One welcome trend of recent years in my field is the wave of new translations that finally make available to English-language readers the history of Marxist and anarchist culture in modern Japan. With a few notable exceptions, Japan’s long and remarkable traditions of proletarian literature, leftist cultural activism, and Marxist philosophy were largely ignored by Japan Studies specialists.
In part, this was a matter of scholars and translators’ personal preferences. But it was also a structural bias: as a Cold War form, Japan Studies arose as part of an ideological campaign to situate Japan as a poster-boy for successful modernization without revolution. The ‘Japan’ that this discourse created as its object was inherently adverse to Marxism, and any Japanese writer who partook of it was by definition inauthentic.
This tendency generated a distorted canon of modern Japanese literature and thought that is only now being rectified. One of the most important new publications is For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2015), a remarkably ambitious anthology edited by Norma Field and Heather Bowen-Struyk. It includes a wide range of pieces, including fiction, essays, and children’s literature.
Combined with Zeljko Cipris’s recent translations of Kuroshima Denji, Kobayashi Takiji and others, the sampling of Japanese proletarian literature available in English has expanded enormously.
On top of that, the past several years have brought new English-language versions of the work of a number of Marxist literary and social theorists. Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader (Cornell East Asia Series, 2013), edited by Ken C. Kawashima, Fabian Schaefer, and Robert Stolz, includes a number of essays and excerpts from one of the most interesting Marxist theorists active anywhere in the first half of the twentieth century. Abe Kobo has long been familiar to Western readers as a writer of surreal existentialist fiction, but his career as a cultural theorist for the Japan Communist Party has always been underplayed–until now, with the publication of The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō (Columbia University Press, 2013), edited and translated by Richard F. Calichman.
More translations are in the pipeline, too: a collection of essays from the early postwar “Politics and Literature” debate should be out from Lexington Books next year, while other scholars are working on new translations of seminal theorist Uno Kozo. I’ve made my own modest contributions to this new tendency: my translation of Karatani Kojin’s The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange (Duke University Press, 2014) presented the author’s most ambitious attempt to rethink Marxist theory in tandem with anarchism (more English translations of Karatani’s works are also forthcoming), and I tried my hand at one of Kuroshima Denji’s early proletarian literature short stories.
The way we in the Anglophone world study Japanese literature is changing and as a result the object of our studies is acquiring new layers and angles. The exotic and apolitical Japanese literature generated during the Cold War is being supplemented with something new that is actually something old. And this something old may well end up contributing something else that is new, as we struggle around the globe to figure out what comes after the failed doctrine of neo-liberalism.
My short story “When a Derelict Angel Speaks” has just appeared in Valparaiso Fiction Review, Vol. 5, No. 1. Enjoy!
It takes a second for Steve’s head to clear. He squints at the alarm clock on Cheryl’s side of the bed; 2:17 a.m., its glowing red digits proclaim. The chirping noise that woke him, he realizes, is the bedroom telephone, but Steve hesitates. Should he answer? Once upon a time, late-night phone calls promised excitement. Back then, a telephone ringing after midnight might have meant friends insisting he join them for a nightcap, or an old girlfriend feeling lonely. But now Steve has turned forty, gotten married, become a father. He’s acquired a mortgage and a cocker spaniel, and as a result the realm of possibilities fornocturnal calls has dwindled. The phone ringing now is either a wrong number or a death in the family.
Then again, it might be Kurt. In fact, probably it’s Kurt: a ghost floating outside the gravitational field of ordinary clock time.
(Continue reading here)
My translation of a 1926 short story by the proletarian literature author Kuroshima Denji (1898-1943) has just appeared online at The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.
The Two-Sen Copper Coin
It was when spinning tops were all the rage. Tōji dug up an old top his older brother Kenkichi had used and gripped the three-centimeter nail pounded in to form its stem between his left and right palms to make it spin. His hands were still not very strong, so the top only stayed spinning for a little while before it toppled over. Since early childhood, Kenkichi had been the sort to get obsessed over things. He had polished the top and replaced the slender, wire-like stem it came with using the three-centimeter nail. It spun better that way, so it was a strong competitor in top battles. It was already some twelve or thirteen years since he had used it, but the top was still sturdy, shiny black, and it was heavy, as if it were made of good hard wood. It was well oiled and coated with wax. The quality of its wood and everything else were completely different from the sort they sell in stores nowadays.
