Tour Diary: Lenny Kaye in Japan

Lenny Kaye

By Lenny Kaye

on 02.14.13 in Spotlights

[We've been lucky enough to have Lenny Kaye — longtime guitarist for Patti Smith and curator of the unbelievably influential Nuggets set — writing for us since 2006. Occasionally, his full-time job takes him to fascinating locales. We asked if he wouldn't mind keeping a record of his tour of Japan last month with Patti Smith. The results are, as we've come to expect from Lenny, engrossing and enlightening. — Ed.]

January 22, 2013: Sendai, Japan

I am sitting in Gas Panic, just off Shibuya Square in Tokyo, having an Asahi and toasting my return to Japan. The basement bar is loud with American hip-hop. I can feel the disorienting cross-cultural currents from the 14-hour plane journey, plus the time it takes to get from Nagoya Airport, and the five minutes walk from our nearby hotel. But here I be, at the beginning of a two-week Japanese tour for Patti Smith and Her Band, with a bonus beat of Seoul to cap our Asian adventure.

I was last here in 2009, when we journeyed to the summer festival that is Fujirock, and before that in 2003, when our band circuited the island. There were previous visits — a solo show in Tokyo in 1989 backed by guitarist Go Ohgami, whose album I produced in the mid ’80s; a record release by Feed, another Japanese band who availed themselves of my studio encouragement in 2001; our debut Patti tour in 1997; and more Fujirocking in 2001 and 2005 — but the fascination that this country holds for me is deep and abiding. My father worked for the Japanese megacorporation Mitsui in the 1960s, and early on I became intrigued by the artistic sensibility of this fascinating country, from the manga and anime that takes “cartoon” storytelling to new heights, to the ritualistic ceremonials of tea and sake, to the spirituality of Zen’s sense of oneness with the universe.

After a day of acclimatization, we take the train north to Sendai. In March of 2011, the epicenter of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the most powerful in Japanese seismographic history (9.0!), and the resulting tsunami devastated the eastern shoreline on an imaginable scale. A half hour’s drive from Sendai shows a bleak landscape devoid of, well, anything. This closest metropolis has had to show remarkable resiliency in the face of catastrophe. The disaster inspired our song “Fuji-San,” and by starting our tour here, not a usual stopover for visiting American musicians, we hope to pay tribute to the indomitable spirit of those faced with the task of rebuilding and commemorating. Yuki, the wife of our tour manager Andrew, sets up a booth to accept donations and raffle off a band drum-head, and we donate our show’s proceeds to benefit a local orphanage. A small gesture, perhaps, but one that encompasses the Japanese bow of respect and honor, as the rising sun begins a day anew.

January 23-24, 2013: Tokyo, Japan

Two nights, two shows, two very different venues. Though one doesn’t want to stretch an obvious touristic parallel, this is very much like the capital itself. Tokyo is a dizzying metropolis, pretty much newly constructed after the Earthquake of 1923 and the cataclysm that was the Second World War, brimming with population and chaotic motion and flashing signage and loudspeakers urging commerce; and yet, there is an underlying sense of tradition and calming order. No one jaywalks, patiently waiting until a light turns green even if no traffic is in sight, and ritual courtesies are adhered to with decorum and politeness.

So it is in our performance spaces. Shibuya Ax, on Tuesday, proffers a rowdy stand-up audience that crowd-surfs and jostles each other in time to the music; Wednesday’s Orchard Hall is seated, and though the attendees attentively stand in place through most of the show, there is little stage-rushing or mayhem. As a special bonus, as much for us as the crowd, we’re joined by Noguzo, a ceremonial taiko drummer, accentuating the sonic booms of “Fuji-San.” Afterward, our backstage is graced with Sheena and the Rokkets, one of the longest-lived bands in Japan. I must say Sheena and lead guitarist Makoto don’t look a day older than when they first appeared on the scene in 1978, full of a belief in rock ‘n’ roll’s transformative power. Seeing them reaffirms my own kneel at the shrine of feedback.

And then a day at liberty. I wonder where to start my roam, debating between the gizmo-tron and gadgetorium that is the “Electric City” of the Akihabara district; or Harajuku’s pop-culturati shopping labyrinths. I choose the latter, and soon find myself wandering the lanes of Takeshita Street, marveling at the many niches of fashion on display — here’s a punk store delivered whole from 1977, alongside a shop where Victorian meets Goth meets X-Rated fairy tale. On the four floors of Kiddyland, there are trinkets galore, amid displays devoted to favorite cartoon characters. Speaking of which, I note the disappearance of the Beatles-only emporium that was here the last time I visited, and its replacement by many devoted to K-pop and J-pop idol singers of the moment.

But that doesn’t mean music’s charm is entirely transitory, beholden to the short attention span of generational allegiance. That evening, I am graciously invited to visit the home of our promoter rep in Japan, Shinichi “Chris” Kurisawa. We had been talking about old ska records on the train, and now — a true connoisseur — he is ready to spin some of his rarities for our mutual delectation. He drops the needle on one of his two turntables, sends it through a vintage Ampex tube amplifier to a single mono 15″ speaker; and let the sound system begin. Our journey takes us through Jamaican masters like virtuoso guitarist Ernest Ranglin and the horned geniuses of Roland Alphonso and Don Drummond, moving us effortlessly into soul and blues (here comes Fenton Robinson!). Enhanced by copious cups of shochu, the potato-based distillation that seems to split the difference between sake and vodka, a good time is had by all.

