Editor’s note: This guy Ben Blackwell is one of two drummers in the Dirtbombs. We thought it’d be swell if he documented the band’s first-ever visit to Japan, so we gave him a pencil and paper with instructions to use his own camera. Besides pounding the skins, the puckish 21-year-old heads Cass Records. He’s also a budding music scribe and a journalism school dropout, which we appreciate. He’s contributed to various magazines including the new CREEM, Chunklet, and UK’s Careless Talk Costs Lives. This is his first appearance as a writer in Metro Times.
So the Dirtbombs tour starts off with a six-show traipse down the American West Coast, with legendary sax man Steve Mackay (Stooges’ Funhouse) honking along with us in San Francisco and yours truly being privileged enough to sit in on a Melvins rehearsal and pull out some Devo covers. But what it was all leading up to, what we all couldn’t wait for, was simple: Japan.
Monday, Feb. 2
I pass time on the 11-hour flight from Los Angeles either passed out or filling blank notebook pages with random thoughts. Our arrival is nothing spectacular sans a stupendous spill that bassist Jim Diamond takes down a staircase. Jim, built of tight, husky stock, falls while carrying his absurdly oversized luggage and plays it off too cool to laugh at himself, while the rest of the band is definitely cool enough to laugh at him.
I’m surprised to find no screaming fans and no photographers on the tarmac of Tokyo’s Narita airport. Instead, we sneak in 30 T-shirts and half as many CDs past their customs officers and pile into a minivan driven by our label rep Ando.
On the drive in to Tokyo I doze off in the back seat, the rain a hypnotizing pitter-patter, only to awaken in the middle of a sensory orgasm: Tokyo’s Shinjuku district — where we would spend almost all of our time — is a virtual pinball machine littered with flashing lights, video screens and pedestrians bouncing back and forth from street to street, shop to shop. The residents appear slightly numb to the scene while a tourist such as myself is figuratively drunk off his senses.
Our check-in to the Hotel Asuka is quick and painless, and, most importantly, each band member is fortunate to have their very own room. We’ve become too content and too familiar in sharing the confines of a $35-a-night room at a Motel 6, so this is a welcome change. Heck, I even get free porn while everyone else who wants it has to pay.
That night, Ando and Manabu (the promoter) take us to a traditional Japanese restaurant replete with little lockers for your shoes and tables sunk halfway into the ground. I abandon my traditionally white-bread palate and try, for the first time, sake and octopus. One serving of each was all I needed to know that I wouldn’t be asking for any more anytime soon. Jim and Pat Pantano (the Dirtbombs’ other drummer) go out and get drunk while I take to my room. I’m out cold by 10:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Feb. 3
I awake at 5 a.m., read and write, then answer bassist Ko’s frantic door knock at 9 a.m. She’s excited and can’t drag me out of the room fast enough to start shopping. We venture into a consumer’s daydream, stores on top of stores, each hawking delights of luggage and clothes and candy, the likes of which can never be found in the States. The idea of the exclusivity of it all, knowing that I am in Japan and not sure if I’ll ever be here again, that there is all this STUFF to purchase and that I had money to blow … well, I made the most of it.
We find Don Quijote’s, something like a Meijer, with everything from DVD players and schoolgirl’s outfits to dildos of all colors, shapes and speeds … all under one roof.
We realize how incredibly clean Tokyo is for a city of over 10 million people. We also notice that the stereotype of a nation of 5-foot nothings is grossly overreported, with most of the population appearing to be of a normal height. Perhaps my favorite discovery is that the fashion of short skirts and knee-high boots is de rigueur with almost every female in the country. They’re all so pretty and so stylish … every other one wearing one of these immaculate, belted mod coats with contrastingly colored buttons so big that you could eat off them. Why can’t I find this in America?
Pat and I end up hitting a block infested with record stores. Some specialize entirely in bootleg CDs, whether it’s recordings from the latest tours of the Strokes or the White Stripes, or the more obscure, lost works of such Matt Smith-hyped obscurities as Magma or Budgie.
