Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Literary Tourism and Letters of Recommendation

Posted in Books,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 22nd, 2017

Over the past decade, I have practiced a particular form of readerly tourism. When I travel somewhere that is the setting for a novel, I bring the book along and read a few pages while sitting in the specific location. For example, in 2014 I spent part of an afternoon in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Later that same year I sat on a park bench in downtown Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and read Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street.

This past September I was in London for a few days. As part of the never-ending exercise of attempting to turn myself into a well-read human being, every summer I read one enormous classic of world literature. For 2017, the choice was Dickens’s Little Dorrit. And so on a brisk, sunny September morning, I rode the Underground to Monument station, walked south across London Bridge and headed for Little Dorrit Playground, a small modern park for children in the neighborhood where much of the story takes place. As I sat on a bench, reading a chapter from the novel, a young mother played with her toddler daughter on the climber and swings.

From there I walked across the street to the site of the old Marshalsea debtors prison, the central setting of Dickens’s story. Only the southern wall of the “College” remains, along with some historical markers describing the significance of the site.

A few months later, at the height of recommendation letter season, I find myself recalling a specific passage from the novel. Pancks, the comical ‘Grubber’ (bill collector) who haunts the impoverished neighborhood of Bleeding Heart Yard, is repeatedly figured as a kind of overcharged motor (“a little steam-engine with more steam than it knew what to do with”). Later in the novel, Dickens gives Pancks a memorable opportunity to demonstrate a powerful sense of working-class resentment against the capitalist class in the figure of his boss, landlord Casby. But the passage that comes to mind now is where he talks about the relative value of personal references in determining the creditworthiness of individuals.

‘As to being a reference,’ said Pancks, ‘you know, in a general way, what being a reference means. It’s all your eye, that is! Look at your tenants down the Yard here. They’d all be references for one another, if you’d let ’em. What would be the good of letting ’em? It’s no satisfaction to be done by two men instead of one. One’s enough. A person who can’t pay, gets another person who can’t pay, to guarantee that he can pay. Like a person with two wooden legs getting another person with two wooden legs, to guarantee that he has got two natural legs. It don’t make either of them able to do a walking match. And four wooden legs are more troublesome to you than two, when you don’t want any.’ Mr Pancks concluded by blowing off that steam of his.

And so, yes, I’d be happy to write that letter of reference for you–and for you, and for you too. The more, the merrier. Meanwhile, I’ll be dreaming about what book to read next summer–and where it might take me.

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Hosono Haruomi: The Reluctant Frontman (11/15/2017 @ Nakano Sun Plaza)

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 15th, 2017


After opening sets by manzai duo Knights and the Suzuki-Suzuki brother-sister musical impersonator team, Hosono Haruomi took to the stage at sold-out Nakano Sun Plaza. The 70-year-old revealed a surprising new look: his head is now topped with an unruly shock of white hair. Backed by a talented young band that included the wonderful and seemingly omnipresent Takada Ren on a range of stringed instruments、Iga Wataru on bass, and the duo Good Luck Heiwa on keyboards and drums, Haruomi played a characteristically low-key but quite satisfying set. I’d seen him perform live before with YMO and also with Yano Akiko, but this was my first solo Hosono concert.

Much of the material featured his recent bent toward cover versions of standard numbers, played in Western Swing style: “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Tutti Frutti” “L’Amour,” “Angel on My Shoulder,” “Suzi Q.” This is the style found on his solid new CD, Vu Ja De, as well as on its predecessor, HoSoNoVa (2011). Several times during the night, Hosono spoke of his love for boogie-woogie tunes–a predilection that especially came forward during the final part of the evening, when stride pianist Saito Keito took over on keyboards.

