Thursday, February 23, 2006

Eastern Youth At Shibuya Quattro

When I first got into Japanese rock, one of the groups that pulled me in deep was a trio that played passionate, uniquely Japanese punk rock, and their name was Eastern Youth.

But like I often end up doing, in my excitement at finding a new great thing I overfed myself with their music, until I was too full, and after a while I listened to Eastern Youth less and less, and eventually their CDs began gathering dust in my disk rack.

Somewhere in my mind, though, these guys’ music lived on, and there was a desire to see them in person, on stage. I finally got that opportunity Wednesday night at the Shibuya Quattro.

I went to the Quattro with some dread as well as anticipation, to tell the truth. Dread, because it appeared the show was sold out, and a packed Quattro event is one of the least comfortable leisure activities I can imagine in Tokyo—it’s like listening to live music on a morning rush-hour train. Once there, it was as bad as I expected, and on top of that the air was a toxic fog of cigarette smoke, the waste product of an assembly of chain smokers. Maybe it’s something in the punk ethos, the inclination to self-destruction and the decadence, that makes all these guys nicotine freaks.

When the three young middle-aged guys that make up Eastern Youth hit the stage and started playing, I was amazed at how their music transformed these fans. There was some mosh-pit action near the stage as would be expected, but what struck me was the way the fans sang along, en masse, to the Eastern Youth songs, loudly enough it sounded like an echo to the singer’s amplified voice. And Eastern Youth songs don’t have bonehead lyrics. The songs, all in Japanese, are poetic, often using a Japanese that is old-fashioned like something out of literature or the spoken arts. It was wonderful to hear a bunch of punk kids singing along to their musical poems.

The singer and guitarist of Eastern Youth, Hisashi Yoshino, has a shaved head and wears black glasses with a strap. He doesn’t look like a rock star. He sang with a look of suffering, his gaping mouth curving downward at the edges, and veins on his neck bulging. Their songs sometimes started out mellow, Yoshino playing the guitar alone and like a blues-man singing words that came into his head, before they exploded in volume and emotion.

At one point, as Yoshino plucked the guitar before the start of a song, he improvised a tune about awamori, the Okinawan liquor. He sang, take away the awamori, I don’t want to see another drop of it, if I drink it, by midnight I won’t even know what I’m saying, I’ll find myself cheering loudly the Japanese female curling team on TV (out of nowhere, they went to the Turin Olympics and beat the Italians, Brits and Canadians).

Later on, he sang about a weightier theme, the weightiest theme of them all—death. When you die, you won’t go to heaven, you won’t go to hell, you won’t become a ghost, you will just become nothing, can you dig this at all, he sang. The audience stood still, as if they didn’t know how to react.

This wasn’t typical entertainment. It wasn’t at all a normal Tokyo rock show. In some ways it was discomfiting, like running into a naked stranger. But it was clear many in the crowd were responding. Eastern Youth’s songs, after all, are about heavy themes: knowing life is of limited duration, but not being able to squeeze the most out of it, seeing beauty, but knowing it’s fleeting, and so on. Here was Eastern Youth’s lyricist talk-singing possible raw drafts of future songs, before diving into songs that the fans all knew.

Toward the end, he talk-sang about how when he plays the guitar, he doesn’t even need a drop of alcohol, the guitar makes him drunk, and he can continue like that for hours. For the couple of hours at the Quattro while Eastern Youth played, despite having only consumed a tiny cup of beer that was the Quattro’s pathetic excuse for “one drink”, I felt drunk too.


You can sample some of Eastern Youth's songs here.

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