APPROXIMATELY INFINITE UNIVERSE
Released: January 8, 1973 – USA / February 16, 1973 – UK
By Madeline Bocaro ©
I infinitely love his album. Yoko rocks my universe! It has been with me since its release in 1973 – ingrained in my soul, arriving 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 and extrasensory knowledge. This is her third solo album – her second double album following Fly (1971).
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. The title track reflects the female plight, as do many of the songs on the brilliant double album.
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
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 the Rosies – a tough gang of male-bashing females who are not going to take things lying down anymore.
As with so many of her songs, there are clairvoyant images throughout the album that have (some sadly) come to be true.
‘A Song for John’ was an untitled demo recording made in 1967 before Yoko and John got together. It was written with the hope that she would find someone to ‘fly’ with. The lyrics predict the difficult winding road they 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. There is a longing for an earthly future with John that was not to be. Yoko seems to sense this 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
Mountains lie in a distance
like the future wed never reach…
The bed is shining like an old scripture that’s never been opened before…
Experience the song with this beautiful accompanying video by John Smith:
Here, Yoko performs “Winter Song” live in the studio on a TV show (Flipside) 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.
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
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
‘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.
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 at age 39 with her own simple piano accompaniment. Her clear, echoing voice recollects the past – feeling 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 gorgeous ‘Shiranakatta’ is sung in English, French and 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 lyrics convey a child’s frustration about her high-class parents’ non-acceptance of her uniqueness.
A woman rages at her man’s unfaithfulness 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.”
In ‘I Want My Love To Rest Tonight’ Yoko softens and sympathizes with the man she calls ‘pig’ in ‘Bastard’ because she knows he is just as afraid and lonely as women are.
Yoko produced and arranged the album. The Elephant’s Memory band are superb on the array of musical styles – from the funky ‘What Did I Do’ and ‘Kite Song’ to the wild rockers; ‘Yang Yang’, (on which Yoko used a chord progression that was prohibited by the Church in the Middle Ages, as these were believed to be the Devil’s chords) ‘Peter The Dealer’, ‘Move On Fast’ to the fluid and delicate ballads and the Calypso of the playfully sarcastic male putdown, ‘What A Mess’. The sax of Stan Bronstein is the star of the show on many tracks.
I didn’t mention all 22 songs, which are entirely incredible. Yoko pointed out to Rolling Stone – 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”.
“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
There is at least one unreleased 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
A dream we dream alone is only a dream
But dream we dream together is reality
– Yoko Ono, ‘Now Or Never’
Here is a nice remix of the title track:
“This album is dedicated to my best friend John of the second sex.”