Yoko Ono and IMA

Park West, March 10

Fluxus, that playful and profound 60s antiart movement, which has been described as “Zen slapstick,” claimed Yoko Ono as its own long before the rest of the world unjustly decided to hate her intriguing, poetic guts. In 1962, when one of her pieces commanded “Hit a wall with your head,” fellow Fluxist Dick Higgins authored a similarly pared-down performance titled Danger Music Number Seventeen. Higgins’s score, in its entirety: “Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream!”

A couple weeks ago at the Park West, Ono followed Higgins’s direction repeatedly, with spectacular results, cracking, “I didn’t promise you a rose garden, right?” Playing songs from her lovely new album, Rising, she lung-buttered up the crowd through a series of vocal eruptions that slid from the pure pain of deep shrieks into hollers so giddy that her eyes practically giggled out loud. The palpably sympathetic audience giggled and hollered right back. At one perfect moment, she performed an impromptu duet with a crying baby who so obviously spoke her language. No one knows what they said to each other, but Ono, who played Carnegie Hall back in ’61, could have been urging her miniature protege, “Practice, kid, practice.”

Ono’s multiinstrumentalist son, Sean Lennon, has been practicing, but not so much that it wrecks the mood. Like his fellow Fluxbaby Beck (whose late grandfather, Al Hansen, glued together remarkable collages out of Hershey wrappers), Lennon’s at home in any genre, playing thrash guitar one minute and blaxploitation sound track piano the next. His trio IMA back Ono, and they do it with guts and heart; Timo Ellis’s bass work is somehow effortless and tough at the same time, while drummer Russell Simins consistently stole the show, brutalizing his drums as if they were insulting his mother.

The audience laps up all of them, especially Sean. The once adorable bright-eyed boy, who was the most endearing figure in the Andy Warhol Diaries (not that there’s that much competition in the endearment department there), has grown up into such a sexy heartthrob I had to be careful not to slip on the pool of drool covering the floor. A chorus line of Wisconsin Onoheads at my rear drove for hours after reading about the show on-line on something called the “Ononet.” One gushes early on, “I saw Sean on my way back from the bathroom! He’s sooooo cute!” Still, they reserve their loudest accolades for Ono herself.

After decades of sexist, racist press, no one deserves a little adulation more than Ono. She conjures up a quiet, poignant version of “Will I,” a spoken word list of questions wondering what she’ll miss when she’s dead–skies, moon, love. On the record it doesn’t really work, sounding more like a trite suicide note than the bare-bones wisdom it offers live, with Sean’s bowed saw droning and bending underneath.

As “Will I” winds down into silence, a woman near me murmurs, “Beautiful,” and the drums kick hard into “Wouldnit,” a flashy, funky romp in which Ono slyly concedes, “Wouldn’t it be nice / To be a heroine.” With this doting crowd she finds out. In fact, the love vibe is so strong it’s scary. Rising’s title cut, as the name suggests, is built for climax, her voice ascending out of melancholy guitars with the lights down low, climbing into something like 15 repetitions of an amalgamated vowel sound until she reaches the operatic glee of an actual word–“rising.” Meanwhile, two members of Jesus Lizard show up onstage to add to the commotion, Sean’s backing vocals keep insisting “ri-sing-uh,” and Ono holds her hand above her head like a Baptist about to testify. The audience, I assume in a show of solidarity, raise their fists in response. But the effect is frightening, historical–dozens of arms raised in the air, rally-style. Ono quickly changes the fists into peace signs, for my money an equally creepy display. I turn around and all the Wisconsinites are holding both arms high, as if at gunpoint. “Have courage,” she demands. “Have rage.” Just as I sneer at the words “We’re all together,” Ono hisses, “Ha! Ha! Ha!” so that I’m not sure if she’s bestowed a blessing or a curse.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.