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Friday, June 23, 2006
Beasts of burden
By SIMON BARTZ
Seems like a sennin is in town. This mythical Japanese being has supernatural powers -- he can fly, ride clouds and make the winds blow. And he's certainly whipping up a storm in Kyoto. A gale is battering the city and there's something of a musical hurricane blowing in the small rock bar Uh-La-La in the Saiin district.
Guitars thrash wildly. Drums are beaten sadistically. And ripping through the noise like a crucified devil is the shriek of a creature that seems half-human. This emaciated, bearded beast is naked bar a pair of silvery blue shorts. Behind the long, straggly hair his eyes burn with terrifying intensity. When he isn't screaming, he makes chewing motions with his mouth as if he's gnawing on an invisible bone. In other words, we got a freak show on our hands with a New York Dolls-on-speed soundtrack. Say hello to Nokemono.
And now the sennin is about to demonstrate his flying abilities. . . . Toward the end of the first song he leaps from the stage and perches precariously on the back of a chair. He sways. He wobbles. And then CRASH! He flies backward toward me. I try to catch him, but fail. He ends up a crumpled heap on the floor. The crowd exhales a universal sigh. Then they go quiet. Is he OK? Within seconds he's back on his feet, albeit grimacing and clutching his side, and he jumps on to a table. The rock 'n' roll voodoo continues.
Thirty minutes later and the show is over and our sennin -- he goes by the name of Baba -- walks up to me and says: "Sh*t! That's never happened before." Twenty minutes later he's emerging from a hospital emergency ward. "Broken ribs," he mutters in his gruff voice. "And a bag of painkillers. The tour goes on."
"It seems like the sennin has lost a little magic," I tell him.
"Sennin? You say that, but I am uma (horse). It also stands for Unidentified Mysterious Animal. Simon, do you get it?" (Later I work it out: the kanji for "Baba" is uma-uma; uma is horse. The sennin was cracking a joke).
The next night Baba is cantering across the stage (he usually gallops, but you have to allow for the rib factor) at Osaka's Rock Rider live house. He's necked a few painkillers before the show and is an understandably more muted animal than usual. But still, the force of the music is immense. Nokemono might be hardcore punk-blues merchants, but they have a distinct melodic edge, mainly due to Ikebe's seemingly endless arsenal of catchy guitar hooks. There's no jumping into the crowd half-naked from Baba tonight. He's in pain, but then again, he's lucky to be alive. The short drive from Kyoto to Osaka was, err . . . eventful.
We're in the tour van and Nokemono's driver is at the wheel -- the dyed-blond fifty-something freak Marky. "He's a great driver," says Baba. "Don't worry."
And I have to admit he is a great driver, the way he weaves between traffic, ignores red lights and cuts in front of other vehicles. I am praying for my life in the back, but this is interrupted when Marky whacks on the brakes to avoid smacking into the back of a bus and a guitar case is propelled forward from behind and cracks me on the back of the skull. We then get stuck in some traffic. The bus driver pulls up beside us, leans out of the window, and says: "You're going to get yourself killed!"
Baba and Marky crack a few jokes, and the bus driver is all smiles. "Oh, I see! You are rock 'n' roll stars. Good luck for the show!"
Baba began his trip to rock 'n' roll stardom singing in legendary underground band Chelsea in the mid-'90s. He left to form Kubikarizoku (in English: "The tribe that cuts off heads") in the spring of 2001 with pal and fellow Kyoto-ite Ikebe. Kubikarizoku ended in the autumn of 2003 as Ikebe was plagued by immense pain resulting from a motorcycle crash in 1999.
"I was on a motorbike at midnight at a crossroads and a f***in' car ran me over," he explains. "My right knee bone was crushed into pieces and my lower-leg muscle was gouged and my ankle was ripped open and the bone underneath appeared as if to greet me: 'Good evening. Nice to meet you!' And with the aftereffects my nerves at my spine were damaged and my right arm was swollen up. I couldn't play the guitar properly. My whole body hurt and I couldn't even listen to music. I mean, can you imagine? Whenever I heard a rhythm the pain would attack me. I couldn't stand it! I didn't play for two years."
