APPROXIMATELY INFINITE UNIVERSE
Released: January 8, 1973 – USA / February 16, 1973 – UK
By Madeline Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2018. No part of this site may be reproduced or re-blogged in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.
I infinitely love this album, recorded mostly at Record Plant in Los Angeles and in New York. It has been with me since it was released in 1973. Each song is ingrained in my soul, as the album arrived in the pre-teen winter of my discontent. Any of Yoko’s songs is my favorite song of all time when I am listening to it. This is a brilliant collection by an astounding woman, laden with wisdom.
This is Yoko’s third solo record – her second consecutive double album. Yoko produced and arranged genre-hopping songs ranging from hard rock to funk, Calypso, reggae and delicate ballads. Jack Douglas was chief engineer. The band Elephant’s Memory (the sax of Stan Bronstein is the star of the show on many tracks) are a perfect fit, from the funky ‘What Did I Do!’ and ‘Kite Song’ to the wild rockers such as ‘Yang Yang’. Guitarist Wayne “Tex” Gabriel really shines. Keyboardist Adam Ippolito executed amazing piano arrangements and bassist Gary Van Scyoc gave each song an amazing tonal quality along with drummer Richard Frank Jr.. The Elephant’s had also played on John and Yoko’s 1972 album Some Time in New York City.
A prevailing theme in Yoko’s songs is female liberation. Her essay The Feminization of Society (way ahead of its time) was published in the New York Times exactly one year prior. It is included with the album. The title track reflects the female plight, as do many of the songs. The title track speaks of a lonely girl with broken dreams, with a thousand holes in her heart and in her head, who cannot get any relief from alcohol or pills. She resorts to heroin.
In this approximately infinite universe / I know a girl who’s in constant hell
No love or pill could keep her cool / ’Cause there’s a thousand holes in her heart…
“Yoko can pack a lot into a lyric. The phrase ‘approximately infinite universe,’ for example. What does that mean? The universe is infinitely large, so how can it be ‘approximately’ infinite? Here it helps set up a contrast between the vastness of someone’s potential experience in life and the more limited, painful situation of the woman who’s the subject of the song.”
– Sean Ono Lennon, hyperallergenic.com Feb. 2017
“Always the darkest moments are before the dawn. It appears dark now…
Knowing the configuration of stars and its effect on our lives is like knowing the seasons.
In the midst of winter you know the next season will be Spring.
It is the ability to recognize that what you are seeing in your seemingly finite reality is not that finite.
It’s only part of the next moon.”
-Yoko, Ritz magazine 1984
Yoko speaks of the characters portrayed in her songs…
“Their emotions are very real. They’re all of us, really, like the girl who walks across the lake in ‘Walking on Thin Ice’ . She senses that it’s dangerous, but she takes a chance. When I made those records, I paid close attention to how I sung certain words, because they’re key to how a story is told and to how a listener understands.” Ono then softly sang, “I know a girl who’s in constant hell,” tapping her knee on ‘girl’ and ‘hell’.
– Yoko Ono, hyperallergenic.com, Feb. 2017
Some of Yoko’s AIU characters who have gained prominence most recently are the macho and insensitive ‘Catman’ and also the Rosies – a tough gang of male-bashing females (who taunt the male chauvanist with lines from a nursery rhyme). These women are not going to take things lying down anymore.
Yoko used a chord progression on ‘Yang Yang’ which was prohibited by the Church in the Middle Ages, as these were believed to be the Devil’s chords. The brutal character Yang Yang (no Yin Yang here – purely macho energy) gets a stern lecture from Yoko for demeaning women. She urges him (and the entire male species) to stop the violence and destruction, and join the women’s revolution. She reminds us that men are outnumbered in population by women, who will most certainly arise.
As with so many of her songs, there is clairvoyant imagery throughout the album that has sadly come to be true.
‘Song for John’ started as an untitled demo recording made in 1967 before Yoko and John met. It was written with the hope that Yoko would find someone to ‘fly’ with. The lyrics predict the difficult winding road that John and Yoko would travel on their journey together.
