I sing, ‘They say the neon lights are bright in Shinjuku.’ A little out of tune and not at all serious.
Mike, sat cross-legged on the bed, transfixed by the television news, ignores me.
‘The cherry blossom is the lead story,’ he says. Incredulous. Guessing. Neither of us can speak the language.
He turns the volume down a notch, tosses the remote away, flops onto his back. Twelve hours folded up in economy taking their toll.
‘It’s such a cliche,’ he says. Maybe to me, maybe to the ceiling. ‘Writing songs about the place you’re touring. It’ll be sad hotel room ballads next. How my record company done me wrong.’
Outside the window, forty storeys below, Tokyo spreads to the horizon, fading away into haze where the ghost of a mountain range lingers. Fading away into dusk.
‘But we’ve got to write it, haven’t we?’ I say.
We’re picking our way along a busy shopping street, a narrow winding lane. On both sides, gaudy store fronts, and in every doorway shop assistants hawking their goods. Stood on boxes, crying through megaphones. Among the kanji and kana, random fragments of English. SALE! REDUCED! SPECIAL! We’re packed in shoulder to shoulder, moving with the flow. The crowd mostly young, mostly women. A sea of bobbing kitten-eared hats. We’re mostly taller than them, me, Mike, and Bobby. Tess, too, but maybe only by a couple of inches.
Bobby sniggers. ‘Take a shit street.’
‘Takeshita,’ says Mike. Understandable sense of humour failure.
This is why we can never go anywhere nice.
With every yawn my ears pop and the noisy, musical city crowds in closer. There’s birdsong on the metro platforms, and when the train’s about to leave they play a tune like when Mario is about to run out of time. Bobby dawdles so he can leap aboard at the last moment, just as the doors are sliding closed. He slumps down into a seat, Tess wrapped around him.
‘Is he wasted?’ asks Mike.
I’m watching adverts over his shoulder, on a screen embedded above the carriage doors next to the one which shows you a map of the route, what the next station is going to be. The adverts are silent and subtitled. Among the alien script: FREE! BUY NOW! BEST EVER!
‘Already?’ asks Mike. ‘How? We can’t even find anywhere to have dinner and he’s already found a dealer.’
Mike and I are in the corner of a Seven-Eleven. With a fanfare the ATM presents him with a sheaf of notes, the money rising vertically from its slot. I’m thinking about the Lady in the Lake and magical swords. I’m not thinking about Bobby, gone back to his hotel room with Tess to get loaded.
‘Level up,’ says Mike. ‘Plus several to my purchase power.’
‘How much did you ask for?’
‘There must be about five hundred quid there.’
Mike looks at the machine — still thanking him profusely for his custom — and shakes his head.
‘So many zeros,’ he says. ‘I got confused.’
‘How about this place?’
We’re somewhere around Shibuya. Neon streets lined with shabby little shops, every other one a restaurant. The front of this one plastered with laminated photos.
‘I don’t eat anywhere they have pictures of the food on the menu,’ says Mike. ‘Too many bad memories of bad family holidays. Cheap seaside canteens.’
In a display case, replicas of the dishes. So you know exactly what you’re getting. The plastic is shiny and unappetising.
Next morning, Bernard calls.
‘How’s it going?’ he asks.
‘Do you know how much this call is costing me?’
‘How’s the hotel?’
‘Who’s paying for Tess’s room?’
‘Isn’t she sharing with Bobby?’
‘Who’s paying for her flights?’
‘She’s part of the band now. I thought you wanted a keyboard player.’
‘Did anyone check whether she can play?’
‘The press love the pair of them.’
‘She can’t play a note.’
‘It’s all good publicity for the new album.’
We’re outside the Yamaha music store in Ginza. Looking at the cute floor guide in the window. The small paper cutout drummers are up on the first floor, but I’m afraid to go and look, incase what they kept telling me while we were waiting in baggage reclaim was right and a new kit would costs less than I paid to ship mine out here.
Bobby has taken to wearing full ceremonial dress: kimono, sash, obi. Clunking around in loose wooden slippers.
Tess is wearing a plaid micro skirt and her hair in bunches. Mike is trying not to stare. Trying not to drool. If she’d gone for the sailor-suited schoolgirl look I would probably have to douse him with cold water.
