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An Ode to Yoko Ono: An Approximately Infinite Universe

March 10, 2021

Yoko Ono doesn’t get the respect she deserves. Sure, collectively most people are becoming aware of her once deemed as sinister now recognized as enlightening influence on her husband. And of course, it’s a known fact that she contributed to changing the game in the art world during the 1960s. But I don’t think enough people are aware of how musically significant she was—not just the wailing and shrieking— but her lyrical poeticism, her precursor to dark, almost goth-like dancefloor vibes, her intellectual witticisms and interpretations of society, what she was trying to teach the world, and the scars that she revealed.

Yes, the wailing and shrieking are abrasive. It’s super harsh but it’s also just a woman having fun with music and experimenting with vocal sound. Nobody bitched about it when the B-52s did it years later on “Rock Lobster.” Yoko was a classically trained pianist and found herself intertwined with the jazz scene of 1960s New York. She had critical awareness and knowledge of what makes a good song, a solid structure, and memorable melodies. The jazz movement was all about breaking apart notions of what classically trained musicians had been taught and Yoko did that with her music. She’s a conceptual artist first and foremost, and she brought that thinking into her music.

She wasn’t the first by a long shot. Experimental music of the avant-garde had its roots in the early 20th century, developing further by the 1940s with the advancement of technological sound. The art and music scenes of the era continually deconstructed sonics then put them back together again, and Yoko Ono found herself in the scene where the notion of questioning what is music and sound was explored. The influence of which expanded the mind of my soul mate and best friend, John Lennon.

Their first work of art together, the album Two Virgins, is a test of the listener’s patience. It’s not to be heralded as some underrated masterpiece, because it’s not. As lovers of both artists separately and together, I’ve only ever been able to handle a few minutes of it straight through. But Two Virgins is two people falling in love with a head full of booze and god knows what other drugs, turning each other on by playing a theater-like exercise of intimate bonding. The two are reacting to one another, teasing each other’s patience, exploring their own, opening themselves up to one another simply by saying each other’s names a myriad ways into a microphone and making primal guttural noise. It’s the ultimate release and show of intimacy and because of that, it’s kind of beautiful.

John’s musical palette expanded with Yoko. In his solo years, he matured as a songwriter, lyricist, and guitarist. His music in the latter half of the 1970s is undoubtedly more measured but unsteady without his chief songwriting partner Paul McCartney, but away from the direct influence of Paul, Lennon’s music is powerful, dark, and groovy. Supplementing Yoko’s influence instead, his music took on a sensual and raw power. His first two solo albums alone are staples among the greatest of all time. The consistency of his output is rocky when during his split with Ono, though he still crafts some bangers during his ‘blue period.’ Then, Double Fantasy gave birth to this new man honing a sound that was all him (or them), unlike anyone else before or after. And together with Yoko, they once again made an excellent album with some of their best tracks.

Yoko’s music hit its strongest stride in the 1970s. Afterward, it’s debatable if it’s “good” or derivative, though Season of Glass is a beautifully somber and underrated album that I highly recommend more people listen to. Nevertheless, between Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, Fly, and Approximately Infinite Universe, I’d argue that Yoko is among the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Her music is sophisticated in its approach, dark when she intends it, light as a feather when she wants, and above all, she’s funny and always honest and pure. Approximately Infinite Universe made a huge impact in my life in 2020, marking a monumentally hard, existentially frightening time period that was sunset by my 33rd birthday. Yoko helped me through some rough moments by reminding me of my place in the universe and letting me into the hardships she had endured herself in her late 30s.

In the 1970s—a time of war, social conflict, government corruption, and environmental crisis— Yoko Ono was one of the most hated women in the world. According to the press, she broke up The Beatles and was manipulating John by her strange, foreign ways. Who did that witch think she was? Yoko was depressed, suicidal, addicted to heroin, and periodically feeling like she was losing her husband. It was during this period that she wrote and produced her 3rd solo album, Approximately Infinite Universe, a stark departure from the long-winded jam sessions and free jazz vocalizations of her previous recordings into raw, honest musings over adulating jazz-infused melodic pop. Her lyrics resemble transcribed diary pages but only from the mind of Yoko. They twist expectations and are intentionally playful and daft.

