Sep 25 2012

Slash and Burn: Getting a ‘faceover’ in Korea



By Fred Varcoe

I’ve often wondered why so many South Korean actresses look the same. A South Korean friend once told me that 80 percent of the girls in her high-school class had had cosmetic surgery. And this wasn’t the middle of Seoul; this was smalltown Korea. Cosmetic surgery is huge business in Korea.

But I never expected to experience it myself. Probably because I’m not Korean. For many, having surgery is a routine thing to do. My wife’s had stuff done and her sister and even her mother. I didn’t notice.

At least, I didn’t notice until I checked old photos. My wife had quite significant bags under her eyes and my sister-in-law looked positively worn out. Surgery has taken at least 10 years off their faces; they look great. So they decided that it was my turn next.

I hadn’t thought about it, but they told me I had too many wrinkles around my eyes and my face was getting too lumpy. I got a new pair of glasses and could see they may have a point. And, to be honest, I had thought my face was turning to jello.

But not enough to splash $5,000 on a refit. So my sister-in-law blackmailed and bribed me. “Do it for your daughter,” she said. “She doesn’t want a daddy that looks like a granddaddy. And I’ll pay.” Convincing arguments – so I said yes.

The clinic was at the top of a fairly non-descript building with a vacant shop on the first floor. We were shown into a glass-panelled waiting room. A couple of women staff members looked at my face and talked to my sister-in-law (a lay expert). I got the go-ahead.

A very attractive young lady came in and put big dobs of cream on spots on my face. She was nice. I wish I’d had more spots, but she left.

Then I went to see a doctor. Nobody was speaking English. The doctor prodded my face, consulted with my sister-in-law and said OK. After further relaxation time in the waiting room, I was led to another room and told to take my shoes off and lie down on the surgical table. The doctor came in, told me to close my eyes and started to nuke my face with a laser. You could smell the flesh burning and feel the heat of the laser, which felt similar to the laser that nearly erased Sean Connery’s bollocks in Goldfinger. But after attacking my eight spots, I was led back to the waiting room again, bollocks safely intact.

Then it was time for the main show.

Cosmetic surgery, my arse! The results may be cosmetic, but the surgery is very real.

I’ve had lots of doctors cut me up on the operating table, but I was always asleep. Not this time. I was taken to an realistic-looking surgery, told to take off my shoes, given a pajama top that was too small for me and placed on the operating table. Two big lights shone down at me. First the nurse took my blood pressure. It was high (157/84). My unhealthy lifestyle, I thought. They wrapped the outside of my head and placed a cover over my upper torso that left a hole for my face. Then the nurse started washing my face with iodine.

All this time, my sister-in-law was present to act as interpreter – in Japanese, which didn’t help much as her Japanese is much better than mine. The doctor came in and I was told that they would thread a needle into my skin to allow the areas to be anaesthetized. It might be painful, he added, teaching me the Korean word for pain (paekum). As I was to be cut in four places (two sections of about 3 cm above each eye and two sections right beneath each eye, each about 6 cm), they did this four times. It felt like a big needle being threaded through my skin (mainly because that’s what it was) and it hurt like fuck.

Boom, boom, boom went the beat of my heart. Seriously. Was it my body or my mind reacting to this abuse?

Soon after, I felt the pressure of the scalpel, followed by the flow of blood as they opened up my face. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen after that – and I still don’t know what happened. But it took a long time. I was told they cut out about a centimetre of face from under my eyes, but they were also putting stuff in. There was a machine that seemed to inject something (glue, cement, landfill, botox – I don’t really know, but I suspect botox) into the holes cut in my face. When they did it below the eye, it pressured the eyeball and was very uncomfortable.

I became anxious. My blood pressure rocketed again and my heart was pumping so hard it felt like it was only a matter of time before it burst through my chest. The doctor was so concerned, he recalled my sister-in-law from the waiting room to try and get me to calm down. Eventually, my heart stopped trying to burst through my ribs, but I really wanted the machine to stop injecting me with stuff, because it hurt every time it did.

Finally, I guessed that they were doing some sewing. It was a huge relief. I didn’t want to be skewered or cut or cemented or traumatised any more. And I wanted to make sure the doctor hadn’t glued or sewn my eyes shut.

Then it was all over. I could open my eyes. They didn’t feel happy. The doctor said everything had gone fine. The nurses smiled and took their time cleaning me up, which was the only nice part of the whole two-hour procedure. They gave me a mirror. I looked like Dr. Frankenstein’s first experiment and it seemed I had about 50 stitches in all.






