Yoko Ono and Her Sixteen-Track Voice

Yoko is a delicate wind, racing around the world and trying to keep from disappearing altogether. But she's met her mountain, and while still working in lofty conceptual pieces she is holding on well to her kite string

March 18, 1971
yoko ono 1971
Yoko Ono at home in the United Kingdom.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In December, 1970, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came to New York City – their first time as a couple – where they visited some of Yoko's old friends, went out, as they rarely do in London, to some "entertainment" films like Diary of a Mad Housewife and Lovers and Other Strangers and to the Muhammad Ali fight, made two new films – Up Your Legs Forever and The Fly – for inclusion in a three night John and Yoko minifilm festival at the Elgin Theater, and did some publicity for their two extraordinary new albums.

The following scene takes place in a hotel room one Sunday evening: John is turning on the radio to hear Alex Bennett's WMCA phone-in program on which tonight he's playing tracks from Yoko's album – the first time Yoko's music has been featured on AM radio.

"There are people who are going to love it and people who are going to hate it," Bennett says enthusiastically. "I think that in 1980 music will probably sound like this. Here's a track called "Why," so phone in and tell us what you think of it."

"It's Today's Tutti Frutti," John writes on a note pad, so as not to interrupt the music.

"I'm 49 years old," a listerner phones in, after listening to "Why Not." "Forty-nine and I dig it. I heard trains, going through a tunnel, then rain – I'm just using my imagination – then what soulded like a bunch of Indians. I dig it, but I really like songs with a melody."

"It was truly disastrous," a nasal-voiced listener calls up to say.

"It's music, you idiot!" John exclaims to the radio. "Because it's not got da-da-da, there's nothing for him to hook onto."

"You don't mind hearing the program?" Yoko asks.

"I want to," John says. "You see, with Yoko's and my album, we're both looking at the same thing from different sides of the table. Mine is literate, hers is revolutionary."

"Paper Shoes" comes on the air with its train sounds.

"On one side, at the end of 'Why Not,' you're in the train itself."

"Life is a train, and train is a life," Yoko says.

"The shadows of a train of thought," someone mutters in the hotel corridor outside.

"She's got a 16-track voice," adds John.

The radio program ends, and John and Yoko are relaxing on their bed, John half-watching the soundless television screen and reading an essay called "Concept Art" by violinist and composer Henry Flynt whom John and Yoko have just visited in New York.

"The notion of a concept," John is reading, "is a vestige of the notion of a platonic form (the thing which e.g., all tables have in common: tableness), which notion is replaced by the notion of a name objectively, metaphysically related to its intention (so that all tables now have in common their objective relation to table)."

"Before I met John," Yoko is saying, "and when I had become sort of famous because of my bottoms film shots of 365 backsides for one hour, a film John describes as Many Happy Endings, that was the loneliest time in my life. Some people resented me because of my fame and made me feel isolated. Now when my record is played on the radio, I've got someone who's pleased.

"When I met John originally, he said it was OK for me to listen to the Beatles' sessions . . . "

John: "I had to get permission!"

"So I asked John, why don't you use different rhythms, not just going ba-ba- ba-ba. It was a kind of avant-garde snobbery on my part, because my voice was going [vibrating: uhghh . . . ghuhhh], but there was no beat. So I thought to myself (simpering tone) 'Well, simple music!' You see, I was doing music of the mind – no sound at all, and everybody sitting around just imagining sounds. At the Chamber Street Loft concerts I was throwing peas from a bag at the people and I had long hair and I was circling my hair and the movement was a sound. Even then, some people were saying that maybe it was too dramatic. Then there was my Wall Piece which instructed you to hit the wall with your head, and that was called too dramatic as well. But I felt stifled even with that, I was dying to scream, to go back to my voice. And I came to a point where I believed that the idea of avant-garde purity was just as stifling as just doing a rock beat over and over."

"Dear," John interrupts, "one thing that's going to throw you. Henry Flynt is talking about 'Sweets from My Sweet' by the Drifters; he's been rocking for a long time. You know, he played us some fantastic stuff the other night when we saw him. 'Sweets from My Sweet' was a big rock and roll hit, so he's been aware of that for a long time. I don't think he got to that sound pissing about with mathematics. I had to interrupt since I was just reading something he wrote about concept art and it's bloody hard, but he gets to 'Sweets from My Sweet' and I understood him."

"Probably I was the only one who didn't hear it," Yoko says.

"Right," says John, singing, "Dun de dun dun! I'm not putting you down, I'm just very surprised to read this."

"I know you mean well," Yoko replies, "but I get sort of lost."

"You were talking about the 4/4 beat."

"I realized," Yoko continues, "that the classics, when they went from 4/4 to 4/3, lost the heart beat. It's as if they left the ground and lived on the 40th floor. Schoenberg and Webern – Webern's on the top of the Empire State Building. But that's all right. Our conceptual rhythm got complex, but we still have the body and the beat. Conceptual rhythm I carry on with my voice, which has a very complicated rhythm even in 'Why,' but the bass and the drum is the heartbeat. So the body and the conceptual rhythms go together. These days I'm putting a beat under everything I do."

"Yoko and I have clashed artistically," John laughs. "Our egos have smashed once or twice. But if I know what I'm doing as an artist, then I can see if I'm being hypocritical in my reactions. I sometimes am overawed by her talent. I think, fuck, I better watch out, she is taking over, I better get myself in here. And I say, are you taking over? And then say all right, all right, and I relax again. I mean, she's going to haul 365 legs and make a bloody film about a fly crawling over some woman's body, what is it? But it's all right, I know her."

"An artist couple is the most difficult thing," Yoko continues. "On the David Frost program, some guy was saying, 'I like to write music and my fiance likes to write poetry.' The fact is that we both paint, compose, and write poetry, and on that basis, I think we're doing pretty well."

"If you do two LPs there might be a little change!" John laughs. "But until then I don't mind. When she wants the A side, that's when we start fighting. The reason the covers of our albums are similar is that I wanted us to be separate and to be together, too, not to have it appear that old John-and-Yoko is over, because they're dying for us to fall apart, for God knows what reason. It's just that everybody doesn't want anybody else to be happy, because nobody's happy."

"I think it's a miracle that we're doing all right. But we are doing all right, don't you think, John?"

"It's just handy to fuck your best friend. That's what it is. And once I resolved the fact that it was a woman as well, it's all right. We go through the trauma of life and death every day so it's not so much of a worry about what sex we are anymore. I'm living with an artist who's inspiring me to work. And you know, Yoko is the most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does."

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