the book

There is a battered cardboard box in my bedroom closet. It's full of cassette tapes that I never listen to because they bring back memories of when I tried to be a rock star. I was living in Tokyo, teaching English and killing time. The attention I got as a Caucasian male, as well as my daily boozing and the piles of money that were lying around for the taking, made me believe that I also had what it took to be a successful pop musician. The tapes in that box contain recordings of my band's rehearsals, ideas for new tunes, and almost every live performance we did.
     I went to Tokyo in 1985, the peak of the Japanese economic boom. Actually, it wasn't a boom; it was a KA-BLAMMO, a never-ending detonation of dancing and beer and Suntory whiskey and free food and cash and methamphetamine and shyly tittering Japanese girls who didn't like to kiss but would bed you so fast that you almost felt violated. Anything was possible. Anything except finding an entry level job at a trading company. I was a history major barely conversant in Japanese, and bilingual Harvard MBAs were being turned away because Tokyo was overflowing with foreigners desperate to learn the Japanese magic touch. Since I needed a work permit, I decided to teach English until I could find my dream gig doing some kind of business thing. At the school, a Canadian teacher named Steiv found out that I played bass and asked if I wanted to start a band. It sounded great. I'd been in a cover band in college and really missed the unique communication that came from playing music with someone. There were hundreds of live music clubs in Tokyo, the engines of the orgiastic night life; we would get chicks and make a fortune.
     Steiv was a guitarist-singer-songwriter. His songs were like faster, bouncier Roxy Music crossed with Peter Gabriel. We recruited another Tom as drummer and spent the next five months rehearsing in one of the practice studios found on almost every street corner. The Japanese are probably the most music-obsessed culture in the world; they all play instruments, and they all love to sing, especially when drunk. And they love to get drunk. They may be the most alcohol-obsessed culture in the world too. I'd never seen vending machines that sold beer and whiskey until I lived in Japan. It was paradise. I would have a beer when I got off work, have a few beers during rehearsal, have supper and a couple beers at a noodle stand or bar, and pick up a few beers from the machine in front of my apartment. On the weekends, I went clubbing until three or four in the morning. I drank every night for five years.
     We named our band A Window, later shortened to Window because nobody bothered using the "A" anyway. Our first show was fantastic--we played to a packed house of cheering friends and students, and we made no major mistakes, which was unusual for us because we weren't technicians. As a debut, Window's performance was an all-around winner, except for the fact that I was frozen solid with stage fright. I don't know why. In college, there had never been even the slightest inkling that something like that would happen, but it nailed me in that Tokyo club. I couldn't move. My chest filled with cement, and I was buzzing all over like I was being electrocuted. It plagued me for the next three years. No matter what I drank, smoked, or sniffed, no matter how hard I hugged or kissed my girlfriends for luck before I went on, I never got over it. Here are two photos of a Window show, taken by different people several minutes apart. I'm the rigid, desperate-looking figure on the left.
     Besides my stage fright, our other major problem was internal tensions. Steiv was enamored with the idea of having Tom and me leave the stage so he could run through a couple of acoustic numbers by himself. "Elvis Costello does it," he would point out. Tom and I thought it was a terrible idea but had to lie about our reasons. We couldn't just say, "You're no Elvis Costello," although personally, I wouldn't have used him as an example of a singer who can pull off that type of performance. The truth is I've always hated it when artists sit down with their acoustic guitars. It's self-indulgent and often unwatchable. As far as I'm concerned, there are two artists in the world who can do it: Joni Mitchell and Suzanne Vega. Nobody else should even try. I didn't actually say any of this out loud.
     Tom and I were also hurt by the implication that it was Steiv's band and we were only there to back him. Window had started out as a collaborative effort, a musical Three Musketeers who would conquer the world together. We never did let Steiv have his acoustic set, but he kept bringing it up, even threatening to go ahead and do it whether we left the stage or not. Tom and I always threatened to provide backup against his will.
     As our songs got more complex, we hired more personnel. Ryo came in as lead guitarist, and Miki became our keyboardist. They were decent musicians, easily the nicest people in Tokyo, and when we performed, they may as well have been two scraps of plywood that we brought out on stage and balanced in upright positions. I had stage fright, absolutely; Ryo and Miki had stage coma. They had stage death. It wasn't that they never moved, although that's true enough: They NEVER, EVER moved. The real problem was that they turned their volume down after the sound check and never looked up during the show.
     We wanted them to be audible because otherwise there was no reason for them to be in the band, and it was imperative for them to look up because Steiv didn't like to play a song the same way twice. Sometimes he wanted to improvise an extra verse or chorus on the spot, lyrics and all; sometimes he didn't. The signal for both was a quick nod, like in an action movie where the head villain nods at his henchmen and they do all these complicated tasks, and you wonder if they set it up beforehand to avoid confusion over whether the nod means to punch the hero in the stomach or give him the secret documents. We didn't set it up beforehand. Steiv would turn around and nod, and it would be like, "...what?" The only time we knew what to do was when he twirled his finger, the signal for an extended jam that allowed him to go out into the audience and dance with hotties. So during any given show, we would get finger twirls and ambiguous nods that Ryo and Miki missed anyway. There were nights when we completely fell apart on stage.
