Featured Column:Lost In Translation- Big Wu Japan Tour Follies
Real True Confessions With Padre Pienbique
If Vincent Vega had just returned from Japan instead of Europe in the “Royale with Cheese” scene from Pulp Fiction, his conversation might have gone like this:
Vincent: Ya know what the funniest thing about Japan is?
Vincent: It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit as we do over here, but there, it’s just a little different.
Vincent: All right, you can walk down the street in Japan and buy a beer from a vending machine. And I’m not talking about a little paper cup; I’m talking about a Sapporo tall boy. And in the city, you can drink in the car.
Vincent: And you know what they call McDonald’s?
Jules: I dunno, McDonald-san’s?
Vincent: No. They have a hard time pronouncing Rs and Ls, and speaking three consonants at a time is nearly impossible. They call it Macado-Nanado.
_Jules:_Macado Nanado! Hot Daaaaamn What do they call a Whopper?
Vincent: I dunno, I never went to Burger King. And you know what they serve in yakatori bars instead of French fried potatoes?
Jules: Tell me.
Vincent: Deep-fried scorpions
“No more problems” begged our Japanese tour manager/promoter/guide (I’ll call him “Taro”). For everything that went right, something else had gone wrong. Booking the venues wasn’t a problem, but our guitarist had to drop out at the last minute. Selling tickets at $75 a pop was a breeze, but getting Jason in under the wire was a little bumpy, as he had to rearrange his work, home and band lives in the fifty-eighth minute of the eleventh hour. And even if some of the shows had sold out back in July, a dog’s lunch of communication problems, delays in acquiring passports, and the nearly requisite tardiness in filing papers for work visas threatened to undermine the whole tour.
Even by the Big Wu’s unique standard (taking on life’s more important challenges at the last possible moment), we were skating on some pretty thin ice. This time with an inscrutable foreign government. Getting a musician to diligently fill out paperwork is almost as hard as getting a US Congressman to tell the truth.
And getting the Big Wu to do either is twice as hard.
Our troubles with immigration started last summer when Taro misunderstood that it was his responsibility to file for work visas. For some reason, he thought that I’d be excited or somehow able to dive into the maze of dealing with the Japanese Department of Immigration, never mind that I live in Minnesota, haven’t the foggiest idea where to start, and (if nothing else) I don’t speak Japanese.
“No problem,” said Taro. “I’ll get a promoter that deals with foreign musicians on a regular basis to apply for work visas.” Then it turns out that somebody in the band (not Al Oikari) hasn’t gotten a passport.
“No problem,” sighed Taro. Then it turns out Chris won’t be able to make it.
“No problem” I said. “Jason will go.” Then it turns out that time is running out to apply for visas. Again.
“No problem,” Taro hoped. “We’ll Fed Ex some paperwork to you and you take it to the Japanese Consulate in Chicago.” By the time I got the papers, the soonest I could get myself to Chicago was the next Monday. But the Japanese, for mysterious Oriental reasons of their own no doubt, needed to hold our passports for at least forty-eight hours, and by that time we would be in dire need of them as we were scheduled to leave Minneapolis on Wednesday.
“No problem,” conjectured Taro. “Just tell Immigration at the airport that you’re sight-seeing. If they ask about all the guitars and drums you’re carrying, just tell them that you’re playing at your wedding dinner in Chiba.”
“No problem,” I said. (After all, it’s not actually all that hard to get a musician to fib about his whereabouts.)
However, this was going to be a problem. The specter of la Migra and their power to arbitrarily dole out deportation and hefty fines would haunt us like fart in a movie theatre. No matter who dealt it, it just wouldn’t go away.
After evading their initial suspicions, however (which was so easy I was chagrined by my worry on the flight across the Pacific; she might have been twenty-three years old and seemed embarrassed when asking about my plans for Japan), we headed for our hotel on the far side of Tokyo.
Shaking jetlag with few king cans of Kirin Lager (all-too-conveniently sold twenty feet down the hall from my room in a beer vending machine), Al, Taro, his friend and I went to a local yakitori joint. Yaki means grill, in the broadest sense. And if it could be grilled, this place was happy to do it. Or not, as you may know if you’ve ever visited the Land of the Rising Sun. For appetizers we had uncooked octopus doused in wasabi and chicken sashimi. Sashimi means raw, usually a no-no when it comes to chicken. But I didn’t fly half way across the world to not eat the cuisine, so when in Rome as long as the locals eat it first.