There were also nods to the “soy sauce music” of Hosono’s early solo career, with songs like “Pom Pom Joki” from 1976’s Bon Voyage Co. and “Pekin Duck” from 1975’s Tropical Dandy. The evening closed with an all-hands-on-stage final encore of “Koi wa momoiro” from Hosono House, his 1973 solo debut album. Perhaps it was only to be expected that the set list included no nods toward any of Hosono’s great bands: Apryl Fool, Happy End, YMO, or H.I.S. He did, however, play a moving tribute to the recently deceased Endo Kenji, a cover of his friend’s “Nezumi Kore wa Taiheiyo Da.”

Hosono has never liked being the front man: he feels more comfortable playing bass at the back of the stage than standing at the mike down front. He joked when his set began that he wished everyone in the audience would stop looking at him, and he seemed delighted when he left the stage for a couple of numbers midway through to give the backing band its turn in the spotlight. Then, when it came time to bring the main set to a close, he introduced the last number by saying, And this next song, thank god, is the last one. But he carries the unwelcome burden of fronting the band well: his easygoing humor and self-deprecation have their own unmistakable charisma. And his inimitable baritone voice (well, actually, imitable, as the Suzukis showed in their opening set) remains fully intact.

Here’s a preview of Hosono’s just-released new CD, which is well worth your while:

[Update on 11-22-2017]: Here’s a Japanese-language review of the concert, including video:
Hosono Haruomi 11-2017 Nakano Sun Plaza concert review

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Pointillism and Limited Animation

Posted in Art,Film,Japanese film,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 15th, 2016

albertina

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit “Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh: Ways of Pointillism,” a remarkable exhibit at the Albertina Museum in Vienna (open through 8 January 2017). It was an eye-opening show on a couple of levels.

First, it disabused me of a vague notion I had carried around for decades that modern painting originates with Impressionism–that, in other words, twentieth-century visual art descended more or less in a direct line from Monet, Renoir, and company. The Albertina show argues forcefully and persuasively that we should look rather to Pointillism, which arose in direct opposition to Impressionism, as the seminal moment. It was Pointillism that finally liberated the painted image from any obligation to represent the external object as it appeared to the painter. Its aesthetic was governed instead by an autonomous logic that governed the interrelationships between dots of different colors arranged across the surface of the canvas. Moreover, as the impressive range of paintings assembled in the show demonstrates, virtually every major figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western painting went through a Pointillist phase: Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and more.

Second, it suggested that the bifurcation in post-1960s Japanimation styles between full animation (represented most famously by Miyazaki Hayao) and limited animation (e.g. Tezuka Osamu’s work for television) was a rehashing of a debate that happened in oil painting nearly a century earlier. I have in mind here the argument Thomas LaMarre makes in his brilliant 2009 book, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. According to LaMarre, full animation attempts to direct attention away from the gaps between the different planes of the animated image by centering itself on the movements of characters, drawn in loving detail against lush backgrounds. This technique generates a panoramic perspective that provides the illusion of a certain, albeit ambiguous, sense of depth. Limited animation, on the other hand, collapses the different planes of the animated image into a single flat surface to produce an effect that LaMarre calls “superplanarity”: all movement and energy now diffuse across the horizontal surface of the image rather than simulating some sort of depth.

According to the Albertina exhibit’s explanation, Pointillism aimed at something similar. Countless dots are arranged in non-hierarchical order across the surface of the canvas, each carrying an equal value. Through the contrasts and harmonies of different colors situated in relation to one another, a visual energy is unleashed across the flat plane of the image. The painting comes alive in the eye of the viewer with a kind of luminous oscillation that vibrates between the dots spread across its flat surface.

LaMarre critiques previous theorists who have tried to link the ‘superflat’ aesthetic of limited animation to Edo period visual art, usually assuming an essentialist West vs. Japan binary to link Japanimation to a seemingly ahistorical national aesthetic. The Albertina exhibit suggests that even within the ‘Western’ canon of painting, a similar conflict has long been at work. In their gorgeous works from the 1880s and 90s, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac produced a visual logic that Tezuka Osamu would have appreciated.

