It was an odd few days at home…no one else was there, my family was on vacation, really off the grid for the week. So we spoke once or twice a day, most of the time Dominique was detaching from the grid for a serious recharge. So, I worked. A lot. Mixing a great project from Holland, This Minor Side Effect. Taking cues from the modern edge of emo-punk, meaning concise, super tight songs, very melodic. Great material. I added things here and there, and mixed happily, usually til 2 or 3 in the morning, which not a luxury I can usually afford (I live with other humans). This meant during the morning I could catch up on a few mails, go to the bank, things I’d been putting off were put off no longer.
One afternoon I was in the bathroom, uh, tending to pertinent business, finding myself extremely annoyed that some guy was running his moped up and down the alley. I mean, really, I thought after 5 or 6 noisy small cc engine snarls. Then it dawned upon me: not a moped. Insect. Big. I snuck over to the bathroom’s exit, where I could see the kitchen window (note, the odd thing about this story is, the windows had all been shut tight since the night before, since it was cool at night already and during the day I was doing vocals so had to block street noise) and there, trying to get out, was a European hornet, what we call in French a ‘frelon’, a fierce and enormous creature whose body was the size of my thumb, wings about the length of my pinky. Oh….crap. A sting from these animals can be fatal if it’s near the throat. I moved slowly, picking up a towel and draping it in front of me as a kind of shield. I had to pass right behind it, in the small passage between the window and the fridge, the width of a door, which is very small indeed when sneaking by enormous venomous wasps. I took my time. No sudden movements. Got past him. Now, the handle to the window was hidden from his (her?) view by the small shopping bag I was using as a temp garbage bag. So I reached out, twisted it slowly, slowly drew the window open….and the creature freed itself.
Tuesday night I biked to the other side of the 11eme and went to see Bigott, his band featuring Paco & Muni Loco, i.e. the proprietors of the studio where the last Posies album was made; and Esteban Perles, who was the drummer in the performance of “Hedwig” I did in Spain a couple of years ago. Plus Joan Vich Montaner is the manager, I’ve known Joan since he was booking shows on Mallorca in the mid 90s, and Eva is his s.o., she books shows in and around El Puerto, we’ve also worked together. So, great company. The Bigott album I have is a kind of intense freak folk, minmal, dark…but this was party music. Imagine if a time warp had dropped a Mika album into 1960s Brazil, and a highly gifted hippie was given the lead role. Bigott and his scraggly beard, his tired old man eyes, and his relaxed offstage demeanor makes for a shock when you see him onstage dancing, jumping…it makes perfect sense tho.
After the show I went back home by Velib and mixed til I had tear myself away at like 2am so I could get some sleep. Out the door at 9.30, and I have to say, despite my complaints about CDG airport, those complaints being based mostly on Terminal 1, Being out at the M gates in Terminal 2E is pretty comfortable.
Arriving in Japan, the 11 hour flight was too short. Coulda slept a couple more hours. It’s always that way. Masao, from the label, met me at the airport and we took the express train in to Shibuya. Dropped my stuff at the hotel, but even on the way there a cafe caught my eye and it’s here that we parked ourselves for morning cafe. Cafe Bleu, one of 5 restaurants owned by the energetic and flawlessly self composed Hisae Iwakura. Ms. Iwakura, a former child actor, seems to have learned discipline early on and taken it to extreme form. Crisp and fresh, her latest establishment puts a focus on Japanese made products in the European tradition–charcuterie, cheese, wine…all from Japanese small producers. She also serves top quality espresso; when I had a macchiato there, it was nutty and balanced, easily coming within the quality of a top Seattle cafe. I haven’t been able to make it to her other establishments, which include restaurants/bars with Japanese or Spanish menus, but I can see that this newest place is her baby–her office is her, and she was here every day and night when I passed by for coffee or a glass of wine. She also consults for other restaurants on design and theme. Cafe Bleu would satisfy any gourmand’s standards, and yet it is by design both friendly and unintimidating, and really, by Tokyo standards, inexpensive, esp considering the quality.
After coming in a couple of times by the time the first show came around, she’d been curious enough to ask what we were up to, and ended up coming to see me play. And for the spot on the guest list, we had quite an exchange…more on that later.
First things first. We had our coffee, and then went on to lunch. A suhsi-robo type place, you know, conveyer belt of food coming by and you can request stuff too. Now, there’s a place like this next to the Paradiso in Amsterdam, that’s so so sushi and devastatingly expensive–my modest pre-show dinner with Dom & Aden was like €50. I ate like a king at this place, the food was mindblowing and I spent like €10. And I didn’t even dig as deeply as I did on my return visit.
I did my utter best to stay awake for the day, and that evening made my way out to Jad Fair’s art opening at Hiromart Gallery, his wonderful paper cuts, with Chagall-eyed horses and aliens and other images, intricately extracted in mirror image from black paper. Jad even gave us an impromptu a capella performance. Jad is ostensibly sane, in a stable relationship, apparently lucid. But, fellow Austin-ite Daniel Johnston comes to mind frequently, if just the boy’s voice that emanates from a man’s body, and maybe also for the exaggerated sense of morality as a pure landscape with large forms, like a chessboard, the black queen and white queen are known and identifiable. Jad’s more inclined to celebrate love as a giddy optimist, and there’s where their paths diverge, he & Mr. Johnston. However, you can also pick up similar themes in their freehand drawings, too…and to make matters more blurred, Norman Blake is a frequent collaborator with both artists. Much of the show Norman & Jad show was devoted to Daniel Johnston covers…so, take from that what you will.
