Sunday, January 23, 2005


It's time to come clean. I mean, it's been years since I engaged in anything like that. Hell, I washed myself clean with years of hardcore punk shows in Cleveland and avant-garde performances in Manhattan. I haven't smoked pot in... well, can't remember the last time. Anyway, I can now confidently admit that my name is Jamie, and I am a former Phish-head.

As a middle school student who couldn't dribble a basketball for his life, came close to tears when being hit in dodgeball and who liked music but found the choir geeks just too... creepy, finding the local jam band scene was a sign from heaven that there was more to life than cafeteria seating politics.

After going through a few years of drugs, rock and roll and absolutely no sex, I discovered jazz and exchanged dope and Phish for coffee and chord substitutions. Jam Band music just seems kind of emotionally facile to me, hard to listen to music that is so comfortably happy in a world that is so resolutely not. I finished out high school clean as a whistle and with a new vocabulary that included words like "cat", "four-to-the-floor", "II-V-I's", "C blues" and "dig." Ergo: "That Jim Hall is one serious cat, he was ripping through this four-to-the-floor C blues just dripping with II-V-I subsitutions. Dig?"

Anyway, although I don't exactly hide my past it's not exactly something you bring up all that often in conversation. The word Phish induces head bobbing agreement with the loyal and cringing disgust in just about everyone else. It conjures up images of legions of trust-a-farians (trust fund+rastafarian) kids from the suburbs slavishly following the band in gas guzzling SUV's. So imagine my surprise when I went to a DJ gathering last Saturday in the nearby city of Omiya and when I walk in the bar and it's laden with Phish memorabilia.

Japanese pop culture is on a notorious time lapse with the US. I've had clothing store clerks, excited to meet a real American, proudly announce "Bon Jovi Fan! Bon Jovi Fan! Me!" While hip-hop has lately been making it onto top ten lists, Japanese pop-star style is overwhelmingly 80's starlets and hair-metal rockers. Think back to middle school; remember Mr. Big? "I'm the One Who Wants to Be With You"? Mr. Big is hu-uge here. They've cut albums with Japanese folk-wank bands. Don't know why, but this has always been viewed as a negative. From Johnny Rotten screeching "think it's swell playing in Japan/when everybody knows Japan is a dishpan" in 1977 to the 2001 Tom Waits ballad about a washed up pop-star "Big in Japan", hitting it big in Japan is just not cool.

But back to Phish. The name of the place was the Good News Cafe, and I half expected a Christian Science Reading room taken over by some local party kids for the night, but no, it's a clothing store/bar run by two Japanese hippies. And I mean hippies. At four foot nothing with a freckled face and a pile of neatly tended dreadlocks on her face, Michiko looked like she'd been cut-and-pasted straight out of a fuzzy memory from those jam band shows. Her boyfriend Takeo is a round and clean cut guy who wears baseball caps backward and has a great smile. The DJ thing last Saturday is a whole 'nother story: techno kids, b-boys, Japanese hipsters and English teachers. Being the first Japanese Phish-heads I had ever met, I was curious as hell to hear their story.

The other night I had a translation job in Omiya, and when I'd finished I decided to go back the Good News Cafe, say hi and have a beer. There was one regular in, and I sat down and shared a few beers with her and Michiko. Like me, Michiko was pretty much adrift in the public school pecking order (which if anything is more intense here than in the US), and discovering Phish and music in general opened up a whole world, eventually leading to running this bar with her boyfriend. Phish only did one tour of Japan about two years ago, and according to Michiko every show was sold out and packed. By this time, the only other customer, in her 90 degree bangs and black turtleneck, was a little bored by our reminiscing, and as any Phishhead learns quick, if you want any friends who wash regularly, it's to keep that Phish obsession on the D-L. We talked about underground Japanese music instead.

For those of you out of the hippy loop, Phish broke up last year after over 20 years of touring, leaving a legion of blinkered suburbanites in their wake and me with a brief ping in my stomach. They were also just starting to hit it big in Japan, which for most bands is the beginning of the end. But hey, Mr. Big is doing just fine. They just can't talk to any of their fans.

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