Outsideleft's entire London team were sitting in the lobby of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on June 16th, in good company, awaiting the celebration of William Burroughs which was about to take place in the Hall as part of Patti Smith's Meltdown festival.
Meltdown is an annual concept wherein rock stars (and others) popular with people who were young 20 or 30 years ago are invited to curate a cultural festival focused on music but straggling off into the areas of film, spoken word, and art. David Bowie made a diamond dogs' dinner of the job a couple of years ago and, last year, Morrissey's Meltdown resulted in an in-the-nick-of-time reformation of the New York Dolls while there was still a quorum left alive. Smith, as befits a woman whose remit is broad and attractive (seminal rock woman, authentic second wave Beat Generationer, anti-Bush polemicist), has chosen wisely. Amongst the many features of her Meltdown, she has brought the remnants of the LES/Chelsea Hotel/Nova Convention counterculture crowd to London in the form of Richard Hell, John Giorno, and Yoko Ono.
As the outsideleft crew (Lake, Henderson Downing, and me) waited to attend PAGES FROM CHAOS - A Homage to William Burroughs (an experience none of us would soon forget) I mentioned that I was going to see Yoko Ono the following night in the same venue "What exactly do you think she'll be doing?" somebody asked. It was a fair enough question. The programme just stated her name with no hint as to what she'd be up to. "Will she just sit there staring at the audience for two hours?" "She has a band going now with Sean." "Maybe she'll just have a couple of German technofags with her and do an hour long remix of Walking on Thin Ice."
That night, on my way home, I remembered that she'd recently done a performance which involved her sitting on the stage and inviting the audience to cut all her clothes off of her until she was naked. This seemed pretty cool, especially for a woman in her early seventies. Just so long as I didn't have to touch her.
Whatever else I was going to see, I was going to see one of the most famous women in the world, a woman who, in a competitive field, was one of the great beauties of the late Twentieth Century.
The crowd was mixed. Not too many grubby demented Beatles fans, a lot of fit young Japanese boys and girls, and an indefinable mixed bag of working artists, thirtysomething couples, rock guys, and cool chicks.
I was immediately reassured by the sight, on the stage, of a full drum kit, a keyboard, and guitar amps. It looked like she was going to do music of some sort.
The lights went down, on walked the musicians, the show commenced. The music kicked off with some offensively inoffensive NYc-style, Peter Gabriel-style, instrumental stuff, largely sampled percussion and bird noises. Then Yoko stumbled towards the mike, her head covered by a small black sack, this harking back to the Bagism performances she and Lennon did with the Plastic Ono Band long ago when she was still coming out of the Fluxus movement. This worked well because the audience behaved in an idiot way, only applauding her arrival when she removed the sack from her head, although it'd been obvious for five minutes that the petit figure at the mike stand was the lady they'd all paid to see.
She sang her way through an hour long set featuring material some people might be familiar with. The band, lead by son Sean, were very good in that sophisticated New York post-punk way. Her vocals, with extensive use of shrill mouth music and ululations that would've put the unfortunate harridans of the Palestinian Intafada to shame, punctuated the rhythms attractively and resourcefully. Her rendition of the Plastic Ono Band's Why? drove the music into an extreme sonic place that I found very comfortable.
And, above all, for so many people in the crowd, there she was. In the flesh. Most of the night she danced nimbly around the stage like a teenage girl in some small basement club as 4am. I couldn't help thinking that this exuberant lady, at 73, was older than my mother was when she died. I guess some of her fitness is down to the fact that she inherited one of the biggest fortunes in rock, and therefore can afford to look and feel good, but I don't think it's just that. Lennon, like Keith Richards with Anita Pallenberg or Jagger with Bianca, chose Yoko from all the women in the world who were throwing themselves at his feet. She was always very special; attractive, perky, good fun, and smart.
The technofags eventually manifested themselves but they didn't come from Germany. For her encore she was joined by the Pet Shop Boys and did Walking on Thin Ice, as remixed - amid considerable commercial success - by Danny Tenaglia and the aforementioned Boys. By then she was drinking a fair bit of water and feeling the vocal strain but she danced on like the hearty trouper she obviously is.
Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.