Friday, April 01, 2011

Inner Ear Balance

Earth Hour - a token gesture at best - doesn't mean much in a country rolled over by blackouts. Having lost 20% of its capacity, TEPCO is running dangerously near its maximum output and has asked for the public to curtail its electricity consumption. For their part, the Japanese have dutifully & promptly complied: tights belts are the new black. This new trend of collective restraint is the upside of that hive-mind passivity that recently emptied supermarket shelves and often drives type-A expats off their hinge.

I personally suspect the electricity deficit could be addressed merely by shutting down all the damned pachinko parlours. But otherwise, the obvious first sacrifice is Tokyo's famous forest of neon signs. A week ago, my band drove the width of the city coming back from a gig, and from the Edo river through to Shinjuku, Tokyo was a literal shadow of its former self. Friday nights are usually a parade of packed taxis jamming streets lined with sloppy drunks under a technicolour canopy; instead, we sped through a chaioscuro landscape haunted by the odd straggler searching for cabs that were all idling outside dimmed train stations. The hostile loneliness reminded me of the grim, grimy New York immortalized in After Hours or Night On Earth.

(Lest I be accused of bathos, let me refine the above description: Tokyo now looks less like Blade Runner on MDMA and more like... well, just any other city on the planet.)

Having shaken off the initial shock, we're starting to understand the medium- and long-term consequences of the disaster: the global consumer economy has been gut-punched by the disruption of Japanese manufacturing, and imports & exports will be unsteady until the Daiichi plant is solidly entombed in cement. Both of the above have direct consequences for those of us in Japan physically unscathed by the catastrophe: no beer and no new iPhone! The horror... the horror...

But this is where my general pessimism pays off. Should the patina of modern convenience completely peel and flake away, I'm ready. I've been anticipating the day when the lights go out and supermarket shelves are stripped bare since I first saw Mad Max. No tears or rending of garments from me, 'cuz son, it's go-time!

I want to be clear about the cut between pessimism & cynicism. I haven't spent my adult life glumly awaiting Armageddon because it's all fucked anyway - that is the joyless slouch of the cynic. My pessimism sits somewhere between Shöpenhauer's and Nouriel Roubini's: those of us lucky enough to inhabit the best possible part of this worst-possible world ought to enjoy it because it's too good to last forever. Every time I set out across this city, I'm filled with a marvelous hilarity. Should I ever have grandkids, how will possibly describe the lunatic animation of this place to them?

During the drive home with my bandmates last week, we had an amusing epiphany. Our singer had titled two songs - both written last year - "Plutonium" and "Atomic Age", the latter of which contains the couplet "I don't wanna meltdown/But this is really happening." Barely two years into his career as a language-mangling frontman and he's already giving Mark E. Smith a run for his money as rock's preeminent psychic. The drummer immediately demanded the singer start writing some happier goddamned songs before he kills us all.

It's been good to get back to gigging. Aside from restoring a sense of regular purpose, it kills the solitary paranoia of disaster to see friends and swap where-were-you-when stories. Next week, we're off to Hokkaido for a run of shows across Japan's northernmost isle. Nothing like a short vacation from the capitol to clean off the cold sweat & fear-spun cobwebs of the past three weeks.

But now another potential casualty of the disaster could be Japan's live music circuit. Not only have dozens of foreign acts (who bring in the big money) canceled their Japanese tours, but rolling blackouts pose a clear danger to the functional existence of many venues. In the interest of keeping the ecosystem healthy, we're overloading our live schedule. By playing the same city three times in two weeks, sure, we may split our audience for any given show three ways, but better to draw one-third of our audience each to three different venues than pack one club while leaving two others to languish.

This past Monday, I played an improv gig with Uozu, guitarist for hardcore abstractionists (and my favourite band in Japan) Z. This was only our second excursion into quadramplified chaos under the clunky moniker UOZEB, and though it was a hell of a lot of fun, I couldn't hear myself play a damned note all evening. This may have been because we were augmented by a guest drummer & violinist (who ran through more effects pedals than I did). Bedlam at 120 decibels, but all for a good cause: I recorded the show, and as soon as it's mastered, it'll be available as a paid download with all proceeds going towards the Tohoku relief effort. I'll have it all linked up here as soon as possible.

See you on the other side of next week, and meanwhile - stay outta Hong Kong.


Jeffrey said...

Every time I set out across this city, I'm filled with a marvelous hilarity. Should I ever have grandkids, how will possibly describe the lunatic animation of this place to them?

I'm as big a pessimist as one can be without a bottle of vodka in one and and bottle of Vicodin in the other but, my goodness. Just how long have you been in Japan? Were you not there for the Hanshin earthquake? Do you remember what a mess Kobe was? The third busiest port in the country shut down for months? Been there recently? It's actually a better city now.

Greater Tokyo was relatively unscathed by the Tohoku quake. While the loss of 4/6 of the generating capacity of the Dai-ich plant is a blow, once the other plants in the region are back on line, Tokyo will be back at full tilt long before the rebuilding is half finished up north.

I firmly believe that this disaster will force the Japanese to re-examine a lot of assumptions about how they generate and use power.

Historically, Japanese do disaster really well. It's prosperity and sono ma-ma that they don't handle well.

Seb said...

Believe me, I've absolute faith in how Japan will weather this disaster. My pessimism works on a cosmic scale, not a local one. When I wonder how I'll describe contemporary Tokyo to hypothetical future generations, it's not because I've no faith that Japan will bounce back - quite the contrary, I assure you. It's because, by the time I'm a grandparent, I expect the standard of living everywhere to have slipped back to something closer to 1911 than 2011.

JM said...

One guy who would fit the description of K punk's piece on anti organic anti capitalism said Earth Hour was downright evil:

The rest of his blog's good for a larf though. Granted, there's some good points beneath the psuedo rebellion rhetoric(conservation international isn't that great:, but otherwise, it's fairly useless.