Music After Dark

Well I’m a little off my weekly posting schedule that I’ve been keeping to pretty well until now. But, then again, since my last post contained 3 consecutive entires, I think that can compensate for the lapse.

While thinking over the past 2 or 3 weeks’ adventures, and trying to decide which one to focus on for this entry, I realize that most of these episodes are music events, which is usually the case of every weekend.

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Sometimes I worry that my Tokyo social life is a little bit too consumed with music. But actually, in this way, I could say that the current state of my social life in Tokyo is eerily similar to this queer fantasy that I had before arriving here. This pre-Tokyo fantasy of mine was mostly inspired by a short novel by Haruki Murakami called “After Dark.”

The story in “After Dark” takes place over about 6 hours, from just before the last train out of downtown Tokyo, till the following morning when the trains start up again. In a kind of style that I feel like only Murakami can truly command, he paints a mostly ordinary, but nonetheless fascinating picture of those lost, twilight hours in Tokyo. And I swear that his description of places is pointedly similar to the little corner of Shibuya that I most often frequent–Dogenzaka (the “red light district” of Shibuya, where the Ruby Room is). The interesting heroine begins her nighttime misadventure in a lonely Denny’s, sipping stale coffee with her face buried behind a giant, unnamed book, and this I always picture as the 2nd floor Royal Host (also a diner of sorts), situated at the bottom of the hill and around the corner from Ruby. An hour or so after the story’s opening, a large, middle-aged woman, a stranger to the heroine, comes bounding into the diner in frenzied pursuit, and begs the young girl to accompany her to a love hotel around the corner where a Chinese prostitute has been badly injured, since she’s learned through a mutual acquaintance that the girl is fluent in Chinese. By the way, a “love hotel,” a concept that I don’t really think exists outside of Japan (?) is simply a hotel where lovers can stay for a few hours, rather than a full night, at a reduced rate. These hotels are scattered all over Tokyo (especially in Ruby Room’s neighborhood), and can be recognized by the signs out front that modestly advertise two rates, one to “Stay” and one to “Rest” (~2/3 the  “Stay” cost). Now this part isn’t particularly in line with either my Tokyo life fantasy or actual Tokyo life, since I myself have never been in a love hotel (or have had any real desire to see one), but it does more strongly suggest the “After Dark” heroine to in fact be traipsing around my beloved Dogenzaka.

The mutual acquaintance that informed the love hotel owner of the young girl’s fluency in Chinese is a college-age kid who the heroine met years ago. He’s a bass player, and is passing the after-hours night in a basement rehearsal space near the Denny’s, practicing with his band. This is definitely the part of the story that most enchanted me and formed the basis for my pre-Tokyo fantasy. I sort of mingled different elements of the “After Dark” story (as well as maybe the anime “Darker than Black”, if I’m being totally honest), and imagined these dark, curling alleyways, small, dimly-lit bars materializing at every corner, with eccentric basement rehearsal spaces beneath each one. I imagined myself the rhythm guitarist (lead would be too presumptuous, even in my own fantasy) and vocalist in a small rock band that rehearsed during these twilight hours (speaking only in Japanese). The band itself would be entirely unfamous, and in fact would never perform for others,  but would nonetheless be enough to secure myself wholly and fixedly immersed in the underground Tokyo music scene.

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Now, of course, only some of these elements align with my actual Tokyo life, but I would say strikingly more than I could’ve expected. No, I haven’t joined such a modest Japanese rock band, although I have performed alone at the Ruby Room and my friends’ former after-hours bar in Shinjuku a handful of times. But my closest friend in Tokyo is an amazingly accomplished musician and songwriter, and does in fact have her own Tokyo rock band (almost half-and-half Japanese and foreigners, my friend being American, the bassist being French, the lead guitarist being Japanese, and the drummer being half-Japanese, half-American). Her band performs all over Tokyo really, with about 2-3 shows a month on average. Through this connection, and maybe more importantly, through my regular weekly attendance at the Ruby Room open mics, I have actually become pretty immersed in the underground Tokyo music scene, or at least as immersed as a passive participant can hope to be. The community that we move in is, while, in some ways a pretty wide-spread network of musicians, both Japanese and foreign, is also small enough that you can find yourself, even across a wide range of Tokyo venues, running across the same folks over and over again, which is what makes it feel like a true community. The weekend before last, a friend of mine invited me to his gig in Roppongi (pictured above), which included 3 other acts besides his own duo, and I was a little bit gratified to realize that I in fact knew all 4 groups (some strictly by appearance, some actual friends), even though it was my first time to this particular venue. I also recognized several of the audience members, including the freelance photographer that accompanies nearly all of these gigs, regardless of the venue, and who flatly refuses any payment for her contributions.

I have to say there is something kind of fraudulent in this domineering musical element in my social life, though. I mean I love music, like much of the rest of humanity– I got safely out of the Spice Girls/boy band track by being introduced to Weezer at age 11 and Nirvana at age 13. I inherited at least 80% of my musical taste from my dad, so it’s largely classic rock. When I was I high school I went through episodic obsessions with different rock bands, divesting at least a month or so to one particular interest at a time, which is how I became acquainted with and passably knowledgable about The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Beck, The Who, The Vines, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, Supertramp, REM, CCR, and several others. I have a lot of songs that crystallize really specific moments in my life. I genuinely enjoy fooling around on my guitar, and especially singing along with it. But despite all this, I would say music definitely takes a back seat to literature and Physics, for example. It doesn’t form so much the heart of my personality as I fear that I sometimes pretend that it does here in Tokyo. And it’s foolish to even compare my “musical talents” to those of my Ruby Room friends, who are true musicians.

But, on the other hand, I’ve met so many incredible people in this musical Tokyo world. And it’s interesting how their musical talent, how the beautiful sound that they’re capable of producing, somehow magnifies the radiance of their already warm personalities. When I watch my Japanese acoustic-playing friend and drummer friend in their perfectly synchronized performances, the experience they create is even physically pleasurable…and when it vibrates through the air of the basement coffeehouse, around and through the heads of our scant audience of regulars, it creates this intimate tie between us, this mutual appreciation of something so unknown and unappreciated. And I don’t think that special human intimacy can be found in the world of Literature or the world of Physics, unfortunately.

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Whether or not I belong to this musical community as perfectly as in my little pre-Tokyo fantasy, I love this community. I think I first realized this a few months ago. I had just finished a very unhappy and lonely day of work, and I was further annoyed that I had to take a train out to Shibuya instead of going home, because I left my phone charger at Ruby Room the night before. I didn’t even know what was going on at Ruby that night or expect to find anyone I knew–I would just run in quickly and then head out and head home. But I arrived to find that my bartender friend was working that night, and he invited me to stay for the rest of the band’s set and made me my special drink that he invented as inducement. And, after taking my drink, I wandered over towards the stage and ran into an acquaintance of mine, who I had met at a gig in another venue weeks back, who greeted me with a hug and introduced me to his friends, and I stood with them and watched the band (a kind of experimental sound), noticing as I did that I recognized two of its members. And in a moment, all the loneliness of that day melted away–the warmth of the room enveloped me, the sweetness of the drink soothed me, and, alone and in the middle of downtown Tokyo’s red-light district, I finally felt safe and at home.

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