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Godzilla vs. Hegel

Posted in Film,Japanese film,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the September 11th, 2016

Yesterday afternoon, we attended a nearly sold-out screening of Shin-Gojira (Godzilla Rusurgence), the new reboot of the Godzilla movie franchise directed by Anno Hideaki (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame) and Higuchi Shinji. The film argues —- almost passionately — for the bureaucratic state apparatus as the highest form of subjectivity. In fact, the narrative is much more interested in how successful bureaucracies function then it is in how monsters appear in the world in the first place. Or, oddly, with how they look: in the first part of the film, Godzilla strangely resembles a Chinese lion-dance costume.

The directors borrow the narrative and editing style of the old NHK “Project X” series, celebrating the triumphs of Japanese corporate history, down to the camera angles and use of text captions to identify key players. The old family-romance melodrama subplot that characterized the original Godzilla series is completely replaced here by story lines driven by characters’ desires to rise within state bureaucracies. As with the original films, clearly this monster is a commentary on contemporary Japan, especially 3/11 (some shots of Godzilla’s destruction eerily match footage of the tsunami water sweeping through urban streets). But the fantasy here is that the state rises to the occasion, even as the actual Japanese state’s failures during the Fukushima nuclear accident are savagely parodied.

And it’s not just any old state that is being celebrated as the triumphant end of history: it’s specifically the military state. Tsubaraya Eiji started out doing special effects for wartime propaganda films like Hawai Mare oki kaisen (The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, 1942). After the surrender he took his skills over to the Godzilla series, with its inherently pacifist message. But with this latest revision, things come full circle: Shin-Gojira is an unabashed celebration of Japanese military bravery and can-do prowess. We cheer as a vast bureaucratic network of scientists, technocrats, politicians, and military brass pull off an improbable victory, solve the problem, and neutralize the monster.

One of the nicest features of the new film is the way at key moments it deploys some of the indelible soundtrack music composed for the original series by Ifukube Akira. And there’s another very nice moment at the end when the soundtrack falls dead silent and we simply take in the horrible spectacle of the destroyed monster. Then the final credits roll — interminably long credits in the contemporary Hollywood style (the audience at our screening sat quietly to the end, watching them all). With the credits, we’re reminded that this film itself is also the product of a massive bureaucracy composed of committees, crews, technicians, programmers, and financiers. In other words, with Shin-Gojira, form equals content: the film is a successful bureaucratic product about how successful bureaucracies produce results. It’s the perfect Hegelian aesthetic resolution.

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New fiction: “When a Derelict Angel Speaks”

Posted in Fiction,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the December 29th, 2015
  • My short story “When a Derelict Angel Speaks” has just appeared in Valparaiso Fiction Review, Vol. 5, No. 1. Enjoy!

  • When a Derelict Angel Speaks
  • Michael Bourdaghs

    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)

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    Kuroshima Denji’s “The Two-Sen Copper Coin”

    Posted in Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 3rd, 2014

    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.

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    Watch and Listen to Yours Truly

    Posted in J-Pop,Japanese literature,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the July 7th, 2014

    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.”

    Michael Bourdaghs, April 11 2013 from BU Center for the Study of Asia on Vimeo.

    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.

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    Fully Human: Remembering Jerry K. Fisher

    Posted in Change is Bad,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the June 24th, 2014

    (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.)

    jerryfisher2008smaller

    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.

    hayashi takeji

    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.

    Hinata

    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.

    NiebuhrMoral

    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 [1986], 1-13)

    Jerry Fisher was fully and gloriously human. My sympathy and condolences to Aiko, Andy, Cynthia, and their families.

    On Lou Reed

    Posted in Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the October 28th, 2013

    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.

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    Last Friday’s Concert: Hayakawa Yoshio and Sakuma Masahide

    Posted in J-Rock,Japanese literature,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the October 22nd, 2013

    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

    First encore:
    「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

    Second encore:
    「君でなくちゃだめさ」(Kimi de nakucha dame sa; Nobody but you)

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