In any case, the three of us were pie-eyed after two glasses of wine, or beer, and I was a-stumblin’ home from there when I popped in to Cafe Bleu for a glass, and Hisae suggested a glass of Japanese red wine, having me guess the cepage. It tasted like a Burgundy Pinot, but I’d been fooled like so many others–it was a merlot, exhibiting a lightness I’d never seen it do. It was as if we were on a planet whose gravitational field caused the normally burdened to cavort. I came back to life, as it were. Just long enough to enjoy. Then to bed by midnite.
And woke up *fifteen* hours later. That’s a weird feeling. I looked at my phone, thinking it must have popped on to a different time zone…but it was true. I’d slept til 3 in the afternoon. A mix of jet lag and I think general exhaustion. Well. I had just enough time to shower up and head out the door to the show, which was around the corner. There was a lot to do, including a three way interview with Norman, Jad and myself. I had a digital piano, and a beautiful Gretsch duo-jet, an old one, scuffed up and very handsome.
Now, I’d missed breakfast and lunch with that sleeping stunt so I popped into the “Lawson” downstairs, this being a ubiquitous convenience store, there are also 7-Elevens a-plenty in Japan. The fun thing is, the standards for Japanese food are so high that even here you can find wholesome food even in a convenience store. The nattomaki I had were a far cry from, say, a microwaved burrito. It just doesn’t have an industrial feel to it. I would say that the sushi/maki I had from convenience stores were on the whole a step above that which you can buy at a Whole Foods in the US, in terms of freshness and quality. Natto is very hard to mess up. For starters, technically, it’s already spoilt. Fermented soybeans, caught in the act of decomposition, it’s considered healthy as it’s pure protein but softened by enzymes and easier to digest.
Just before they went on, I convinced the singer of Hot Shotz, the swing quartet that opened the evening, to do the duet with me, unrehearsed…she was horrified, but she had to agree, I put her on the spot. Of course she was doing her best reading English off a sheet…people love this, tho.
I played the middle slot, to a packed house, quickly dispensed with being onstage, or using mics, rendering the soundcheck as usual largely moot. Great response. The show went so quickly….I’m not used to this 40-60 minutes thing….it was wonderful, warm and well received…and quickly over. I enjoyed Norman and Jad’s set, the would trade off doing 4-5 numbers each, one singing and the other playing drums. They both did a lot of Daniel Johnston songs, and Norman did a few TFC numbers, and Jad did some Half Japanese songs. Jad plays a guitar that he’s decorated, that appears to be held together by a series of capos and packing tape. The strings are loose, untuned, and he bends the neck to create a warped, fuzzy monster kind of sound…that’s the best way I can describe it. The set ended when the neck of his guitar came off. I imagine that’s a fairly regular occurrence, tho it’s still a shock to see.
Now, after the show, Tatsuya from Rockbottom and I stopped by Cafe Bleu…and Hisae pulled out the stops (she was at the show, and loved it)….we ended up tasting several Japanese red wines, and Japanese cheeses in the European style. Beautiful, light and tender reds, again, they are commonly Merlot tho there are Japanese grapes as well, but they express themselves like a mature Burgundy. Some of these wines are young, but since they are generally low in alcohol–11.5-12%, we can imagine that an old Burgundy might have decayed down to 11% over the years, and take on similar characteristics. I pulled out the guitar and did a few songs over the course of the evening…epic night and, WOAH! It was almost 5 when I got home.
So I slept in til 2. Tonight’s show was in a basement bar on the other side of Shibuya, called Last Waltz. Little concrete art space. I was backstage making calculations for the upcoming Big Star Third gigs, sipping tea and having some convenience store sushi! There were several artists playing: My duet partner, Satoko Shibata, who did intense acoustic guitar songs, very serious. Masahiro Naoe, who was in the band Carnation, who did jazzy songs on acoustic guitar with a serious, almost operatic voice; Sawabe from the band Skirts, who beat the crap out of his Les Paul and threw sweat everywhere, kind of an XTC herky-jerky vibe to his songs. Then they started to come back during the set; Satoko did the duet, beautifully; Naoe and I did a version of “Thirteen”, then everyone was onstage, including Sawabe on drums, for a version of “September Gurls”. For my part, I had a Yamaha grand piano, so I stayed there, mostly, even re-arranging the chairs so people could be close at hand. I played so hard I bashed my head on the piano in mid song. Really into it!
Crossed town on the train, to new digs, in Ogikubo. Venue around the corner. Tiniest little place you’ll see. It dawned upon me that Japan, with its smoke-friendly atmosphere, obsession with power pop, all nighters, and so on…is more Spain than Spain. It’s like what Spain was a few years ago, including cheap. I know Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world, but, like London, you spend your money on your little shoebox flat; your reward is that food can be had for almost nothing. And unlike Britain…in Japan, it’s almost always good and healthy.
