Sometime after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday – eleven hours into Danny Tenaglia’s marathon set at the Winter Music Conference in Miami – 10,000 tweaked-out clubgoers are gyrating to the D.J.’s dirty beats and the guttural, faux-gasmic wails of a 69-year-old Japanese woman.
Standing atop a speaker wearing a white suit and sunglasses, Yoko Ono delivers each line of the song in her trademark warble – “Opeeeen your boooox! … Opeeeen your leeeegs! … Opeeeen your mouuuuth!” – as a sea of dilated pupils stares up in disbelief.
In one of those strange pop-cultural backflips, Ono’s latest project, a collection of club remixes of tracks from her famously perplexing catalogue, finds her in the sweat-soaked center of electronic dance music – a place where she may finally get the artistic respect (not to mention chart success) that has eluded her for so long.
“I feel like I’ve been given a lifeline,” Ono says of the project. “The people who enjoy my work in the clubs are not connecting with me because I’m from some incredible empire or something but because they know I was an outsider and they feel close to me – there’s a comradeship.”
Ono’s sitting in her apartment in the Dakota, shoes off. The most famous co-op in rock-and-roll history is strictly a “sock environment,” her assistant, Curt, informed me before we shuffled down a long hallway – past Warhol portraits of Lennon and an Egyptian sarcophagus – and into a kitchen larger than the average two-bedroom. Ono looks more 49 than 69, but denies British tabloid charges that she’s had work done: “I guess it’s sort of a compliment?”
Referring to her newfound fans (many of whom are gay), she adds, “They know my history of being attacked all the time – ostracized is the word. I mean, everything in the world was done to me!”
Back in 1960, when the Beatles were still just an opening act in Liverpool, Ono was an established force in the downtown avant-garde scene, a pioneer of the Fluxus movement that included composer John Cage. But after her 1969 marriage to John Lennon, she quickly became a cartoon: the caterwauling, band-wrecking Dragon Lady. “It is quite likely that having John Lennon fall in love with her was the worst thing that could have happened to Yoko Ono’s career,” wrote the critic Robert Palmer.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the late eighties that a new generation of music critics (with significantly less Beatles baggage) returned to albums like 1970’s Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and credited her for inspiring the cacophonous sound of bands like Sonic Youth and the B52’s. “Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band was greeted with such incredible hatred!” Ono exclaims. “I mean, I was like 30 years ahead of my time!”
In fact, Ono has long been appreciated in clubland for her “Walking on Thin Ice” (a 1981 fusion of disco and funk that was her final collaboration with Lennon). And after the remix of “Open Your Box” – a raunchy paean to self-liberation that was banned in the U.K. in 1971 – hit the club charts in November, her co-producer, Rob Stevens, approached her with the idea of assembling an entire album, due out sometime in 2003. The next single, “Kiss Kiss Kiss” – off Ono and Lennon’s 1980 Double Fantasy – will be released July 15.
But no matter how much they love her at the Roxy, Ono will likely remain an easy target: “Yoko Ono in front of a microphone” was first on a recent Esquire list entitled “The 18 Least Fun Things in the World.”
Will the world ever forgive her? Paul McCartney certainly hasn’t. “We’re not friends, man,” he recently told a reporter.
“If Paul says something about me, there’s many people who will write to him saying, ‘Good for you! You said it!’ ” Ono responds. “There’s a whole group of people who like to egg him on. If nobody were applauding, maybe Paul might shut up!”
For the most part, though, Ono has chosen to ignore her critics. “Instead of fighting people saying terrible things about me,” she says. “I just kept wanting to create beautiful things. And maybe that was wrong, maybe I should have said something back to them. But that’s not how I lived.” She pauses. “Does that make any sense?”