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Sunday, May 22, 2011
Up close and personal: Why Dylan is so big in Japan
By TOSHIYUKI "HECKEL" SUGANO
Special to The Japan Times
It was the fall of 1963, when — in what seemed like a flash of lightning — I became a fan of Bob Dylan the moment I heard "Blowin' in the Wind" on the radio. I was in my first year of high school.
In those days no Dylan albums had been released in Japan, and it was hard to get import records. So although that flash of lightning remained seared in my head, there wasn't much I could do about it.
Then two years later, in the fall of 1965, a Dylan album at last appeared in the record shops here — just about 3 1/2 years after his debut album, "Bob Dylan," was released in the West. In that interval, Dylan already had six albums to his name — and he'd already made a drastic shift from acoustic folk music to electric rock.
That first 30-cm I bought the day it went on sale in Tokyo was a kind of "taster" for the Japanese market, so its A-side started with the then smash hit here, "Like a Rolling Stone" (from the August 1965 album "Highway 61 Revisited"), followed by five electric tracks from his March 1965 album, "Bringing It All Back Home." Then the B-side comprised six songs from Dylan's second album, 1963's "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" — including "Blowin' in the Wind." Complicating things more was that this album, titled "Bob Dylan" (like that first album in the West), was sold in almost the same sleeve as his third album in the West, 1964's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." It was definitely an extremely odd record.
Back in that heady, boom-time Japan of the mid '60s, many of the youthful baby-boomer generation were crazy about so-called yōgaku (Western music), mainly from the United States and Britain. Among these music lovers, there were two main groups — the one that liked the electric guitar sound of groups such as The Ventures and The Beatles, and the other that liked folk's acoustic guitar sounds, whether from overseas or the lively homegrown folk scene.
It was because of those folkies that the great New York-based artists Harry Belafonte, The Brothers Four, The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary came here in the '60s — helping to fuel what became a full-fledged folk-music boom. Along with all this music helping to create, for the first time, a youth culture in Japan, a militant (sometimes very militant) student movement was a part of life here through the late '60s and early '70s.
It was into this buzzing firment that Dylan's music came.
Whereas most young Japanese might have believed before then that beautiful melodic harmonies and voices were essential for professional singers, Dylan rewired their expectations. Really, he broke astonishing new ground with his husky, unmelodic voice and his original songs full of meanings that had only rarely if ever figured in popular songs heard here.
Before long, many folk-music singer-songwriters inspired by Dylan's music appeared — mainly from the Osaka area. Among these were Nobuyasu Okabayashi, Takuro Yoshida, Kenji Endo, Goro Nakagawa, Shigeru Izumiya, Masato Tomobe and Rabi Nakayama — who each mixed their own messages and opinions with their melodies.
Many students were among those who tuned in to these original new sounds and began attending the folk music festivals that began to be held all over the country.
Meanwhile, most of the Dylan news and information from that time up until the mid '90s, when people started to use the Internet, came from music magazines and via his record company. In particular, the monthly New Music Magazine was a must-buy, as every issue featured in-depth coverage of the U.S. music scene — of course including Dylan.
Also, although many people would say that Dylan's lyrics were hard to make out, in Japan his record company went to great lengths to provide detailed information with all his records — including English lyrics, translated Japanese lyrics and various comments on the album and the artist. Consequently, many of his Japanese fans could understand a lot of his songs despite them struggling to understand the words just by listening to them.
But anyway, I believe Japanese are able to surmount the language barrier in songs. For example, even though they may not be able to understand whole lines, if one speaks to their heart, that's more than enough to make it work for them and move their soul. So we could find plenty of great and/or catchy phrases shining out of Dylan's songs and easy enough to grasp — such as "The answer my friend, is blowin' in the wind"; "The times they are a-changin' "; "Any day now, any day now, I shall be released"; and "How does it feel to be on your own . . . Like a rolling stone."
