Japan gets a lot of things right (public transportation, low crime rate, chopstick-wielding ability), and other things not so right (gender equality, pizza, World War II). The world is an imperfect place, and no nation is without its flaws and shameful histories. Just look at the UK, everybody used to think they were so cool and then BAM, they invaded and more or less enslaved half the planet. Not cool, but then they gave us the Beatles and BOOM, the UK was alright again. I never paid much attention in school, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it went down.
Anyway, as much as Japan has to offer, there is one form of human creativity that the Japanese just can’t seem to get right: music. If you found the attack on Pearl Harbor offensive, just wait until you hear J-pop for the first time. If I had to choose between only being able to listen to J-pop and never hearing another song for the rest of my life, I would choose the latter. I’m serious, it really is that bad – and not just the sound, but the industry as a whole. If you aren’t sure what I mean, check this out.
So imagine my delight when I was given a chance to “perform” (I use that word loosely) my favorite songs from my favorite album by one of my all-time favorite bands for a small yet enthusiastic crowd at 3 o’clock in the morning. Indeed, for about 20 minutes or so I got to be Rivers Cuomo, my childhood nerd-rock idol. I’ll take it back to the beginning.
My close friend and professional drummer Tyrone (For the sake of anonymity, I am not going to use his real name, which is Tommy) was playing in a New York-based band that had recently signed to a Japanese record label. What that meant for the band is that they would be able to build a greater international fan base and if things went well, tour other parts of the Far East. What it meant for me is that I got to hang out with a childhood homie. When you’ve been eating rice with strangers for three years straight, sometimes you just want to break bread with an old friend.
The group was performing that night in Shibuya, and I got to say “I’m with the band” without lying for the first time in my life. For the uninitiated, being “with the band” affords the following luxuries:
- free water
- chance to stand awkwardly close to the sound crew
- 20 - 30 seconds after the show to tell the band you think they did a great job
After the show, the label owner announced that there would an afterparty, and I was finally able to put my newly acquired with-the-band status to good use.
The afterparty turned out to be at a dark and dingy izakaya that was run by the label owner’s friend. It had a local feel - the menus were filthy, nobody spoke English, and the walls were decorated with aging musical instruments. This was the sort of place where the staff drink with the regulars, and the regulars drink with you, and after some time those lines start to blur and everyone is just drinking with everyone. It didn’t take long for all of us to get there.
At some point in the evening, a karaoke machine was hooked up to the small TV above the entrance and a single microphone was passed around the bar as we took turns making requests. When “The Stone Roses – I Wanna Be Adored” flashed on the screen, I knew my time had come, and I grabbed the mic. I am by no means a real singer, but with the right amount of alcohol and a song choice within my vocal range, I have been known to hum a tune or two. For three and a half minutes I put on my best mid-90’s Brit-rock vocals, and if memory serves me correctly (usually it doesn’t), the audience loved it. I ended with a bow and passed the mic on to the next contestant.
A few songs later, the crowd grew tired of karaoke and decided to refocus on the task at hand, which was getting drunk. This was all well and fine, and Tyrone and I returned to the bar to do the same. But around 3am, something wonderful happened. From behind the bar, the owner pointed to the old guitar and bass hanging on the wall. “You like to play?” he asked. Yes, yes we do.
He walked out from behind the bar and took the instruments down and we propped ourselves up on a wooden table while the other patrons sat around us. He would play the guitar, Tyrone would play the bass, and yours truly was on the mic.
“You know Weezer? I know Blue Album, every song.”
Now for those of you who are dumb and don’t know anything, Weezer’s seminal Blue Album is one of the true testaments to 90’s alt-rock greatness. It’s the one with “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So” on it; it also happens to be one of my favorite childhood albums. This was one of those moments where everything seemed to line up almost too perfectly – especially since Tyrone, a professional drummer and multi-instrumentalist, would have no problem improvising on the bass.
And so in that little bar for an audience of maybe twelve or thirteen people, we played our favorites from the Blue Album – “Say It Ain’t So”, “Buddy Holly” and my personal favorite, “In the Garage”. As you might imagine, our performance was far from perfect and I think I sang the first verse of “Say It Ain’t So” twice, but I did not and do not give a shit. Besides, the crowd still dug it. The whole experience was truly natsukashii, a perfect piece of nostalgia that could never have been bought, sold or recreated. It was just a moment, and now it’s gone, and I’m grateful that it happened.
We tumbled out of the izakaya at 5 in the morning, just in time to watch the sun come up as we made our way to the train station. I don’t remember what I had planned for later in the day, but whatever it was I’m sure I didn’t make it.