WHICH reminds me, Tatsuya and I returned for lunch to the same sushi-conveyor joint I went on my arrival day, and this time I pulled out the stops. Raw horse sushi. Whelks, sweet and tender. Squid ovaries. “Uni Supreme”. A tennis-ball sized whelk whose Christmas tree-green guts were removed and presented outside the shell, and whose orange flesh was a crunchy counterpoint. Mindblowing!
The show was opened by Beat Caravan, who I missed. I was having dinner and resting at the hotel, dinner being some strange vegetables, there was an organic grocery across the street and I just bought things that looked interesting, not knowing what they were. There was a pickled something or other that lived in a bright yellow sauce that turned out to….ahhHH! super hot mustard.
I got to the show in time to see the Zoobombs, who play a revved up scuzz garage/gospel mix, always brilliant (and singer Don sporting his Posies shirt). Rockbottom pumped up solid pub rock, modernized to some degree. Then I set up my piano on the club’s floor and busted out my set, and stayed there while onstage Rockbottom backed me for three Posies songs…they did an excellent job, really impressed Tatsuya learned the “Solar Sister” solo. We followed this with The Zoobombs backing me for a deranged, supercharged version of “Yours for the Taking”, and finally, Rockbottom returned to the stage for a version of “Shake Some Action”, I was surprised by how many words I actually did know…my voice was destroyed but I stayed for the after party and started adding rum to my iced tea, and was still in bed by midnite.
Here started a run of show attendances by one Tom, whom I know from my shows in Singapore, who’s a fan of Big Star, the Posies, and even me. He brought his family for a vacation in Japan and also they attended the shows–himself, his wife Jen, and their adorable daughter Gillian, who in the quieter shows where she could be close to the stage, would simply make comments. “Ken……what’s your favorite color?”. Hilarious.
Great duet from Etsuko from the band The Pebbles
Despite having to change hotels on Monday morning, I wasn’t in too bad of shape. I pretty much parked myself all day in a fast food restaurant that seemed to be the only wifi around, caught up on the flood of Big Star Third related emails. Finally at about 7.30 I figured I should eat, took some sushi and a beer next door, then went back to the hotel for a hot bath, and was in bed shortly after nine.
I got up around 7 and was brave enough to navigate the various types of train– regional rail, metro, etc–to get to Tsukiji fish market. The place tolerates tourists, as long as they come after the bulk of the sales are done, starting at 9am. You can book yourself one of 160 spots for the tuna auction at 5, but…honestly, let’s stay sane here. I would have been there pretty close to nine had I not spent about 30 minutes trying to figure out where to go inside the miles of sprawl within Shinjuku station. Even a small metro or train station in Tokyo is a maze of shops and passageways…while in Ginza metro I tried to find “Sukiyabashi Jiro” of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” fame….impossible.
Once at the market, I just wandered down endless rows of odd creatures…football-sized mussels, buckets of writhing small eels…there were a couple of long, saw-nosed creatures that I’d never seen before, more for the lab than the kitchen. Overwhelming. Tuna carcasses like sides of beef, maybe bigger in some cases. Guys manipulating man-sized blocks of ice. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, so first I stopped in for an ice coffee and some wifi to get my head on straight. There were lines out the door for some of the sushi restaurants inside the market, one had a special roped off area to accommodate an even longer line. I went in to a place with no line (remember folks, this is just ten a.m., too) and had excellent sashimi. Then…I had to find my way out. Uh oh. It was a miracle that I did. The building is mostly square, and the same everywhere inside, but there is a curving covered main promenade for forklifts, but that curve at that point, could have been leading me to either end of it. Luckily, I guessed correctly, and was back in the fast food joint wifi-ing up soon after.
One good thing in the neighborhood is an old time-y soba restaurant, I had lunch there with Kohei, drummer of Rockbottom, and his wife, on Monday. Cold soba noodles are really one of the best antidotes for sticky and slimy weather. Tuesday I had an interview, with Masao as the interviewer, and he wrangled up a delicious bowl of natto-soba, cold. That hit me where I live.
We cabbed over to the club in the early evening. “Poor Cow”, owned by Fifi from Teengenerate, tiny bar stuffed up in a teetering little building. Things were a little rickety at first, the keyboard was just a synth in danger of imploding at any second, we managed to replace it with some calls. Little tiny amp. No need for the PA, really. I did the best I could to set up and headed down to the Chinese place on the ground floor of the same building. Menus was in Chinese & Japanese, and, occasionally, photos, which is what I ordered from. Spicy eggplant with bits of ground meat; some cold pickled vegetables swimming in a red spicy sauce; a brick of tofu with 1,000-year-old eggs as a garnish. Well, that seemed to be pretty good fuel–what followed was a more typical, nearly two-hour show. Basically a living room vibe at the Poor Cow, No need for a PA really. Hey Takahashi who played before me, is truly a nut case. Armed with a sampler that produced various abbatoir-derived synth sounds, and pounding his poor guitar within an inch of its life, he howled out covers and originals…repeating the original versions’ repeats to comic effect, for example, his version of “Trans-Europe Express” featured an exact copy of the original’s every utterance of the title. And then there was “Alabama Song”. Totally deranged. The guy looks like a schoolboy, conservative except for the blazer he was wearing, which was basically a Hawaiian shirt pattern. OK.