January 26-27, 2013: Nagoya/Kanazawa, Japan

The bullet train takes us west from Tokyo. Out the window, Mt. Fuji gazes majestically upon us. There is progressively more snow on the ground. We are heading into Japan’s hinterlands. Nagoya is the fourth largest city here on the main island, home to one of the most impressive castles I’ve ever seen; and Kanazawa, on the west coast bordering the sea, has a similarly ancient feudal feel, though the main building has had to be painstakingly restored time and again following devastating fires in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But we don’t have much time on this trip to explore ancient Japan, since almost upon arrival in each town it’s showtime. The weekend means our concert starts early in the evening. We’re onstage by 6 p.m., off by 7:30, and at dinner in a nearby restaurant having chicken wings (Nagoya’s specialty) or slices of the freshest sashimi (Kanazawa) by 8. The early performance and the fact that Club Quattro in Nagoya is on the 8th floor of a department store only adds to our sense of dislocation. Not that the audience seems to mind. These are some of our most responsive crowds, only too willing to call-and-response the refrain of “Fuji-san” back at us as we scale that immortal mount in song.

January 28, 2013: Osaka, Japan

Entering the world of Japanese popular music is like opening the gateway to an alternative universe. I wander the overflowing aisles of Tower Records (still the major outlet here, with branches in many cities) and gaze at the myriad of singers, bands, idols and anti-idols. Every genre and moment in time seems to be represented. The sheer quantity and variety humbles not only my own inclination to figure out who’s who and where’s-the-hits, but makes me again rue the one-way street that is our cross-talk with other musical cultures. Everywhere I go in Japan, I hear English-speaking hits of many eras: I am listening to Fleetwood Mac in a sukiyaki restaurant at breakfast, shopping to disco familiars in a mall, or entering a collector’s store which specializes in American oldies (I find a copy of Jim Bakus’s “Delicious,” and because it’s one of my all-time favorite records I can’t resist buying it in such an exotic locale) knowing that except for the occasional “novelty,” none of the bands on display here could be touring America in the same manner that we are in Japan.

I don’t have to wonder, for instance, what Yeti vs. Cromagnon sounds like, since they resemble the Heartbreakers circa 1977 in their black leather jackets and guitarist’s yellow Les Paul Junior, just like the one Johnny Thunders played. Or the Neatbeats, who release vintage “mono” recordings that echo classic Brit Invasion groups. There’s lots of punk and home-grown reggae, and a ’90s revival underway with bands like Guitar Wolf, the Blue Hearts, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, Number Girl and Bloodthirsty Butchers the subject of catalog highlights. Two groups that pique my interest are Blankey Jet City, who broke up in 2000 only to recently reform; and the more mod-ish Bawdies, whose 2012 hit single “Rock Me Baby” about says it all in the Japanese resurrection of classic retro sound.

But even these traditional guitar-wielding bands pale in the overwhelming multitudinous that is J-pop, which presents a vast array of girl/boy groups that dance, sing and partake of the latest fashion and digital technology to create hits that are viral, colorful and transitory in the most ingratiating way. The textures are futuristic, the production techniques state-of-the-art (the sound is future-now), and despite the lack of deeper meanings, they present a riot of motion and beguiling come-hither.

Of the girl groups, AKB48 is the largest, both in size (there are 48 members on stage, and another 39 “trainees”) and popularity. Conceived in the Akihabara electronics district of Tokyo, as much cheerleading squad as dance troupe, their intricate choreography and chant-along singles have spawned many sound-alikes in other cities: there are similar assemblages in Nagoya (SKE48), Osaka (NMB48), Fukuoka (HKT48), and even outside Japan, in Jakarta (JKT48), Taipei (TPE48), Shanghai (SNH48). One has to love pop’s ability to procreate. There is heated discussion in the newspapers about whether the chastity clause in the girl’s contracts that prohibits them from dating is legal, but this is hardly scandalous or even revolutionary in the world of manufactured teen appeal.

In the midst of all this, I find my own mash-up of idolatry. BABYMETAL are three ‘tween girls who perform in front of a skeleton-costumed band, doling out slabs of metallic genre signifiers: slashing guitars and crunching riffs and rat-a-tat bass drumming, skull-crushing readymades lightened by bridges that sing-song and dance routines that spin at a dizzying pace. Yeah, I know: I’m being manipulated by someone’s idea of savvy marketing. But hey, isn’t that the point?

January 30, 2013: Hiroshima, Japan

How can you imagine? And then you’re here.

