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Listening to Yoko 

Do it, without prejudice

Thursday, Sep 30 2010
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Circa 1970, John Lennon was savagely mocked when he said, repeatedly and with his inimitable loudness, that Yoko Ono was not only a brilliant conceptual artist but also a great musician. To the mockers, Lennon often replied that people were prejudiced against his partner because she is Asian (he would have said Oriental at the time) and because she is a woman. Lennon, of course, was absolutely right.

The most straightforward definition of prejudice is "to pass judgment before," before hearing the evidence with an open mind. And many people I've spoken to about Yoko's music haven't actually listened to her. In my experience, the few Yoko deniers who have a passing acquaintance with her amazing body of work have limited their exposure to her interventions on the live Plastic Ono Band album (1969), the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus (late 1968), and (maybe) her live jam with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention (1971), nicknamed by the caustic Zappa "A Small Eternity With Yoko Ono."

All those recordings happen to be examples of Yoko's improvisational, noisy, shrieking style, only one of the many colors in her varied palette. (By the way, those — generally white and male — critics, both amateur and professional, who dismiss those performances tend to praise Robert Plant's equally improvisational, noisy, shrieking vocal ejaculations, 100 percent contemporary to Yoko's. I like both.)

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But at least those people have gone to the trouble of hearing her music, even if they weren't really listening and they thought it was really an annoying distraction from what they had come to hear (Lennon, Jagger, Zappa). Most other Yoko haters just repeat the "caterwauling libel" they heard from those critics and continue damning her without listening to those solo Yoko albums on Apple that Lennon, bless him, kept insisting were the best (and most fun) work he had done, ever.

If they had stopped dismissing Lennon as deluded by "her mysterious Oriental charms" (yes, otherwise "progressive" people could get away with arguing this crap not that long ago), they would have discovered brilliant, complex works like Fly (1971), Approximately Infinite Universe and Feeling the Space (both 1973), albums chock-full of melody, pathos, amazing musicianship, beautiful songs, artful lyrics, even the purest form of the blues.

Because as a woman and a cultural outsider (memories of Hiroshima and 1950s American and European Nippophobia loom large in her work), Yoko tapped into the same feelings that had been Lennon's main contribution to the early Beatles — his instinctual understanding of what Chuck Berry, Larry Williams and Arthur Alexander were really talking about.

Last week, I talked to Sean Lennon, who is proud to be his mom's producer and musical director for a couple of shows this weekend at the Orpheum that reboot the Plastic Ono Band for the Lady Gaga generation. I asked if Yoko was surprised about how many people have come around and love her work or if she had known all along this was going to happen eventually.

"I think a bit of both," he replied. "She's an artist who's always been very confident of what she does and she's always believed in her work, but I think she's had such a difficult time with the press, especially concerning her music, that I think that this is a surprise but she's also really happy about it."

He should know. After all, he's the son of a great musical original, someone whose artistic contributions will surely outlast us all.

And he's also the son of a Beatle.

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