When I was working as Dylan's A&R (artist and repertoire) person at CBS Sony in Tokyo from 1970 to 1980, we ran lots of major campaigns to reach as many people as possible. In 1974, for example, we gave away an original, not-for-sale album of unreleased songs titled "Mr. D's Collection" to everyone who bought 10 different Dylan albums from those then available. That was a great success. It was such things as that that helped keep Dylan's albums on the best-seller lists — with 1976's "Desire" selling 200,000 copies, for example.
But it was when Dylan first came to Japan, in February 1978, that his popularity was cemented. On that occasion, for his debut concert at the Budokan Hall in Tokyo on Feb. 20, national broadcaster NHK aired a special Bob Dylan feature program, and many of the tabloids gave his visit the full front-page treatment. It was certainly a matter of popular national interest — and the eight, virtually sold-out concerts he played at the 10,000-seat Budokan set a new record for any foreign artist in Japan.
It was funny though, because the audiences were silent all the way through and then they applauded at the end of the concerts — like classical music audiences do. This worried Dylan, until I explained that it was normal in Japan, and especially in Tokyo. But then when he played three concerts in Osaka, the packed audiences were all cheering and clapping. Obviously pleased, on Feb. 25, Dylan did what he only very occasionally does, and played an extra song — "One Too Many Mornings" — in response to a shouted-out request.
It was barely five months later that Japanese fans were treated to "Bob Dylan at Budokan," a live double album of songs from his Feb. 28 and March 1 shows. Fans elsewhere had to wait until the end of the year (Australia) or April '79 (rest of the world) for their turn. For myself and the others in our CBS Sony team, that album was a special source of great pleasure, because Dylan entrusted us entirely with the song selection, mixing and artwork.
Dylan wrote in the liner notes for that live album: "If the people of Japan wish to know about me, they can listen to this record — also they can hear my heart still beating in Kyoto at the Zen Rock Garden — Someday I will be back to reclaim it." That's a promise he's kept with subsequent tours here in 1986, '94, '97, 2001 and '10.
In some ways, the most memorable of those visits was last year's, when he did something he'd long wished to do — which was to play in cozy venues for audiences of 2,000 to 3,000. That tour featured five performances in Osaka, two in Nagoya and seven in Tokyo. Each time, the mostly standing-only venues were completely sold-out, with the audiences made up of those baby-boomers from before, their children — and their grand-children, so wide is Dylan's fan base across the generations. This is a unique and brilliant phenomenon at Dylan's concerts that makes every one of them a joyful and sharing experience — and it's happened simply because once a person becomes a fan of Dylan, they tend to stick with him forever, knowing he has never lost his creator's enthusiasm or succumbed to nostalgia, and that in every performance he keeps searching for new possibilities for his music.
That same huge fan base has, too, ensured that far more books about Dylan have been written than any other rock musician. Among all those works, his 2004 autobiography titled "Chronicles, Volume One" spent 19 weeks on The New York Times' hard-cover non-fiction best-seller list — an achievement unprecedented for any work to do with rock music. I was lucky enough to be asked to translate that book, and it was a real challenge to not lose its fine literary style and distinctive hard-boiled rhythms — especially as I opted not to add any notes or comments.
Through that project and the many other chances I've luckily had to meet Dylan face to face and chat together, I'm pleased to say — in all honesty — that despite him often being portrayed as a mysterious and crabby person, I absolutely disagree.
Instead, among lots else, I remember Dylan the serious musician asking me all the time after his concerts, "What did you think about today's sound — really?" I remember, too, a very kind person with a very good sense of humor who is, put simply, a most honorable human being.
I have been a Bob Dylan fan since 1963. The first show I attended was at Chicago Stadium in 1974. Since then, I've seen his shows more than 250 times and never been disappointed. Now as he reaches 70, I'd like to say to him: Please keep on singing forever — I'll keep on following until my last day. May you stay forever young. Happy birthday, Bob.
From your Japanese fan and follower, Heckel.
To read Heckel's series (in Japanese) "If You See Mr. Dylan, Say Hello" in the Midi Record Club magazine, visit midiinc.com/cgi/contents/magazine_top.php?id=4