There is the river, one of six that course through this city. As we walk solemnly over its bridge toward the Peace Museum, staring at the skeletal remains of what is now called the Atomic Dome in the distance, a sense of déjà vu permeates the air. The horrific scenes and their shock waves have been seared into collective memory. To know that this city was the first to witness warfare at its most destructive, to think of the poor souls caught in the inferno and ash, jumping into this river that flows so gently now, to understand that this entire vista was once reduced to rubble and ruin, is to once again shudder at mankind’s penchant for annihilation. In war, there is no moral absolution. No matter the cause, it is the innocents who suffer.

There in the museum are the scorched remains of a schoolgirl’s uniform. A watch stopped at 8:15 a.m. on an August morning. A little boy’s transit card, scorched and torn. The happenstance of weather, knowing that had there been cloud cover over Hiroshima on that sixth day of the eighth month in 1945, the target might have been nearby Kokura. Not that it matters. The Earth was about to enter the Atomic Age, wherever the chosen spot.

That night, as we play, the ghosts are dancing.

I wake early the next morning. Looking out my hotel window, off to the left, I can see where Ground Zero — directly over Shima Hospital, now rebuilt — was and ever will be. But if I look to my right, there is the soccer field of Fukuromachi Elementary School, where children are kicking a ball, surrounded by a city that has been grown from scratch over the ruins, an archeological layer of generational rebirth and remembrance.

January 31-February 2, 2013: Fukuoka, Japan/Seoul, Korea

The body of water that takes us from one country to another is called the Sea of Japan on one side, and the East Sea on the other. Crossing it changes the channel of pop from J to K, and these days that does imply a difference. Has the balance of power in hit-making shifted? With the success of PSY’s “Gangnam Style” has come an interest in all things Korean, and I’m about to see its neighborhood up close — or, as close as you can over a visit that lasts less than 48 hours.

The last show in Japan is in Fukuoka, on the shore of Kyushu, the most southerly of Japan’s islands. We’ve been here before, and perhaps will again, with a sold-out crowd at Drum Logos, and a final toast to our Japanese promoters.

The flight to Seoul takes about an hour and a half, the same time it takes to drive from the airport to our hotel on the outskirts of Gangnam. The neighborhood, once you get off the large eight-lane avenues replete with all your well-known western chains, contains a plethora of restaurants and bars on its back streets. Since it’s pouring rain on arrival, I take refuge in a nearby mall, which could be a shopping plaza anywhere in the world. Fleeing in haste, I find the small barbeque restaurant on a side street in the shadow of the massive Seven Luck casino that initiated me into the local grilling customs the last time we visited.

I get my indoctrination into K-Pop much as the rest of Korea’s inhabitants, through glittery television shows which feature the acts cavorting in rapid succession. On this night, Music Bank provides a confectioner’s dreamworld, beginning with the current number one chart song, “Shower of Tears,” performed by Bae Chi Gi featuring Ailee. From its guitar introduction, which paraphrases “St. James Infirmary,” Bae Chi Gi’s rapping (“I should have known in the end that your selfish heart wanted a different fluttering”) and Ailee’s plaintive vocal chorus, I am intrigued by the mélange of influence and its easy translation to my own western ears. In fact, discerning any hints of traditional Korean modes and scales is impossible. Welcome to the world.

Crayon Pop sing-songs “Bing Bing,” 2Yoon hoe-downs with “24-7,” the Dolls (not the New York) count their “9 Muses,” and Sistar 19 channel their inner J-Lo with “Gone Not Around Any Longer.” These are girl groups; the boy groups are similarly coiffed and bust-a-move energetic, rotating singers and personas: Boyfriend’s “I Yah,” Infinite H’s “Special Girl,” while Jeong Hyung Don’s “GangBuk Dandy” bears some passing resemblance in vocal register and approach to PSY.

It’s hard to say how K-Pop will play outside of the Asian market. In some ways, its lightweight gossamer (there are no references to hard clubbing or coital hi-jinx) and language barrier will mean it will have to adapt, and perhaps change its very nature, to succeed. PSY himself might be another here-today, gone-the-way-of-the-Pony tomorrow (there are similarities in the dance step). That said, these songs are appealing. Fighting it out for the top spot on Music Bank is Girls’ Generation, with the theatrical “Paparazzi,” whose video references “Singing In The Rain,” of all things; they hold the current number two song in Korea, the addictive “I Got A Boy.” They have signed a U.S. deal with Interscope, and if the Pussycat Dolls can have a chart hit, why not this KoreAmerican dance squad?

But for my musical mojo, the triumph of CN Blue, a four-piece guitar band that — shock horror! — is playing their instruments and singing live on this television countdown, and whose “I’m Sorry” wins the night’s competition hands-down. It’s perhaps a pointer that the K-Pop phenomenon won’t be as cookie-cutter as might be intimated. And when Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine come visit backstage at our show, themselves beginning a far-east tour and celebrating the release of their much-anticipated new album, I begin to fantasize what this sort of cross-pollination might do for Korea’s embrace and assimilation of UnPop.

On the way home, I have my own cultural potpourri courtesy of inflight entertainment. I watch a Chinese language detective film called The Bullet Vanishes set in the 1920s; a black-and-white documentary of Arthur Rubinstein playing a concert in Moscow in 1964 that leans heavily on Chopin; and The Master.

So many forms of human expression; so little time.