The top was so heavy that Tōji had trouble making it spin. He spent half a day trying to make it spin on the floorboard of the doorframe without any success.
“Ma, buy me a top string,” he begged his mother.
“Ask Pa if it’s okay to buy one.”
“He said it’s fine.”
His mother was the sort to make a fuss about everything. In part, this was due to their strained household budget. Even after it was decided that they would buy it, she made a point of first looking through the storage room, to make sure that they didn’t have an old string used by Kenkichi.
Read more here.
There’s an unsettling moment in Sasaki Kuni‘s novel, Bonjinden (The Life of a Mediocrity、1929-30). Sasaki (1883-1964) was a celebrated humor writer, as well as a translator of Mark Twain, Cervantes, and others. I’m not aware of any English translations of his work. When I read earlier this year that Kondansha had brought out a bunkobon (pocketbook) edition of Bonjinden, I picked up a copy.
The hook with which the novel begins is that, although we have countless biographies of great men, we have few of mediocrities. In a mode somewhat reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse, the first-person narrator launches into an account of his schooldays, first off in the provinces where he suffers abuse from classmates for the sin of being the headmaster’s son, and then at Meiji Gakuen, a Christian mission school in Tokyo. We follow the misadventures of our anti-hero and his chums, including their crises of faith–but it’s all played for laughs. References to actual historical events allow us to place the story at around the time of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5.
The unsettling moment comes near the end. The hero is teaching at a school way out in the provinces where there is an elderly teacher who happens to bear the same family name as he–a telling detail. To avoid confusion, their colleagues call the protagonist “Young Kawahara” and his senior colleague “Old Kawahara.” Old Kawahara is a former soldier, a veteran of the internal warfare that erupted at the time of the Meiji Restoration. His junior colleagues at the school joke about his main claim to fame as a warrior: his heroic capture of the enemy commander’s leg.
Young Kawahara has heard his colleagues talk about this. One evening, he goes to visit Old Kawahara at his home and nudges him into telling his war stories. Old Kawahara obliges and relates how he came across the corpse of the enemy general on the battlefield. Somebody else had already taken the head, so he lopped off the leg. It’s a gruesome image, but the scene is played for laughs.
But then things get serious. Old Kawahara’s face grows dark, and he starts to tell of another battlefield incident, one that he’s never previously recounted for his colleagues. He was on patrol duty one night near Aizu, enforcing a curfew, when a beautiful young woman appeared in front of him. One of his fellow soldiers yelled out to Old Kawahara to cut her down. He tried to let the woman escape. But just as the woman turned to run away, his comrades saw what was happening and yelled out that he was a coward. In a moment of panic, Old Kawahara slashed out with his sword across the woman’s back. He later learned that it was all a misunderstanding, that the woman was an innocent bystander.
As she fell to the ground, the woman glanced back at Old Kawahara with a vengeful look that has haunted him his whole life. Decades later, he still has nightmares about the woman he killed. She was about twenty, Old Kawahara tells Young Kawahara. He’s certain that she is the reason both his own sons died at the age of twenty: she placed a curse on him so that none of the children in his family would live beyond the age of twenty.
It’s a chilling scene, unlike anything that has come before it in the novel. But soon the narrative shifts back into a comic mode. Old Kawahara has one child left, an unmarried girl who will soon turn twenty. He begs Young Kawahara to marry her immediately so that by the time she turns twenty, she will no longer be his daughter (her name will be shifted from the family registry of Old Kawahara to that of Young Kawahara) and hence will escape the curse. The whole story seems to have been a set up to trick Young Kawahara into marrying the daughter. In fact, Young Kawahara is only too willing to do so, and so the narrative reaches a happy ending.