Following the Twilight Zone raw bar we chowed grilled chicken hearts on a skewer, along everyone’s favorite, the aforementioned deep-fried scorpions. For the record: They tasted exactly like McDonald’s French fries. But they were small and not exactly filling; it would take at least thirty of them to super size your Happy Meal. (Sure you don’t want fries with that?)
But that won’t happen. First, the supply of scorpion likely limited. Second, I have yet to hear about Willie Nelson’s Asian Farm Aid for distressed Thai scorpion ranchers. Git along little doggie, indeed.
Yes, there I was, eating everything common sense and the FDA tells me not to, washing it all down with several times the government recommended amount of beer and sake. For a pleasant change of pace, cigarettes were enthusiastically smoked before, during and after the courses. A note about Japanese smoking sections: They are largely defined by wherever you light up. Just like the mystery of the missing public garbage cans (you can’t find one in Japan to save your life despite the ubiquitous presence of vending machines selling Coke, coffee, cigarettes, porn and yes, sometimes beer.) As for smoking restrictions, wherever you see a no smoking sign, there will invariably be an eighty-year-old Japanese man copping a butt.
The cardinal rule of analyzing another culture, at least for our purposes, is lending relativity to weirdness: America itself is home to many unexplainable phenomena from inappropriate market practices such as Amway to inexplicably dumb religions like Scientology. Most of the time, these bad ideas won’t become an international farce.
Most of the time.
Anthropologically speaking, the phrase cultural relativity explains the apparently unique social functions between different societies as divergent ways to get to the same place. In the examples given above, Ponzi schemes and science fiction cabals fulfill a cultural need to skin the losers. As there’s no way to describe either of these to the Japanese with a straight face, good luck justifying the jones to eat scorpions.
Simply put: Weird is when something inexplicable happens to somebody else. Embarrassing is what you call it when it happens to you.
The Japanese, more so than some other island nations I could mention, seem to defy irony with grace. Even worn out racist quips such as “they all look alike to me” fail to qualify as a liability. The citizens of Tokyo are fashionable. Somewhere between hairstyles that are messed up just right and sunglasses that would cost me a month’s mortgage, even the average office goon, commonly known as a salary man, looks sharp in the mandatory black suit and skinny ties. Tokyo subway station at rush hour looks like a mass casting call for an all-Asian production of Reservoir Dogs.
The last time I went to Japan in 2004, the fashion craze was all about bleaching, or at least highlighting, hair until it turned a shade of orange just shy of clown puke. Somewhere in the Japanese cultural protocol of expressing individuality together, everyone thirty and under dyed their hair in unison. Thankfully, the fad had passed. But each new fashion craze causes new fashion victims. This time, funny hair gave way to young ladies wearing three-inch stiletto heeled knee-high boots. It’s been said before that walking in high heels is a lost art, and twenty-something Japanese hotties are no exception. Watching these otherwise graceful dolls awkwardly stutter-step the Hurdy-Gurdy like a drunken sailor down the street lent the impression of everyone doing the “Elaine dance” from Seinfeld mixed with Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
Unfortunate shoes aside, Japanese women are beautiful. It’s hard to go wrong with lustrous black hair, porcelain skin and figures kept trim from walking everywhere they go. (And yes, everyone walks and uses the train. Cars are ungodly expensive. Gas is $5 a gallon and parking can easily be $40. If you do take a car, don’t bother being in a hurry. Tokyo regularly hosts traffic jams that would give even the most jaded New Yorker fits.) That aside, given the almost universally eye-popping appearance of these babes, the formerly insulting phrase “They all look the same to me” is, perhaps, the highest compliment you can give.
The next morning we left for Osaka. Whether it was amateur hour on the promoter’s part or the Big Wu’s newly-minted international reputation for screwing everything up that required us to be in town twenty-four hours before the first gig, I don’t know. Either way, he had us where he wanted. And I thank the Shinto gods that he did; he rolled out a red carpet suitable for, ummm, ahhh a real rock band. After eating enough grease to insure pulmonary spasms for the next seven years at a tempura bar, he loaded us into a big van to tour some of Osaka’s more tempting parts of town. After performing several rounds of drive-by drooling in “Girl Town,” he treated us to three hours of self-esteem raising and beer drinking at a gentleman’s club.
Now, this isn’t nearly as dirty as it sounds, but it’s probably more expensive. From 9pm until midnight, the band and the promoter’s posse sat in a private bar on leather couches having beers poured, smokes lit, and jokes laughed at by abes paying lavish attention. While there’s no funny business going on, I could see why well-to-do Japanese businessmen made a practice of this. Before you ladies reading this call me out for rock-n-roll sexism in the third degree, be aware that this service is just as available in reverse roles, at just as heavy a price. To quote: Buy the ticket, take the ride.
