace Festival audience) - and, with it, she chose to tell the world that Lennon was an absolute prick. If sales were any indication, it wasn't a message the world cared to hear. The empirical verification can be discerned by even a superficial consideration of Lennon's behavior, documented in memoirs such as Cynthia Lennon's A Twist of Lennon. Imagine the effect Two Virgins had upon Lennon's son Julian, who was just entering grade school at the time; indeed, after Lennon walked out on his first wife to take up with Ono, Julian recalls the next time he saw his father: on TV, "bedding-in for peace" with Ono.
Having to endure his prick - apparently daily for four years' straight - makes Ono's feminist message either condescendingly disingenuous or harrowingly believable, depending where on the gender continuum the listener stands.
"Yang Yang" opens AIU, trenchantly. No yin, it's all yang - a telling indication. Both music (especially the biting blues-rock guitar leads by Wayne Gabriel) and lyrics are focused and aggressive. Ono describes male power - and her lover and patron, the big-shot, with imagery worthy of Frida Kahlo:Yang Yang holds on to a giant phone,The second (quoted) verse is especially clever - and merciless. Ono hits Lennon where it hurts most - his mother fixation. From there, she fulminates leftist rhetoric to wind up the tune:
Yang Yang's soft voice goes on and on,
I hate you, I hate you, where did it go wrong?
Yang Yang goes talking to himself on the phone.
Yang Yang's born with a phone cord 'round his neck,
Yang Yang never fails to stick to his kick,
I want you, I want you, you're making me sick,
But Yang Yang, the phone cord's never long enough to reach your mommy's trick.[L]eave your private institution,Although the song, often comped and covered, can be interpreted as a discourse on rape or, later, Ono's widowhood, it is most certainly a description of Lennon's desire, and easy ability, to hurt Ono. Bob Gruen (John Lennon: The New York Years) relates an incident that has been corroborated in print many times - that is, after the election triumph of Nixon, Lennon, attending a party with Ono, fucked a groupie within earshot of a horrified, publically humilated Ono. "Death of Samantha" - with its repeated refrain "something inside me died that day" - was written and recorded a few days later. This song is a slow-burner, the quintessential Ono self-portrait - injured, icy, dissolving yet stoic.
Get down to real communication,
Leave your scene of destruction
And join us in revolution!
The song marks the 'official' moment of J&Y's dissolution as a couple. As a vocal, it ranks with Ono's most effective. Spartan, intimate and intense, Ono delivers her lines with a contextual effectiveness no less world-class than a Capitol-era Sinatra ballad. Indeed, in the song, Ono's palpable female anguish is tempered by a masculine discipline over her emotions - hence the outstanding brilliance of her performance.
After the heavy women's lib stance of AIU's two openings tracks, Ono tones down her message with a consoling message to "forgive" men in general, and Lennon in particular, hedging on "I Want My Love To Rest Tonight." Adopting a consoling, maternal stance, she urges her "sisters, let's not blame our men too much, we know they're doing their best." Ideologically enlarging the point, she states:They were told by us to get ahead,Not surprising, this track is less effective than the others. Ono's performance, stumbling over assymetrical syllables and burdened with 'revolutionary' rhetoric a la STINYC, is unassured and sounds insincere.
Be gentle and tender, yet hard and strong;
Nothing short of a living God,
Nothing short of James Bond.
Going further, "What A Bastard The World Is" is AIU's feminist core - and, assuredly, Ono's musical, and ideological, masterpiece. All elements come together in this composition - melody, lyrics, arrangement, recording, message. Set over a simple piano ballad, Ono begins her narrative with the realization that - again - she has woken up alone and wondering where her lover has spent the night. Her tone is anything but conciliatory:What a bastard you are,Then she reaches a breaking point:
Leaving me all night missing you.
Right! You weren't near the phone to call me from,
Or is it you were afraid to wake me up?
I'm sick and tired of listening to the same old crap.
You know, half the world is occupied by you pigs,
I can always get another pig like you,
You heard of female liberation - well, that's for me:
You'll see me walk out one day and then where will you be?Are you listening - you jerk, you pig, you bastard,Then, without a pause, the chords shift and gravity is breath-takingly suspended:
You scum of the earth, you good for nothing!
Are you listening?!Oh, don't go, don't go, please don't go,The effect is truly shocking.
I didn't mean it, I'm just in pain,
I'm sorry, I'm sorry.
From there, the melody modulates as, narratively, her lover walks out the door - slam. Suddenly, wrenchingly, Ono's world implodes as she considers how far she will fall, if abandoned. Knowing Cynthia Lennon's experience firsthand ("John had cut me off like a gangrenous limb" [from CL's 2005's memoir John]), who better than Ono to sourly comprehend what 'independence' awaits a woman without a man? Certainly Ono would never end up behind a cash register to pay the rent, like so many millions of discarded housewives, but rejoining the Fluxus underground, resuming her avant-garde coolness, wouldn't be an option.
Throwing herself at fame (Lennon), submitting to and being fucked by fame (Lennon), Ono had little tenable choice to do anything other than endure fame (Lennon). And this dilemma, however grandiose, even Shakespearean, reflects, to the atom, the experience of all women living in a man's world: be fucked, or perish.
As Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) observes:Men usually think of coercion as a threatened loss of autonomy. For women, coercion often takes a different form: the threat of losing the chance to form bonds with others, be loved, and stay wanted. Men think coercion happens mainly through violence, but women see physical suffering as bearable compared with the pain of losing love.Ono concludes the track with an observation as asute now as it was in '73:Female lib is nice for Joan of ArcThe next feminist song on AIU,"I Have a Woman Inside My Soul," a torchy soul ballad, is poetic and oblique, but, "somber and sad," undoubtedly picks up the thread of "Death of Samantha." Ono sings in hushed tones, "I have a woman inside my soul [...] I wish I knew what she wants." Ambivilance and helplessness predominate: "I see a tombstone inside my soul [...] but I don't know what it reads." Lennon, ever the paragon of sensitivity, yaks obliviously throughout Stan Bronstein's exquisite sax solo.
But it's a long, long way for Terry and Jill;
Most of us were taught not to shout our will,
Few of us are encouraged to get a job for skill;
And all of us live under the mercy of male society,
Thinking that their want is our need.
"What A Mess," AIU's final overt feminist statement, is a novelty tune - a tipsy calypso with cutsy blurblings recycled from "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)." All the better for Ono's militant agenda:If you keep hammeing anti-abortionShe wraps up the song with a savvy use of the sexual metaphor:
We'll tell you no more masturbation for men;
Every day you're killing living sperm in billions;
So how do you feel about that, brother?If you keep laying on money or power,I asked Gabriel how Elephant's Memory felt about playing on such strident message songs. He responded:
We'll tell you meanwhile your sprinkler is out of soda;
So keep off our grass 'til you're in some kinda order;
What do you say to that, brother?We were political. Elephant's Memory played benefits for womens' prisons before meeting up with John & Yoko. We had no problem with Yoko's issues; she was pretty right on for the time - ahead of her time, really. You can't get any more for women's rights than Yoko. It was a fun album to make - a lot of good stuff came through.AIU ends on a stark, personal note. Alone at piano and alone in her narrative, Ono looks out over her New York City hotel window and sums up her life as AIU is finalized: "Age 39, feeling pretty suicidal." There's no artifice or ideology between Ono and the microphone, and when she issues Lennon the challenge, "show me your blood, John, and I'll show you mine," Ono paints her raw dignity of suffering as bleakly, as honestly as Kahlo.
It was not a challenge Lennon accepted - off to L.A. he went, a Kotex on his famous forehead.
Although Ono often cribbed ideas from the avant-garde and high-toned art worlds - her 'Bagism' pieces shamefully plagiarize Christo, for example - her feminism remains unassailable. STINYC, highlighting Ono's "Woman Is The Nigger Of The World" slogan, was released shortly before Helen Reddy's megahit (version of) "I Am Woman" - thus it was Ono who brought unambiguous feminism to the chain record stores first. The power of Lennon's prick was awesome indeed.
Unfortunately for her recorded output, Lennon paid a lot more lip service to Ono's musical significance than actual money. Until the collaborative STINYC, Lennon retained the production services of Phil Spector - assuredly no cheap date - solely for himself, producing Ono's first two 'solo' albums (Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and Fly) himself. It is obvious Lennon treated Ono's sessions as side projects; Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band was recorded in one evening - an economy unthinkable even to punks as scruffy as the Sex Pistols.
By the time Ono prepared a successor to AIU, the tellingly titled Feeling The Space, production devolved upon herself, alone.
With cover art intended to match Lennon's Mind Games (a symmetry characteristic of the earlier 'companion' albums Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, plus Fly and Imagine), FTS explicitly betrays the crumbling J&Y myth. While the record's inscription is pure cant - "this album is dedicated to the sisters who died in pain and sorrow and those who are now in prisons and in mental hospitals for being unable to survive in the male society" - the liner notes indicate Ono's personal stake in her politics: "In my mind I'm a singing Sylvia Plath, half her head out of the gas stove still looking for a pencil to write her last beauty."
The album opens with a set of morbidly introspective tunes; Ono "stand[s] by for death" in one song, and "rid[es] a coffin car" in another. Dismay and self-destructiveness permeate. By the end of side one, she reveals "I cut my finger when you left the room, the wound has healed long since then but the finger keeps bleeding, keeps bleeding." On "Woman of Salem" however, Ono has managed to find a metaphor, and a narrative, worthy of her pain:Let my daughter burn my book,
Let her learn to sew and cook;
Teach her not to read but weave,
Ask her not to speak but weep;
Salem, Salem - witches must be hung.
Alas, the illustrious hired guns (Jim Kelter, Dave Spinozza, 'Sneaky' Pete Kleinow, et al.) provide Ono with egregiously inappropriate backdrops for ten out of twelve tracks. Although Ono despairs and rages alternately throughout FTS, the band blithely slather stock MOR licks, insensibly, over hermaterial; perhaps they did not even read the lyrics. "Chief engineer" Jack Douglas (who, amazingly, landed the producer's chair for Double Fantasy) certainly brings nothing but indifference, and the occasional obfuscating vocal reverb, to the proceedings. It's class-A sabotage from the very "male power structure" Ono warns against (you don't exactly the sensibility of Andrea Dworkin to wonder: why didn't Ono find herself a female band?).
