Life and Death
Ono’s inspiration is not limited to conceptual and physical movement. As she approaches her 77th birthday, she also enters her sixth decade as an artist. This creative longevity is rare for even those most dedicated to the artistic life. All too frequently, outside events intervene, motivation fades, or the audience turns away. Ono, however, has maintained such a long career by remaining true to a single muse—herself. She says her motivation is always “me, and it’s my life that I experienced.” An admission of this sort might seem self-seeking, but Ono uses the autobiographical approach to reflect a number of experiences outward, sharing them with the audience. It is this openness that has made her both a controversial and an acclaimed figure.
Between My Head and the Sky, her well-reviewed 2009 album, is strikingly forthcoming in both style and subject matter. Reviving the “Plastic Ono Band” moniker she last officially used in the early 1970s, Ono, her son Sean, and new recruits including Shahzad Ismaily, Yuka Honda and Cornelius, deliver a collection of songs that tell a refreshingly complete musical story. In addition to Ono’s songwriting and the dexterous musicianship throughout, a key contribution is that of Sean Lennon, whose role here could be compared to Jack White’s enlivening work on Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose.
The most outstanding aspect of Between My Head and the Sky is the way in which the album undulates with the energy of a living being—rising and falling, celebrating and mourning, and coming to terms with the inevitable end. Ono contends that the album is no more honest and open than the rest of her work, saying, “If you go back to all my albums, they’re all confessional.” The album does, however, reveal a consciousness of mortality that makes a more substantial emotional impact because of the insight that accompanies advanced years.
“After I was 70, I realized that, okay, I would like to have another 50 years, and I probably could. But part of me is saying, maybe I’m not going to have that much time. It was a very strange feeling, so some of the songs are very eternal and some of the songs are like somebody who might die tomorrow.”
Of that line between life and death, Ono says one of her chief concerns is the finality of expression. This is somewhat surprising, considering that she has already secured such a well-preserved and documented body of work. Though it is the stuff of ordinary interactions and statements, in addition to lasting legacies, that occupy her mind. “It’s at the age of, a very interesting age actually. Even in a day you think about, ‘I want to be nice and thorough about my explanation because I might not have another chance to explain to this person’. If it’s the last time for me to say it, then I better say it, I better not hold back. But then the other side of me is thinking, ‘I might have an eternal life so forget it’ (laughs).
The concluding songs of Between My Head and the Sky form the album’s most elegant expression of this approach to life and death. Over a foundation of spectral strings, “Feel the Sand” reminds the listener of even the smallest pleasures of creation and declares, “That’s what we live for / to feel, to heal / to live, and to give.” Piano ballad “I’m Going Away Smiling” is a goodbye poem, devastatingly direct in its address to an unnamed beloved. Ono sings, “The boat is slowly leaving / leaving the life I loved,” and the listener considers both those she’s leaving behind as well as the person she might be joining on the other side. It is impossible not to picture John Lennon standing there.