‘I think I’m turning Japanese,’ says Bobby.
I can see Mike thinking ‘wanker’.
‘Glayt Arex,’ says Bobby. ‘That’s what they call us here. That’s how they say it. Glayt Arex.’
Mike walks away.
Why we can’t ever go anywhere nice.
I read t-short slogans: IMPOSSIBLE DREAM! FUCK YEAH! HARRY POTTER!
In the temple complex at Asakusa, we stumble from impressive shrine to even more impressive shrine. Clouds of incense boil from a brass cauldron, wafting across the courtyards, tendrils swirling between tourists and supplicants.
‘My mum never liked it when I had joss sticks in my room,’ says Tess. ‘I guess she knew it was to hide the smell of fag smoke.’
‘It makes you feel so, like, spiritual,’ says Bobby. ‘Like George Harrison.’
I follow Mike as he drifts away, up the steps to the nearest shrine. He inspects the offerings box, the thick red rope hanging from the gong.
‘So what’s the drill?’ he asks.
’First toss in a coin,’ I tell him. ‘Then ring the bell twice, bow twice, pray for a while, um… Maybe clap and box again?’
‘Right. Coin. Clang clang. Clap clap. Then spin and make a wish.’
‘Something like that.’
Mike clangs, claps, bows. I think I can guess what he wishes for.
‘I don’t want any of that Charlie Chan shit,’ he says later, back to the song which it looks like we’re writing again.
‘I think he was Chinese. Or pretending to be. But I know what you mean.’ It was a trap they were forever falling into during the 80s. Every single release in the Nippon-themed micro-genre. Everyone except maybe Graham Parker. The Vapours. Alphaville. Bowie. Casual musical racism at a time when things were meant to be getting better.
Such a cliché.
‘We could just do a Bowie,’ I say. ‘Get some woman to shriek hysterically in Japanese.’
Another shrine. Flag stones, gravel, statuary, ornate woodwork — I don’t want to say it, but it’s making me think of garden centres back home.
‘I stumbled into town,’ slurred Mike, with a nod of the head and a raised eyebrow at the pennants waving gently in the breeze behind him. Big black symbols emblazoned on them, shocking in their familiarity.
‘It was a mystical symbol long before the Nazis nicked it,’ I say. ‘It means good luck. Look, they’re going the other way round.’
‘What’s an AKB48?’ Mike asks. ‘Another phone?’
We’ve lost Bobby and Tess. As much as Mike can ever loose Tess. I know he sees her wherever he looks. Her absence walks the streets besides him.
‘Girl band,’ I tell him. ‘Well, bands, plural.’
Mike studies the massive billboard outside Akihabara station.
‘And there’s forty-eight of them?’
‘I think it’s closer to sixty, now,’ I say.
‘Fuck. Isn’t that kinda like bringing a nuke to a knife fight?’
‘We’re playing in the big league now. Over here. Music as merchandise, product packaged and sold. This is somewhere way beyond commercial.’
‘Almost makes Cowell look like someone who gives a shit about music.’
We’re on the sixth or seventh floor of a ten-storey pachinko parlour. The ambient noise is like a couple of dozen 747s taking off. My hearing is basically fucked at the best of time. It was heading back towards being only buggered, after the flight. All progress made since we landed, reversed. Above the din, the plink-plink-plink of an arcade soundtrack fighting with the plink-plink-plink of ball bearings.
Mike points at a video game, the players hammering away at kettledrums.
‘You should have a go,’ he says. ‘You’d be brilliant at it.’
‘How’d you like me to ram one of those Guitar Hero controller up your backside?’ I ask.
Mike nods, gives me the thumbs up. I head for the exit, not really bothered whether he was following.
Outside, tannoys are pumping J-pop onto the streets of Shibuya. Drum loops and jazz piano and a hook which reminds me of that Prokofiev sleighing song. In a park, a couple of schoolgirls are practising a dance routine. Clap clap spin and make a wish.
We’re in a Starbucks which is the same as you’ll find the world over, drinking lattes which are the same as you’ll find the world over. I take out the tiny roll of sweets they handed out as the plane made its final approach.
‘To help clear your ears,’ explained Mike.
