Feeling Yoko Ono’s Space

Shirley Manson, La Marisoul, Saint Vincent, and Madame Gandhi will be among the artists paying tribute to Yoko Ono at the Walt Disney Concert Hall tomorrow night (March 22) for BREATHEWATCHLISTEN, part of the Fluxus Festival, copresented by Girlschool LA. I wrote the following to accompany the 2017 rerelease of  Ono’s album 1973 Feeling the Space.

Like many of the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators parading through downtown Los Angeles at the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, the young woman with pink streaks in her hair carried a handmade sign expressing its carrier’s personal sentiment. On the day after the  presidential inauguration ignited a massive global protest, this marcher waved a distinctly original three-word message: In block letters on black paper it read, “Yoko Sent Me.”

The fact that the once-reviled Yoko Ono is inspiring a new generation of activists comes as no surprise if you’ve listened to Feeling the Space, her personal-is-political 1973 album that resonates remarkably 44 years later. On such songs as the righteous chant “Woman Power,” the empathetic ballad “Angry Young Woman,” the hilarious proto-grrrl “Potbelly Rocker” and the satirical “Men Men Men,” Ono sings in surprisingly straightforward fashion about the burdens carried by women and the mandate for feminism. Supported by such skilled studio vets as guitarist David Spinozza, sax player Michael Brecker, and drummer Jim Keltner, this is perhaps Yoko’s most accessible album, and her most intimate. Feeling the Space was recorded during the time of the infamous “lost weekend,” when the avant visionary artist became estranged from her rock-star husband John Lennon. He plays only briefly on the album (billed as Johnny O’cean); she produced and wrote all the songs.

The album’s sheer musicality should have shut up the detractors who denied her abilities. Yes, she sings; the album contains only a few examples of the atonal vocal experiments for which she became famous. Mostly, Yoko’s pain and vulnerability, and also her declaration of independence, are communicated simply and gingerly, as if she were still sorting out very strong emotions that needed clear expression, not, this time, the purging power of a wail. “Run Run Run,” a gentle tune from which the album gets its title, is almost like a directed meditation, as a woman explores the territory that opens around her, that she forces open, as she takes flight (to a splendid keyboard dance by Ken Ascher). Ono was literally feeling her space. But rather than striking a separatist vibe, this album is also notable for the quality of the singer’s collaboration with the musicians, the way the male instrumentalists answer her articulations with stirring solos, and her call and response with the female vocalists, the sisters who have her back.

The result is a definitive soundtrack/document of the era of consciousness raising and of radical critique of the family structure. Yoko and company deliver this hard message soft rock style, or as soft as Yoko could get – think of Feeling the Space as Tapestry with talons, or the second-wave godmother of Lemonade. Yoko was inspired by the women’s liberation movement – it freed her from the burden of being a celebrity wife. Dedicated “to the sisters who died in pain and sorrow and those who are now in prisons and in mental hospitals for being unable to survive in the male society,” it’s an emotional exploration of the psychological toll of oppression.

As an extra track in this reissue and also in the 1992 Ono box set, there’s a live version of the eternally prescient “Coffin Car” – as spectacularly right-on a song as her spouse ever wrote. In its prologue, she tells a humbling story about how the intense pressure on her as a Beatles wife – and an artsy, foreign, weirdo wife to boot — caused her to develop, in her 30s, a stutter. She’s humble and humorous in her famous childlike accent, seeking not pity but to explain by example the cultural damnation of women — n words of the world, as she and John sang.

At the International Women’s Conference organized by the National Organization of Women in 1973, Yoko met an attendee from the Midwest who had left her husband and children. This figure inspired one of this album’s best tracks, “Angry Young Woman,” as well as, one guesses, Yoko’s own separation from John. The banker’s daughter sings with impressive understanding about the everyday struggles of women in families: the way a demand for a shirt or dinner can become a daily insult, a reminder of patriarchal servitude, of domestic “duty.” After all, who more than Yoko suffered the sexist – and racist – derision of 20th century culture, both Western and Eastern (no refuge for Yoko!).

Yet one of the qualities that makes Yoko Yoko is her eternal optimism. “There’s no way back, so just keep walking,” she tells the “Angry Young Woman.” “When you turn the corner you’ll see the new world.” It’s a message of encouragement that, tragically, is as needed in 2017 as in 1973. The young women are still walking, sent by Yoko.

 

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WWR on Muses and Stuff Podcast

Congrats to Chantel Leah and Lynx O’Leary, the wonderfully named hosts of the Muses and Stuff Podcast, for their 100th episode, which focuses on Women Who Rock! There was a glitch with the podcast but you can listen to the correct version on their website: https://bit.ly/2ItE3Zx

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Turn It Up!

TIU

Liz Warner, Allison Wolfe, Kate Nash, Solvej Schou, Evelyn McDonnell and Mar Sellars at Turn It Up! mixer. Photo by Lucretia Tye Jasmine.