On a windy day, we went on flying
There was no sea to rest on
There were no hills to glide
Yoko wrote ‘Winter Song’ while John was asleep in a farmhouse in upstate New York. John has repeatedly said that he wished that he had written this exquisite song himself. He plays guitar on the track (and others) along with Mick Jagger. The lyrics evoke the beauty of nature and also speak of past and future, the intimate feeling of knowing John and feeling his warmth “for a thousand years”. She is also longing for an earthly future with John that was not to be. Yoko seems to sense this tragedy already, yet there is beautiful shimmer about this song in its gorgeous strings and especially in the sacred lyrics.
I know you now for a thousand years
Your body still feels nice and warm to me
The sun is old, the winter’s cold
The lake is shining like a drop of Buddha’s tears
The mountains lie in a distance
like the future we’d never reach…
The bed is shining like an old scripture that’s never been opened before…
Some of the lyrics in ‘Winter Song’ refer back to Yoko’s piece from her book Grapefruit.
Imagine your body spreading rapidly
all over the world like a thin tissue.
Imagine cutting out one part of the tissue.
Cut out the same size rubber and hang
it on the wall beside your bed.
Experience ‘Winter Song’ with this beautiful accompanying video by John Smith:
Here, Yoko performs ‘Winter Song’ live in the studio on a TV show called Flipside broadcast in the USA in 1973.
The beautifully poignant and prescient ‘Death of Samantha’ was written about what was probably John’s first infidelity in November 1972. (A photo by Bob Gruen for the AIU album jacket sessions shows John begging for forgiveness at Yoko’s feet). But in December 1980, Yoko realized that her lyrics eerily foreshadowed and accurately described the snowy day of John’s vigil in New York City in which she declared a long, worldwide silence during which came a light and magical snowfall. New York’s Soho Weekly News under the headline, “John and Yoko Piece” stated, “It wasn’t a Lennon vigil, it was an Ono artwork.”
A friend lent me shades
so I could hide my eyes that day
Was a snowy day
the shades have seen a lot of things I didn’t want to know myself
Was like an accident, part of growing up
people tell me
But something inside me, something inside me died that day
“This was a song that came to me in the studio the morning after the famous Jerry Rubin party. I wrote it down quickly, told the musicians what key, and started to sing it. John came back in from the back room and said “I don’t want to hear this. It’s too painful.” So we stopped. But the song went on the album. He didn’t want to mess with it. After he passed away, many fans wrote to me saying “Yoko, read this, you were writing about the vigil!” It was eerie. I was writing the song in 1972 about a vigil that actually happened in 1980!”
– Yoko, 29 May 2011
“I had this vision that all these people, sort of gray people all sort of standing around in sorrow like this, you know – and just realized that was the vigil you know, snowy day and all these people just standing around. And that’s a song I wrote about 12 years ago. So it’s just incredible you know, I don’t know what’s happening really because all these visions that I had probably was about the future. Who knows. At the time I didn’t know- and when I go back to all my songs, all the songs are almost,… at the time that I wrote, I didn’t know and it was almost like I’m talking about my future – so It’s a bit scary in that sense.”
– Yoko, ina France interview – December 1981
The single version was a 3:46 edit of the 6:22 album track.
‘I Have a Woman Inside My Soul’ is bluesy and sax-laden, lamenting and sad. Why does this sound so wonderful on a snowy day? Maybe it’s because it is so quiet that we can almost listen to our souls.
The lyrics indicate a disconnect, which is strange because Yoko is usually very much in touch with herself. She cannot understand what the sad voice inside her soul is trying to tell her. Even the elements surrounding her are unclear…
I have a woman inside my soul, her eyes sombre and sad.
She waves her hand to try to reach me, but I can’t hear what she says.
…I wish I knew what she says to me,
I wish I knew what she means to me…
I feel snow covering inside my soul
It’s hard and shining in shades of gray
No footsteps ever made their marks, and I don’t know when it melts
In ‘Looking Over from My Hotel Window’ Yoko reflects on her life on a cold winter day at age 39, with her own simple piano accompaniment. Her clear, echoing voice recollects the past. She now feels suicidal, haunted by the loss of her missing daughter.
Yoko uses Kabuki style hetai vocalizing within traditional blues on ‘Is Winter Here To Stay?’. Nobody sings the blues like Yoko. She makes Howlin’ Wolf sound like he’s merely whining and complaining over the trivialities of love lost. So what if your woman done up and left you? We know the hardships that Yoko has suffered; as a woman, surviving opposite extremes – as a neglected child of privileged parents and alternately as a hungry child in war-torn Japan. She was later misunderstood artist, the wife of John Lennon and suffered the cruel way he was taken from her. This is her expression of all these things. There are moments of anguish, distress and sadness. Guitar is credited to Joel Nohnn (guess who)!