‘Tess likes to suck on something when she’s going down,’ said Bobby.
I pocketed the sweets unopened, at the time thinking I preferred having my hearing impaired. Now I peel off the paper and foil, lay the sweets out on the table.
BE MINE. EVER YOURS. CUDDLE ME. I LIKE YOU. WHAT A SMILE. U ROCK.
Submerge them in random Japanese — the script from an insurance commercial, the instructions from my hotel room TV, anything, it doesn’t matter — and I think we have our lyric. I look up to tell Mike, but he’s staring out the window, lost in his own thoughts.
And then we’re out on the chequerboard stage at Loft, playing support for some local act, four guys with hillbilly duck arse quiffs who play un-ironic country and western. Not the best gig Bernard’s ever found us but far from the worst. And it’s true what they say about the audience. So polite. And not just waiting patiently for you to get off so the act they actually want to see can come on polite.
Which is just as well, because Bobby is wrecked and bent on wrecking it.
We open with the songs you’ve maybe heard of. ‘Going to Get to Work’ rushing headlong into our cover of ‘Play With Fire’ — played double speed — followed seamlessly by ‘(Stupid Things I’ve Done) When Drunk’. And then a pause, a few moments to catch our breath, where Bobby’s meant to tell the crowd how great they are and how stoked we are to be here tonight and how we’re now going to play a couple of songs from the new album. A change of tempo. Slow things down a little.
Songs from the first album are pre-Tess. They’re full of a desperate, angry energy. Mike’s manifesto. How he’s got something to say and how he’s going to say it and you’re going to listen. This new material, it’s all Tess. She’s there in every line, every sustained, plaintive note. ‘She Sings in Her Sleep’ is the worst of the lot. That song is Mike’s own special form of self-harm. He loves to stand at the back of the stage, watching Bobby singing this song that he wrote for Tess, watching Bobby singing it to Tess, watching Tess watching Bobby singing it to her from down at the front of the stage — and all the while he’s stood there at the back, hiding in the shadows, head down, guitar gently sobbing.
But tonight he can’t get it going.
Bobby’s asked the crowd whether they feel alright. He’s done it about five or six times now. He’s swaying, holding the mic stand for support, arm outside his strap, bass swinging awkwardly from his neck.
Mike’s made a couple of attempts at starting, playing the first couple of bars of ‘She Sings’, but it sounds like he’s just tuning up and Bobby isn’t getting it. Mike shoots me a look from under a bedraggled fringe.
So I give it some ‘Hurry Up and End’. Don’t feel bad if it doesn’t ring any bells. The only one of our songs with a decent drum intro and it didn’t even make a B-side. I keep it around to test out the levels and kick off the sound check. I can make it sound like rocks falling on sheet metal. I can make it sound like artillery blowing the shit out of your home town. I can make it sound like the Four Horsemen about to gallop across your skull.
It hits Bobby like a bolt of electricity to the core of his lizard brain. You know how some drunks have this knack for sobering up in an instant? Well that’s how it is with Bobby. He takes a step back from the mic, brings the bass line in on queue, then steps back up in time for the first line. It’s Mike who’s taken by surprise, coming in late, fumbling the first few bars.
Bobby half turns and shoots him a look.
Next morning, Mike’s dog tired from sitting up most the night in the hotel bar with Tess. The whole time Tess looking past him to the door, the lifts, waiting for Bobby to walk in.
Bobby, last seen talking to some girl at the after show. Her neckless read DYNAMITE SEX LONDON. Bobby and the girl last seen leaving together.
Such a cliché.
Why we can’t ever go anywhere nice.
Mike saying, ‘How can he do that to her?’
And, ‘Why would he need to do that, when he’s got her?’
And, ‘Why does she put up with it?’
Mike saying this to me because now I’m the only one here after Bobby finally rolls back like nothing happened. He and Tess up in their room, fighting or fucking or whatever.
Across the street, there’s a gap between the buildings. On one of the flanking walls is the outline of whatever stood there before, and suddenly I’m thinking of silhouettes of people blasted onto brickwork and I’m really not sure whether I can put up with listening to Mike for much longer. But I’ve got to, because that’s what I do. I’m the drummer. I keep the band together.