Tough act to follow, but I brought a sense of calm to the proceedings, and just…played. Covers, too, became part of the spontaneous joy of the evening. I was surprised that I remembered “I’d Rather You Leave Me”, the absolute gem of a nugget by the Choir, that was covered on the 1998 album by Chariot. My duet tonite was with Tomoko, bass player of SuperSnazz, the all girl rock band that charmed Seattle so well in the 90s. I hadn’t seen her in a few years, wonderful to reconnect this way.
I was invited by Hisae for lunch at Cafe Bleu. This meant a little more train navigation, which I managed. On the way to the train, I took a small assortment of sushimaki and sat on a bench in the sun outside the train station, knowing I would get to Cafe Bleu well before lunch, all the better to use their wifi, since my hotel was barren of it. Now, an interesting dilemma follows–what to do with the empty container after eating my improvised breakfast? Not a bin in sight. Nothing in the station. Not even in the bathrooms (there’s no soap provided and nothing to dry your hands with either). I searched high and low, and soon reconciled myself to the fact I would be spending the better part of the day with this empty plastic food container. I packed it in to my bag. Now, Cafe Bleu, being basically next door to my former hotel in Shibuya, is a good 15 minute walk from the Shibuya train station, but thankfully there’s the Keio line, which has a little tiny station called Shinsen right around the corner from my destination.
And just outside the station, a Lawson convenience store. Now, the reason no bins are provided in public places is that they are considered a tempting place for potential terrorists to plant a bomb; this is also why, as a holdover from the Troubles, you don’t see them in Britain, either. Not sure who is planting bombs in Japan these days, but I guess they imagine the situation could worsen for some reason — and Japan’s lack of bins stands in an inversely useful state of readiness for such an event, er, preventing said event from taking place. So, the bins are like a kind of butterfly effect in reverse, the future non-event determining…er, have a headache now.
In any case, the good employees of Lawson are not there just to serve you prepackaged coffee capsules. They are there to potentially take a bomb in the face, and they bravely provide bins out of a sense of civic duty.
Got to the cafe, and asked to have a cafe. “No, lunch only. Sorry.”. “I have an appointment with Hisae”. “She is not here today. Sorry”. “Uh….OK, lunch please. AND a cafe!”. Then Hisae arrived, and suddenly things were quite different–everybody got it. We had a delightful lunch. They have a simple set menu with pasta, or a hamburger. What they do with it is elegant and refined. I had risotto, with a medallion of lamb on top, 3 slices of pumpkin, two slices of daikon, a sprinkling of tiny chives and a hint of cheese. The flavors were rich, and subtle, I wasn’t expecting a risotto to work so hard to please me…
afterwards, I made my way to Shimokitazawa. On this visit I had much more time to explore the neighborhood, which is one of the most exciting and at the same time charming shopping and lifestyle neighborhoods I’ve seen in the city. In fact, I would compare Shimokitazawa with my own neighborhood in Paris; it’s not the first place listed in the tourist guides, but, in a way, it should be. The number of cool shops and restaurants is uncountable. Not only is Japan’s most venerable record store, Disk Union, there–which has unbelievable vintage vinyl, used and new CDs and DVDs, etc; but perhaps the most intense destination shopping experience is Village Vanguard, we can call it a gift shop, but that would fall short. It’s a lot of everything, stuffed into a retail experience. Toys, books, stationery, household items…sections devoted to merchandise related to classic Japanese animated films–an “Akira” section, a Studio Ghibli section…this was the ultimate place for me to search for small items, both frivolous (puffy stickers that had water in them so there tiny plankton-like things floating in the images) and practical (a gorgeous set of pastels; no one does art supplies like Japan), for Aden.
I also stopped for a cafe, we had what I presume to be a very expensive iced cafe, then I was ready. Now, meantime, when I arrived at the venue that afternoon, I was told my duet partner, the singer from Hot Shotz who sang w me impromptu the week before, was not coming. My other duet partners from the other Tokyo shows were not available. Uh oh…Then Ayu Tokio showed up. Ayu is a boyish figure, but he’s a formidable luthier, songwriter, and boy did he and his gal Max save the day. She was totally afraid to be put on the spot, to learn a song in English, no less, but we gave her lyrics, a link to listen to the song, and she had the afternoon to go over it. She agreed if Ayu could join on guitar. When I came back from my shopping/dining excursion, we ran thru the song backstage and she’d done an impressive job learning the song. Then they did their set. Ayu’s band has him on guitar–a lovely vintage Yamaha that he rescued from the dead; Max on keys and backing vocals; a bass player; a superb, jazzy drummer who also does backing vocals; viola, violin and flute. Ayu writes all the arrangements. The songs are ambitious, as you can imagine. A little Zombies, but with the trademark major-chord tendencies of Japanese guitar pop.
I set up during the DJ set that followed, and started my set, bringing in the audience, the performance space was separated from the rest of the club by either a total wall or a partial wall, and the trick is to get everyone inside. Done. With the piano moved to the floor in front of the stage, I did a mic-less performance. For the end, Ayu and Max joined me for “Doesn’t It Remind You of Something”, he & i trading off licks and smiles. Lovely. Again, I was just getting warmed up by the time it was over, no one expects me to play more than an hour…too easy.
After the show I cabbed to the hotel, and realized it was a little early for bed, so I crossed the walkway to the far side of the street, and standing at a counter by the coffee machine, grabbed wifi til 3am, booking flights for all the Big Star Third musicians who still needed it.