Driving around, we ran into a DWI checkpoint. Not that it was any concern of ours, we had a designated driver, and besides, it’s perfectly legal to have an open bottle in Japan. Actually, you can drink anywhere. This is only possible because the Japanese never do it. Imagine a country 5,000 times bigger than Las Vegas, with even more liberal rules on personal conduct, that behaves itself of its own accord. If you’re having a hard time actually imagining such a place, don’t feel bad, just go to Japan and see it for yourself. Believe it if you can.
What made this checkpoint a touch more ironic than anything else in Japan was the fact that it consisted of six cop cars with the sirens on (Japanese cops routinely leave the flashers on at all times, because the police are your friends, you know). To top it off, extravagance was provided by the lighting and camera crews from the local TV station. Even with a small crowd gathered hoping to catch a glimpse of a bust, everyone looked bored, most likely due to the positioning of the checkpoint, which was halfway down a long block. If you drove drunk straight at it, you would see the circus from five blocks away. Even the most fucked-up yahoo would just turn, anywhere. If you were in danger of turning into it, no matter. The Japanese, by our big-country standard, drive with all the sensibilities of a fifteen year old — inappropriate lane changes, five point left turns, and running red lights are all in a day’s work. If you actually drove into this farce, you’d certainly deserve the ticket. And if you’re really unlucky your friends get tickets, too. A new law holds everyone in the car equally accountable as long as everyone was drunk. Thus if there isn’t a candidate for sober driving anywhere in the vehicle, everybody gets a $3000 fine. Which made me wonder: Will the cop hold my drink while I recite the Japanese alphabet backwards on one foot?
The next night we played the first show at what was usually an Italian restaurant. Huge by Japanese standards, this joint had two levels and plenty of dancing room. Although I had played hundreds of gigs with Fladager, we had never played without Castino and though we had rehearsed, there was a touch of nervousness in the air. Unfounded nervousness as it turned out. Fladager was on fire and the jams were fresh. Even standard oldies like NFA->GDTRFB caught a fire of their own. In our own way, we played like our lives depended on it. Where we could have sounded like the yenjoy girls wobbled and weaved in their boots, we came off as confident, solid, even inspired. Good times!
After the show we headed to the hotel, a couple miles away. Taro held a “volcano party” in my room with all of his crew in tow. Given my predilection for the munchies after such an event, I grabbed my trusty iPod and headed out into the busy nightlife of Osaka for a bite. Food was everywhere. However, any ability I might have had to even point at something to eat in lieu of ordering in the native language stayed back at the hotel.
While heading back to the room to grab someone to help my pathetic ass order some grub, I ran into — miles from the club — a man named Koji who had caught a free t-shirt I’d thrown from the stage. After exchanging some broken phrases of a language I’ll call Japenglish, I eventually learned that his friend has a bar around the corner. I followed him through a curtain of vinyl marijuana leaves into the world’s smallest pub. Measuring fifteen feet wide by eight feet deep, I grabbed a seat at the bar with seating for six. After getting a beer (Carlsberg thank god, not one of the four varieties of Japanese rice brew) I started inspecting his CD collection on the wall. Most of the music was by the usual suspects — Dead, Allman Bros., Phish, etc. But tucked on the third shelf were perhaps twenty live discs by that little band that could: The Big Wu. While trying (and probably failing) to keep my composure, I pointed at the discs, then to myself, saying “Big Wu! Me Big Wu!” “Ahhhhh!” he said pointing at me, laughing “Mr. Padre Peenbeekway-san. Welcome! Ha-ha!”
Then it hit me: I’d done it. I’m actually getting paid to play music in that fabled land of rock-n-roll, Japan. To be a guest in a country as far away as anyplace else is always good; however, being paid for my dubious talents is a different story. All my life I’ve wanted to be here for any reason, vacation or whatever. But in my richest fantasies, any dream vacation would include the opportunity to rock the bass on stage. And here it was, right in front of me. It’s hard enough to get anyone other than your girlfriend to like the music you make, having the owner of a bar thousands of miles away pick up the bill for endless beers and easily the best curry I’ve eaten is beyond any stretch of the imagination. I mean, what are the odds that of all the bars in Osaka (an uncountable number), I’d find the one that would actually want me to stay and drink gratis?
