Most people only know Yoko Ono as the person who “broke up” the Beatles. If they know a little bit more about her, they will know of the experimental music she made with John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. Or they might know about the famous Bed-In at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel in 1969.
What most people don’t know about Yoko is her work as a conceptual artist (or her work as a peace activist, but I won’t get into that now).
In 2002 I took a road trip to San Francisco with my roommate, Blair Fornwald, and her boyfriend at the time, Adam Budd. This was when I had briefly moved back to Regina, after having dropped out of the Artist Diploma program at the Glenn Gould School of Music. Blair, Adam and I drove straight for 30 hours in my family’s trusty Toyota Previa, to spend only three days in San Francisco. The reason we visited the city was that I had a good friend living there, Erik Franden, a fellow Glenn Gould School dropout; Blair and Adam came along for the adventure. Erik, in addition to being a great friend, was responsible for introducing me to an incredible amount of new music, such as Astor Piazzolla, Marc Ribot, and Ali Akbar Khan.
The trip was super fun – we went to the beach, we ate great Mexican food, we went to lots of record stores, and we went to lots of museums. To be honest, I’ve forgotten a lot of the trip, I just have vague images left. But the one thing that is still vivid is our visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where there was a Yoko Ono retrospective. I, like most people, didn’t know the first thing about her. But the exhibit totally blew me away. Her work was powerful in its simplicity, humour, and positivity.
One example is the same piece that caused John Lennon to want to meet Yoko. Imagine this: There is what appears to be a blank white canvas in a simple frame hanging on the ceiling, with a ladder below it, and a magnifying glass attached to the frame. You climb the ladder, and inspect the canvas using the magnifying glass. After a few minutes (or more) of searching, you find a single microscopic word printed on the canvas, which simply reads Yes.
The Japanese influence in her work was apparent not necessarily in the content, but in the aesthetic. Much of her work is abstract, a lot is minimalist, and all of it is understated. Sometimes it’s surreal, sometimes disturbing, sometimes absurd, sometimes child-like in its straightforward honesty. It speaks of strength and perseverance, no matter what the hardship.
At the exhibition, there was a video of her performance of Cut Piece, where she sat motionless on a stage with a pair of scissors, and audience members were invited to come up on stage and cut off parts of her clothing. Watch it here, and see how you feel while this is happening.
Yoko’s work has haunted me ever since I saw this exhibition. I bought her book of instructions, entitled Grapefruit (Simon & Schuster, 2000), at the SFMOMA gift shop, and have read it countless times, always finding inspiration within its pages. A few years ago I decided to write a suite of pieces based on poems in this book, two movements of which appear on my upcoming album. This is one of the poems:
you are water
we’re all water in different containers
that’s why it’s so easy to meet
someday we’ll evaporate together
but even after the water’s gone
we’ll probably point out to the containers
and say, “that’s me there, that one.”
we’re container minders
These guys are the best. In addition to being awesome people, the guys in this band are also very accomplished musicians. I’ve basically been waiting my whole life to play in a band like this, so I feel very lucky to be a part of the Key-Lites. If you’re not familiar with the band, we play soul music – a lot of covers from the 60s and early 70s, as well as originals written in the same style. If you are familiar with us, you probably recall we ran a super-successful Indiegogo campaign last year, and we’re still working on finishing the album – everything is being mixed right now, and our album launch is April 11 at Le Ritz PDB!! If you can’t wait until April to check us out, we happen to be playing tomorrow (Saturday, February 14, Valentine’s Day) at Brutopia – and it’s free!!
I met these guys through Simon Nakonechny. I had heard about Simon through the Saskatchewan music grapevine many years before we ever met in person, him being a whiz-kid from Swift Current. He and his wife, Lea, moved to Regina for a couple years immediately after they finished their respective degrees at McGill and Concordia. This happened to be the same time I was back in Regina after living in Toronto for a year, which would have been 2001. I don’t remember how exactly we met, but we started playing together a bit for the year I was home, and kept in touch afterwards. Simon was one of the few people I knew in Montreal when I moved to town in 2008, and through him I met many other Saskatchewan expatriates.
Simon plays keyboards and tenor sax in the Key-Lites, and writes a lot of our material. He is constantly surprising with his well-roundedness – he can carry on an in-depth conversation about pretty much anything – film, music, baseball, construction, house insurance, visual art, fishing…. He occasionally produces shows for CBC, such as as Inhotim and Mur-Écran, both for Ideas. He also has a past in the film industry, as a producer and composer and who knows what else, through the company Arid Sea Films, which consisted also of his wife, writer/director Lea Nakonechny, and another Swift Current-born Quebecer, Adam Budd (who used to date my roommate in Regina – I also wrote the music for his short film, Cat Power). Simon also performs with Katie Moore and Laurence Hélie.
Joshua Toal, our lead singer and guitarist, has toured the world playing music. When I first met him, he was playing with Newworldson, flying to Europe or the US every other weekend to play shows like this one. Currently he plays with Ian Kelly, as well as a ton of great local artists. His super power is the uncanny ability to speak in pretty much any accent – Australian, Dutch, German, Jamaican….
Last but not least, David Payant. Until very recently, Dave was the drummer for the Godspeed offshoot Thee Silver Mount Zion Orchestra. He also was the drummer for Vic Chesnutt until Vic’s untimely death. Currently, Dave performs regularly with various Montreal artists, including Katie Moore, and DJs around town, specializing in soul music, of course. Dave also happens to be a recording engineer – I don’t know all he’s worked on, but I know he recorded the latest album by Montreal improvisation ensemble Ratchet Orchestra. He’s also working on producing his own material, sampling and mixing funk and soul records in the hip-hop tradition.
These guys have been super supportive of my Indiegogo campaign, for which I’m very grateful. Unfortunately, the Key-Lites record won’t be ready in time to be included in my perks, but don’t let that stop you from ordering something else!!