Monday, May 19, 2008

'Heisei Western Carnival' At Basement Bar

What's the deal with Japan and rockabilly?

You needn't look much further than those twist-dancing, pompadour-coiffed, black leather jacket-clad Teddy Boys in Harajuku to figure out that rockabilly is alive and kicking in Japan.

Indeed, when I went to the 'Heisei Western Carnival' event last Sunday, there was a brief time-slip moment when I almost mistook where I was to 1950's America, or late-70's London, or some weird combination of both: I hadn't seen so many pompadours and mohawks, mohair sweaters and biker jackets, beehive hair-dos and Yale caps, since, well, the last time I went to a rockabilly/psychobilly event in Tokyo. Also, I saw the most Virgin Mary images there since the last time I went to East L.A.—any one know what that's all about?

The groovy cats were all there at the Basement Bar to see four bands brought together by a guy named Little Elvis Ryuta, and the first act was a duo called AA & TO¥SOX. They were two ex-furyou types, one slapping a double bass and the other punching a toy (?) piano while pedal-kicking a drum. They did both originals and punk versions of 50's golden oldies sang in Japanese, and I loved their sound—later, Asakusa Jinta's vocalist/bassist Oshow said he was influenced by this bassist's explosive style, something that didn't come as much of a surprise.


Next up was Junco Partner, a band that was led by a sweet-voiced, white-jacketed Japanese Romeo and a chubby guy in a Shriner hat playing a fun-looking washboard with various horns attached. The band played ballads of the sort I imagined couples listened to on a car radio in, say, a 50's diner parking lot.


Throughout the event the club was so foggy with cigarette smoke that my eyes stung. Everyone smoked. At their last event advantage Lucy had banned smoking, which was a welcome change, but here the nic-freaks ruled. I wished people would at some point wake up to the fact that it's not a very rebellious, punk thing to smoke, and it might be even more counterculture to give Japan Tobacco the finger by NOT lighting up, but then, maybe smoking isn't a symbol of youthful rebellion to start with. It's just what your favorite older brother did while he listened to rockabilly, and it was natural to follow in his path by taking up Seven Stars or Lucky Strikes etc.

And rockabilly in Japan does seem less like something a guy discovers he likes one day on his own, and more like something that the cool, older guy was into so you started listening to it too, a type of slightly juvenile delinquent (furyou) and blue collar music, fashion and outlook on life that has been inherited from generation to generation. The original impetus probably being the idolization of all things American starting around the 60's. I think I've written about this before, but there's a part of Japanese society that welcomes and cheers the furyou mentality, a romanticism about guys who hopelessly go against stifling social conventions, and maybe that's the part of the answer to the first question of why Japan and rockabilly go together.


Moving on, the third act was the organizer of the event, Little Elvis Ryuta and his band, the S.R.P., and the Elvis that Ryuta was emulating was that from the 1970's Las Vegas gigs: he punched and kicked a few karate moves, and, at the middle of the set, he got into a blinding white jumpsuit with a gem eagle chest piece and other attached jewels. Little Elvis Ryuta learned his lessons well from the King—he really got the audience going. There was a girl in front of me, who must have been in her early-twenties at most, to whom Elvis was a historical figure at best, but she told a pal you HAVE to see Little Elvis Ryuta because he's amazing. And she was right—Little Elvis Ryuta said we should make so much noise that the King in heaven can hear us, and maybe we succeeded, so that he looked down from his cloud-made Graceland and diamond juke joint to see us all in that little basement club under a liquor store in Shimokitazawa, one of the hardest live houses in all of Tokyo to find.


Closing the event was Asakusa Jinta, one of my favorite live bands in Tokyo, and, yet again, their show got some of the young ones so excited that at the end they began a slam-dance that wasn't that far away from a regular fist-fight. Well...what can you do? A space in the middle was spontaneously created so they can pursue their pleasure, while the rest of us listened.

I didn't find this out before right before their show, by the way, but Asakusa Jinta's accordionist has left the band indefinitely due to health reasons, according to the band's website. That's too bad—her accordion sound really added to Asakusa Jinta's cool, retro Japan feel, and, besides, she was quite a beauty. Hope she gets well.

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