Say what you will about Yoko Ono, but just don’t call her a novice. Sure, her exotic, childlike squeals and shrill harmonics may share a roughness reminiscent of starting musicians, but childlike does not equate to childish and in Yoko’s case it is just this sort of radical, seemingly improvised (albeit indulgent) experimentation that gives her music its creative purity and endearing strangeness.
Few artists can say they’ve contributed a musical and artistic history as fruitful as Ono’s. At the tender age of 77, the widow of John Lennon is still aggressively pursuing a path of imaginative exploration based on the same two concepts that have always guided her as they did her belated husband: peace and love. And while the pursuit of peace and love in an era of terrorism-induced xenophobia and artificial human interconnectivity may seem to most people like pie-in-the-sky juvenile day dreaming, Ono is one of the rare adults who still dares to paint these ideas with truth, honesty, integrity and, yes, the occasional screaming warble. What more could you ask of a woman pushing 80?
During Ono’s performance at The Fox Theatre in Oakland, California, the audience seemed to be asking for one very simple thing: nostalgia. The baby boomers were still finding their way to their seats during opening act Deerhoof, a band you may remember listening to in your college years for the sake of painting yourself as a pop dissenter. Lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki bounced around the stage energetically, chiming out a barely audible version of “Panda” (the chorus to which goes something like “Pan-da Pan-da Pan-da Pan-da Pan China!”) and “Basketball Get Your Groove Back” (“Bunny Jump Bunny Jump Bunny Bunny Bunny Jump!”) as the band rocked out behind her.
After a brief intermission featuring a projection of crows flying out of Ono’s mouth (equipped with chirping noises), the lights went down and Ono’s name appeared projected center stage in stark white letters on a black screen. As the name faded after a minute or two for audience reflection, the screen flooded with clips from her past, including images from childhood, radio broadcasts describing her work, and footage from Yoko’s video installations such as 1965’s Cut Piece which featured Ono at age 32 sitting in a chair as her clothing was systematically cut away from her by members of the audience, leaving her nude in a room full of potential art critics (yikes)!
Also played was a clip from the 1966 short film Bottoms, which features a series of bare bottoms full screen, each buttock jiggling slightly as the subjects are featured marching slowly in place. Almost as precious was Yoko’s reaction to criticism of the piece. Anyone who doubts Ono’s integrity should see the abject disdain painted on her face as she explains to the smug-looking British reporter, “I’m not trying to be funny. I’m being serious.” The footage progressed with clips from John and Yoko’s collaborative works, including the 1971 film Imagine and the infamous week-long “Bed In” in protest of the Vietnam War, before finally concluding with the subtle implication of John Lennon’s assassination, expressed through his absence in clips of Yoko wandering the streets of New York alone, ducking out of taxi cabs as reporters chased her with microphones.
Finally, the woman herself peered out from behind the red velvet curtain, standing modestly in the spotlight as heaps of applause rained down upon her throughout the theatre. She smiled, prepared for the paparazzi in a set of dark shades paired with a black track suit and a white leather golf cap that very well could have been Sean Jean. Appropriately, she began her set with an a cappella tune, which was a melancholy reference to darker days. “At the time of our life when I least expected / I don’t remember the day it happened / But it happened / Yes, it happened and I know there’s no return.”
The lights came up suddenly flooding the stage in showers of bright, smoky green. Without missing a beat, Ono launched into a version of “Waiting for the D Train”, accompanied by the “fresh” Plastic Ono Band whose members include Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto and Keigo Oyamada of Cornelius. The band also showcases the incessant guitar wailings of son Sean Lennon, who had a lot of energy to burn on this particular Bay Area performance. He even brought in reinforcements by way of an old local friend with a knack for unusual instruments. According to Lennon, his friend had learned to play over a thousand. “He tells me the trick to learning them all is to forget time exists. I’m working on it,” said Lennon. “I think my mom’s already there.”
The kid has a point. As the band played tracks from their newest album Between My Head and the Sky as well as a few favorites from the days when the super group was composed mainly of Beatles, with a couple psychedelic “jam sessions” thrown in for good measure, all topped off with two encore performances, Ono didn’t stop to catch a breath. As captivated as the aging flower children seemed to be, they must have also been exhausted by what turned out to be a four hour affair. Still, somehow they all managed to rise to their feet for the last song, a communal rendition of “Give Peace a Chance”, sung while flashing the message, “I love you” using some three thousand onochords (tiny flashlights) which were passed out to the audience at the beginning of the show. As the tiny lights blinked and our voices found each other in the dark, an optimism nearly forgotten filled the theatre. Sometimes time really does stand still.