Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


The Past Year at the University of Chicago: The Video Record

Posted in J-Rock,Japanese literature,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the June 30th, 2010

Those of us who study Japanese culture and literature at the University of Chicago had an exciting year in 2009-2010. We’ve now posted video of some of the major events. Nobel laureate Oe Kenzaburo delivered this year’s Tetsuo Najita Distinguished Lecture in March. Video of his speech, “A Novelist Re-Reads ‘Kaitokudo,'” in the original Japanese is available here, and the lecture with an English-language voiceover (done by yours truly at the event) is available here.

Our Japan@Chicago conference this year was held in late May and devoted to the topic of “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant-Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music, and Art.” The event included several specials guests, musicians who were active in the 1960s rock scene in Japan. They spoke about their experiences then, and they also brought along their guitars and played a few songs for us. These included Alan Merrill, who was active in Japan in the 1960s Group Sounds band The Lead, then as a solo artist signed to Watanabe Productions, and later in the early 1970s pioneering glam rock band Vodka Collins. Here is video of Alan performed his 1973 Vodka Collins hit, “Automatic Pilot.” Alan closed his impromptu set at the conference with a rendition of a song he wrote and first recorded in 1975 with his UK band The Arrows after leaving Japan: “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (video here).

We also were lucky enough to have three original members of the legendary Yokohama band The Golden Cups join us for a question-and-answer session: Eddie Ban (lead guitar), Louise Louis Kabe (bass), and Mamoru Manu (drums and vocals). At the end of the evening we had a jam session with Eddie Ban and Alan Merrill. They played three numbers together, including a sly Japanese-language version of “Sweet Home Chicago” (video here).

It was a terrific year, and we’re already planning some very interesting events for next year….

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For Pete’s Sake

Posted in The Kinks by bourdaghs on the June 27th, 2010

Earlier today, Ray Davies did the only appropriate thing: celebrate the life of the late Pete Quaife by dedicating “Waterloo Sunset” to him at the Glastonbury Festival.

They did “Days,” as well, the last song Pete recorded with the band before leaving the Kinks.

The full Glastonbury set list is available here.

Sumo in Trouble

Posted in Current Events,Sumo by bourdaghs on the June 27th, 2010

The powers-that-be in the world of sumo have backed themselves into a corner. The artificially inflated ethical standards that were invoked to dethrone the foreign yokozuna Asashoryu now prove unattainable for the Japanese-born wrestlers and managers. In particular, the holier-than-thou attitude that developed over the past few years has now inadvertently provoked a major piling on in the mass media at the latest scandal, which involves the newly exposed gambling habits of dozens of current and former wrestlers.

Gambling by athletes is undoubtedly a problem. Given that it is illegal, it necessarily involves them with unsavory characters (in Japan, that means the yakuza), and it opens up the potential of players falling deeply in debt and throwing matches in return for clearing the slate. The lifetime ban of Pete Rose in American baseball for betting on the sport in which he played a central role was entirely appropriate, even if no evidence emerged that he attempted to rig the outcomes of games.

On this basis, some of the wrestlers named in current media reports deserve punishment, perhaps even banning. But a witch-hunt atmosphere of hysteria has now set in, and even wrestlers who occasionally bet in private hanafuda card games between wrestlers are being singled out for media pillorying. The Nagoya tournament is supposed to get underway in a couple of weeks, but now that is up in the air. Will it be canceled? If it goes forward, will NHK broadcast it? Will ozeki Kotomitsuki be banned for life from the sport?

There’s an old adage: be careful what you wish for. For years, cranky sumo observers in Japan upset with foreign dominance yearned for the sport to be “cleaned up.” Congratulations, folks: your wish has come true. I only hope the sport survives it.

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Music and Loss

Posted in Music,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the June 24th, 2010

Fans of other 1960s rock bands have all had to deal with this many times over. But for us Kinks fans, it is a new and unwelcome experience: news is now spreading over the Internet that Pete Quaife, original bassist for the Kinks, died yesterday in Denmark. He’d been in a coma for several days and had been battling health problems for years. I’d just been thinking about Pete the other day, searching on-line for tracks by his post-Kinks band Mapleoak and stumbling across this 1988 interview:

Pete left the band in 1969, seven or eight years before I discovered them, and so I never had the chance to see him play live. But his wonderful bass playing forms a distinctive part of so many early Kinks records: “Waterloo Sunset,” “Sunny Afternoon,” and of course “Dead End Street.”

This is our first loss of a member of the Kinks, and I don’t like it one bit. I hope we don’t have to do this again for many more years to come.