In other words, this horrific story of traumatic war memories is used as a comic device. I can’t help but wonder how this sequence struck its original readers back in 1930. There were earlier fictional works in Japan that depicted the horrors of war, but almost always the violent scenes in them depict Japanese soldiers as the victims rather than the perpetrators of atrocities. By the late 1930s, and especially after 1945, we started to get many novels that depicted ugly battlefield incidents, including those committed by Japanese troops–but I can’t think of a work that puts such a scene to use for comic effect.
I suppose it makes a difference that the war depicted in Bonjinden is a civil war rather than a foreign war. But I still can’t quite get my mind around the way the scene is used in the novel. Did this sequence disturb readers in 1930 Japan, or did they simply fly past it without a second thought? Was the scene warning them about horrors to come, or was it preparing readers to laugh them off?
Do yourself a favor and take three minutes to listen to this 1971 recording, an outtake from the Muswell Hillbillies sessions.. Make sure you read Ray Davies’ lyrics, too. The song has everything: (working) class consciousness, a critique of urban renewal, a deft melody and la-di-doo-da nonsense syllables, which here take on distinct semiotic content. You’re welcome.
“Lavender Lane” (source)
Written by: Raymond Douglas Davies
Published by: Davray Music Ltd.
Daisy and Teddy had two Cockney boys
And two Cockney sisters and they all shared their toys
With old Rosie Rooke and Peggy O’Day
They all lived together down in Lavender Lane
Lavender Lane, oh my Lavender Lane
The people were poor and the people were plain
They didn’t have much but they shared what they gained
Contented to drift along Lavender Lane
Oh Lord, such a pity that the world’s gotta change
All of the houses were old and decayed
The people were proud who lived in Lavender Lane
Oh Lord, Lavender Lane
Oh Lord, Lavender Lane
Sometimes I wanna get back home and do the things we did before
And break down the old school tie, and all the la-di-do-dahs
The knobs and the toffs sent down two la-di-dahs
To mix with the people and to drink in their bars
They looked down their noses and they puffed their cigars
Instead of ‘off’ they say ‘orf’, instead of ‘yeah’ they say ‘ya’
And oh Lord
And Ted and Daisy said, ‘what a shame’
They’ll knock all the houses down for financial gain
And send all the people to a new town estate
Oh Lord, they gutted Lavender Lane
Whoa-oh, they gutted Lavender Lane
Sometimes I wanna get back home and do the things we did before
And break down the old school tie, and all the la-di-do-dahs
In the great London Council a decision was made
By the bright civil servants and the people in grey
They sent all their navvies with their buckets and spades
To knock all the houses down in Lavender Lane
But worst of all, they’ve taken all the people away
Now only memories are all that remain
Of all of the people down in Lavender Lane
Oh Lord, they gutted Lavender Lane
Whoa-oh, they gutted Lavender Lane
Whoa-oh, they gutted Lavender Lane
Whoa-oh, they gutted Lavender Lane
It’s become common these days for universities to videotape public lectures and make them available online. A few talks I’ve given in recent years are available for your viewing pleasure, should you be so inclined.
Last October at the University of Chicago’s Humanities Day, I spoke about the curious life and career of Kasai “George” Jiuji, UChicago Class of 1913, and how his example might help us rethink the meaning of the Cold War and Japan’s role in it:
A few months before that, I gave a talk at Boston University on “Misora Hibari and the Popular Music of Cold War Japan: Mimesis, Alterity, Cosmopolitanism.”
In addition, a 2013 talk at Penn State on Natsume Soseki and “Theorizing Literature from Japan, 1907” is available online.
Another 2011 talk I gave on “Psychology and Natsume Soseki’s Mon (The Gate)” at the University of Michigan is available here.
If you prefer listening to watching me, a 2012 segment on Japanese popular music that I did for the public radio program “To the Best of Our Knowledge” is archived here. And if you want to hear what I sounded like as a callow lad of 19, you can hear the recently unearthed recording of a January 1981 interview with The Replacements (probably the band’s first-ever radio interview), back when I was a deejay for WMCN, Macalester College’s radio station.
