- 2020-07-18 00:33:38+02:00
Tokyo - 1992
It was in Tokyo that I first discovered the virtues of the Smiths, in the car of my friend Chio. As we left the hotel on Meiji Dorii she pressed ‘play’ on the cassette deck. I gazed out of the window at the steaming streets and pretty people walking slowly by. We were heading for ‘her’ park (Harumi), along the inevitably jammed streets; past the moated and reclusive Imperial palace; through the seductive elegance of the Ginza, and the endlessly simonised megalopolis, all viewed from the cool of our car interior. Then on, through industry and harbours, to a small refuge of green facing the water. As she drove she played me The Smiths, but a tune I didn’t recognise. The only other time I had heard them was in London, again driving, this time the Old Kent Road, the docklands district of Bermondsey coursing away to my left. There the music had seemed unrelentingly grey, like the sky that lowered itself onto the squat and hundred year old sooted buildings. In the chromium heat of a Tokyo summer it slowly began to appeal. The sound rolled around the car. I leaned back and day dreamed, secure with my friend, comfortable for a moment.
“ You know--they’re from your country--Sumizu”
The singer pleaded his story as the guitar screamed and shook its circular way around and back again; carrying a load of rainy and sorrowful songs set in a peculiar ad-mixture of sixties pop, seventies glam-rock and Irish folk tradition. Lyrical guitar lines and melismatic vocalising, intertwined with a poignantly layered dissonance.
Then I got it.
Once back in New York, after the painful and final goodbyes and futile promises that we would meet again, soon, I procured copies of The Smith’s music for myself. Living on Saint Marks Place, that counter cultural strip of a market place at the entrance to the East Village, made it easy. Down the stairs from my apartment and into the record store in the adjoining building, to have a chat with Mike, who worked the afternoons and was an ardent fan of all the new underground bands; who had introduced me to quite a few things over time.
A funny thing about New York is the kind of isolation that one can get into when living there, a parochial feeling that the world begins and ends at the border of Manhattan. During the eighties I got caught by this too. Unlike London or Tokyo, where the media positively bombard one with the doings of everywhere else the world, in New York you really have to work at finding out about anything. It’s only too easy to get lazy, to sink into the morass of one’s own activities, problems, and pleasures. Hence my late arrival at the table of The Smiths....
Except for that moment on the Old Kent road I have never heard the band in England and wonder if in some way it would change my feeling about their music if I was to do so. When I listen to them I am engaged with the part that looks back with an edgy and wary nostalgia to times that were--and are--gladly left behind. I suspect that if I went back to the reality underlying those memories, the band's commentary would prove too sour, too close an evocation of reality.
So it’s not surprising that somehow I was available to the sound in Tokyo in a way that I hadn’t been in New York or London, because Tokyo is pop culture play land, and for me, the visiting artist, the honoured guest, it is definitely removed from the exigency of ‘real’ life. In a hotel room in the late eighties I watched television ‘punks’, dressed as perfect replicas of their seventies London brethren flail through the motions and attitudes of despair and anger; in the early nineties it was designer Rappers and Rastas posing in Harajuku and Shibuya, and the groomed population buying CD’s from all over the world in Wave, the beautiful multi-story music store in Roppongi. In many ways Japan represented a sanitised and safe version of England for me, and in some ways this country is far more similar to England than say, the United States or Germany are. Chio concurred. After studying mime in England she traveled to New York to dance, as she felt that she had ‘never left home’ in England. Too many similarities. Gleefully we sat down and enumerated, and eventually came up with this:
‘Japan and Britain are islands,
Traditionally vigilant of predatory continental empires yet not successfully invaded subjugated or dominated for many hundreds of years at a time.
There is a love of green and much piety on the question of gardens in these most urbanised of lands, whose soils, although fertile and water washed, require tillage and toil; being loathe to give up their gifts.
There is love of gadgets too.
Our crooked teeth get locked around sweet foods rather more often than is good for them.
And telephone cards (prepaid and slid through the phone-box itself) are quite the norm.
Left side driving and expensive taxis monopolise the late night city transit of sodden passengers at the appointed hour (there are regimented times for debauchery). Not here the slow and steady round the clock consumption of alcohol that is possible in say, Berlin, but instead an evening rush to pubs and bars, that only adumbrates the second rush of the night: the stagger for the last train.
Fads, fashion, and the conspicuous consumption of information (an overflow of disposable ideas disappearing into the vortex of the next day’s intellectual shopping list) dominate as trains run everywhere through swathes of green banked cuttings over shingled sleepers and revetment buildings.
Traditionally eldest sons inherit family holdings, that is the law of primogeniture.
So that the the youngest shall go forth in adventure and rejoice in sad songs as they sup beer....’
One redolent evening, as the night closed off another humid day she came to the realisation that this time she had returned to stay. On the railway station platform near Yoyogi park she hugged me (an unusually demonstrative action for a Japanese woman in a public setting), for no apparent reason, except nostalgia, fear, and the knowledge of the end. As yet she could not see that this too, was a beginning. We sat in the dark, and cried in secret, and as we did so, she handselled her old life onto my shoulders. Slowly her grip on me, the last connection to that existence, slackened. Once I was gone she wrote for a while, told me of her work, her creative ventures, her boyfriend. Soon however, the letters stopped, and she disappeared completely, lost in the ever running engine of Tokyo. I had been a last link to another life, another hope, another place of being. I mourned the loss, as I receded back into New York existence.
The comfort of the Smiths for her was the comfort of me, or rather that which I had represented: another life, beyond the constraints of Japan; wandering in strange lands, playing with the freedom of not belonging, of transience, of procrastinating the final return. For me this comfort began with nostalgia for Tokyo and the moments I had known there. Inevitably though the sound of British working class ennui and the rain sweeping the ‘humdrum towns’ of England, began to engage a more recondite place within me; that which is still adolescent. For a long time I took a guilty, sneaky pleasure in a music that seemed at times snidey, full of sneers and resentment, with an ill-will that evoked the same in my heart. A visit with the Smiths, or Morrissey in his solo incarnation is still a visit with dark corners. There is a curious strength in it though, to identify with a peculiarly British experience that leaves one defiant, bouncy even, able to take on the world, or the street at least, from any angle. It’s a very material force in a way: the same kind of buzz that you get from having new boots and a designer jacket, and just the right weapon to cradle in the pocket.
And then there’s this fascination with those who are ‘physically capable’, the uneasy voice of one born to the street, who sensibly left it behind, who never partook in those values yet has the nagging doubt that perhaps that only thing that ever mattered was this: the ability to handle oneself in a fight.
The thick brown voice of Manchester: those panting nondescript inner-cities, suburbs and council estates, Gateshead, Dulwich, Redland, Bermondsey, all those schools running out of hopes, all hopes long ruined. ...and if there was any point in my going to school, that school. was there anything good there? That I couldn’t have gotten anywhere without that hideous...? Still embedded like an axe in my chest for ever, school, that school, those estates, those children... ...those guitar intervals, dissonant ninths and clustered harmonics, sing of those places, places, places.... ...as surely as that Crystal Palace Football Club shirt (I have hidden in my cupboard) is a reminder of times best forgotten.
The Smiths seem to go well with beer. It’s all that maudlin self pity, if you let it wash up inside. Listen to the accent on the word ‘inside’ in the song ‘Unlovable’ as Morrissey struggles with his place in the world. He’s very good at translating this struggle for the rest of us. So when we go there we recognise it instantly.