Yoko Ono has been reviled as John Lennon’s weird wife and patronized as his goofy widow, and even those who grant that her own music has its virtues don’t necessarily want to listen to it. But while Ono’s husband is hardly irrelevant to her art, it’s wrong to think she’s nothing without him. Long before she started making experimental records under Lennon’s wing, Ono was a rising star in New York’s early-’60s multimedia art scene, making the pain of female identity her theme. Paradoxically, the marriage that led to Ono’s best work also guaranteed that it wouldn’t be judged on its own merits. A-

Some may still wonder if her music deserves the accolade of a boxed set. The recently released Onobox — comprised of six lavishly annotated CDs culled from a dozen-odd albums, from the Lennons’ notoriously opaque 1968 sound collage, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions, to Ono’s 1985 Starpeace — looks like a vanity project. But it also gives Yoko Ono the avant- garde heroine her due.

The presence of Lennon and pals like Eric Clapton makes Onobox‘s ’60s material a document of rock’s Indian summer. But its curio value isn’t why it’s compelling; Yoko is why. The way she invents what others took for granted, renewing the ordinary by finding it odd, turns this collision of rock’s primitive energy and performance art’s self-dramatization into a preview of today’s musical hybrids.

London Jam, this compilation’s fierce first disc, assembles Yoko’s improbable early blends of improvised blues stomps and naked yet stylized keening. Her follow-ups, compiled here under the titles New York Rock and Run, Run, Run, had more traditional song structure, and their smoother cabaret style is less intense. But her most original lyrical and vocal gift, her emperor-has-no-clothes sensibility, remains. Hurting, but too resourceful and droll to be a victim, she’s a feminist scourge who moonlights as a pixie. Her catapulting ”Move On Fast” is a punk-jazz answer to the Beatles’ ”Ticket to Ride”; the meeting of asperity and pity makes ”I Want My Love to Rest Tonight” a women’s-lib update of The Threepenny Opera.

Ono’s work grew more accessible with 1980’s Double Fantasy and her solo output after John’s death, covered on Onobox‘s fourth and fifth CDs. (No. 6 is a painfully vulnerable solo album dating from the couple’s 1973-75 separation.) Even so, this is her banal phase. She isn’t making Yoko music but fake John-and-Yoko pop, minus John, and except when that loss is her subject the emotions are trite. Still, Onobox sums up an honorable, radical, difficult career. Ono gave her music a fond epitaph in ”Dogtown” — ”Someday I’ll be remembered for/The fine words I meant to keep/A warm smile I meant to leave/ And a true song I meant to finish all my life.” Her fans, though, will more likely cherish the liner-note comment she calls her message to the world: ”I love you…and up yours!” A-

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