My sister-in-law came in. She was enthusiastic, but then spotted a problem. They hadn’t botoxed my forehead as she had requested (it was a bonus procedure). The doctor came back armed with a new syringe and jabbed it into my forehead about 10 times. Thankfully, that was the last procedure. I just wanted to go home and see my daughter.

But she was none too pleased seeing Daddy all bashed up. I told her Daddy had been to see a doctor and his face was painful. I saw a look of worry pass across her face. She wasn’t impressed with the results, but reassured by Mummy, she accepted Daddy’s latest disfigurement.




Daddy wasn’t too sure either, despite the enthusiasm of my wife and her sister. The stitched up scars looked ugly (they always do, of course) and the lasered spots were covered with skin-regeneration tape. I felt like I should be in a circus. But my wife and her sister had already decided we should go on a family trip to Daegu, Pohang and a temple or two. As I wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol during my recovery, I was one of the designated drivers (the other designated driver drank anyway). So, everyone else in Korea would be allowed to view the taped-up foreign monster. My wife had provided me with a pair of sunglasses that covered most of the scars, but I still had a large dressing under each eye. It was hard to eat chewy stuff like meat, so I ended up eating less and drinking less. I was allowed to remove the dressing after a couple of days, but my face was jaundice yellow.

The stitches came out six days after the operation and were removed by a very pleasant nurse who was very deft with the scissors. When I’ve had stitches out before, I’ve almost passed out, so I wasn’t looking forward to it. It took around 20 minutes and I managed not to pass out, just. Everyone was pleased with the results, but for me, it was still too early to tell. Eleven days on, my face was nearly clear and the scars less red, but my face felt tight. One of my friends said it seems like I can’t smile any more. The wrinkles in my forehead have gone.

More likely, they’ve just been paralyzed. According to Wikipedia, “Botulinum toxin is a protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, and is the most powerful neurotoxin ever discovered.” It doesn’t repair your body, it just stops it working. So your frown doesn’t disappear, your frown muscles are zapped so they don’t have any choice but to stop frowning. I had a fair amount of trouble opening my mouth properly when I tried to eat. Six months later, most of my face is working again, but no botox means no youthful veneer. So if I don’t want a forehead that looks like the ocean outside my front door during a typhoon, I gotta go back for more “jab-a-syringe-in-the-ageing-foreigner” torture.

Maybe I’d be better off just adopting a healthy lifestyle.

You’re right; too late.


See, it worked…

Jun 2 2011

The curious case of the corrupt Mr. C – a FIFA story

A short story by Fred Varcoe

Mr. C (which may or may not represent his name, but could also stand for Complete C***) knows all about corruption in FIFA.
And knows all about corruption in business.
In fact, he’s one of the world’s most corrupt people in one of the world’s most corrupt countries. He’s made zillions of dollars from being corrupt. He comes from a corrupt family.
I guess “C” could stand for Complete Crook.
Daddy even bought him a fake educational certificate from a famous university.
Mr. C treats all others with contempt. He was born into richness and privilege and snobbism and a massive superiority complex. Other people are meant to bow down to him.
Mr. C likes football.
So he tried to buy it.
He bribed his way into a position of power in his country and then went to a meeting of powerful football people in his region.
He took along some dancing girls and lots of envelopes.
He put lots of money in the envelopes.
He also gave lots of money to the dancing girls.
Before the meeting, all the powerful football people had a party.
At which the dancing girls danced.
All the powerful football men thought the dancing girls looked lovely.
And many of them thought they’d like to fuck them.
Mr. C said no problem. The dancing girls were there to make people happy.
As were the envelopes full of cash.
The next day, Mr. C stood for an election.
All the men thought Mr. C would make an excellent football executive.
After all, he had lots of money – and dancing girls.
So they voted him in.
Mr. C became a powerful football person.
He mixed with football’s elite.
He was, in fact, one of them.
Even though they hated him and knew he was corrupt.

This is a dramatic reconstruction based on actual events.
Here’s another one involving Mr. C.