After a 20-minute break, where Ko shows Pat and I how she blew her money (clothes, motorcycle helmet, hand-held record player), he and I decide, despite the fatigue, that we can’t retire just yet. We are, after all, in Tokyo. Out in the night we truly are tourists, each blowing through loads of film, noting every little nuance that seems peculiar, interesting or downright weird to us.
After a befuddling stop at a pachinko parlor — something like a gambling Japanese version of pinball — I pass out in my bed with the light on at 10:30 p.m. All this and we’ve yet to play a show.
Wednesday, Feb. 4
Early in the day, Pat and I find ourselves in a building where the only discernible English writing yells “LOVE BOAT” at us. A trip inside reveals five floors of shops selling the same high-end, borderline-slutty female fashion, with each seemingly employing the same three trashily dressed women as the next. Pat is in desperate search of a gift, anything that says Tokyo on it. Instead, we find a trucker hat emblazoned with the word “Detroit.” Oh, if Cadillac were alive today. …
We make it to the Shinjuku Loft, a Tokyo venue that could be any club that we’ve played in Anytown USA — it’s hardly trendy, walls covered with band stickers and graffiti and no evidence of any band I’ve ever heard. All the stage gear is waiting for us, and I am lucky to get to play a stunning black and clear-striped Ludwig Vistalite kit. Sound check instructions go through a translator, but everything else moves smoothly. I’m too zonked out to catch the opening act, Zoo Bombs.
We take the stage wearing shirts that say “American Devil” in Japanese. The venue is near capacity (250), with the most excited supporters right up front. Vocalist Mick Collins’ guitar is not in tune on any planet, and there are deafeningly long silences between songs. Jim’s duct-taped (yes, literally) bass is mysteriously not working. I’m glad that Japan gets a show that’s no different from one in Detroit or Los Angeles. Or anywhere else.
When the encore comes, we fall into a version of the Stooges “Dirt” with me doing my best to try not to embarrass myself on vocals. That slowly morphs into the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” and as soon as the “… when she’s ten feet tall” lyric hits, I leap headfirst across a 3-foot barrier into the teeming mass of Dirtbombs fans. They pass me around while screaming along to the song and unceremoniously drop me into the space I just moments before had leapt. There’s a thud but no signs of blood. I manage to get up and climb back behind the kit. We finish with members of the Zoo Bombs jumping onstage for an excessive jam session. The set ends nicely.
Thursday, Feb. 5
I awake in the morning with my room electrified by sunshine bouncing off empty cellophane shopping bags. It seems all I have to show for my time in this wonderful, historic land are some empty vessels of my consumerism. The shopping bags are a hollow, almost disgusting reminder that the consumer-driven modernity of one of the most cultivated nations on earth is depressingly seductive. On this trip we have no guides to show us “the real Japan.”
After the sound check at Shibuya O Nest I have time alone. I walk by myself in the vibrant streets and feel empty somehow, like I’m missing out on something. A street merchant hawking legal psychedelic mushrooms totally bums me out. I feel lost in translation. Yes, the movie is eerily similar to a lot of what I encounter on this trip. I just want to lose my mind, lose this melancholic hold that comes along all too often on tour and away from home for weeks on end. You begin to question if this lost sense of stability, of familiarity, is all worth it. At times I just want to give up and go home and live a life of normalcy. Of course, you feel like a whiny asshole when people say, “Shut up, you get to tour and see the world and have the time of your life,” and you feel guilty for not enjoying every second. But this sensation is unavoidable. It comes and goes. I just happen to catch it in Japan.
The show that night is as chaotic as the previous nights’. There’s comfort in the peace of mind that a live show offers and I immediately feel better. The Dirtbombs aren’t really meant to be a technical or proficient band; we’re having fun and trying to make the crowd feel the same way. I think we succeed.
Friday, Feb. 6
We make the Tokyo Narita airport early and relish in the fact that Marabu and Ando can’t wait to have us back. We would all gladly pay to return, but these guys cover airfare, equipment, hotels and pay us money on top of it all? Suckers.
Rock ’n’ roll never ceases to amaze me.E-mail Ben Blackwell at firstname.lastname@example.org