John Lennon with Yoko Ono at a "bed-in for peace" in 1969. What… (Ivor Sharp / EMI Music )
After a well-received return to the stage in New York this year, Yoko Ono is bringing her "We Are Plastic Ono Band" to L.A. for the first time. "I have never done a show in L.A., so I am very happy to be finally doing it," Ono says, speaking from her apartment at the Dakota in New York.
Part concert and part tribute show to both Ono and the late John Lennon, who would have turned 70 on Oct. 9, the revived Plastic Ono Band includes Sean Lennon, who also acts as music director, and innovative Japanese artists Yuka Honda and Cornelius, as well as a floating roster of guest artists.
"This new version definitely gives an Eastern twist to the Ono band," says Lennon amid rehearsals earlier in the week. "Many people are rediscovering my mother's music, and I think this is an ideal time to do a tribute show bringing different artists together."
While the New York shows featured original Plastic Ono Band members such as Eric Clapton and performers such as Bette Midler and Paul Simon, the L.A. shows feature an edgier lineup, including Perry Farrell, RZA, Carrie Fisher, Vincent Gallo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Harper Simon (son of Paul Simon), Haruomi Hosono (founder of Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra) and indie hipster Tune-Yards. Iggy Pop, bassist Mike Watt and Nels Cline will guest on Friday night, while Lady Gaga is joined by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore on Saturday.
"Despite how varied the artists are, they all connect to my mother in some way," says Lennon. "A hip-hop artist like RZA may seem like an odd choice, but one of the first songs he sampled was a very early recording of my mother's, while Lady Gaga is also a great fan of my mother's music."
Ono plans to perform a mix of songs from her 2009 album, "Between My Head and the Sky," and more familiar songs from her repertoire such as "Walking on Thin Ice," while guest artists deliver their versions of her songs. "I tend to pick the songs because I am so familiar with my mother's catalog, but I'm usually able to find a song to suit anyone's style," says Lennon. The finale is a rollicking communal singalong of "Give Peace a Chance."
The idea to revive the band came from Sean Lennon. "He is the son of the two people in the band, and for him there's a personal sentiment," Ono says softly. But was she happy to revisit the past? "I get reminded all the time about John. Every day I get 20 to 30 requests, so when Plastic Ono Band comes up, it's not really an earthquake for me."
Ono is relishing the chance to work closely with her son. Comparing his style to his father's, she notes, "[Sean] is much more finicky. He wants to get everything exactly right."
"I can be meticulous," Lennon says with a laugh. "My father came from a different generation. He would say," breaking into the note-perfect Liverpudlian accent of his father, "'It's good enough for rock and roll.'"
While Ono's discordant howls and wails bewildered fans when the Beatles' John Lennon assembled the original Plastic Ono Band in 1969, Ono's contribution to the avant garde and to pop music is now revered. "I sometimes think: Why did it take so long?" says Ono. "But I wasn't really trying to make people understand it then. I suppose I was being an elitist about it, but now that people are appreciating it, it makes me very happy."
The downtown concerts will kick off a bumper week of related activities commemorating John Lennon's birthday. On Sunday evening, Ono will sit down for an intimate interview about her husband and his legacy in the Grammy Museum's ongoing series, "An Evening With." The museum will also unveil its new exhibit, "John Lennon, Songwriter," which will open to the public on Monday. The exhibit was co-curated by Ono and includes many personal artifacts including hand-written song lyrics, original drawings, guitars, a Sgt. Pepper outfit and rare historic footage.
"We wanted to present John in a more focused way than what a normal retrospective would be," says Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum. "This celebrates his genius as one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century."
On Monday night, the museum is hosting the West Coast premiere of the documentary film "American Masters: LennonNYC," with Ono in attendance. The event is for members and invited guests only. The film focuses on their life together in New York and will be broadcast on PBS Nov. 22. Sam Taylor-Wood's critically acclaimed feature film on Lennon's troubled childhood, "Nowhere Boy," also premieres at the Egyptian on Thursday, followed by a concert by the three surviving members of John Lennon's first band, the Quarrymen.
"It's a beautiful film and gives you a great understanding of John and how he grew up," says Ono.
The Egyptian will be hosting a series of rare Lennon and Beatles films all weekend.