Catching up with Yoko


Question: Who is the most famous Japanese personality in the world?

I’d have to say Yoko Ono, although Ichiro Suzuki is now giving her a run for her money — but only in Japan and the United States, whereas Ono is known all over the planet.

Ono would not have achieved anything like the degree of fame she enjoys were it not for her marriage to John Lennon — which has always made her much-vaunted feminism pretty bogus as far as I’m concerned. I see it as an ideological smoke screen designed to distract attention from the fact that she comes from a branch of the Yasuda zaibatsu, and from the inconvenient fact that she had to marry a famous guy to become famous herself.

Ono has undoubtedly manipulated her late husband’s legacy for her own purposes. For example, she is believed to have pocketed up to 350,000 UK pounds (around 62.3 million yen) for allowing Absolut Vodka to use the naked image of her and John Lennon from their “Two Virgins” album cover in a recent ad.

Ono has also made scads of money over the years by selling off Lennon memorabilia. She put his birth certificate up for auction, fetching 1,500 UK pounds (267,000 yen). Even the erotic drawings Lennon gave Ono as a wedding present went under the auctioneer’s gavel, selling for 3,500 UK pounds (623,000 yen) each.

At the same time, I think Ono had a positive effect on Lennon’s life and art. She helped him see himself as something other than a Beatle and, by introducing him to feminism (whatever her motives), she provided a much-needed corrective to the male chauvinism that permeated the rock culture of the 1960s, despite all its revolutionary pretensions.

It’s also fair to say, though, that Ono would never have embarked on her on-again, off-again career as a recording artist unless she’d been Lennon’s wife. In fact, Lennon actively encouraged her to explore this medium. In retrospect, his confidence — in the face of almost universal hostility and noncomprehension — that the world would catch up with her music seems to have been well-placed.

Which brings us to Ono’s latest album, “Blueprint for a Sunrise,” her first in six years. “Challenging” is the word that springs immediately to mind on listening to this collection of 13 pieces (two are Japan-only bonus tracks); this is not easy-listening music.

The overall tone of the work is confrontational, angry and jarring. On “Is This What We Do,” the powerful third track, Ono compares the way women are treated by society to the way humans rape and pillage the Earth — something of a cliche, to be sure, but she gets the point across succinctly and convincingly.

The track “Mulberry,” which was recorded live, consists mainly of Ono’s trademark shrieks, warblings and ululations, prefaced by a spoken introduction in which she describes how she collected mulberry leaves for her and her brother and sister to eat while they were living in the countryside in wartime Japan. It’s down-to-the-bone, deeply felt stuff, and Ono’s visceral passion makes up for the song’s lack of subtlety.

The next track, “I Remember Everything,” is a fairly conventional ballad, marred by horrific lines like “In the morning I miss your eyes/In the evening I miss your thighs.” Ouch. Of course we all know she’s singing about Lennon, and the poignancy of the sentiment allows the listener to forgive Ono’s lyrical ineptitude.

The musicians supporting her on “Blueprint,” including her son Sean Lennon, are unobtrusive but effective, no easy thing to do when working with a larger-than-life character like Ono. Her undeniable charisma and feistiness make the album a surprisingly satisfying listening experience, even if the most lasting impression after digesting the album is that poor old Ono, despite all her wealth and fame, is a rather unhappy person. But of course that’s part and parcel of being an Artist, isn’t it?

The cover art for “Blueprint” shows Ono’s face superimposed on a portrait of China’s Dowager Empress Tz’u-hsi. “I wish you would read about the last Chinese Empress who became the first ‘Dragon Lady,’ a name specially coined for her by the British Press at that time, fueling Britain’s then colonialism,” Ono writes in her liner notes. “She died disgraced and brokenhearted. Every day I tell myself, I’ll survive. Yeah, I will.”

While Ono’s animosity toward the British press is certainly understandable — its coverage of her has often been less than flattering — it’s too bad that she has chosen Tz’u-hsi as her role model. Although “The Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women” notes that “the efforts of Tz’u-hsi, ‘the Dragon Empress,’ to preserve imperial China by resisting reform helped to ensure that she was its last effective ruler.” It goes on to say that she “almost certainly ordered the simultaneous deaths by poisoning of the young emperor and empress the day before she died in 1908.”

But you have to wonder how many other 68-year-old Japanese female performers would take the kind of artistic chances Ono does. I give her full marks for having the guts to bare her soul in public. Ono may be wacky, but she deserves respect.