We took off for Tokyo the next morning. Since the venue was smaller than small, even by Japanese standards, we played two semi-acoustic shows. No problem, at least until the lady Taro hired to get our work visas showed up. Since she had started the process of applying for visas, yet we came into the country without them, the discrepancy raised a red flag with immigration. She received a call from the Yokohama immigration office inquiring what we were doing performing the night before in Osaka without papers. Doing her best to keep the feds at bay, she scheduled an appointment for us to go and beg for mercy.
That night in between shows in Tokyo, I asked Taro what’s a suitable Japanese phrase for “make some noise.” I was starting to get hit with jetlag and wanted to feed of the crowd’s energy. “No problem” he said. He wrote down on a scrap of paper “Motto tenna shin de.” After a couple songs I cleverly scanned my crib sheet before enthusiastically shouting: “Motto shin de!”
The place went dead silent. The crickets paused to see what would happen next. Sincerely confused, we started the next song. By the end of it, I was still wondering what the hell everybody’s problem was. I rescanned the cheat sheet, and saw that I left out a word “Motto TENNA shin de!” I howled again. This time the crowd exploded with cheers.
After the show, Taro informed me that I had told the crowd not to “make noise” but go and “make death”. Basically, I told a room full of strangers that paid money to see me to go fuck off and die.
The next day we went to the immigration office in Yokohama. She advised us that if we plead ignorance and look sorry enough, they might take it easy on us. Personally, I was hoping to just keep my mouth shut and let her do the talking, but there was no telling which one of us they would want to talk to. Thankfully, they never called for us, Taro included. Which is a good thing, as Taro was wearing one of the Big Wu tour shirts he printed up. Not that Wu shirts are basis for deportation, but the shirts he printed sported a rather large image of a pot plant. If that wasn’t bad enough, bordering the photograph of the weed was all of our tour dates in full detail. Basically, all of the incriminating evidence they could ever ask for was boldly displayed on the promoter’s chest. So much for pleading ignorance. Can we file for too dumb to be held responsible?
As it turned out, they were happy to stamp our passports with work visas, as long as we provided them with the document that was Fed Ex’ed to my house in Minnesota the week before. Of course, that particular document was still in my house, as I hadn’t wanted to explain to an immigration officer what it was doing in my suitcase at the airport on the way in. No matter, I told immigration my wife would bring it when she flew in to the country a couple of days later. (Getting the document to the Yokohama office by Thursday 4pm turned out to be another nail biter. Like something out of The Blues Brothers, it got there in time. Albeit barely.)
Although the Big Wu got away clean, the same can’t be said for either Taro or the promotion company he hired. The immigration officials threatened to repeal the promoter’s license to sponsor work visas and Taro was slapped with a motherfucker of a fine. (Look for a special edition Big Wu in Japan live CD to offset the cost of the penalty. Typical rock-n-roll irony Apply even more Big Wu to the problems Big Wu caused.)
Yokohama (just down the bay from Tokyo) is Japan’s “melting pot,” if such a thing can be said. A large number of Chinese immigrants settled in Yokohama, escaping the clutches of life under the Red Chinese government, or more recently, getting the hell out of Hong Kong before July 1st, 1997 (the day Great Britain gave the island back to said goons). Not that it should come as much of a surprise, but Yokohama boasts quite a Chinatown. Trust me, a healthy Chinatown all but guarantees great Chinese food (we ate at an Iron Chef’s joint).
According to the average Japanese on the street, Chinatown guarantees street crime. The recent rise in crime includes, but is not limited to, Chinese gang brats stealing live electrical cable right of the power lines. (Electric, phone, and other cable is flown above street level to make repair easier in the inevitable case of another earthquake.) Japan’s response is typically well Japanese: Legislation to severely limit immigration has been introduced. Keep in mind, nowhere is there a sign that says: “Bring us your tired, poor, and oppressed.” There’s probably one that reads: “Wipe your feet.” Perhaps an addendum: “Keep your hands at home.”
Koreans in general aren’t much better off, as Japan has a history of treating their neighbors like whitey treated blacks back here in the states. North Koreans in particular might as well be used as street filler. The looming specter of North Koreans and their evil master, Kim Jung Ill, pops up among Japanese like a bool-go-gee boogey man. “There’s North Korean spy boats all over the Tokyo Bay,” they may advise. “North Korea wants to bomb all of Japan,” says everyone else.
On this, they may be right. The Peace Museum in Hiroshima reset its “nuclear test clock” after Korea tested a bomb that couldn’t quite qualify as possessing enough neutron emission to be considered “nuclear.” Match that with their latest missile test — which worked so well that North Korea is in a position to accidentally bomb themselves with a half-assed pay load — and what you have is is nothing much to worry about.