What happens when 50 female-identified musicians, DJs, journalists, scholars, publicists, sound engineers, podcasters, etc., come together in a subterranean hotel bar on a rainy Superbowl Sunday? “I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky come tumbling down.” On Sunday, February 3, Turn It Up!, a collective of women working in the music industry that has been meeting since December, had our coming-out party at the Hotel Figueroa. It was an invitation-only mixer — an initial step to broaden our base as we take aim at gender inequality in the music industry. The feeling in the room was electric, the ideas that came out of small brain-storming sessions were provocative. A change is gonna come.

Alice Bag, Lynnée Denise, and Shana L. Redmond

Turn It Up! evolved out of a special December issue of KPFK’s Feminist Magazine Radio show. Valecia Phillips interviewed myself and six contributors to Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. Inspired by each other’s stories about the musicians they profiled for the book, we decided we didn’t want this to be the, er, final chapter of our work together. As Alice Bag said Sunday, Women Who Rock is “the big, hard, pink seed” that must be planted and grow.

The mixer was a tremendous first sprout. Opening up our “rolodexes,” our steering committee — Alice, Adele Bertei, Allison Wolfe, Lynnée Denise, Mukta Mohan, dIA hakinna, Shana L. Redmond, Solvej Schou, Valecia Phillips, Lucretia Tye Jasmine, and me — were able to draw a pretty impressive group of artists, scholars, writers, workers, engineers, publicists, and activists, including Phranc, Lysa Flores, Kate Nash, Anna Bulbrook, Carla Bozulich, Anna Joy Springer, Abby Travis, CJ Miller of Dimber, and Katie Gavin and Naomi McPherson of MUNA. There were representatives of other rad feminist warriors, including SoundGirls, 50/50 by 2020, the Kilroys,turn it upGirlschool, and Chicas Rockeras, as well as folks from KXLU, Fly PR, Girlie Action, etc. My favorite moment was when the hotel’s staff couldn’t figure out how to get the microphone working, so Kathleen Hanna got up and fiddled with the cables, and voila, sound. Turn it up!

Turn It Up! somewhat coincidentally happens to be the name of a great song about self-expression by Alice Bag: “You’ve made a playlist and it’s locked inside your head, Toss it out play something new instead.” In just two months, we’ve got a name, an anthem, and a logo: the women’s symbol with the computer icon for volume inside it. We’ve also got a mission statement:

“Turn It Up! is a collective working toward gender parity in music. We advocate for equal airplay, media coverage and industry employment of groups who are historically and structurally excluded from the business and the institutions of music-making. Women WILL be heard.”

The Hotel Figueroa generously housed us and donated a fabulous spread including warm cookies. The building has a feminist history, having been built as a YWCA and served as the first place where women traveling alone could find lodging in downtown LA. Sunday we plotted the next steps for change, breaking up into small groups that brainstormed a number of ideas to put our mission into motion. Stay tuned for further developments.

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Music’s #MeToo Memoirs

I’m way late posting this here (it was a hectic fall!) but I reviewed Tina Turner’s and Dorothy Carvello’s memoirs for The New York Times. “There has been a steady stream of accounts of assault, harassment and discrimination in recording studios, at record labels and at music magazines; pick up any autobiography of a female musician and you’ll find at least one anecdote that will turn your stomach. R. Kelly, the Runaways, Kesha — stories of abuse long preceded Harvey Weinstein, and continue to trigger news alerts. The real question should be, why haven’t these stories provoked more outrage against a form of oppression that is clearly systemic, along with a push for change?”

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Women Who Rock Over America

Adele Bertei. Photo by Lucretia Tye Jasmine. Tori Amos artwork by Lindsey Bailey

When I started editing Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, I knew we would be honoring a matrilineal history, but I didn’t know we would birth a sisterhood. During the two-year process of producing this book, my 30something contributors and I went through death, birth, divorce, band breakups, and band formations – not to mention the election and tyranny of a misogynist, racist pig. Some of these women I have known as dear friends for decades (love you Jana, Vivien, Ann!). Some I am still meeting. Getting to present with many of these writers during the WWR book tour has been powerful and empowering. We are making alliances and forging friendships.

Evelyn McDonnell. Photo by Solvej Schou

 

The last night of the tour on December 6 brought this all home, literally, to LA. I was honored to be joined by three gifted women at Beyond Baroque in Venice before a full house. I started the evening by reading the words of one of our New York-based sisters, Caryn Rose, who wrote about Beyond Baroque as the place where Exene Cervenka met John Doe, and “the world shifted on its axis.” Solvej Schou followed by talking about PJ Harvey, then belting Harvey’s 1993 song “Man-Size” – and when Solvej belts, you can hear her down the block. She also played her own recent composition, “America.”

Solvej Schou. Photo by Lucretia Tye Jasmine. PJ Harvey artwork by Anne Muntges

 

Thoughtful, funny, personal, philosophical, DJ Lynnee Denise described her odyssey of discovering Bjork: from Crenshaw to Iceland and back. The night closed with a true musical legend. Adele Bertei is one of the original girls who invented punk rock. She began her career working with the doomed, gifted Peter Laughner (Pere Ubu), moved to New York and introduced Brian Eno to the No Wave scene, in which she played as a member of the Contortions. She was in the all-girl, out-dyke band the Bloods before you were born, and her film career includes a starring role in the cult film Born in Flames. Adele read from her WWR essay about Tori Amos, then performed two original songs, including one also called – wait for it – “America.”