     Tom the drummer got sick of the public humiliation and quit. Window auditioned and performed with maybe half a dozen American, British, and Japanese drummers over the next year, ending up with a Dutchman whose name I've forgotten, which is too bad because he was a brilliant musician. He taught me more in eighteen months than I'd learned in the previous ten years. After he came on board, Steiv met a creepy Japanese A&R man, a guy with long gray hair and a hard, plastic smile. He said that he would make us the first foreign band to be signed by a Japanese label. I never believed him, but everyone else did, I guess. He did get us several relatively high profile gigs that prompted us to take on a British sax player named Steve, another amazingly nice person and a great musician.
     After three years with Window, I was ready to bail because it wasn't fun anymore. We weren't going anywhere, and our brilliant Dutch drummer was also moody and difficult. A skinny chain-smoker, he had a nightmarish, inhuman strength. The walls inside his house were riddled with fist holes, and during our rehearsals, he sometimes offered to dent my face for me. If he had ever gone berserk, he would have been unstoppable. Usually, Steiv and I would waste studio time arguing with the drummer about who was being a jerk while Miki, Ryo, and Steve stood around looking miserable. What none of us knew was that the creepy A&R guy was just playing with us--Japanese labels didn't take on foreign acts. It was never in the cards. This was a country where clubs posted signs in English that said, "NO FOREIGNERS ADMITTED." Several times, I'd been barred from clubs by doormen who didn't know that I understood Japanese and addressed me with a pejorative term that literally means "hairy one" but is closer in sentiment to "nigger."
     Right before the band broke up, we were approached by a friend who knew a clothes designer. Costumes! That was the answer. So we invited the designer to one of our rehearsals. In the middle of the first song, he toppled forward like a tree and smashed his head onto the floor, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. I have an audio tape of it. The music withers away as one by one we all stop playing.
     "What's..." somebody says in English.
     "Is he...?"
     "Jesus, he's having a seizure!" I yell, and then there's a lot of frantic Japanese about ambulances. It turned out that the designer had epilepsy, a highly stigmatized disorder in Japan because it makes people act "funny." He had apparently hidden it from his friends until that moment; when I ask them if they knew, they scream, "No! No! No!"
     We raided the beer machine after the ambulance took the designer away.
     "I had absolutely no idea what was happening," said Steve.
     "At first, I thought he was just really getting into the music," said Steiv.
     "Yeah. I thought he was just going a bit over the top."
     The designer came back to the studio a few days later, sporting a puffed-shut black eye from hitting one of Ryo's effects pedals. He came back because he wanted to show us his designs. That meeting was one of the most painful events of my entire life. The guy's secret had been exposed, he had a purple-blue vagina instead of an eye, and the designs were awful. He envisioned me in a ruffled shirt, cravat, vest, and pleated pants, like a Victorian gentleman who had lost his swallow-tailed coat and top hat. I don't remember what he did for everyone else. We thanked him and said that we would let him know.
     For our final performances, my multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter American girlfriend came in on percussion and background vocals. We also hired another Steve, a guitarist from New Zealand. He so handsome that he made the rest of us look like potatoes, but we couldn't be jealous because he was modest and friendly and drew thousands of girls who would pay any amount of money to see him. We did three or four shows with this lineup and then pulled the plug. A few months before I escaped from Japan, Window was asked to perform one song in a battle of the bands show at a new club. We decided on "The Dinosaur Song," a silly, two-chord thumb-slapping riff that I'd written. Steiv's lyrics were just as silly:

Sometimes I feel like a dinosaur.
Great big body, and a real small brain.
Sometimes I feel like a polar bear.
All that ice but no ice cream.

     I've never had a last fling with a former lover; my breakups have all been too nasty for that. But I've heard of people who get together one final time and have a blast. That's what happened here. We connected like never before because all our hopes, fears, and inhibitions were gone. Steiv was in perfect pitch, and we followed his improvisations telepathically. Ryo gyrated across the stage like a heavy metal god, humping his guitar and ripping out a deranged solo that would have put Adrian Belew to shame. The drummer and my girlfriend traded off in a frenetic question-response that left them panting. Miki deafened us with a wild honky-tonk piano break, as if she were channeling Jerry Lee Lewis. The two Steves blasted out masterful, filth-encrusted saxophone and guitar solos. I think I did a solo too, though I'm not sure. I do know that I slapped my bass to pieces. We stretched "The Dinosaur Song" into twenty minutes, and when we were done, the audience literally screamed for more. We were the best band there; we blew the roof off; and it was the only live performance that I didn't get on tape.

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