Masao met me that morning at ten. Where my hotel these nights was was on a quite main street, with an elevated roadway on top of the surface street–the effect is that the roadway is quite intimidating, and gives the businesses on that street the feeling of being under an overpass, so not so cozy. The result is that the street is pretty quiet but not without businesses. For example, next to the hotel was a country & western bar…man, I *really* wanted to go in there, but it closed at ten p.m., so never open when I was around. Since the street was not revitalizing, there were some older businesses there, such as the excellent soba restaurant where I lunched twice. And, a sweet shop. Basically, a little glass display and behind that you could peer into a tiny kitchen where a granny made various sweet bean cakes, and kanpiyo maki. “Dried gourd shavings” is now it translates. I would call the fruit more of a melon, well, somewhere between melon and squash. LIke peeling an orange so the peel is one piece in a long spiral, the fruit is shaved into strips, and hung out to dry like laundry, hanging over a line. This is sweetened, and the result is something like quince paste. This is put into maki, for example, and the final product is a delightful variation of the salt-sweet combo, the tangy nori, dry and crisp, versus the interior of the maki, sticky and rich.
This tided me over til we got to the Shinkansen, I was so looking forward to my bento lunch, and it was fun to select it and attack it as soon as we were under way. The sheer variety of colors and shapes is a delight in itself, and the flavors…from sour pickled vegetables to an entire tiny octopus…it was entertainment package, not just a meal. It was big too. Thus…my late night of work, the almost undetectable momentum of the bullet train, the sun thru the window, full stomach…yep…zzzzz.
Once in Nagoya we took a local train which had a stop right across from the hotel, pretty nice place. After some chill time we cabbed over to the venue, which wasn’t really necessary but it was kind of welcome. Tokuzo is mostly a jazz/R&B club–it’s hosted Mavis Staples, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, etc. Beautiful wooden interior, and the back of the stage is a diffusor, made of roughly 6″ x 6″ blocks of varying depth, like we have in recording studios (tho the blocks are usually much smaller there). So, a great natural sound. The piano tuner had just finished tuning the upright. Jad & Norman were there, and the Tenniscoats, a wonderful duo with vocalist Saya, who was also my duet partner, singing and playing keys and percussion, and guitarist Takashi, who plays a nylon string, just holding it against is standing body, no strap.
By the time soundcheck was done, I had just an hour, Masao and I grabbed some gyoza, Chinese dumplings, and yakisoba (you might call it chow mein, if you were from my grandpa’s generation. Though my grandpa, who was from San Francisco, said — ‘never eat a Chinese restaurant that advertises Chow Mein, it’s not authentic!’). Came back and soon I was on, I was the opener tonite. Still, the place was full already and I have to say, there’s nothing quieter than a Japanese audience at a folk/art concert. Perfect conditions for me to do my thing. I spent a lot of time at the piano, tho, playing a lovely rendition of “You’re A Sign”. Saya and I did the duet in the middle of the club, she already barefoot which is how she likes to perform. She sang her part mezzosoprano, as opposed to the alto of the original, which was spooky and beautiful, like having a spirit possessing her.
For the rest of the night I could enjoy watching the Tenniscoats set, where Jad and Norman made vocal contributions, sometimes in Japanese; and Jad & Norman’s set. I had confirmed my suspicion that Jad’s guitar is set to collapse into pieces every night; but he added that until Tokyo he merely velcroed the neck onto the body–now he had a system of rubber bands that gave him something like a whammy bar effect, bending the entire neck tho. Still, it falls apart on cue at the end of the show.
After the show, the obligatory cheers but this time, food was served. Oh no! A second dinner. And I couldn’t resist, nor could I resist the 4 glasses of wine served me. It was great to catch up with Norman and other friends, tho. To sober up ever so slightly, I walked back to the hotel, pleasant night as it was.
The morning was kind. We were not in a hurry, had a green tea cake and iced coffee in the hotel, then we took the metro to the main station, and then a regional, non bullet train straight to Namba station in Osaka, right next door to the club. Another bento, no nap tho. Straight on in and soon Shonen Knife was setting up. I have to say, to have a band as legendary as Shonen Knife come in and set up so they can OPEN for you is surreal. That’s how they roll, tho. Generous and they sure love the Posies (recall that for the band’s 20th anniversary, they invited us to Japan to open for them).
While we were in the hotel lobby coffee shop in Nagoya, someone’s ringtone was a few seconds of “Jupiter” from Holst. *Not* the few seconds that I poached for the mandolin solo in “Any Love” but a different melody, but I recognized it instantly. No slouch, and a Tower Records employee and music journalist for many years, Masao also called it.