On the whole, though, the printed word remains my medium of choice.
(Professor Jerry K. Fisher of Macalester College passed away on May 7. He was not only my undergraduate adviser, but also the person who first introduced me to Japan and in many other ways acted as my role model. Below is an edited version of remarks I made at a June 22 memorial service at Macalester’s Weyerhauser Chapel.)
I’m honored to speak today as one of the hundreds of students who studied with Jerry over the years. I have a theory that there are three kinds of professors: those who make their mark through their scholarship, those who make their mark as administrators, and those who make their mark through the students they teach—we know them through their students. (Of course, there’s a fourth category, too: professors who never make any mark whatsoever. That’s the category I’ve set my own eyes on). I think Jerry was very much a member of the third category, the kind of professor who devotes himself to his students.
Jerry was a Macalester alum, class of 1958. He then returned to Macalester to teach in 1969, teaching first in the History Department and later in Media and Cultural Studies as well. He earned his Ph.D. in History from the University of Virginia in 1975 with a dissertation on the Meirokusha group. Jerry also earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in 1964. His Christian faith was an important component of his make-up as a scholar and teacher.
I first studied with Jerry in 1979, my freshman year at Mac. To be honest, he wasn’t always the most spell-binding of classroom lecturers, but he was remarkably able at engaging students in dialogue. This in part represented the influence of the Japanese philosopher and educator Hayashi Takeji (林竹二, 1906-1985), who was one of Jerry’s intellectual mentors. Hayashi was the first president of Miyagi University of Education in Sendai, where Jerry spent time as a visiting professor. Hayashi was famous for engaging students of all ages in Socratic dialogue. Like nearly every Japanese university in the late 1960s, Miyagi University of Education was occupied by its students, who barricaded and shut down the campus to protest government policies. But unlike virtually every other Japanese university president, Hayashi did not call in the riot police to clear the students out by force. Instead, he went behind the barricades and personally engaged the students in a dialogue that extended for days. As a result, the protest reached a peaceful conclusion. The lesson was not lost on Jerry.
Jerry’s greatest impact as a teacher came from the personal mentoring he did outside the classroom. He made a practice of intervening in students’ lives, pointing them down roads that they hadn’t even known existed. Jerry practically adopted some of his students. I have a friend who never studied with Jerry but who knows personally several of these students who Jerry seemingly adopted: my friend calls this group “Jerry’s kids.” With apologies to Andy and Cynthia, Jerry’s real kids, and to Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, let me tell you what it was like to be one of Jerry’s kids.
During my first year and a half at Mac, I took a couple of classes with Jerry. Then I dropped out of school for a few years. When I returned to Mac in 1983 I found myself in his classroom again. I still didn’t have any idea what I was going to do with myself. That’s when Jerry made his first intervention in my life. In late 1983, he phoned me to inform me that I was going to spend the 1984-85 academic year as an exchange student in Japan. Macalester had an exchange agreement with Miyagi University of Education. It included one fellowship for a Mac student to come to Sendai every year, and that year no one had applied for it. So Jerry told me to apply for it, and having no better ideas myself, I did. Before that it never would have occurred to me to go to Japan. In fact, my real interest was in China, and the main reason I accepted the idea of going to Japan was that it was close to China. I figured if Jerry could get me 6,000 miles across the Pacific to Japan, I ought to be able to manage the remaining few hundred miles and get to China on my own.
I started my year in Sendai in September 1984 and somehow I got stuck in Japan, the way I think Jerry knew I would. I never made it to China—in fact, it took thirty more years before I finally managed to get to China. I spent that year in Sendai and had the amazing experience that Jerry knew I would have. One of the things that happened that year was that I met Hinata Yasushi (日向康, 1925-2006). Hinata was a novelist and scholar, another disciple of Hayashi Takeji, and Jerry’s best friend in the world. Hinata would become one of my own intellectual mentors. Another thing that happened that year was that I met Ogura Satoko, who a few years later would become my wife.
In other words, thanks to Jerry’s intervention that year, I acquired not only my lifelong interest in Japanese culture and history, but also the most important parts of my personal life. But Jerry wasn’t done with me yet.