The question,‘Is Winter Here to Stay?’ is repeated free-form over a bluesy backing track. Nobody sings the blues like Yoko. This is one of her coolest improvised performances.
“When I made that song… that’s a song I did in a very late stage of the recording. And when I did that, I thought I wanted to chuck all the songs and start from there again.”
YOKOSPEAK – Los Angeles Free Press February 16, 1973
The gorgeous mostly acoustic Spanish flavored track, ‘Shiranakatta’ is sung in English, French and in Japanese. On the stunning Craig Armstrong remix on Yes, I’m a Witch, the extended tape play reveals John excitedly uttering, “That was BEAUTIFUL!” at the end.
‘I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass Window’ is a rebellious multi-tempo pre-punk prototype. The autobiographical lyrics convey a child’s frustration about her high-class parents’ non-acceptance of her uniqueness. I love the echoing delay on Yoko’s double-tracked vocal!
A woman rages at her man’s adultery in ‘What A Bastard The World Is’ yet society is the cause of his weakness. Yoko told Zoo World in April 1973, “I felt it was almost a satirical note to the militant feminist: You can shout all you want but what are you going to do? You can’t drive them off; they’re 50 percent of the world and they’re always going to be there. No matter how progressive we get we always have that human relationship.”
Although the song is not autobiographical, there are lyrics that foreshadow Yoko’s future reality;
What a bastard the world is
Taking my man away from me
Taking the world away from me
In ‘I Want My Love To Rest Tonight’ Yoko softens and sympathizes with the man she calls ‘pig’ in ‘Bastard’ because she knows (from what John has taught her) that he is just as scared and lonely as women are.
We are all on an endless quest in life. Yoko is urgently searching for something in ‘What Did I Do!’ and frantically asking for help in finding it. She is surprised at people’s indifference to her desperate call for help. She later finds that what she was searching for is intangible. She locates the disturbing thought in her mind, and now begins a new search – for her head.
In ‘Kite Song’ Yoko sings about letting go of something that she once held onto very tightly, that she was terrified of losing. It could be a concept or an idea – or herself. She finally sees her ‘kite’ in the sky and shoots it down, becoming free from whatever she had been holding onto.
“When I had this apartment in NY, I was imagining myself as a kite, holding on to a kite, and when I was sleeping, I’d lose my string and go off floating. That’s the time I thought I’ll go crazy. I was just holding the string, making sure I wouldn’t let go.” – Twitter
The playful Calypso style of ‘What a Mess’ accompanies Yoko’s sarcastic male putdown is playful, partially sung in Japanese ‘What A Mess’. During the middle eight, Yoko speaks, “Anata, anata! otoko sukoshi!” She is saying, “Hey, you! Man…What is it? What is it? You guys are a bit impudent. Be careful! なんだ、なんだ、お前ら男ども、生意気だぞ、少し / 少し気をつけろ Nanda, Nanda, Omaera Otokodomo, namaikidazo, sukoshi / Sukoshi ki o tsukero,”
‘Peter The Dealer’ was based on an assistant of John and Yoko’s who stuttered. They encouraged him not to worry, because to them it meant that he has exceptional sensitivity.
“She wrote a song called ‘Peter the Dealer’ where she sings about me, ‘The world can’t give us answers ‘cos it’s stuttering in its mind.’ That’s quite something, isn’t it? It’s beautiful… Yoko is totally unique. She has a ferocious intensity. She can be shy and she can be fearless and she loves to overwhelm. The last time I spoke to her she said, ‘Peter, I can never get enough!’ which sums her up beautifully.
– Peter Bendrey, Imagine John Yoko 2018
In ‘Air Talk’ Yoko reminds us that we are all linked by the air. All of the album’s twenty-two songs are incredible. Yoko pointed out to Rolling Stone on March 1, 1972…
“If you add up the numerical values of all the letters in the words “Approximately Infinite Universe” they come to a multi-digital number, the sum of whose digits equal nine, which is according to what numerologists say, the highest of all earth’s numbers”.