To make matters worse, I’ve just learned that Bob Meide, drummer for the Flamin’ Oh’s, passed away a few days ago. The Oh’s were probably my favorite local band in the Twin Cities in the early 1980s. They had a number of local hits and were monsters live, but never broke out nationally. I had the chance to interview them a couple of times and hang out with them at one or two shows. I remember one night in 1981 or 82 at Macalester College: after they finished playing a show on campus, I took them up to the broadcast studio of WMCN, the campus radio station, and we drank beer and played cool records for hours. Meide was a terrific drummer; as the obituary in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune notes, “He looked like Ringo Starr but played like Keith Moon of the Who.” RIP, Pete and Bob. Heaven has a new rhythm section, it seems.

(Update on 6/25/10: More tributes to Pete Quaife are coming on-line now, from Dave Davies, Facebook, Geoff Edgers (of the movie Do It Again), and Rolling Stone magazine.)

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This and That

Posted in Jazz,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other,Sumo,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the June 24th, 2010

We spent yesterday afternoon at the Field Museum of Natural History, taking in the “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age” exhibit. The centerpiece artifact is Lyuba, the one-month-old mammoth discovered frozen below the permafrost in northern Russia in 2007. She is remarkably well preserved for a creature some 40,000 years old: she is even cute in a baby animal sort of way. But as I gawked I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what separated this scientific exhibit from, say, the curios that drew crowds in 1840s and 50s New York to P.T. Barnum’s Museum. Well, it’s something to do with the kids on a summer afternoon, and it’s air conditioned.

(Image source)

If I were in England this weekend, I’d be trying to worm my way into the Glastonbury Festival. Among many others, one Raymond Douglas Davies will be taking the stage for a set on Sunday. A preview article notes the role the Kinks had in establishing this annual music festival back in 1970:

In 1970, founder and dairy farmer Michael Eavis decided to hold a music event and booked the Kinks for 500 pounds but, when they failed to show, got Marc Bolan instead.

Typical. Ray is a little better about these things nowadays, so presumably he will actually play his scheduled set.

Tonight, the plan is to catch the fabulous jazz chanteuse Dee Alexander in a free concert out on the Midway Plaisance. Summertime, and the living’s easy….

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South Africa and Soccer

Posted in Current Events,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the June 23rd, 2010

Watching the World Cup matches from South Africa–including this morning’s anxiety-provoking U.S. 1-0 victory over Algeria to advance us into the second round–and reading Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, I’ve frequently been reminded of my teen-age years, spent as a fervent follower of the North American Soccer League’s Minnesota Kicks. Several of the Arsenal players that show up in Hornby’s memoir–Geoff Barnett and Charley George, for starters–played for the beloved Kicks. Certainly the greatest sports moment of my youth was the evening I watched the Kicks demolish the dreaded New York Cosmos 9-2 in a playoff game, with Alan Willey alone scoring five goals for us.

Watching the games from South Africa, I’ve been in particular fondly recalling #11, midfielder Patrick “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, probably the finest South African footballer of all time. The BBC recently named him “The Greatest Player You Never Saw,” but if you were a Minnesota soccer fan in the late 1970s, you were lucky enough to witness his remarkable dribbling and passing skills. I remember in particular a spectacular scissors kick shot on goal from 1977: it didn’t go in, unfortunately, but it was one of the flashiest moves I’ve ever seen. Ace was the heart of the Kicks from 1976-1981–and he returned home to South Africa in the off-season to play for the Kaiser Chiefs there (or was it the other way around? Were we the off-season team?). He scored more than fifty goals in his Minnesota years, and for budding soccer players and fans in the Upper Midwest, he was our primary model for what made the beautiful game so pretty.

Ntsoelengoe sadly passed away from a heart attack in 2006. How much he would have enjoyed watching his own national team knocking off the French yesterday! Sigh.

Forgive my bout of wistful nostalgia, please, and return with me now to 1978 and Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, for a fine late summer’s night dream.

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Day Tripper to Japan

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the June 21st, 2010

The Beatles’ live shows at Tokyo Budokan in the summer of 1966 were a turning point in the history of Japanese rock–and in the history of the integration of Japanese youth into the global music market. Some of the four shows they played were filmed for television, providing us with a good document of the fairly ragged nature of the Fab Four’s live act at this stage in their career. The audience for the concerts included a veritable who’s-who of 1960s Japanese culture: novelists Mishima Yukio and Kita Morio, film director Oshima Nagisa, future Jacks’ lead singer Hayakawa Yoshio, both of The Peanuts, etc., etc.

One of the songs featured in the Tokyo live shows was “Day Tripper,” originally released as a single around the world the previous December. As he introduces the number, John isn’t quite certain if it was released in Japan as a single, and he gives a very awkward impression of spoken Japanese, but no one in the audience seems to mind.

Also in the audience for the Tokyo concerts were members of The Spiders, one of the top Group Sounds bands. In fact, they had famously turned down an invitation to appear as an opening act for The Beatles in those Tokyo concerts. The Spiders were one of the first Japanese groups really to “get” The Beatles, after their chief songwriter Kamayatsu Hiroshi discovered a copy of the Meet the Beatles LP at the American Pharmacy in Tokyo in early 1964. They were famous for inserting new Beatles’ singles into their live act even before the original records had had the chance to climb the charts.