"Angry Young Woman" is the most unfortunate casualty. Saddled with a clumsy Nashville arrangement (intended, perhaps, to capitalize on Helen Reddy's radio-ready savvy), Ono warbles impotently and tunelessly, a caricature of her critics' denunciations. On paper, though, Ono demonstrates story-telling agility:Angry young woman with her background on her forehead,"She Hits Back" is similarly handicapped by the band, but Ono nevertheless works up exhilarating rage:
Three children and two abortions;
Played a little piano ten years ago,
And some typing from the college where she met her husband.
Angry young woman in the dark of the night,
Hears her children crying for dinner,
Hears her man shouting for his shirt,
And thinks of the first sundays they spent in the park.
Angry young woman, angry young woman,
Theres no way back, so just keep walking;
Leave your past in your raincoat pocket
And when you turn the corner you'll see the new world.My body's getting tired of taking all the time,
She's been taking lot of cornballs all her life;
Suddenly she decided to hit one back,
She hits back like a warning.
The only unqualified success on FTS is "Woman Power," ironically or not the only track featuring Lennon (contrary to the erroneous Ryko reissue credits), a fierce stomping diatribe in which Ono lays down the law with a righteous zeal (and judicious use of off-key punctuation):Two thousand years of male society,The most conspicuous missed opportunity is "Men Men Men." Structured like a campy lounge number - think Peggy Lee doing "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)" - finally Ono has a chance to make something of her band's easy-listening instincts. She goes for broke as a female chauvinist pig, cooing clever ribaldries, such as:
Laying fear and tyranny;
Seeking grades and money,
Clinging to values vain and phony.
You don't hear them singing songs,
You don't see them living life,
'Cause they've got nothing to say but
"Make no mistake about it, I'm the president, you hear?
I wanna make one thing clear, I'm the president, you hear?"
We'll teach you how to cook, brothers,
We'll teach how to knit,
We'll teach you how to care for life, instead of killing;
Make no mistake about it, sisters,
We women have the power to change the world!Men, men, snails and puppies,Perfect in conception, Ono blows it in execution, singing woefully out of tune throughout - which might have been cool in a Shaggs/song-poem sort of blithefulness, but a heavy dose of cheapo echo, attenuating the content, slaughters even that possibility. Assuming a Hugh Hefneresque insouciance, a Mae West raunchiness, is way out of Ono's reach - she's just too sober. That said, "Men Men Men" is a top-flight composition - merely a Sinead O'Conner cover away from postmodern immortality (what a shame the latest Ono remix/comp release features no material from FTS).
Your muscles are not for fighting in war;
Your lips are not for voicing opinions,
Your eyes are there for us to look into;
I want you to take your rightful position.
Her feminist sensibilities aside, Ono eventually capitulated - and, as public relations had it, "accepted" Lennon back. That Ono's 1974 follow-up to FTS (released only decades after its creation) was quashed by Apple Records may help explain her "willingness." However the reunited J&Y may have phrased it, their reconciliation followed traditional terms - Ono bearing Lennon a male son and retiring from artistic activity. When they resurfaced, five years later, little appeared to have changed: Ono was still posing in bed with Lennon,**** her songs were still his B-sides, as she continued to cast in the role of his artistic handicap; Lennon still ate up the scenery in "joint" interviews and, irony be damned, Lennon was practically sainted for his "revolutionary sensitivity" in becoming a "househusband" and "raising Sean" when, in fact, he was merely accepting his fair share of the family duties, as he should have done without fanfare. Annie Leibowitz's famous Rolling Stone photo, in which a naked, "fetal" Lennon clings to a clothed, "authoritarian" Ono recalls several late-period works by both Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in which the latter is presented as a child and the former, the mother. In neither actuality, was male power substantively surrendered to the female.
It could have gone on forever - or at least as long as the records sold. But, in a twist of circumstance no less deranged than that which led Joseph Stalin (of all people) to be the most pivotal proponent of women's rights in the 20th Century, Mark Chapman unintendedly brought Ono the female liberation unobtainable as either Lennon's wife or his ex. As a widow, sole controller of the formitable Lennon estate, Ono has all the privileges of enduring Lennon - without actually enduring Lennon. Women, lacking power, must suffer the abuses of male power in order to exist, to self-actualize. Like many women, Ono needed male power to realize her own ambitions. In that, Lennon's fame brought her fame and, after his death, complete artistic independence. In the marriage market, Ono chose very well.
Formerly known as Barry Stoller, Calliope Kurtz published her first music criticism ten years ago in the pages of Monthly Review. Since then, she has appeared in the documentary Who Buried Paul McCartney?, raised two beautiful girls, and revealed the mystery musicians of Astro-Sounds From The Year 2000 for PopMatters magazine. She has a been a regular contributor to Perfect Sound Forever since 2003.
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