The “C” at the top of the AIU symbol she designed depicts Einstein’s famous relativity equation using ‘c’ representing the speed of light. Sean Lennon explained…
“I was very proud to hand her a stack of Yoko vinyls that I’d had remastered. She’s not easily touched by stuff, and she got a little tear in her eye. So that made me feel like a good son.”
– Sean Ono Lennon, The New Yorker – February 2019
“Many don’t realize what a brilliant musician and producer my mother is. She taught me piano, songwriting, and studio production from an early age. I would not know what a diminished chord, or a compressor, or a counterpoint melody, or an overdub, or reverb and delay was, none of it, had it not been for my mother’s mentorship.”
– Sean Ono Lennon, hyperallergenic.com Feb. 2017
‘Now Or Never’ is actually a love song to America, admonishing us for our past actions of greed. Yoko pleads with its people to dream together. The picture sleeve of the single shows dead bodies piled up in Vietnam. A version on Yoko’s album of re-worked songs (Warzone, 2018) retains the same tempo as the original, yet it is much more delicate, with atmospheric instrumentation and intimate vocals.
The sadly prescient lyric, “Are we gonna keep shooting the ones that try to change?” has come true way too many times.
The line which sums up all that Yoko has been trying to tell us all along (I used this quote in my high school yearbook in 1976) is the most beautiful,
A dream we dream alone is only a dream
But a dream we dream together is reality.
“Reading the lyrics after so many years made me choke up. Now or Never It works now. The lines “Are we gonna keep shooting the ones that try to change, “Are we gonna keep thinking it won’t happen to us” were hard to read. When I wrote those lines, John and I were a proud and happy couple, believing that it would make a difference to speak out. And I think it did. I didn’t know that John was the one who would be shot to death for trying to change… But they couldn’t kill him. His spirit is still alive and growing inside all of us.”
– Yoko, Memorial Day, 30 May 2011, imaginepeace.com
‘Move On Fast’ is included on Side Two of the super rare Japan only album Welcome: The Many Sides Of Yoko Ono, a promotional released by Apple Records for Yoko’s ‘Let’s Have a Dream’ tour of Japan in 1974. (Side One presents ‘Gentle and Emotional Yoko’ Side Two features ‘Rockin’ And Driving Yoko’).
…Where do you wanna spend eternity?
I might meet you somewhere.
All roads leads to nowhere,
Trucking through infinity.
Bury your past and move on fast,
Nothin’s gonna last, so roll a bit of grass
And move on, move on fast.
The 2016 CD remix by Jack Douglas on Yes, I’m A Witch Too is a headbanger!
“Move on Fast” – Jack Douglas remix 2011
Move On Fast Official Remixes EP(Twisted America/Mind Train, Feb. 2011) features the amazing Wawa acapella mix, isolating Yoko’s vocals. Very cool!
Here are some of the mixes:
Elements of nature always figure into Yoko’s work, and they are present in the delicate and sweet songs ‘Waiting for the Sunrise’ and ‘Air Talk’.
There is at least one unreleased album outtake:
“We were doing a song, ‘Dead Rat,’ on Yoko Ono’s Approximately Infinite Universe. I had no idea what it was going to be. The music was like, ‘da da da da da da da da da da,’ and then there’d be five seconds of silence. Then the music would start again, and there’d be another five seconds of silence. Finally, I found out what this silence was. It was the dead rat solo. Yoko brings a shoe box into the studio, and inside the shoe box is this freshly killed rat, size large. She says, ‘Okay, you know where the band stops playing? That’s where the rat takes it.’…I put the rat on a stool, and I had my assistant put a [Neumann] 87 over the rat. I ran the tracks, the music stops, the rat takes it. Nothing happens. I turn around and say to my assistant, ‘You asshole, get out there and put the mic in the right place. About four inches up and a little to the left.’ So he goes out and moves the mic over the rat a little bit. We start the music and it gets to the rat solo. I turn around and say, ‘What do you think, Yoko?’ She says, ‘It’s much better like that.’ And she’s dead serious.”
– Jack Douglas, January 1991
“This album is dedicated to my best friend John of the second sex.”
Here is a nice remix of the title track:
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In the studio for Flipside TV show
And Sean watching it years later on TV.