His second intervention in my life came in late 1986. After I graduated from Mac, I was working at a store that specialized in making gourmet popcorn in dozens of different flavors. That should give you some idea of the career I was bound for if left to my own devices. Jerry called me up and told me I was going to Japan again. His work as a consultant on Asian business for Hubbard Broadcasting had reached a level where he needed a full-time assistant based in Tokyo to serve as a liaison with Hubbard’s Japanese business partners. He wanted me to do it. It certainly beat making popcorn for a living.
And so in January 1987 I headed back to Japan and worked there for two-and-a-half years, with Jerry as my boss. I lived in an apartment in the western suburbs of Tokyo, a ten-minute walk away from the house Jerry and Aiko owned there. It was an amazing time for me. I learned what it was like to be a salaryman in Tokyo. I also got to meet more of Jerry’s intellectual colleagues: the journalists, scholars, and activists that formed his personal network in Japan. The financial stability of the job also allowed me in 1988 to get married to Satoko, right here in Weyerhauser Chapel, with Jerry and Aiko in attendance.
The third major intervention Jerry made in my life came in 1989. I did my best working for Hubbard Broadcasting, but I think it was clear to all that I wasn’t meant for the business world. Jerry told me it was time for me to go to graduate school. I asked him where I should apply, and he told me Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Minnesota. I applied to the Japanese literature program at all three schools. Jerry wrote letters of recommendation for me, of course, but I later learned that he also personally contacted professors he knew at all three schools and lobbied them not only to accept me, but also to offer me a major fellowship. The outcome was that I received fellowship offers from all three schools. I ended up going to Cornell. In 1996 I finished my Ph.D. there and became an assistant professor at UCLA. In 2007, I moved to the University of Chicago, where today I am Professor of Japanese Literature.
So you see, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I owe my life to Jerry. My wife, my children, my career, my interest in Japanese culture: none of it would exist had he not intervened on several occasions to set me on the right path. This is what it was like to be one of Jerry’s kids. I think there are dozens of other people, former students of Jerry’s, who could tell you similar tales. In his devotion to his students, Jerry was exceptional. Once, when I asked him how I could possibly repay him for all he had done for me, Jerry said I could do so by helping my own students in turn. I try to do that, but Jerry set the bar awfully high.
The last few weeks, I’ve had the honor of helping Jerry’s family go through his personal library, to try to find good homes for the many books he accumulated over the years. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to retrace the trajectory of Jerry’s intellectual life. And I’ve been reminded of some of the key principles that motivated him as a scholar and teacher.
Jerry specialized in the intellectual history of modern Japan, and later in the new field of global media studies. But I think he was particularly concerned with what we might call the ethics of scholarship, the way our classroom teaching and book knowledge intersect with the real world, with how scholars can contribute to the cause of social justice and help produce a better world. Among his publications, I think he was proudest of those that appeared in venues like the Asahi Journal, aimed at a general readership in Japan.
To be a scholar of Asian Studies in the 1960s meant confronting directly the role that scholarship played in supporting the Vietnam War. Like others of his generation, including his good friend John Dower, Jerry wasn’t afraid to confront famous scholars at Ivy League powerhouses when they spoke dishonestly or disingenuously about Asian culture and history in order to legitimate what Jerry thought were indefensible policies. Even as a vulnerable graduate student, Jerry publicly took on Edwin Reischauer, Harvard University Professor and at the time U.S. Ambassador to Japan.
In part, this was driven by the training Jerry received at Union Theological Seminary, where he studied the thought of theologian Reinhold Niehbur. Jerry was especially attracted to Niehbur’s 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, with its argument that we can never expect institutions to act in accord with a sense of morality, that only individual humans can act morally.
Another way Jerry practiced this ethics of scholarship was in his engagement with Japanese intellectuals. Japan Studies scholars from North America during the 1960s and 70s too often tended to look down on or ignore their counterparts in Japan. But from the start, Jerry was unusual in this regard: he actively sought out opportunities to engage with Japanese scholars like Hayashi Takeji or Hinata Yasushi, meeting them on their own ground by speaking, reading, and writing in Japanese. Jerry also insisted that his own students do likewise.
