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Double Fantasy 

Yoko Ono and son Sean collaborate on Rising

Wednesday, Mar 13 1996
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There aren't many 62-year-old female voices in rock; for that reason alone, Yoko Ono is unique. Male rockers rarely age gracefully, perhaps because many of them refuse to mature. The Rolling Stones strut like studs, even as their skin sags to the floor. In contrast, Ono's 1995 LP, Rising, underscores that older artists can redefine -- through wisdom and depth of experience -- a medium dominated by predictable expressions of youthful rebellion.

Rising confronts what the Rolling Stones refuse to acknowledge: mortality. Death is classic rock subject matter, idealized and romanticized by people who haven't faced it for real. But Ono has lost friends and family to nuclear war, urban violence, and AIDS. With Rising, she connects these tragedies socially and politically, wrestles with them personally, and acknowledges the winding down of her own clock. The stark backdrop of "Will I" is a ticking sound: "Will I miss the skies?/ Will I miss the clouds?" Ono asks. "Will I miss touch/ Will I miss love?/ Will I miss you?"

Musically, Rising improves on both early '70s Ono jams like "Why" and early '80s grooves like "Walking on Thin Ice." Moving from reggae to rock to jazz with a vitality session musicians can't muster, the LP's three-piece band, IMA, is led by Sean Ono Lennon. Not only is this mother-son creative dynamic radical for rock, it's also poignant. In the piano dirge "Kurushi," Ono softly cries the title (Japanese for "pained" or "suffering"), then moves on to "mommy."

"When John was around," Ono says over the phone, "Sean would try to play his guitar, but it was too big. Later, Sean began playing with friends, but I stayed away, because the invisible pressure on him was too much. If he wanted to be an artist, I thought that would be good, though I would've felt strange if he decided to be an accountant." Initially, Ono was hesitant to record with her son, but he insisted. "All my concerns disappeared when we started to work together," she says. "Not only was he professional, he was sensitive to my music."

Ono likens Rising's intuitive recording to a dialogue. "Improvisation expresses exactly where you stand at a given moment," she notes. "When a word comes into my mind, I just say it, regardless of whether I like it." In the 14-minute title track, inspiration struggles to become creation: "The day we recorded, Sean came in looking depressed and tired -- maybe he'd had a rough night. So [in the lyric] I was talking to his soul, telling him to wake up."

Erasing boundaries between art and life, Ono opens new doorways, usually through the body. Recently collected in book form, her early '60s instruction paintings epitomize (along with John Cage's Silence) the Fluxus movement's use of concepts -- rather than objects -- to affect perception. Works like Painting to See the Room ("Drill a small, almost invisible hole in the center of the canvas and see the room through it") paved the way for text experiments by Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, but Ono's concerns are different. Those artists play games with meaning; Ono uses words to jump-start imagination.

"The world of entertainment tends to give a beautiful illusion to people," Ono notes. "That's one way of going, but I like to be real, and being real is definitely connected with the body." While early Ono artworks like 1964's Cut Piece -- where participants used scissors to cut off her clothing -- created tension from potential cruelty, her more recent "blood objects" deal with the aftereffects of violence. Broken baseball bats and red-spattered tables are presented like pieces of evidence. Most disturbing, for obvious reasons, is a wrinkled blue-jean shirt on a hanger: The heart pocket is stained with blood, and riddled with holes.

In 1993, Ono began showing purely visual art for the first time. Drawing with dots, she utilizes an automatic writing approach. The resulting shapes, often egg- or womblike, twist and turn in on themselves, reflecting struggles between logic and spontaneity: "A gush of wind interrupted my train of thought -- and gave me a rest," Ono writes in an accompanying catalog essay. This statement echoes 20-year-old Plastic Ono Band song titles like "Mind Holes"; it also applies to Rising. "Rigid planning limits a work," Ono notes. "It's nice to keep an open end so the magic you don't expect can come in."

Creating "cave art" during a computer age, Ono still identifies herself as avant-garde: " 'Misfit' is supposedly a derogatory word, but I think of it as positive. An outsider's point of view is good because you can bring things into society." Of course, as Ono well knows, "outsiders" are ridiculed; no longer blatantly racist -- see the early days of the Lennon-Ono marriage -- American rock criticism still has much to learn about female Japanese (or Japanese-American) expression. In Details, a review of Rising scoffed at nuclear violence as if it were a passe concern, ignoring the fact that Ono was a child in Japan when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Other times, faux-liberal platitudes mask basic misunderstandings: Most critics treat the food theme of Cibo Matto's Viva! La Woman as a cutesy gimmick, rather than an investigation of everyday pain and pleasure.

Cibo Matto contributes to Rising Mixes, a new six-song offshoot of Rising. With the possible exception of spliff-addled comic-rockers Ween, the project's roster is a who's who of critical cool: Other participants include Tricky, Thurston Moore, and the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch. Each artist brings his/her signature to a song: Cibo Matto infuses "Talking to the Universe" with bratty sexuality; Tricky strips "Where Do We Go From Here?" down to sinister bone-rattling and nicotine rasps; Moore buries "Rising" beneath shards of guitar noise. It's a testament to Rising that none of these versions improve on the originals.

Rising Mixes was instigated by Capitol A&R man David Ayers; unfamiliar with every contributor except Moore before the project, Ono considers it a "gift." (She now has a "deep communication" with Cibo Matto.) In a sense, the remix process resembles Ono's '60s U.S. Fluxus concerts, which incorporated tapes sent from Japanese artists. But ultimately, Rising Mixes adds commercial gloss to an artistic element already present in the original: communication between Yoko's and Sean's generations.

Today, pop culture seems more fragmented and cynical than in the '60s, but Ono remains optimistic. "Sean's generation of musicians own a rich history," she says. "In the old days, the pop world was one world, classical music was one world, and jazz was one world, with no communication between them. Now, musicians easily take ideas from one another." Asked if she'll continue to work with her son, she laughs: "He's at the point where he may be ready to do his own thing. It's almost like you're asking a woman who's just given birth if she's going to have another baby." That's the problem with end-of-interview questions: They attempt to predict the future. "Especially in my case," Ono says, "the future is always unpredictable."

Yoko Ono and IMA play Mon, March 18, at the Great American Music Hall; call 885-0750.

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Johnny Ray Huston

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