Soundchecks and rehearsals were done, and then on to the hotel to check in, and after working for a couple of hours, the bento had already worn off and it was time for dinner. I walked back to the club and Masao had gotten the skinny from Shonen Knife about where to get the ultimate okonomiyaki, the Osaka specialty. It’s called a pancake, you could also call it an omelet. I don’t care what you call it. The place we went is legendary for it, and it’s cooked right before your eyes, Benihana-style. What I love is that after this pile of egg, octopus, and…not sure what else is cooked into patty, it’s flipped over onto…another frying egg. And the yakisoba we had — noodles onto the griddle with a scoop of lard, egg added later. Now. People. Explain to me: a country where 90% of every meal are carbs (rice), where almost everyone smokes and smoking is permitted everywhere (my eyes are still stinging from the smoky clubs, and it will take days to wash the smell out of my hair), and where cholesterol is A-OK (a lot of egg is eaten, tho hardly any cheese)…and every one lives to be 90. Come on, motherfuckers…EXPLAIN ME! I guess that rice is something that you don’t have to eat a lot of to feel full, so despite the fact that your meal is carb heavy, the meal is not meal heavy. And the high amount of fish omega 3′s do some magic on the cholesterol buildup. And, the fermented food…this is the magic component. Guess how much fermented food is around? Uh, *soy sauce*, anyone? Not just natto, but that helps. Read the recent NY Times article on this fermented food expert and his views on the relation of fermented foods and general health.
Well, I was certainly satisfied by the meal. And Japan has helped me discover a great secret–before and during the show I drink only tea–various kinds of iced tea are the most common soft drink in Japan. So, I can switch to wine, or, if they don’t have it, whiskey, after the show, and never get that far down the whiskey river before it’s time to go. Genius.
So, back to the show. The first band, Boys Order, fronted by pink-haired bassist Chihiro, was doing their punked up set. Rockbottom played an arena-worthy set. Then Shonen Knife took to the stage. They are consummate performers, no detail–walk on music, choreographed headbanging–left undeveloped. The sound is huge, they look like a million bucks. I love watching Emi, the drummer, play, bouncing in her chair to the beat, and giving big open mouthed look of surprise before a particularly strong accent. In fact, the joy of seeing this band, even tho I’ve seen them several times over the years, thru different lineups, was such that I was standing there in the crowd with my mouth open for the first ten minutes. Oh, but I had work to do! So, I went backstage and got my jacket off, and got ready to head to the stage as called. I learned on guitar two songs from their latest album, which they play back to back as an almost medley–the title track, “Pop Tune” and a pean to their hometown, “Osaka Rock City”. I sang the third verse of the latter, and harmonies throughout. It was an astonishing honor to be asked to play with them, something I don’t think they do often, and even if they do…as I said to the audience, this was a seriously prime example of “smoking dope with the pope”.
My set was incredibly well received, me just banging it out on the floor like I do. Naoko, Shonen Knife’s singer, joined me for the duet, un mic’d as is my style. She had hidden the lyrics in a children’s book, so sweet. Next verse….turn the page. Towards the end of the song, while we were still down in the audience, Emi and Ritsuko snuck onstage, and started to play along. This segued into the end of the set, where the band backed me on “110 or 220V” and “You’re the Gold”. The versions were fast, and…happy. The wistful longing of 110 sounded much more celebratory, and it certainly has the right to. I was just high as a kite when we were finished.
Encore #1: Rockbottom backed me for the trio of Posies songs we played earlier in the week in Tokyo. I went back down with my mic into the pit, and couldn’t help but scream the end of “Ontario”.
Encore #2: Duet with me and Rockbottom on “Shake Some Action”, with Shonen Knife, and Chihiro doing various backing vocals. Me, shaking my action, like a total idiot. Glorious.
Encore #3: on Ina’s Les Paul, I did “Life is Right”, “Moon River”…honestly, I could have gone on and on, the audience was so into it…but I had to save some of my voice for the next show, I knew I had an early morning.
Up at 5.30, and at 6.30 Masao and Kohei were at the hotel to meet me, and Kohei actually brought me a nattomaki and a spicy tuna one, so kind. We walked to the Namba station and got the airport bus to Kansai, I changed my yen to Euros and we had time for a quick coffee, and then….off to the flight. Korean Air’s fleet is sparkling and new, I got some sleep and then we landed in Incheon. Holy smokes…that is a serious showcase for the country, it’s spanking new international airport…shimmering, high tech…busy with the business of travel but not bustling or chaotic. And efficient, I was out the door pretty quicklike. Credit to Osaka Kansai as well for being really quick with security and other formalities. Spend some time at airports overseas–Osaka, Kuala Lumpur, and Seoul are great examples. Singapore….Shanghai…and then you’ll be scratching your head at the pockmarked airports of the USA. Crowded, dirty, structurally questionable (JFK, anyone?), these are bus terminals with runways. Seoul Incheon is practically a destination in itself….it feels like a 5 star hotel.
Outside I was met by Steve and Heekyung, my hosts for the weekend. They drove me into Seoul. Seoul is pretty difficult to get a grip on, geographically. It’s more a substance than topography–it’s more or less postwar architecture poured into every valley, amongst a knot of small mountains. The mountains, more like tall pointy hills, are surprisingly green. Below them, a sea of concrete. Very little of Seoul’s history is represented–the Korean War, during which Seoul was won or lost by the two sides several times, leveled the city. I wonder, in fact, if the Royal Palaces are in fact complete reconstructions. One thing that was never rebuilt–the monarchy. The Japanese arrived in 1910 and summarily executed, exiled or otherwise sidelined and effectively ended the Korean monarchy. Japan’s treatment of Korea during its nearly 40 years of occupation is noted by its brutality; Korea was merely a place from which to strip trees and other resources…everything, including local women, was a resource to be requisitioned without payment, without permission, without pity. Japan had an empire to build.
