The Tokyo Diary
January 3, 2012 | by Dean Wareham
Long time no e-mail and say hello Dean!
How are you? Thank you very much for invite me at your concert on October in Tokyo.
I am so happy to see you again at your concert. You looks very fine and almost satisfactory on your life. How long will you stay in Japan/Tokyo? Are you busy in Japan?
About me: I am not fine after the earthquake very much. It was so terribly happen. I have felt so sad and scared for a long time. I become nervous. I have not good sleep, any time crying. And became unable to make music and sing song directly from after the earthquake. I am a little worry about that I wonder I never make music again, some time.
Now I am better than before, but not perfect.
Music is saved me any time. I wish/believe it is so, also this time.
I never made it to Japan with Galaxie 500 in the summer of 1991 because I had quit the band in April, just a few months before we were scheduled to tour there. Unbeknownst to me, the promoter had already put tickets on sale for a Tokyo show. Unbeknownst to him, I had decided I didn’t want to be in my own band anymore.
Twenty years later I am playing these songs again but with a different trio, comprising my wife, Britta, on bass guitar and a drummer, Anthony, from Youngstown. The very same promoter booked two shows for us in Japan. After a four-month postponement on account of the earthquake (the first time I’ve ever seen the act-of-God clause in my contract applied), I finally found myself on an American Airlines flight from JFK to Tokyo. Anthony is growing a beard, starting today. “That way people will think it was a really life-changing trip when I get home,” he says.
I haven’t seen a plane this empty since 1976, and the flight attendants seem pleased that it’s going to be a quiet flight but nervous about rumors that the airline may soon file for bankruptcy.
“They want us to take another pay cut,” says the nice lady serving me my meal. “But we have given back too many times already. We can’t do it again.”
I am reading The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto by Kenji Nakagami and settle in with an erotic tale called “Red Hair”: It is a rainy morning and Kozo’s mysterious new girlfriend insists that they must go back to bed and have more sex. Because who knows how long it will rain like this?
It is raining too when we arrive at the Hotel Excel Shibuya. From our room high up we can see the square where hundreds of people cross in twenty different directions when the lights change.
Our friend Yoriko has arranged tickets for us to see the Yomiuri Giants game tonight. She meets us in the lobby and takes us to the Shibuya subway station, where we pass by the bronze statue of the celebrated faithful dog who, for nine years, came to this station at the same time each day to wait for his deceased master.
The game starts at 6 P.M. so we find ourselves riding the subway during rush hour. We are packed in with hardly any space to move and yet at the next stop twenty more people manage to get on. “Not so bad today,” says Yoriko.
The Tokyo Dome looks rather like the Metrodome in Minneapolis, shabby in the way that indoor stadiums are. One notable difference here: glass-walled smoking booths in the food-court area where you can get a fix between innings.
Yoriko watches every single home game from her front-row seat behind the first-base dugout and is on a wave-hello basis with a few of the Giants’ players. The Giants have a large and very vocal contingent in the bleachers who sing a different song for each Giant who comes to bat. But out in the left-field bleachers their opponents, the Yokohama BayStars, have their own singing fans. It is an awful lot of singing for what Yoriko assures me is a meaningless late-season game. Yokohama go up 5-1 in the seventh inning, and since we are fighting jetlag I suggest to Yoriko that maybe we could beat the traffic out of here, with the Giants being down by four runs and all. Yoriko dismisses this idea with a firm no; she doesn’t leave games early. No one else does either. Her optimism (or more accurately, loyalty) is almost borne out; the Giants fight back to 5-4 on a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. But then their luck ran out, and we hustled through the rain to the Suidobashi Station and back to Shibuya.
Yoriko takes us on a little wander in search of a late dinner. There’s a small sushi restaurant next door to a sex-toy emporium, but Britta says she doesn’t want to eat sushi right next to the sex shop so we find another.
Baseball games start at 6 P.M.; rock shows start at 7 P.M. I prefer this to taking the stage at 11 P.M. on a Thursday night in Philadelphia. Backstage at the Liquid Room, we are trying to staying awake before the show, eating rice cakes and unusual candy bars and staring at the poster of Kurt and Courtney on the wall, and I wonder whether I should drink a shot of something, as is my habit to loosen up before going onstage, or whether I should drink a cold can of Boss coffee because it feels like seven o’clock in the morning (which it is back home). I decide on a shot of Suntory whisky with a coffee chaser.
From the stage tonight I notice three different people crying as I sing “Blue Thunder,” which is a song about the power-steering action in my old 1975 Dodge Dart and doesn’t quite seem worth crying about, though admittedly it is also a song about being alone behind the wheel, and I wail about driving “so far away,” so maybe that’s what did it.
I recently played this song in São Paulo and young Brazilians sang and smiled and danced; it’s odd that the same song evokes smiles in São Paulo and tears in Tokyo. Of course there can be joy and sadness in a song at the same moment, and when you have been waiting five or ten or twenty years to hear a song live, it can hit you with surprising force.
After the show we chat with my musician friend A., who is all cried out and is now in a giddy, happy mood, and to another fellow who has saved his ticket from the show that never happened in 1991 and says he never imagined he would hear the songs live. He gives me a pack of what he says are rare, discontinued Japanese cigarettes, which is good because I have no idea what kind of cigarettes I should buy here.
The Asagiri Jam Festival takes place each year on a hillside in the shadow of Mount Fuji and sells out before they even announce who is playing. (Except for this year, because apparently the Japanese economy has not recovered from the crisis caused by the quake.)
Everyone here is camping; they come for the festival experience, that feeling of a rock-show community that, frankly, I never quite get myself. We see stylish Japanese hippies, clad like magical elves in wool, tights, shorts, and brightly colored hiking boots. Tents everywhere, a few people passed out sleeping on the grass while the bands play on. The one thing we cannot see is Mount Fuji, which is hidden by the clouds.
They don’t have big headlining rock acts like Coldplay or the Kings of Leon at Asagiri; instead they have Japanese funk by nattily dressed guys called Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro, Afrobeat from Seun Kuti (Fela’s youngest son), and DJ Shadow and DJ Scratchy. Also: dogs, children, frisbees, balloons, and a giant inflatable octopus.
I’m accustomed to playing festival slots either in the middle of the afternoon or at two in the morning, but today we get that prime early evening slot where day turns to night over the course of the hour on stage. It has been thrilling (well, not every night, but tonight certainly) to sing songs that I have barely touched for twenty years, like I too am traveling back through time, singing about girlfriends and automobiles past, and in a loud, high-pitched wail I didn’t know I still possessed.
Dean Wareham is a musician and writer. His memoir, Black Postcards, is now a Penguin paperback and his latest CD is 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests.