So hence was the challenge: actually trying to set aside the twinkly stargazing and listen to the Widow Ono’s music for itself. (Overheard in audience: “I heard that Julian and Sean recently reconciled!”) This too was made more difficult by the lineup of hipster faces who popped up all throughout this quasi-Hal Willner evening: Mike Watt, Iggy Pop, Nels Cline, Perry Farrell, the RZA, Yuka Honda and Yoko's only son Sean Ono Lennon, who quadrupled-duty on guitar, bass, piano, creator, musical director and de facto master of ceremonies. Lennon even adopted a Garrison Keillor persona and spun some tales about his enviable childhood, including a memorable dinner party given by his mother where Phil Spector and Iggy Pop almost came to blows.
The Coolest Mom in the World and son
But, of course, the evening was all about feting Mom. (Let’s face it, she’s reached “first name only” recognition: we can just say ‘Yoko’ and everybody on the planet – save for a few caves in Waziristan and a few hollers in Arkansas – knows who we mean.) The night began with a mélange of images culled from her many experimental films, including the infamous Bottoms (1966), Cut Piece (1965) and the aforementioned Fly (1970) and testimonials from the likes of music critic Robert Palmer and actress Ann Magnuson. In the mix, of course, was the Great Man himself, lounging on a patio chair, steering a rowboat for his bride, picking up and twirling his son. The period at the end of that sentence, of course, was the single shot of John Lennon’s bloody and cracked glasses from the cover of Ono’s Season’s of Glass (1981). This is when the widow made her appearance before the black curtains, bathed in a single spotlight like Sally Bowles in Cabaret, and sang “It Happened” a cappella, the meaning and weight of which no one in earshot could possibly question.
All night, Yoko was like a tiny, demented and very fashionable goblin. Dressed all in black in what looked to be a velour running suit under a small coat, a jaunty cap tilted on her head and black ovoid sunglasses dipped on her nose, she pranced like a herky-jerky Celine back and forth across the stage before the first house band to carry the moniker “Plastic Ono Band” since 1973. It was an ever-changing ensemble made up of a music snob’s wet dream: besides young Sean (in a circus-barker’s top hat) on bass, L.A. prodiguitarist Nels Cline played a stolid and quirky G.E. Smith to keyboardist Yuka Honda’s Paul Shaffer; San Pedro punk godfather Mike Watt hobbled out on crutches with a brace on his left leg and literally sat in on bass and was occasionally replaced by a glowering Haruomi “Harry” Hosono (oddly, playing a Paul McCartney-style Hofner bass) of the Yellow Magic Orchestra. The core P.O.B. was made up of the touring lineup for Japanese cut-and-splice popsters Cornelius, and one couldn’t help noting what a perfect fit these energetic young freakazoids were to the task, particularly the eerie sonar squonks produced by guitarists Hirotaka “Shimmy” Shimizu and Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada (who did double duty on keyboards). Then there was the amazing moppet-haired drummer Yuko “Mi-gu” Araki. Her muscular, thunderous timekeeping was like a barnacle-encrusted anchor for a demanding and eclectic set of songs.
The key to the evening was groove. Whether it be blues or spacey funk or testy electronic pop, Ono’s songs in both sets were made quite irresistible by their distinctive, even danceable, pulses. The most famous example is her 1981 single “Walking on Thin Ice”* (the last song she and Lennon recorded before his murder), which in its original form carried a pop-friendly disco beat that translates well to our modern Lady-Gagaed ears. (Was it any wonder that Miss Gaga herself was a guest for the show’s second night?) Over it all, natch, was Ono’s famous arsenal of tribal wails, chants, yelps and mewls that she splatted like thrown paints over the hard-charging aggressions of the band. (She even has one -- the immortal “aaawhoooaaaha!” – that is recognizable enough to be a ringtone.) True this: nobody but Ono could get away with this Japanese version of scat-singing. Also true: There is a method and a science to it, exhibited perfectly by a duet between Ono and Mr. Cline on “Mulberry” (a song derived from Ono’s memories of Japan during WWII) who threw sounds at each other across the stage like they were John Henry and the steam engine.
*NerdNote: I once saw a 1986 performance of this song from Yoko’s Terminator-goggled Starpeace tour with a crack band that included guitarists Mark Rivera and Jimmy Rip, keyboardist Phil Ashley, bassist Leigh Fox and drummer Bennie Gramm – after which she happily told the crowd: “Okayyyy, you can take out your earplugs now!”
The second set ranged from the unforgettable to the incoherent – a nice mix! There was: Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s bizarre supper-club performance, complete with tux and tails and two dancing goils with paper angel wings; The Tune-yards (featuring the extraordinary vocals of Merrill Garbus) lighting into an Africanized deconstruction of “We’re All Water”; Carrie Fisher’s surprisingly strong Music Hall go-round on "What A Bastard the World Is", with her vocals sounding not unlike Marianne Faithful; Sean Lennon and “my friend from The Dakota” (and Paul Simon’s son) Harper Simon dueting on a sighing “Oh Yoko!”; Ono and The RZA facing each other in a silent-frieze chess match before the latter took the mic for a dark and turgid "See The Joy"; Vincent Gallo, in white fringe jacket and big Pee-Wee Herman boots, sitting down to lend a Chet Baker croon to “I’m Going Away Smiling”; Perry Farrell’s indecipherable disco-fried take on “The Sun Is Down.” And then there was Sir Iggy.
"A surprise party for me? I'll kill ya! Whose idea was this?"
Iggy and the Stooges released their sludgy, primal debut in 1969, the same year the original P.O.B. released their primal, sludgy Live Peace in Toronto. The fact that Ono and The Igster have never shared a stage before seemed absurd. They embraced onstage like the two old friends they were, only to break into their own spastic dances as Iggy took the lead vocals for the uptown punk smersh of “Waiting for the D Train.” It took Iggy about 20 seconds to shed his black dinner jacket and go shirtless-caveman all over the stage while Ono circled around him like a deranged Tinkerbell. It was also Iggy the Politician who made one of the funniest additions to the closer of the evening “Give Peace A Chance,” rapping about the Meg Whitman housekeeper scandal and asking “Is Jerry Brown a good guy? I don’t know!” Ms. Ono directed the audience to raise the tiny ‘Onochord’ flashlights handed out before the show. Then she did something unexpected: she apologized. “If I have hurt you, I am sorry. I didn’t mean it,” she told the audience. “I love you all.” What the hell could we say?