Woman: The Incredible Life of Yoko Ono

Woman: The Incredible Life of Yoko Ono was published in 2004 and is comprised of four parts: the first three concentrated on a specific time period in Ono’s life and the fourth part focussed on Ono’s art and music. Three authors shared the writing of these four parts and all of them, Alan Clayson, Barb Jungr and Robb Johnson had me pulling my hair out over the superabundance of spelling errors and inaccuracies. While I am a fan of Ono’s music and writing, I dreaded slogging through another horrid biography. (I pilloried the 1987 biography Yoko Ono by Jerry Hopkins for the same reasons. If only authors would research their subjects.) Fans like me already know a lot about this remarkable woman, and we can detect errors in song titles or other details in Ono’s life like owls can detect rats in the dark. How difficult would it have been for any of the above authors to check their sources? I had my trepidations with this book as soon as the acknowledgements page when the authors credited Lennono Music for song lyrics. The correct spelling is Lenono Music. I knew from the start that this book would be another eye-rolling experience.

Clayson wrote about Ono’s life “Before John”: growing up in Japan, moving to New York and her first two husbands. I didn’t learn anything about Ono from any time in her life that I didn’t already know–perhaps because the book was a slight 195 pages–but also because the sloppy endnotes betrayed their evil sources, including the abhorrent Hopkins book among other tabloid fodder. Multiple endnotes were “To Paul Trynka”, thus repeated accreditations to another rock journalist. There was not a wide range of secondary sources for this biography.

It’s bad enough when one author’s name is on a book so ridden with spelling errors. This book has three authors, and no one caught the following embarrassments (most of them occurred within Clayson’s sections): symbollically, ominivorous, Berthold Brecht, Verfrtemdungtechnik, Julliard School of Music sparcely, Nietzche (these last three all on the same page), millenium, soliloquys, ekeing, loose for lose (twice), and the American Aspern Arts Society. What does a single spelling error convey? How about ten? With that number of spelling errors I am left with one picture: the author wrote his or her section at one sitting, taking no time to go over any details such as spelling and…well how about facts?

Song titles merely have to be copied correctly. Both “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” and “Men, Men” are wrong. While the B-52’s recorded a cover version of “Don’t Worry Kyoko” for their album Whammy!, the song did not appear on the Ono tribute album Every Man Has a Woman (which Clayson misidentified as Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him). In the third part, “After John”, Clayson (again!) screwed up the title of Ono’s documentary biography, going from calling it Yoko Ono Then And Now to Here And Now and then back to Then And Now, all on the same page. I own this documentary, and its title is Yoko Ono Then & Now. I can forgive the shortening in later references by leaving off Yoko’s name, and even the error of spelling out the ampersand in full (although it does not appear as such anywhere on the packaging or the videotape itself). But to call it Here And Now in the middle of calling it Then And Now? Editorially unforgivable.

What saves this book from a failing grade is Jungr’s section “Art and Music”, wherein she analyzes Ono’s music and albums. Among all the prejudice about Ono’s music and vocal stylings, Jungr is correct in the following assessment about Ono’s first forays into recorded music:

“And whether you like what she was doing or not, she was doing it first. It probably goes without saying that historically there aren’t many prizes for ‘doing it first’. Most people ‘doing it first’ seem to die in penury. So highly original, absolutely. And important? Yes. To the conceptualists Yoko was combining elements and introducing ideas which would long be taken up by other artists and she was doing so in a refreshing way, bringing concepts of the organic, the numinous and the spiritual together.”

Jungr wrote about every one of Ono’s albums, so it was a thorough analysis from her first experimental works with John onward. Jungr wrote at length about each song from her first two solo albums, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and Fly, two albums which have defined the Ono oeuvre. Yoko’s debut solo work, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, is a must-listen and is an aural assault. The power of her voice on the lead track, “Why”, is unprecedented in its violence as well as volume. John’s guitar and Yoko’s voice mix and you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. Yoko’s vocal cords and John’s fingers must have been bleeding after recording this song. Klaus Voormann’s bass and Ringo’s drumming thump to drive this song through the ceiling. “Why” is followed by the slower-paced “Why Not”, and Yoko’s voice takes on a different form:

“‘Why Not’ begins with Ono twittering, a sound like paper stuck in a fan, a ghostly Japanese priestess walking across an almost bluesy musical backing.”

I know the song “Why Not” well, and Jungr’s description of Yoko’s versatile voice is perfect.

A black-and-white photo spread occupied the middle of the book but, sadly, none of the photos were captioned. And the index was wholly useless. Ono herself was absent from the index, while for “Lennon, John”, there were about eighty page references with no descriptions about subject content. Read Woman only for Barb Jungr’s thorough analysis of Yoko Ono’s art and music.

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