When Lisa Carver goes on a book tour, attendees get naked and work on their concussions. The writer and performance artist, a beloved pop-gutter philosopher whose giddy, unbound worldview first found voice in the noise-opera band Suckdog and the legendary zine Rollerderby, decided that the only way to promote her new book on Yoko Ono was to throw a few happenings. Carver invited her guests to dance in the dark, smash their heads into walls, bare their butts, and rub their bits all over exercise gear—all recreations of Ono’s own confounding, freaky artworks, which Carver ponders with predictable excitement and predictably unpredictable insight in Reaching Out With No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono. The book declares Ono the most important bringer of new alien communication of the past century—someone who wants to “wake you up into your own life.” This interview by Rin Kelly.
You argue, convincingly and with a happy surplus of exclamation points, that Yoko is a model of liberation, a ‘conduit through which awakening pours’—someone who wants to spring everybody’s traps. How does she do that?
I think she has no ego, so she doesn’t care about creating anything. So she doesn’t! There’s this space and then you fill it, because you do have an ego. Then you’re surprised what you find when you expand. That’s how she frees you.
How much influence did she have on you when you were 16 and 17 and busy turning into Lisa Carver?
None! The only thing I knew about her was that one record where she talks about having sex for the first time after her husband was dead—which I might add was not that long.
Like four months!
I think so. Which I think is good. I’d seen that that one album cover with the half-drunk glass of water and the shattered spectacles of her husband’s, and she was singing, screaming, really strange: ‘No no no, take my ring off.’ Which I thought was ‘take my wig off.’ I thought it was unexplained and possibly rude that she was singing like this and putting this in the world. That did give me pause to think, ‘Why would somebody do something like that?’ And any time that I thought that, any time I didn’t understand or didn’t immediately agree with something that someone did, it gave me another possibility, a way that you could do something. Not only that, the idea that you could do anything and nobody had to like it. Cuz I didn’t like what she did. I don’t know if many people do, or can. But she went ahead and did it, and here it was. It was something, that’s for sure, and it excited me to do something of my own along with everything else that I encountered—that I couldn’t see any reason for it to exist. I thought, ‘Well, there must be some reason!’ It just made me feel more confident about anything that I wanted to make. I just wanted to do it, put it out. I thought anything I did was pretty much good enough.
Do you have any favorite works of hers, or do you not like them so much as you like what they do to people?
She doesn’t really do a lot. I mean, she’s busy all the time, she’s always creating these questions, but she doesn’t create much product. There’s not much you could say, ‘I pick this, I pick that’ about. Pretty much everything she says directs you into yourself, or out into the sky. It’s not her stuff—she doesn’t do stuff! She just reminds you that you have all this stuff.
What pieces do that best?
My memory is very solipsistic so I very inaccurately remember what anyone else does. I’m going to guess that she had a piece called ‘Take a bite of your tunafish sandwich and chew it 300 times’—or 3,000 times or 300 days. I remember reading that when I was researching this book, and it short-circuited my brain. If you ponder on that long enough I think you’ll feel heat. It’s really disturbing. I like her instruction that she called a ‘painting,’ the one that says ‘Lay on a box spring, sleep on those metal coils.’ The coils that don’t have fabric on top: sleep on that, and that’s your painting. She has one that says ‘Grow a weed and love it.’ So that’s a two-parter: first of all, who would grow a weed on purpose? But secondly, you have to love it? You can think about that one for a really long time. How many koans get told? She tells them like every day. I love all the old ones, you always hear the same ones. You hear about how you should hit your disciple with a stick, or about the sound of one hand clapping. It took a couple thousands of years to get those Top 10 beauties! She has like hundreds of them.
She seems entirely herself, but then there’s these things like … was it Kmart where she was selling John Lennon’s art? She has this history of peddling and branding.
I don’t know why she did that. I don’t know why she does anything she does, but I think part of that might have been that she was just mad about the way women get treated and Asians get treated and wives get treated, and I think that just may have been a ‘Fuck you—I’m rich, world!’ Not just that, a ‘Fuck you—I’m soooooo rich. I’m already rich and I don’t even need this and I’m gonna get it all!’ I could be wrong.
I like that you can never really know.
Can you imagine being her daughter? When she tells you to go brush your teeth she can’t just be normal and say brush your teeth, she probably is all ethereal and esoteric and free, and maybe you don’t even have to go brush your teeth—she just wants you to think about it. That would drive a child insane.
You don’t much like her peace thing.
She’s so Pollyannaish, she’s all about love. I find much more energy in hate. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I think she’s right that you just have to dream peace and it’s there—it could be. But it just doesn’t interest me. Which is so horrible to say if you think about it! If you think about a child who’s got burns all over their body or are missing limbs, in the Middle East or Asia, or a child soldier in Mexico or Africa, or child abuse in this country, and then you think that you want the entertainment of the hate and war and the abuse. I mean … god, abuse is so interesting. I feel like a rotten person but that’s the way I am, and she really brought out to me that I’m not the peaceful, loving person that I would have thought I was compared to, say, a Republican. I’m much more like them than I am like her.
