Nearly 30 years after the murder of her husband, John Lennon, Yoko Ono is still working on unfinished music she began before his tragic death. She has just released a new album entitled Yes, I am a Witch.
One of their last collaborations together, finished shortly before Lennon’s death, was Walking on Thin Ice. After his murder in 1980, Ono spurned requests by artists to remix the track.
“When John passed away, people came to me and said, ‘Can we remix Walking on Thin Ice?’ and I said no,” she tells me over the phone from New York. “I thought ‘How dare they say things like that? I don’t want even one note to be changed!’ That was [my] idea then.”
Fast-forward nearly three decades. Nowadays Ono is more open to having her work remixed by other artists. The new album features 17 classic Ono tracks reworked and remixed by several contemporary indie artists including Peaches, Le Tigre and the electronica artist Orange Factory, who asked to remix her 1971 song Open Your Box.
“I was not very keen about it,” Oko confides, “but when they did it, when I heard it, I was crying because it was so beautiful. I said ‘Okay, well I forgot my spirit. Let’s go back to my spirit.’”
That collaboration and others helped bring her back to her musical roots.
After Lennon died, she explains, she had this belief that all her subsequent work should be left unfinished. “Two Virgins was called Unfinished Music Number 1, and the next album was called Unfinished Music Number 2. I was all sort of like laying out that situation conceptually and then I totally forgot about that.”
Ono made her entire catalogue of songs and outtakes available to a group of independent artists for her new album.
“I didn’t actually know them,” she says. “Now I’m all into indie music and I really think I’m part of indie music from way back, really.”
The remixes on Yes, I am a Witch are tastefully done.
Walking on Thin Ice, redone by Spiritualized, sounds like a totally different song. Ono’s vocals meld with drums, electric guitar and synthesizer, gradually boiling down to acoustic guitar and then back again.
Perhaps the most striking remake is No One Can See Me Like You Do. It was remixed by Apples In Stereo using the famous wall of sound technique pioneered by Phil Spector and the Beatles. It was originally written and recorded following Lennon’s death. It’s packed with emotion, brilliantly captured as a cry to heaven lifted with bells and choirs. It’s something of a hymn.
One of the most fascinating remakes on the album is that of Everyman Has a Woman Who Loves Him. The new version, called Everyman Everywoman, by Blow Up, is infused with queer-themed lyrics.
The original lyrics were: “Every man has a woman who loves him… Every woman has a man who loves her.” However, in the new version the lyrics are reworked to “Every man has a man who loves him… every woman has a woman who loves her.”
The song was rewritten in response to efforts to pass constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage in the US.
Ono believes it’s up to the majority to stand up for the rights of minority populations, including gay and lesbian people. This is something that Lennon believed in too.
“John was always sort of saying things like, ‘This is one for the gays,’” she recalls. “For instance, when he writes or records a song he’d say, ‘Oh well we’re going to do this one for the gays.’ He was very good at that. He was heterosexual but a lot of people think maybe he wasn’t because he was always so protective of homosexuals. But so what?”
When I ask her why queer people in particular might like this album, she initially shrugs off the question saying that everyone should listen to it, regardless of gender or sexuality.
“I don’t like the word [queer],” she says.
“For you to say queer is probably okay,” she concedes. “I don’t think you guys are queer, I think you’re just a different… But so what? We all believe in some kind of sexuality that’s different from each other.
“It’s the other,” she continues. “I really have a lot of respect for the culture of the other, and so if the minorities are being attacked, of course I’m going to come out.”
The title of the album is Ono’s attempt at reclaiming another ‘other’ word that was initially meant as an insult. Yes, I am a Witch was the title of a song she wrote and produced in 1974. Friends dissuaded her from releasing it then because they feared for her safety.
“The atmosphere then was probably like that,” she remembers. “I tend to be too rebellious for my own good. The reason is because everyone was calling me a dragon lady and people were whispering, ‘Oh, she’s a witch! She uses candles!’ So the thing was ‘Okay! I am a witch!’ It was a sort of tongue-in-cheek kind of thing.”
Ono believes everyone has the potential to connect with their inner witch.
“All girls are witches and all guys are wizards,” she says. “I think the human race is a magical race of witches and wizards, and you know we shouldn’t be upset about that. We should be proud of the fact we are such an incredible race of people.”
About five minutes after we hang up, Ono calls me back with a final thought on the CD’s gay themes.
“You ask me, ‘Why should queers listen to this album?’ I say: because it’s gay!” she says. “I think it’s good to say that because it gives a little sort of stamp of approval. What is it, a conspiracy? A stamp of conspiracy among minorities, you know.”