Thursday, March 12, 2015

Celebrating Women in Music: Yoko Ono

Sunday, March 8th was International Women's Day, an entire day dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women across the globe. Here at WUMB we are celebrating the contributions of women in music for the entire month of March. Today we highlight peace activist, multimedia artist, and songwriter, Yoko Ono. 

Yoko Ono is a controversial figure in 20th century popular culture. She is Japanese multimedia artist, singer, and peace activist, perhaps best known for being the life partner and widow of The Beatles' John Lennon . The two worked extensively on music, art, and activist causes throughout the late 60s and 1970s.

Ono was born on February 18, 1933, in Tokyo, Japan, the eldest of three children born to Eisuke and Isoko in a wealthy Japanese banking family. She remained in Tokyo through World War II, including the great firebombing of 1945. Ono was an excellent student and became the first woman admitted to study philosophy at Japan's Gakushuin University in 1952. Ono moved to New York City in 1953 to study at Sarah Lawrence College. After dropping out, she became involved in New York conceptual art movements in Greenwich Village. During the early '60s Ono's works were exhibited and/or performed at the Village Gate, Carnegie Recital Hall, and numerous New York galleries. Her work often demands the viewers' participation and forces them to get involved. Her most famous piece was the "cut piece" staged in 1964, where the audience was invited to cut off pieces of her clothing until she was naked, an abstract commentary on discarding materialism. In the mid-'60s she lectured at Wesleyan College and had exhibitions in Japan and London, where she met Lennon in 1966 at the Indica Gallery.

Lennon was taken with the positive, interactive nature of Ono’s work. He especially cited a ladder leading up to a black canvas with a spyglass on a chain, which revealed the word "yes" written on the ceiling. The two began an affair approximately 18 months later. Lennon soon divorced his first wife, Cynthia, and three days later he and Ono released Two Virgins. Because of the full-frontal nude photos of the couple on the jacket, the LP was shipped in a plain brown wrapper.

On March 20, 1969, Lennon and Ono were married in Gibraltar; for their honeymoon, they held their first "Bed-in for Peace," in the presidential suite of the Amsterdam Hilton. The peace movement was the first of several political causes the couple would take up over the years, but it was the one that generated the most publicity.

That May, in their suite at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, they recorded "Give Peace a Chance"; background chanters included Timothy Leary, Tommy Smothers, and numerous Hare Krishnas.

In September 1969, Ono, Lennon, Eric Clapton, Alan White, and Klaus Voormann performed live as the Plastic Ono Band in Toronto at a Rock 'n' Roll Revival show. The appearance was released as Live Peace in Toronto. In October the Plastic Ono Band released "Cold Turkey", which the Beatles had declined to record.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon continued their peace campaign with speeches to the press; "War Is Over! If You Want It" billboards erected on December 15 in 12 cities around the world, including Hollywood, New York, London, and Toronto; and plans for a peace festival in Toronto.

In April of 1970, Paul McCartney announced his departure from the Beatles and released a solo LP. From that point on The Beatles were no more, allowing Ono and Lennon to focus exclusively on their own partnership.

At the time, much attention was focused on Ono's alleged role in the band's end. A racist Esquire magazine piece was an extreme example of the decidedly anti-woman, anti-Asian backlash against Ono that she endured for years to come.

In late 1970 Lennon and Ono released their twin Plastic Ono Band solo LPs. Generally, Ono's '70s LPs were regarded as highly adventurous works. In late 1971Ono and Lennon had resumed their political activities, drawn to leftist political figures like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Their involvement was reflected on Some Time in New York City which included some of their most overtly political releases.

On October 9, 1975, Ono gave birth to Sean Ono Lennon. Beginning in 1975, Lennon devoted his full attention to his new son and his marriage, which had survived an 18-month separation from October 1973 to March 1975. For the next five years, the couple took care of Sean while Ono ran the couple's financial affairs.

In September 1980 Lennon and Ono signed a contract with the newly formed Geffen Records, and on November 15 they released Double Fantasy. But on December 8, 1980, Lennon, returning with Ono to their Dakota apartment on New York City's Upper West Side, was shot seven times by Mark David Chapman, a 25-year-old drifter and Beatles fan to whom Lennon had given an autograph a few hours earlier. Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. At Ono's request, on December 14 a 10-minute silent vigil was held in which millions around the world participated. At the time of his death, Lennon was holding in his hand a tape of Ono's "Walking on Thin Ice."

Three months after Lennon's murder, Ono released Season of Glass, an LP that deals with Lennon's death (his cracked and bloodstained glasses are shown on the front jacket), although many of the songs were written before his shooting. Season of Glass is the best known of Ono's solo LPs; it was the first to receive attention outside avant-garde and critical circles.

In 1982 Ono released It's Alright, Milk and Honey (featuring six songs apiece by Lennon and Ono), and Starpeace. During the Starpeace Tour, Ono performed behind the Iron Curtain, in Budapest, Hungary. Following a 1989 retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum, Ono's artwork found a new audience and has since been shown continuously throughout the world. In the wake of renewed appreciation for Ono's work, a box set Onobox was released in 1992 followed by a re-release of the entire Ono catalogue. In 1994 she wrote a rock opera entitled New York Rock, which ran off-Broadway for two weeks to largely positive reviews. Clearly autobiographical, the play was a love story featuring songs from every phase of her recording career.

Ono has continued to pursue her career, recording albums, performing concerts in addition to maintaining careful watch over the Lennon legacy.

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