The city, which in recent years has exploded to become the developed world’s largets metropolis (25 million souls and counting) was rebuilt after the war years. So, it’s a fairly unflattering sprawl of endless tower blocks, and a few pleasantly winding neighborhoods of modest shops and restaurants. The club was nestled in one of the most lively and trendy ones, Hongdae. Here the small business, bundled on top of one another in a delightful display of freedom of consumer choice, displayed uh….wanton…uh…disregard for the homogeneity of residential architecture as expressed locally. There were many kinds of modern structures, some wooden things doing their best to look a little old, many kinds of concrete fantasies. We came to the club, Sally’s Guitar, to hang a few banners about. There’s a real Sally, who’s in the place every night, herself a guitarist and singer. She owns the place and doesn’t exactly push every angle to get the place known. Some bands come and play blues, funk, R&B…a few people come in and drink beer or whiskey. She’s happy. The fact that I arrived, brought in 30-40 people, was probably a week’s worth of business. Whatever tax write off she gets on this place normally, I royally fucked that up. But she agreed to have me play, and she gets points for that. She even bought a CD at the end of the night.
After our poster hanging session, we went next door and had nyangmaeon, which is a traditional form of cuisine from the Northern side of Korea, which in the days before the Communist partition, was considered the more posh, educated, elite half of the country. They like their noodles cold, noodles a bit like soba, more al dente, swimming in clear broth, with a few goodies to round it out, and of course some chili to mix in. Wonderful and refreshing.
Then back to Steve and Heekyung’s apartment, on the 17th floor of a very typical tower block, in a mellow University area. Steve teaches law here. Heekyung is corporate counsel for a bank; they met when they were in law school in St. Louis. I met Steve when he decided to bop into my show in Cincinnati in February; he was home visiting his mom. Steve is the kind of guy to strike up a conversation with strangers–he has a thirst for travel and new languages (lived in Russia, is learning Arabic at the moment) and music and new friends. It wasn’t long before he’d secured my accommodations for after the show, and not long after that that we were talking about having me play in Seoul. They were wonderful hosts, housing me in their spare room, and putting tremendous energy into making the show happen. I’m most grateful.
Returning to the show, I set up and rehearsed with ‘Amy’, singer of Pegasus, my support act. Pegasus is a kind of University glee club, in that it’s an organization via the university where Steve teaches (whose mascot is in fact, Pegasus). In fact, students who graduate have to leave the band and make room for freshmen. This lineup played covers, some of which I recognized, notably the Arctic Monkeys. Amy, the singer, also agreed to do the duet, really on the spot (we were holding out to see if Sally would do it, but she rather dodged the subject). Now, here at the club, I also was reunited with Lex, a dear friend for a quarter of a century. I’ve known her since she was a teenage supporter of the Posies starting in our earliest days, saw her mature into adulthood, passing thru as the singer of a band in the ‘East Side’ suburbs of Seattle, and been in touch as she’s been living abroad, in Korea & Australia. She’s a bright, helpful, good soul. I hadn’t seen her in some time, and it was surreal to finally meet up again in Seoul. Steve, she & I went to catch some food, in this case a smorgasbord of organ meat, and a stew with a kind of fish sausage in it. She had some things to show me in the neighborhood, so we went to ArtBox, a store which has gift items and stationery (more treats for Aden). Then, back to the show. Pegasus took the stage, shy but giving it their all, loved that the guitarists shared a can of grape soda for their onstage beverage. The place actually filled up, and I can say that the vibe was totally unusual. There were times when I wondered if I was connecting at all, except with Steve, Lex, Heekyung and Pegasus, there was a lot of poker face in the room. There was a table with some Western faces, an American, and a Canadian, and I didn’t catch where the other bloke was from, they were a bit drunk so sometimes they were chatty, which sort of threw me off a little, I was already feeling very self conscious with the extreme out of context situation. My voice wasn’t as strong, either, after the screaming I did the night before coupled with the early morning. But, I carried on, hoping for the best in terms of impact. In fact, everybody loved the show, but they way they would show that during the performance was too much of a cipher for me to get it…it’s good to be out on a limb, tho. After I did what I felt was a decent set, I brought up Amy, whose sensitivity and dedication to getting the song right was so admirable, it was a beautiful moment.
For an encore, I had heard from Steve that Sally was something of a Neil Young fan…getting her onstage was like pulling teeth, but she pulled out an acoustic and gamely did her best to come along with me on “Tell Me Why”…then she scurried off…I did one more Neil tune, then ‘Thirteen’, then closed it with ‘Solar Sister’ and called it a night. I received so many compliments, people really had loved it.
Then, another band set up…started playing funk. Time to go drink! We went to a place directly above the noodle place where we had lunch, itself being more or less next door to Sally’s. Here we had jeon a kind of crispy pancake, and lots of makkoli, which was love at first sip for me. Makkoli is a rice wine, seemed to come in plastic bottles, generally, you have to tumble it a bit to get the separated parts to mix–there’s a watery, clear portion which on its own would probably be very similar to sake, and there’s a milky, creamy portion. It’s a complex and extremely refreshing blend of sensations–the coolness of the creamy part, and its blandness muting the fire of the more fortified part. There’s a sourness, a crisp note of green apple, a faint hint of straw, and the almost sweet sensation lurking in the creamy portion. Served in metal bowls, it’s the drink of choice for Korean hikers coming off a hot mountain trail. The sweet/sour/warming/cooling aspects never dominate, like the snake eating its own tail it goes around and around…well, you can drink a lot of it. They say it has quite a kick to it, but I imagined it to be like 20% alcohol, akin to sherry, perhaps. It was delightful and I made sure to drink a lot of it! We didn’t get back to the apartment until 3.30am.