The Spiders recorded many covers of Beatles’ songs on their own albums. One of the best is, in fact, their version of “Day Tripper,” included on The Spiders Album No. 5 (1968). The Spiders were so hip that their cover version is based less on the original Beatles’ recording than on Otis Redding’s marvelous soulified take on the number: the famous guitar hook fades away, replaced by a very funky organ riff and The Spiders topped this off with some nifty Group Sounds choreography. Here’s video from a wonderful 1981 reunion gig:

The Spiders weren’t the last Japanese rock band to record the number, either. In 1979, Yellow Magic Orchestra released an industrial-grunge, postmodern take on the song, one that is as inventive as any of the other recorded versions (including The Beatles’). Moreover, YMO’s version is clearly rooted in The Spiders’ take on the song. Drummer Takahashi Yukihiro’s vocals are run through a filter that makes him sound like an android, the tune decays at key points into metal machine music, and what we are left with is an ironic undermining of the whole teenage pop concept. Very cool. Here are YMO performing it live in NYC in 1979.

YMO will be playing a reunion gig in Tokyo this summer when I’m there, and I’m debating myself over whether I should go. Do you think they’ll play “Day Tripper”?

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It Didn’t Start With Tanizaki

Posted in Books,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the June 20th, 2010


Foot fetishism in Asian literature goes back long before the twentieth century. I’ve just come across the following poem in praise of women’s feet by great Tang dynasty bard Li Po 李白 (701-762). Shades of Naomi….

The Women of Yueh (1)

She is a southern girl of Chang-kan Town;
Her face is prettier than star or moon,
And white like frost her feet in sandals–
She does not wear the crow-head covers

(In these poems, Li Po records what he saw of the “southern” girls in Kiangsu and Chehkiang. These provinces were under the king of Yueh in the 5th and 6th centuries, B.C. Chang-kan is near the city of Nanking, and was at Li Po’s time inhabited by the lower class of people. The “crow-head covers” are a kind of shoes worn by upper-class women of the north. So named on account of their shape and very small size–small feet seem to have been already at a premium. “It is interesting,” remarks a native critic demurely, “to note Li Po’s admiration for a barefoot woman.”)

[Translation and notes by Shigeyoshi Obata, from his edited volume The Works of Li Po, The Chinese Poet (1935)]

(Image source)

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Engaging Commodities: The Media Blitz

Posted in Film,J-Rock,Japanese film,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the June 18th, 2010

The Chicago Shimpo, a local bilingual weekly aimed at the Japanese-American community, has given nice front-page coverage to our recent conference, “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art.” The newspaper focuses on the guest musicians who participated, The Golden Cups and Alan Merrill, including interviews with the Cups, their manager, and with three long-time fans who traveled from Japan to attend the event. The article includes many photographs, as well.

A .pdf file of the English language version of the article is here, and the Japanese language version is here.

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The Early Summer Reading List

Posted in Books,Fiction,J-Pop,Music by bourdaghs on the June 17th, 2010

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately. How ’bout you?

Ugaya Hiromichi, J-Poppu to wa nani ka: Kyodaika suru ongaku sangyo (What is J-Pop? The expanding music industry, 2005). A provocative study of the music business in Japan since the late 1980s, when marketing executives coined the word “J-Pop” to suggest the appearance of a Japanese pop music scene that could compete on an international basis. Ugaya isn’t as interested in musicians as he is in the business, technological, and marketing sides of the industry. He shows, for example, how the switchover to the CD format (along with the rise of inexpensive CD players) transformed the gender and age demographics of the music-buying audience in Japan.

Jane Austen, Persuasion (1816). In which a British female writer tells us what women really want. It’s amazing how contemporary Austen’s characters remain, despite the now-archaic nature of the world they occupy. Differences of birth or class are both overcome and reinforced (just like today!), and of course the colonies hover in the background: the widowed Mrs. Smith gets her happy ending when her rights over her late husband’s estate in the West Indies are recognized. No wonder Natsume Soseki loved her writing so much. A fine novel to begin the summer with.

Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch (1998). In which a British male writer tells us what men really want. Hornby’s comic memoir of his life-long obsession with soccer seemed a good choice to accompany this year’s World Cup. As usual with Hornby, it’s inlaid with countless funny, poignant observations–e.g.:

The first and easiest friends I made at college were football fans; a studious examination of a newspaper back page during the lunch hour of the first day in a new job usually provokes some kind of response. And yes, I am aware of the downside of this wonderful facility that men have: they become repressed, they fail in their relationships with women, their conversation is trivial and boorish, they find themselves unable to express their emotional needs, they cannot relate to their children, and they die lonely and miserable. But, you know, what the hell?

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