I ask how he got back in shape.
"First, I started eating brown rice. I'd walk around and go to the swimming pool. Tried a bit of yoga too. Even buried myself in sand to take out the toxins from my body to help the healing process. Tried acupuncture. Everything I could think of. Gradually, my condition started getting better and I could play the guitar again."
"I started Kubikarizoku suffering from a sense of loss and anger coming from Chelsea's breaking up," says Baba. "That is why the sound was dark and menacing. Then [record label] Time Bomb approached us to release a record and it seemed like the evil spell that seemed to be dragging me down was finally broken. But then we couldn't continue because of Ikebe's physical condition. We had to quit. When Ikebe told me he was getting better we decided to start again. Nokemono means something like 'social outcast' and 'wild beast' put together. And that seems to sum us up. I don't feel cursed anymore. I feel ready to fly like a rock 'n' roll rocket!"
Two nights later sees a show with Guitar Wolf at Kyoto's Metro live house -- literally situated inside a subway station. Pilled to the gills, Baba pulls it off, and we do get to see some naked flesh this time round as an over-excited Nokemono girl fan jumps on stage, rips off her shirt and dances topless next to Baba. He ignores her. Cool.
The next day -- a humid Monday -- Marky drives me and Baba to a saba eatery in Kyoto and we talk about his status in the Japanese music scene. He's a legend, but I can't quite figure out why. His music is great, but he's released few records.
"I am really happy that people respect what I do, even though I haven't released much," he says. "I think it's because our live shows are good. Hahaha!"
You released a couple of records with Chelsea and one live video with Kubikarizoku. Don't you regret not releasing more stuff?
"I am full of failures and regrets about the past," he says, in between slurping some miso soup. "And I know there will be further problems in the future. I hope to overcome these things little by little. That's what keeps me making music. It's an exercise in exorcism. Hahaha!"
But if you don't release stuff your legacy may fade in time as people forget the shows. Don't you want to go down in Japanese musical history?
"If we create great songs and do great live shows, we will become legendary. I'm in a band and obviously that's what I want. If that doesn't happen, that means some factors are missing. That is all. Anyway, it depends on me and my determination and spirit."
After lunch we take a short bus ride to Kinkaku-ji, which is near Baba's house, and is the place where Mishima Yukio was inspired to write his novel "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion" about falling in love with the shrine. Mishima was pretty proud to be Japanese. I think Baba is too: His old Japanese home doesn't have a bath so we visit a sento (public bath) each day; he owns several kimono, which he wears on special occasions such as visiting his grandfather's grave each year; he always wears geta; and he brandished a nisshoki (wartime Japanese flag) on stage during his Chelsea years.
"I felt uncomfortable in Japan as a teenager. I felt it was a freakish country. So I traveled through Europe when I was 19," he says. "While away I realized that I actually liked Japan. That feeling I emoted with what I did in Chelsea with the flag. But I do still feel very uncomfortable with Japanese authorities."
Outside Kinkaku-ji we buy some yaki-soba and beers from a stall, and I remember a few years back Baba told me he sold food in parks. And then, last year, he was spotted in Kamakura purchasing plants wholesale. Also, whenever I visit him in Kyoto he never seems to be working. How does he pay the rent?
"Hahaha! I will leave that to your imagination," he says. "But let me tell you that I am not a pimp, nor am I living off my parents!"
Whatever he's done, whatever he's doing and whatever he is going to do, Baba might be a sennin, but he's also a dude. And the dude abides.
Nokemono play with Melt-Banana, Falsies on Heat and Factotums at Shinjuku Jam, June 30 (7 p.m.). To reserve tickets in advance for 2,000 yen, call Jam at (03) 3232-8168 (2,500 yen at the door). For more information, visit www.geocities.jp/neku ska/nokemono.html
Simon Bartz edits a bilingual Web site on Japanese music at www.badbee.net