Let me conclude by quoting a passage from a 1986 article that Jerry published the year after Hayashi Takeji died. The piece is titled “Hayashi Takeji and Tanaka Shōzō.” It explores Hayashi’s role in the 1960s rediscovery of Tanaka Shōzō (田中正造, 1841-1913), an early 20th century environmental activist and philosopher. This is what Jerry wrote:
Hayashi believed that contemporary Japanese had much to learn from Tanaka Shōzō. For one, membership in an intimate group which is just and caring is of central value to humans. Secondly, other larger structures and institutions are of only relative importance. Indeed, their value and importance is measured in relation to their support of the primary group. Finally, an individual has a cosmic imperative to act upon what he knows to be morally right. Only then is he or she human. (Waseda Journal of Asian Studies, 8 , 1-13)
Jerry Fisher was fully and gloriously human. My sympathy and condolences to Aiko, Andy, Cynthia, and their families.
Recently I’ve been thinking about film director Wakamatsu Kōji （若松孝二）. In part, this was because of his role as an early advocate for the music of Hayakawa Yoshio and JACKS; he hired them to provide the soundtrack for his 1968 independent “pink” film, Haragashi Onna 『腹貸し女』.
This all nudged me into finally watching Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army” 『実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程』. I’d been wanting to see this one since it first came out to great acclaim in 2008–it ended up being ranked #3 on that year’s Kinema Junpō Best Ten list. Finding an opportunity was always difficult, though, in part due to its epic length (three hours plus). But we sat down with the DVD last Saturday and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
I’m especially fascinated by what Wakamatsu intended by the first word of the Japanese title: jitsuroku 「実録」. A more literal translation of the title would be, “True Record: United Red Army–The Road to the Asama Sansō Incident.” As someone tangentially involved in 1960s leftist politics, Wakamatsu in his later years clearly felt an ethical, political, and artistic obligation to leave behind a “true record” of the violent faction that became notorious for a series of terrorist acts in early 1970s Japan and elsewhere.
The film begins with a kind of documentary survey of the history of the radical left in 1960s Japan, intercut with shots introducing us to the main characters we will follow. We find ourselves in the hands of a voice-over narrator who speaks in grizzled, weather-beaten tones. I thought the speaker might be Wakamatsu himself; the film has that sort of very personal feel to it. It was only when the closing credits rolled that I realized the voice actually belonged to the actor Harada Yoshio, certainly an apt choice–but one that also foregrounds the fictional, acted-out elements of this “true record.”
The middle hour uses actors to trace in horrific, numbing detail the self-destructive lynchings that took place as the possibility of actual revolution faded and the increasingly isolated faction sought to enforce impossible standards of ideological purity. Then the last hour of the film recreates the infamous 1972 Asama Sansō standoff, the incident that is conventionally depicted as the last gasp of 1960s radicalism in Japan. For the most part, we view the unfolding crisis from the perspective of the five gunmen and their hostage inside the mountain lodge, but at key moments — especially the final police assault on the villa — we see things from the external perspective of the police.
The soundtrack by Jim O’Rourke provides one set of clues as to how we are meant to take the film. In the first hour or so, it consists mainly of psychedelic guitar jams that convey a sense of liberation and possibility; by the last hour, it is almost entirely elegiac string quartet.
The climax of the film, the police raid, calls to mind nothing so much as the final shot in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the heroes are tragically misguided and doomed. What is striking is the non-judgmental tone of the presentation. For all the problems inherent in the idea of a partially fictional film as jitsuroku, it is clear that it was the driving concern behind the work. Wakamatsu neither celebrates nor condemns; he wants us to understand how the participants ended up doing what they did. He wants to leave behind a true record of what happened.