DJ Lynnee Denise. Photo by Lucretia Tye Jasmine. Bjork artwork by Winnie T. Frick.

 

Women Who Rock. Making America great again, for real.

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Just Genius

Photo by Lera Pentelute

To make a braid, you need three strands of hair. A stool needs three legs to stand. And when individually acclaimed singer-songwriters Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus join their formidable vocal, compositional and instrumental talents, the sum is even greater than its parts. The three artists ended their tour together at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles Friday night, each performing separate sets, then taking the stage together for the power trio they ironically call Boygenius — because girls don’t get called geniuses. But when they blended their voices in perfect three-part harmony on “Ketchum, ID” before a soldout crowd, it was genius, ungendered and true.

Looking and sounding like a young Melissa Etheridge, Baker is the powerhouse of the three, on both throat and ax — a supremacy her bandmates honored by taking to their knees and hailing her with deep bows when she partook in some serious shredding. But Dacus has a wonderful deep timbre, and Bridgers has an Emmylou Harris-meets-Hope Sandoval husk. It’s empowering to see the way they bring their voices together, never upstaging or hotdogging.

They talk in interviews about the strength they have found in numbers, how their support of each other has allowed them to express and articulate thoughts and feelings — and jokes — in ways they had never felt free to do before. All three, individually and collectively, make music drenched in melancholy. So when they find relief in each other, it’s all the more liberating. I mean it was cool when the National’s Matt Berninger and film composer Stephan Altman came out and performed with Baker during her solo set. But Boygenius felt like a statement, a pinnacle.

At the end of the evening, the end of the tour, Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus hugged and cried, and so did a lot of the audience. Rule of thirds: three is not a crowd, it’s a movement.

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Uncle John

Uncle John and Mom

Thursday we buried my Uncle John. He was the last of his generation, of Mom’s five siblings, to die. It’s the passing of an era but also, the passing of a great man. One of six, father of seven, John Duncan Harrod loved family. He opened his home and his heart to anyone who became part of his tribe. And his family became truly blended over the years, as was evident at his funeral. There were six of his kids and their spouses, and many grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. There were the relatives of his son-in-law Vito Zambetti, the two families indelibly bonded by Vito’s tragic death decades ago. There were the children of his second wife, Colleen, as red-eyed as their step-siblings. I know how open-armed John could be because he always treated my brother and myself, and my husband and my son, as if we were as welcome in his home as his own offspring. Our families vacationed together, camping in Yosemite and Kentucky, celebrating the country’s bicentennial in Wisconsin. Whenever we visited LA, we stayed with John and his family, even if we slept in our trailer parked outside.

The Harrods are pioneer stock, descendants of the frontiersman James Harrod. John, my mom, brothers Royce, Leon and Bill, and sister Louise moved to LA from their native Kentucky when they were still kids, and with my grandfather Arthur, they built houses for California’s booming expansion. John never stopped working. As his son-in-law Steve Ruda eulogized, he always had a hammer and a nail pouch hanging from his belt. At 87, he was strong as an ox — even after a massive brain bleed felled him and left him attached to machines. When I visited him in the hospital, he held my hand in a grip so tight I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to break free. His eyes were open, and they seemed to look around the room in response to sounds, but I don’t know that he could see or hear. Yet when I squeezed his hand he squeezed mine back. That was the last time I saw him alive.

Before the hemorrhage, his mind was strong too. At my mother’s memorial, he recounted vivid details and the exact addresses of all the places their itinerant father had taken him to live: Florida, Kentucky, near Macarthur Park. Like my parents, he loved to travel America, camping in our great national park system, making use of our highways. It’s a lost art, trailering across America. Maybe, if we toured our own country like our parents did, we would feel less divided.

The night before we buried John, a former marine killed 12 people in a bar not far from San Fernando Mission, the historic 19th century church where my uncle was honored with a last communion. On the day we said goodbye to my mother, a man killed 49 people in a gay bar in Orlando. Natural deaths are sad enough; why this haste to increase our country’s mortality rate? On our drive to the Valley for the funeral, my husband had a vision of Uncle John standing at the pearly gates, greeting those poor shooting victims with those great strong arms of his spread wide.

As we left the reception, a fierce wind whipped through Porter Ranch, a gale so strong I understood why multiple highway signs warned of dangerous gusts. At that moment in fact, flames were lighting north of Malibu, and an hour later in Woolsey Canyon. Soon the families we had been having lunch with would be evacuating their homes, and John would be hugging more of his California neighbors at the gates of heaven.

Uncle John on the left, my grandmother Guyla, Uncle Leon and Uncle Bill.

I don’t really believe that, of course. I don’t believe in heaven, or life after death. But I appreciate them as good stories that give us comfort in trying times. And we could all use some comfort these days.

Goodbye Uncle John. I probably never told you how much I loved you, but you probably didn’t need me to. That’s what family is for.

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