Tell me about string theory. You end one of your chapters with: ‘Unable to accept the limitations of our mind, we try to place limitations on the reality. Artists, historians. History is not dead! String theory!’
I don’t know, it sounds like I was drunk. Isn’t that one of those ‘possibilities’ conversations you have—Schrödinger’s cat? One of those things that opens your mind? You know about string theory, right? Well there you go! You’re not really going to know string theory, but that’s what people do with it: they tout it out, they say something like they’re saying something but it just sort of goes away, and that’s the whole point. To just bring up string theory. So that’s what I did.
We had a conversation where I was trying to get you to tell me how time travel works. You seem to have secrets about it.
I remember that! I was arguing against what your boyfriend said. What did he say?
He has a whole thing about how if you went back in time the currency you brought with you wouldn’t be any good there, so you’d have to mug somebody to get started in the past.
That is a real problem. It might be okay if you didn’t go too far back. But actually he’s right—I was arguing just to be argumentative. There would be a problem with your money. But you could just bring back old money if you know where you’re going, and you could also bring gold bullions or something. I would be prepared to mug somebody. If I’m going to time travel, it’s part of the experience! That would be really cool to be somewhere else and not have anything, to not have all the means, and you have all this knowledge but no one believes you. That would be really neat. Insane people experience that all the time, I’m sure. I’ve experienced lesser states of mind in life like that, when I was really isolated and a bit psychotic.
How did Ono end up in an institution?
Well, she went crazy. Her family had pretty much disowned her, she was in an unhappy marriage, her art was not accepted. She was almost starving—she and her husband were freezing in a cold-water flat with no heat—in Tribeca I think. They would sometimes only have like a bowl of rice a day. She got no respect, and I think when you dabble in unphysical things like she does, it’s really easy to just go over the edge, especially when you don’t eat right and you don’t see enough people. I think it was natural that she ended up in the loony bin. And then they just dosed her up. I don’t think her husband came and visited her at all. I don’t think he cared. I don’t think she’d been very nice to him either.
She can be very not nice to people. She was pretty not nice to Julian Lennon.
I think so, but how do we know? He’s irritating!
Why is ‘What a Bastard the World Is’ one of the best songs ever written?
Oh, I already talked about that one in the New York Times thing—you don’t want to hear it again. There’s no reason on earth why you can’t pull a quote from there!
Your not wanting to talk about old things, to answer questions already answered, is a bit Yoko-like. It reminds me of your book’s discussion of the differences between East and West and how Yoko is very Eastern in her refusing to freeze moments for analysis, in her always moving forward.
Well, thank you. In the West we have a lot of issues with control. We want to control reality, and we think that by looking to the past as the golden age—because it’s already happened, so we know what it looks like, we have photographs of it—that we can own what’s real. In the East, I think for whatever reason they’re more confident and more curious to see what unfolds, to look at it as it’s happening, than we are here. I saw an Asian man in the gym today—he was really bulky! It didn’t look good. There’s these stereotypes against Asian guys and he was trying to compensate for it. But he should just go with the stereotype! There are a lot of women like me who love it. And he looked just freaky. Really, really bulgy! His partner or his trainer or whatever he was was this cross between a ginger and an albino. He had long hair and he was freakish too, but I couldn’t blame him, really. Actually, at Planet Fitness they say that there’s no bulgy people there, but there were—there were two of them. There was the freaky pair! I enjoyed looking at them.
Why is Yoko the ultimate feminist?
Ugh! I’ve already done this, I don’t want to! I’m not gonna answer. She doesn’t either, and that’s one of the things that makes her a feminist. If she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t. She doesn’t want to and I don’t either. I know I can just not fall into the dichotomy of having to be a woman or not a woman, and I can escape being a writer too. I can half escape being alive! I don’t have to answer anything! But you know, it’s true: people don’t have to. And the fact that she didn’t, and refused to explain herself so much, can free other people to not explain themselves. It leaves so much time for anything you actually care about instead of fighting for something that you already know and feel. You’re not gonna move anyone with platitudes.
That’s something from the book: she doesn’t make art about revolution, she just is revolution. She doesn’t explain why, she just is.
I think I said that about one of her turkey songs.
I saw a quote from Paul McCartney where he said he realized after all these years that Yoko Ono was really a very kind person, that she was just more committed to being herself than other people.
What a doofus that it took him 50 years to figure that out.
Your book tour had more genitals than most.
My book tour had the most genitals. Of any book tour ever. I mean, really—you’re the research lady. Have there ever been more genitals on a book tour?
I’m gonna just say that I don’t have to research anything. I don’t have to answer your questions.
Good for you. You’re gonna start flying.
What else should we talk about?
Money, suicide. I really don’t know what the big deal is about anal sex. I don’t know why this gets brought up so much in interviews. You know when you said we should just be silent? I really tried. I had it in my mind that I was just going to be silent for a long time. That was my exercise, to see if I could do that. I failed utterly. It would be really good. I’ll just have to save it for another time.
Are you being silent to me now?
See, we got it in!
LISA CARVER’S REACHING OUT WITH NO HANDS: RECONSIDERING YOKO ONO IS OUT NOW ON BACKBEAT BOOKS. VISIT LISA CARVER AT SUCKDOG.NET.