Jessie J was recently quoted in an interview as saying Lady Gaga has “set the bar so high for everyone else. She’s made normal artists and music ‘boring’ which really bothers me. It pisses me off when people say Leona’s boring. No she’s not.” Whether or not Leona Lewis is boring is beside the point. The truth is Lady Gaga was not the woman to set this bar. In fact, the bar was set nearly forty years ago by a young woman who emigrated from Japan to New York and showed us what women could do when it came to mixing extreme creativity and art. Weird art. Women like these are who I like to call Women of the Weird.
In the mid-1960s there was a change going on in music. The Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1966, which made a major impact on rock music: “Helter Skelter” being Paul’s answer to the Pete Townshend’s ultimate rock’n’roll song, “I Can See For Miles.” This basically set a new bar for all performers to hit: be more extreme than The Beatles in every way possible. Around the same time, Yoko Ono met John Lennon.
Yoko Ono was born in Japan in 1933 and lived an upper-class life, traveling back and forth from the U.S. (New York and California) to Japan until 1945 when her father was put into a POW camp in China. Her family and she escaped the firebombing of Tokyo during that time to the Abuzu district of Tokyo, only to be shunned for their status as a rich family causing Yoko and her family to end up begging for food. Yoko’s family eventually moved to New York after the war, and as a young adult in New York Yoko began to reject the rich lifestyle, becoming interested in the music of John Cage and other more traditional classical artists. Soon after she eloped from college with her boyfriend at the time, composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, and after only six years they ended their marriage. Yoko met American jazz musician and film promoter Anthony Cox in Japan and married him after annulling her marriage to her previous husband. Yoko has endured particularly unique struggles in her life rather than simply being a “rockstar wife”: during her marriage and separation from Toshi Ichiyanagi, Yoko moved back to Japan and attempted suicide by overdosing on pills. She was sent by her parents to a mental institution which kept her under heavy sedation the entire time she was there. Her first child, Kyoto, was kidnapped by her ex-husband Anthony Cox twice after their divorce and lived in a Christian cult for several years. She and Kyoto only resumed contact over thirty years after the kidnapping. By the time she moved back to New York and resumed her performance art, she’d seen much more than many thirty-two year old women do in a lifetime. Because Yoko’s art was performance and conceptual, she was dismissed as talentless by the general public when she and John began their relationship, but John supported Yoko’s art just as she supported his, even collaborating. Probably the most well-known of Yoko’s performance art of which John partook was the Bed-In.
Many of Yoko’s work included audience participation. While I prefer to keep this article focused on Yoko, the first exhibit of Yoko’s that John went to displayed an apple which was apparently £200, labeled “Apple.” Another exhibit had a board that viewers could hammer nails into. Because the exhibit did not open until the next day, Yoko would not let John participate yet. She was then told who John was, and she told him he could hammer a nail in for five shillings. John told her he would hammer an imaginary nail in for an imaginary five shillings.
Yoko released her first solo album, Plastic Ono Band (coinciding with John’s solo album of the same name) in 1970. This album was just right for the time. Even though it received horrendous reviews when it came out, Yoko’s music reflected probably the only mainstream effort of no wave to be released. I chance to call Yoko one of the first no wave artists, because this was before the genre was “officially” developed and named. Yoko clearly knew what she was doing. From listening to this album you can hear the avant-garde influences of the time. Many later no wave bands actually contained more harmony than Yoko did in her work, perhaps to make more listener-friendly music, but Yoko’s no wave was down to the core: the very center base.
Yoko was not about being model pretty, although ugly pretty wasn’t her thing either. Yoko has always looked quite normal. And in all her weirdness, this was probably the weirdest thing of all! A tiny, pretty, normal woman was making this bizarre art and music that few people liked. Shouldn’t tiny pretty women make pretty music? People even thought she was so bad in music and art that she was capable of manipulating John to be bad and breaking up the most awesome band in the history of music! Yoko had some awesome power for a woman of only 5’2″.
Many people still blame Yoko for a lot of things that happened with The Beatles and John himself, but they don’t look at her own work or even realize that she was an artist long before John entered her life. After John’s death, which Yoko witnessed, Yoko went into complete seclusion, but in the years since her grieving she has fought to keep John’s killer behind bars. Though it is said in Albert Harry Goldman’s biography of Lennon that Yoko openly cheated on John, John is not exactly a saint himself in this department: he and Yoko were dating for about a year before he and his first wife, Cynthia, divorced. It’s likely that both Yoko and John may have had an agreement in their marriage that wasn’t publicized.
Yoko was one of the very first weird women in music, unafraid to be weird and try new things, to raise the bar. Influences of her sound can be heard in the work of other weird artists: Lydia Lunch, Lene Lovich, The B-52’s, and yes, even Lady Gaga. Yoko’s reverberation can still be heard to this day. And she hasn’t stopped! Her hit “Walking on Thin Ice,” the single which was being recorded on the night of John’s death, has enjoyed rebirth with remixes from The Pet Shop Boys and Danny Tenaglia, with Yoko being a number one dance hit in 2003. In 2007 Yoko released a remix album, Yes, I’m a Witch with covers and remixes from artists including The Flaming Lips, Cat Power, and Peaches.
As for her humanitarian aid with the recent tsunami in Japan, Yoko held a benefit show with Sonic Youth and her son, Sean, in New York on March 11 with proceeds going to Japan Society’s Earthquake Relief Fund. She has asked her fans to help the Japanese and appeared recently on the Piers Morgan Tonight show to speak about the need for aid.
Yoko is also a feminist, which isn’t surprising. I’ll leave you with something Yoko has to say about that.
I think that all women are witches, in the sense that a witch is a magical being. And a wizard, which is a male version of a witch, is kind of revered, and people respect wizards. But a witch, my god, we have to burn them. It’s the male chauvinistic society that we’re living in for the longest time, 3,000 years or whatever. And so I just wanted to point out the fact that men and women are magical beings. We are very blessed that way, so I’m just bringing that out. Don’t be scared of witches, because we are good witches, and you should appreciate our magical power.
Yoko Ono, Pitchfork (2007)