In “Looking Over from My Hotel Window” she sings about regret for years of abortions, a series of decisions that along with her age and health issues made it hard to conceive with John during their honeymoon period. The two famously recorded and released Life with Lions after Yoko had been hospitalized following a miscarriage. The depression from the situation is also reflected on in “Death of Samantha,” a chilling song in which Ono grapples with guilt, sadness, and an attempt to keep up good spirits.

When I’m with people, I thank god
I can talk hip when I’m crying inside
When I’m with friends, I thank god
I can light a cigarette when I’m choking inside

She’s a woman of great eccentricities and active mechanisms of the mind. One of my favorite songs on the album is “Kite Song,” in which she sings about a symbolic kite that followed her around when she was a child, something that gave her peace and security, but one day it disappeared. Ono was a child in Tokyo, Japan, during WWII and suffered from extreme hunger. I like to think this imaginary kite gave her hope in dark times. In the song, she talks about seeing that kite again and watching it in awe as it came back to her surprise. As a child of abuse, I grew up with my own imaginary masses of thought that gave me comfort, my own “kite.” Often times throughout my life, I’ve felt that I’ve lost that “thing” only to find it again, bringing back a feeling of security and self-assuredness. It’s a song that’s unique to a particular experience and it cuts at the heart. Similarly, so does the raucous track “What Did I Do!” in which she searches for something that she’s not even sure what it is, but the search is urgent. This thing has to be found now! Who hasn’t experienced that in their soul? In their heart of hearts? I’m currently attempting to live abroad to look for it. I don’t know what “it” is but I feel compelled to find it.

Ono is a woman who opened her wounds in her art, airing out her personal dirty laundry in her songs. In “What a Bastard the World Is,” she documents a fight between herself and John after he’s come home late one night. Like the words from a personal diary, she recalls laying in bed, chain-smoking, and unable to sleep when he finally arrives. She tries to play it cool: ‘Oh yeah, you couldn’t call? I don’t care.’ Then she gets mad. She starts berating him: ‘You pig, you jerk. I can get someone else.’ Then when he turns to leave, she breaks down: ‘Don’t leave. I’m sorry. I need you.’ She’s vulnerable, hurt, and scared. Then she’s forgiving. Some witch, huh?

Lennon’s exploits with other women while married to Cynthia and then Yoko are well documented. He was a rock god in his prime and at peak virility during the 1960s and ‘70s. He was conditioned to roll around in the filth of misogyny, though he came to recognize and correct the error in his ways. Yoko extrapolates on this in “What a Bastard” and in “I Want My Love to Rest Tonight,” in which she urges women all over to recognize that men have been brainwashed by the patriarchy, too. There’s an unlearning that has to happen, but we first have to recognize it’s there.

Sisters, don’t blame your man to much
You know he’s doing his best
You know his fear and loneliness
He can do no more, no less
He was told by his mothers to never trust girls
He was told by his fathers to never shed tears
He sees girls chasing after superstars
While their men are sitting behind bars

Yoko also talks about their drug addiction in “Peter the Dealer” and the hours of waiting on dealers to deliver whatever goods they needed: sunshine and spring in the form of LSD-laced orange juice; heroin or poke as she often refers to it; and of course, pot. She and John wasted time together decompressing from their stressful lives in which the media constantly lambasted their new love, their fight for social justice, and their hopes for peace. And yet, Yoko never asked anyone to feel sorry for her. She wasn’t seeking pity. She just wanted to be heard. And society refused to listen. They continued to paint her as some gold-digging opportunist who only wanted to sell John’s legacy for money. Nothing she could do after Lennon’s untimely death could appease the doubters and naysayers.

The Yoko-haters always complain about her choices when keeping Lennon’s legacy alive. I always want to ask people, what would you do if the love of your life, the person you thought you’d be with forever was taken away from you? You’d continue their legacy for the rest of your life, in your way and in a way that you thought they’d want, right? I think she’s done that beautifully. In “Air Talk,” she manages to express her optimistic view of life. Despite the miscarriages, the guilt, regret, racism, and sexism she faced on top of the hate, the anger, the jokes, and the drugs, Yoko she still had a sense of humor and she still saw the good in the world. I’ll end this in Yoko’s words from “Air Talk”:

“It’s sad that life is such a heavy thing to bear
No matter how close we are it’s easy to despair.
[But] It’s also nice that you and I know it’s what we all share
No matter how far apart we are we can learn to care.

There’s something very nice to have something to share
There’s something very nice to have someone to care
We may not share our bodies but we have our minds to share”

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