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Yoko Ono's multifaceted journey to 'Hell'

By Alanna Nash
Special to MSN Music

At the age of 80, Yoko Ono remains as creative as ever. "Take Me to the Land of Hell," the Plastic Ono Band's first album in two years, continues where "Between My Head and the Sky" left off. Collaborating with her son, Sean Lennon, and Yuka Honda on production, Ono mixes dance-rock, electronica, funk and balladry to starkly original lyrics that are surprisingly tender but never flinch from hard truths.

The album's centerpiece, the John Lennon-murder wail "7th Floor," cryptically references a shadow and pounds home the lyric: "Don't cut my hands -- can't strangle you/Don't cut my legs -- can't walk out on you/Don't cut my tongue -- can't spit on you/Don't cut me off -- I'll kill you." Another track, "New York Noodle Town," paints an equally bleak picture: "This is the valley of silent fears/Where the dead meet dead/And watch the living cry." Ono, always a challenge to interview, is by turns testy, sweet and taciturn. Her enigmatic vitality charms.

MSN Music: This is the third Plastic Ono Band album since you revived the group with your son, Sean Lennon. Why did you want to re-form it?

Yoko Ono: Well, I didn't particularly want it. I was surprised when my son said, "Mummy, I have an important question to ask you." He called me. Whenever there's a phone call, you think, "Is there something I can do?" (Laugh) And he told me that he really wanted me to revive Plastic Ono Band. I said, "Whatever for?" But then I thought about it, and I thought, "Well, it means a lot for him, because his dad and mom created it. So I said, "OK."

You've said that you think this is the best album you've ever made. Why?

I don't know. I just feel very good about it, and the complexity of it. And the way I express it is probably better than [on] any of the other albums.

It's the culmination of a lot of ideas you've had over the last few years, right?

Bing: When did Yoko Ono perform with the Flaming Lips? | Who else is in the Plastic Ono Band?

Well, it's just so much culmination of a lot of ideas I've been having over the last two years because maybe it was sitting inside my body. But just before going to the studio, I checked a few songs that I still had in my pile that had never been touched before. And some I just created from scratch. I think half of the songs came when I was working in the studio. It just started to stimulate me.

How much came spontaneously in the studio, then, and how much came from the pile? Were you writing in the studio?

Well, I had the songs -- I had the lyrics, the rhythm, the melody, all that. So I said, "We should do it this way. We should do it 1930s, or whatever." And I was very lucky to have musicians [members of Cornelius and Cibo Matto, plus special guests tUnE-yArDs, Questlove, Nels Cline and Andrew Wyatt] who are extremely, extremely talented. They also liked my work or know my work. Their talent spans from classical to jazz to avant-garde and all that. So when I said, "I want to do it like this," they could immediately do it right away. And I would say, "No, that was too busy," or, "OK, that's good." So the musical arrangements were something we did together.

How do you see this album as part of the evolution of your work?

It is an evolution of my work, no matter how I try not to make it an evolution. (Laugh) So I'm not trying to make a change. I'm just trying to be myself. And to not stop being daring. One of the things about my albums that I feel is daring is the fact that I just mix up all sorts of music forms, instead of just saying, "This album should be waltz." "This album should be jazz." No. I have jazz. I have waltz. I have everything in there.

What do you see as the overriding theme of the album?

(Laughs) Well, you know, I'm not a critic, so I didn't think about it that way. I just put together songs that I really love to put together, and bring it out.

You never stop being an activist. One of the most arresting lyrics is in "Cheshire Cat Cry," with "We, the expendable people of the United States/Hold these dreams to be self-destructive."

You like that?

I do.

Well, just be afraid of it. Just be totally scared, because if you don't stand up and do something about it, you'll find we are dispensable people.

"7th Floor," is a reference to the fact that you and John lived on the 7th floor of the Dakota. "I was standing on the 7th floor/And saw a body on the pavement/Is that me?" It's a very vivid song about John's death and your shock and anger surrounding it.

(Delighted laugh) You got that?

I might even say the song is disturbing. You captured the horror as if those events happened yesterday, and not 30-plus years ago. How were you able to conjure such chilling emotion all these years later?

Listen, I was a poet and a musician from the time I was 5 or 6 years old. I kept creating poetry. I kept creating little short stories and essays and things like that. My ambition was to create something that was not a repetition, something unlike what we've had, so it would add to the medium. (Laugh) "7th Floor" is really out there, you know? It's not two-dimensional or three-dimensional. It's sixth-dimensional, seventh-dimensional. It allows us to know that we have all that dimension in us.

Do you still feel John around you?

Well, I don't think so. I do feel right now it's very, very different. And I have to just understand that, you know, things are different.

What do you want to do next?

I don't know what I want to do. Well, first of all, I really don't want to ignore this album. I just want this album to communicate, because it's so important. So I'm going to really try to do that. I'll ask people, say, "Hello, would you please listen to my album? (Laugh) This is a package of love from me to you, and I hope you enjoy it."

Alanna Nash is a New York Times best-selling ghostwriter and author. She has also written scores of magazine articles for Vanity Fair, People, Rolling Stone, USA Weekend, and Entertainment Weekly. Her office is lit by two lamps that once adorned the living room of Graceland, and she saw the Beatles live in concert three times.

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