The last visual image in the film is a brief clip from news footage of a JAL jet being blown up on an airport tarmac at the end of a hijacking. It’s hard to know how we’re supposed to take this. Should we revel in the visceral excitement of the explosion footage? Or is it a meditation on the ultimate nihilism of violence as political means? Does it signal victory or defeat? Again, the answer seems to be: jitsuroku. It is what it is.
Since the unwelcome news of Lou Reed’s death arrived yesterday, I’ve been fascinated to read many different personal accounts about how people first encountered his music. The stories all more or less resemble one another, and yet they are all also indelibly personal.
For me, it was back in 1977 or 78. I was a high school student in St. Paul, and Reed and the Velvet Underground were mostly a rumor, a fascinating ghost that everyone knew about but no one had seen. Their records were out of print, and this was of course long before the Internet. Then I stumbled across a cheap used copy of the second VU album in eleventh grade. That scratched-up vinyl passed its way through the hands of all my friends, like a holy relic. Not long after, I came across another used-record treasure: Reed’s eponymous solo debut from 1972. Again, the album circulated among my friends; I wonder how many cassette tapes were recorded from it.
On Facebook the Minneapolis critic Jim Walsh yesterday reminded me of another crucial source of info we had: cover versions of VU songs by cool local bands. The Flamin’ Oh’s, for example, used to close sets with a fiery version of “Waiting for My Man.”
Then in 1979, my freshman year of college, I splurged and bought a new copy of the 1974 live “Rock and Roll Animal,” and that was that. I fell so hard in love with side one and its extended workouts on “Sweet Jane” and “Heroin” that I think a year or two passed before I even bothered to flip it over and listen to side two. That year I also bought Reed’s “Growing Up in Public” when it first came out; the album never got much critical respect, but it’s always been one of my favorites.
In the years that followed I gradually accumulated all of the VU albums, plus most of Reed’s solo works. I also discovered the solo career of John Cale, Reed’s VU bandmate, and even got to interview Cale circa 1982. But I didn’t get to see Reed play live until just a few years ago–the 2009 Lollapalooza Festival. Here’s how I wrote up my reaction to that show on an earlier incarnation of this blog:
After that [Neko Case’s set] I caught a bit of Dan Auerbach’s neo-garage psychedelic set before retiring to a quiet spot in the grass to rest up a bit for the main event.
Which, for me anyhow, was Uncle Lou Reed. I first discovered Lou and the Velvets back in 1977, but I’d never seen him live before. Tonight’s set was in some ways disappointing, but in a Lou Reed kind of way: I’m gonna show you muthas that I don’t give a rat’s ass about Lollapalooza or any other show biz bullshit. So I guess that means it was good, right? He came on quite late, but all was forgiven with the opening chords to “Sweet Jane,” the first number. He then proceeded to play a string of remarkably obscure songs: “Waves of Fear,” Dirty Blvd.,” “Mad” and “Paranoia Key of E.” After that, we got about ten minutes of metal machine music, which finally morphed into the two-chord riff of “Waiting for the Man,” much to the crowd’s delight. He closed with “Walk on the Wild Side,” of course, and even smiled once or twice during it.
By strange coincidence, early last week I felt a sudden urge to revisit Reed. It had been a year or more since I’d last listened to him. As a result, my soundtrack during the week leading up to his death was spent in the company of his music — mostly “New York” and “Growing Up in Public.” In thinking about Reed, I also looked up some of Robert Christgau’s writings and came across the following review of “New York”:
Protesting, elegizing, carping, waxing sarcastic, forcing jokes, stating facts, garbling what he just read in the Times, free-associating to doomsday, Lou carries on a New York conversation–all that’s missing is a disquisition on real estate. […] As usual, the pleasure of the lyrics is mostly tone and delivery–plus the impulse they validate, their affirmation that you can write songs about this stuff.
Christgau really puts his finger on something here. Reed’s songs are sometimes musically unmemorable (though of course he showed repeatedly that he could compose a killer riff or melody when he put his mind to it). His lyrics, while naked and sharp, don’t always make for great poetry when you read them off the page. But something happens when Reed sings those words to those tunes: a great New York voice takes over, funny and angry, wisecracking and wise. It’s the tone and the delivery–the voice.