The next day was a slow start, of course…delicious for the fact that I didn’t have to travel or perform. We got in the car, grabbed some coffee, and headed for Imjingak, aka the region of the DMZ. The DMZ is a major tourist attraction…the threat of mass destruction being several orders of scary above a rollercoaster (tho, at the park where you uh, park, before being bused to the DMZ’s edge itself, there are carnival rides). It’s about an hour or so drive north from Seoul, and Steve’s place is already on the northern edge, handy. Um, we forgot to bring our passports, and Heekyung actually figured it out just shortly after leaving. Got those…on our way. Parked in the nearly full parking lot at the main welcome center, bought out tickets, found we had 30 minutes to kill, so, lunch. Beautiful day. I led the charge, ordered, paid…mokkoli, of course! And then some new delights — acorn jelly–a brown almost custard like concoction served in cold slices on spicy vegetables; and a spicy pile of pig intestines, kimchee, vegetables. So good. We wolfed it down, got to the bus, me drinking the res of my mokkoli straight from the bottle. Can’t let *that* go to waste and it’s fizzy enough that leaving it in the car would be a bad idea. So, I was pleasantly buzzed for the attractions. First stop: a tunnel that was discovered in the 1970s, used for moving spies and assassination teams into South Korea from the north. It was blocked and shut down, and now a large tunnel has been bored down so you can walk down into the original tunnel…itself a damp tunnel where standing up is impossible, and thank god for the hard hats issued…I banged my head on the roof of the tunnel a couple of times.
Second stop is the one you want, a large observation deck where you can peer over the no man’s land that separates the two halves of Korea. With binoculars, you can see over to the towns and villages on the other side, with gorgeous mountains behind them. It’s known that these towns visible from South Korea should be an ad for the worker’s paradise that North Korea would like you believe exists over the border…were there actual people there, it might be a better ad. I saw maybe two people walking along lonely roads on the other side, scanning from village to village. No cars, not even parked ones. It’s known that one village is a total stunt–someone comes on and turns on and off lights in houses to give the impression its inhabited. It is not.
The DMZ itself, uninhabited for 60 years, brims with wildlife. 2 miles wide and spanning the width of Korea, it’s a greenbelt…almost peaceful.
South Korea has mandatory service. The members of Pegasus, at least the boys, will probably be patrolling this area next year.
After that there’s some weird stuff–a huge, gleaming train station that is the first stop on a proposed northward line, ready for reunification. A train to nowhere, but there it is, the station just built a few years ago. The obligatory gift shop stop. There’s North Korean products, and also products from the local villagers, who were relocated and consolidated, and farm under guard…so a North Korean can’t just show up and blend in and then move on.
That night Steve and I dined on bulgogi, self cooking thin strips of beef on what looks like an iron hubcap. I had beef rib soup, too, tender and simple. Afterwards we had wine and cheese, Heekyung came back from stopping by and checking in with her folks, and Steve busted out the guitars–but Steve’s a lefty. I managed to navigate pretty well playing left handed. In a way, it’s my natural tendency. Forced to write right handed in school, my body is a perpetual case of divided loyalties. I’m a left handed thrower, tennis player…I play guitar right handed because a book said that was the way…I’d spent a couple of days turning the guitar this way and that way, it was all the same to me. I’ve (barely) learned drums right handed, since kits are always set up that way, but guess what…I *air* drum lefty. Argh.
This morning we were all up at 7, we walked out the door together as Steve and Heekyung were off to work, they flagged a cab for me right out in front of their building. The cab wormed its way thru commuter traffic to a certain Holiday Inn where an airport bus can be caught. I had 20 minutes to kill so I had a coffee and a delicious pastry, looking like a bagel but the ring was filled with sweet bean paste. Then snoozed for the 90 minute ride to Incheon airport. I grabbed a lunch in the airport of fresh spicy stew with kimchee, tuna flakes and tofu. Changed my pile of Won (there’s a 1000 to the dollar, so you need to have a serious pimp roll just to get around town). Boarded the 747 and now we’re over the Baltic, I’ll be home in a few hours.
KE flt 901
Addendum: No wifi at home and no time to go look for it meant that this blog stayed on my iPad this week. I have been working on mixes this week for “This Minor Side Effect”, a Dutch project with its feet in the punk and the pop songs worlds both, and for Victory Lap from Seattle; I first started working on the Victory Lap songs a year ago, been picking away at it here and there, and actually, it should be done next week. I had my nose to the grindstone this week, taking a little break for a dinner out with the girls, but generally, early to bed, early to rise, it’s all about getting Aden to school. My cell phone has gone on the Fritz so any social coordination not done thru Facebook is impossible. No time to go fix it. I’m on m way to Vienna and hope to zip this out when I arrive to the hotel this morning.
shuttle to CDG