But Japan has been bombed before, and nobody has forgotten the result. Fair enough.
At least the Japanese don’t qualify Kim Jung Ill as being anything like a “leader.” While CNN speculates on potential of six-way Asian summits and economic sanctions against North Korea, the Japanese gripe about his Yakusa connections and his penchant for printing counterfeit money and producing cheap speed. He’s remarked upon in conversation with no more reverence attributed to any common gangster. Think Jabba the Hutt without the charm, good looks or table manners.
We spent the 30th and 31st in Yokohama doing a two-night stand. It should be mentioned that through the first three shows, the Wu started off strong, and played even better as time afforded a considerable comfort level. By the time we to Yokohama, we were firing on all cylinders. Jams were both expansive and tight at the same time. Songs were played with something close to respect for the material. After the first note in Osaka, I felt like there was no place to hide, and glad of it. When we took the stage in Yokohama, we had a band to be reckoned with. I’m not saying this because I’ve developed a case of excessive self-backslapping. I’m just saying that we were good.
The crowd in turn, was twice as enthusiastic. They sang along to the words, swayed in unison during the ballads, and danced like something (words escape me) the rest of the time. And, dear to my heart, they drank. Although there’s no tipping in Japan, saving 20% on the bar tap doesn’t do much as booze is marked up 100%. A beer is at least $7 in a bar, and spirits are so expensive that you might have a hard time drinking enough to forget how much you spent. There was a table in front of me on the first night that bypassed ordering drinks ala carte, they simply paid $100 for a bottle of Beam and threw the cap away. (I’ll assume the pitcher of ice was free.)
Even with a pre-emptive strike on the bar tab, going out is going to cost you. Using the highway to travel promises $10 tolls (take that, New York!) and parking can be $40. Add on $70 a ticket to the Wu show and a $50 T-shirt, and you’re as broke as me. And I’m being paid to be there.
Halloween night was the pinnacle of the tour. We were challenged by the daunting task of playing three sets: one acoustic, two electric. Since we had played two semi-acoustic shows in one night in Tokyo a couple nights before, it wasn’t how we played the sets, but amount of “good” material we had. It’s just as easy for me to play Minnesota Moon “acoustically” as it is to play it “electrically;” the notes don’t change. But it was Halloween, and goddamn it this was important. We really wanted to kick some ass, take some names and stomp on the Terra and there was no Earthly reason for us to fall short on such a night.
After some afternoon soul/song searching, we pulled out a few chestnuts: Bird Song, Help On the Way, etc. Relying on the good ol’ Grateful Dead really helped things move along. We started out all those years ago, playing that music because above all else, it’s good shit. We played more of it on Halloween for the same reasons — you can’t go wrong playing good versions of great music.
Thankfully, the crowd agreed. I will confess that as a musician, there are shows that you know are going to do things to the audience from the first note. You can feel it in the vibe, see it in the swaying, and hear it in the shouts of enthusiasm. It’s the only feeling in the universe better than your first blow-job, and it’s what keeps every musician coming back for more. Band in-fighting, going broke, lapses of inspiration, and all-around fatigue don’t stand a chance next to the feeling of a good crowd getting into it. No offence to my high school paramour, but the wholesome goodness of being, literally “blown away” by a ripe crowd is second-to-none.
By the end of the night, all quarters had been given. Between the band and the crowd, everyone was spent, literally and physically. While I couldn’t move, as I was exhausted from the rock-n-roll French kissing I traded with the crowd, not to mention the band’s bar bill was hovering around $250. Spent indeed. Wait, I already used that phrase Maybe “enthusiastically used” would sit better. Fuck it. Perhaps the Japanese have a word for it. If they do, I’m sure it’ll be lost in translation.
Whatever it was, I want it again.
As I was detained in Old Nippon from two of three of my great loves — Old Style beer (_Every hand’s a winner!_) and my beloved purple warriors of mediocrity (_Every game’s a loser!)_ — I’m nominating my wife (the third) for zealot of the month. This photo was taken at our Japanese wedding reception, held for those of her relatives that couldn’t make the trip to Rice County a year ago. Given how stylish we look, it should be noted that the bad-ass kimonos we’re wearing have one serious drawback: No going potty once they’re put on (We’re both wearing several layers of wraps, girdles and other confusing nonsense in lieu of underwear.) But hot damn, we look good!
Since beer — being a space-wasting squatter in terms of bladder real estate — was out, Viva vodka tonics!
Either way, drive safe, be nice to your mother, and drink your Stoli. Campai!