Thanks to all who turned out for last Friday’s concert at International House, University of Chicago, by Hayakawa Yoshio and Sakuma Masahide. It was the keynote performance for the 2013 Association for Japanese Literary Studies Annual Meeting. The theme of the conference was “Performance and Japanese Literature,” and the concert turned into a powerful instance of performance in all of its aspects: ephemeral, emotional, communal. Many in the audience ended up in tears, including those who spoke no Japanese and were responding solely to the music itself. The concert ended with three standing ovations and two encores.
In the weeks leading up to the event I wrote a series of blog entries here and on the conference website, introducing the performers and their music. I found it a struggle all along: song lyrics never submit willingly to translation, and I often found myself flailing as I tried to find apt words to convey what the pieces were doing. For example, I described Hayakawa’s composition “Tosan e no tegami” (Letter to my father) as an act of musical mourning. That never felt quite right, but I couldn’t find better words to name the performance the song carries out.
Watching it and the other pieces being played last Friday night, though, it hit me. The songs aren’t about mourning; they are about the struggle that art mounts against death. I didn’t feel it was my place to announce here or in introducing the band that Sakuma has been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer and that this could turn out to be one his final live performances (Sakuma has himself been very frank about his illness on his own blog, where he writes movingly about the difficulties he has faced since the discovery of a brain tumor this past summer: often his hands won’t move the way he wants them to along the neck of his guitar). But Hayakawa mentioned the illness from the stage on Friday evening and turned the concert into a tribute to his longtime collaborator.
Suddenly, the songs took on a new hue. That magnificent coda in ”Karada to uta dake no kankei” (The direct relation between body and song), a cover of a song originally done by hi-posis but that Hayakawa has very much made his own, never felt so powerful. The pounding, repetitive music of the early verses, with their overtly sexual lyrics depicting music almost as a kind of animal rutting, suddenly shifts to a sweet, soaring melodic line, and Hayakawa sings with passion “Uta dake ｇa nokoru” (only the song remains: in other words, the only thing that will get out alive is the music itself). It’s always a cathartic moment, but under the circumstances on Friday it became unforgettable. Watching Hayakawa’s face as he sung and Sakuma’s hands as he played, the message was clear: we will all die soon enough, but as long as we are playing music, we’re still alive. And even after death wins out over us individually, the music will live on as a trace of our struggle.
It’s a theme Hayakawa returns to over and over in his compositions, especially in those from the years since his 1994 return to music. Art and eros are our only flimsy weapons in the fight to hold death at bay. Death will surely win in the end, but we will continue singing until then, and if we are lucky the song will persist after we are gone. It’s a simple message and not a particularly new one. Yet on Friday night, we could feel its truthfulness in our flesh, in the goosebumps and tears that the music summoned up.
The set list:
1) 「ひまわりの花」(Himawari no hana; Sunflowers): title song from Hayakawa’s 1995 solo album
2) 「赤色のワンピース」 (Akairo no wanpiisu; Red dress)
3) 「堕天使ロック」(Datenshi rokku; Fallen angel rock): one of two JACKS’ songs in the set
4) 「サルビアの花」 (Sarubia no hana: Salvia Flowers): Hayakawa’s best-known composition
5) 「Ｈ」 (H=Japanese slang for sexual desire)
6) 「躁と鬱の間で」(So to utsu no aida de; Between sadness and melancholy)
7) 「父さんへの手紙」 (Tosan e no tegami; Letter to my father)
8) 「身体と歌だけの関係」(Karada to uta dake no kankei; The direct relation between body and song)
9) 「青い月」（Aoi tsuki, Blue moon): a new song.
10) 「いつか」 (Itsuka; Sometime)
11) 「からっぽの世界」 (Karappo no sekai; Vacant world): JACKS’s debut single from 1968
「この世で一番キレイなもの」(Kono yo de ichiban kirei na mono; The most beautiful thing in the world): title track from Hayakawa’s 1994 comeback solo album
「君でなくちゃだめさ」(Kimi de nakucha dame sa; Nobody but you)