Curious George, a newspaper reporter, went to talk to Mr. C.
They had a nice chat.
George wrote an article that said Mr. C was a good chap and should be running football on his own – or something like that.
The next time George went to Mr. C’s locale, Mr. C said thank you. They had a drink in the company of Mr. C’s manager, Dick.
But Mr. C was a busy man, so he had to go.
Dick took George to a nice restaurant. Dick paid.
Dick took George to a nightclub. Dick paid.
Dick said: “How do you like the women.”
George liked them very much.
He wanted to fuck all of them, but this was an expensive fucking place.
Dick gave George an envelope.
“This is to cover your taxi expenses,” Dick said.
There was $500 in the envelope.
That’s a lot of taxis, George thought, before thinking once again that he’d like to fuck all the women in the nightclub.
“Who’s your favourite,” asked Dick.
This is a toughie, thought George.
But he thought he’d be polite and come up with an answer.
“The one over there with the big tits,” he replied.
Dick called Big Tits over and they had a chat.
George also enjoyed chatting with Big Tits, although he can’t remember what she said.
Dick said he had to go.
“Big Tits will go with you wherever you want; everything’s on me.”
He winked.
George got his drift and rushed back to his hotel with Big Tits.
He woke up thinking that Mr. C really was a fine fellow and wrote that in his newspaper.

May 22 2011

Metallica live at Yoyogi Pool, Tokyo, 13 May, 1989

Metallica: ’80s punk metal the primeval way


Maybe the Ayatollah was right; perhaps the creators of artistic creations that are blasphemous should be strung up.
Metallica’s recent performance in Tokyo brought this issue to mind, but they saved their necks by producing absolutely, nothing that could be interpreted as an artistic creation.
Not since Motorhead has heavy metal endured such affrontery.
But whereas Motorhead, the progenitors of speed metal, became palatable and remained unsuccessful by playing to their strengths, Metallica have become hugely successful and obscenely unmusical by concentrating on their deficiencies.
To their credit, Metallica have made it on their own terms. In an interview with Musician magazine, drummer Lars Ulrich admitted, “This is not rock ‘n’ roll for the people; this is rock ‘n’ roll for ourselves. We do what satisfies us.”
At first, both the public and the media were slow to pick up on the band. Indeed, they have achieved their success in the face of either negative reaction or no reaction at all. Radio stations avoided them like the plague.
But the band won through and their ” … And Justice For All” album has racked up sales of 1 million in the United States, which just goes to show how many sick people there are in the world.
With, the success of “Justice,” the media have been crawling over the band like maggots. Take this, from Musician magazine: “Metallica’s evolved from a troupe of good-natured thrash louts … to a platinum-selling band in the process of bringing heavy metal out of the Dark Ages” (straight into the Stone Age?).
And according to the U.K. magazine Sounds, “Metallica are the definitive metal band of the ’80s.”
A depressing thought, but in many ways Metallica do represent the ’80s – culturally, not musically. Last week, of course, Guns N’ Roses were the band of the ’80s. Axl Rose and the boys certainly play good old rock ‘n’ roll, but the emphasis is on the old.
Like Metallica, Rose is a child of the ’80s living off the music of the ’70s.
Both Guns N’ Roses and Metallica feed off aggression. But whereas the former channels it into the ’80s version of blues-based hard rock, Metallica take the more primeval approach and end up as the ’80s version of punk metal.
And their appeal seems to lie in their aggression. You don’t need brains to appreciate their music; in fact, not having brains is a prerequisite to appreciating their act.
Their music is based on power-chord riffs and … er … that’s it.
Perhaps I’m forgetting the vocals (at least that’s what I’ve been trying to do). Rhythm guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield doesn’t sing, he growls in as doom-laden a fashion as he can muster. And the vocals don’t have even the remotest sign that they’ve been thought out. Hetfield smashes out the riffs and then does a grunt over, as we say in the music world.
But it’s the riffs that get you, Musician magazine’s grovelling writer describes Hetfield’s playing as “weird cadences and lurching phrases, the strange stops, starts and sideways mid-verse leaps into new time signatures that make Metallica sound like Godzilla weaving through Tokyo on a drunken jag.”
And when Godzilla returned home last week, he got an astonishing response. Even the guy who told the audience at Yoyogi’s Olympic Pool that they were going to have a good time (otherwise they wouldn’t have known) got a bigger cheer than most bands get in Tokyo.
Metallica is America’s ultimate greaser’s band (Motorhead still holds the title in the U.K.). Hetfield and bassist Jason Newstead seem to play their instruments with their hair, but if you listen closely it sounds more like they play them with a lead pipe. In Newstead’s solo, only a visual check tells you that his left hand is moving.
The first five numbers were only identifiable as five numbers by the pauses in between. The riffs, the vocals, the lead come together like a freeway pileup, a collision of sounds entirely unrelated and musically meaningless.
“Master of Puppets,” “One” and “Seek & Destroy” all had the quality of construction even if what was constructed didn’t have quality. “Master” is heavy-metal minimalism with barely distinguishable vocals, and “One” has a sense of drama even if it doesn’t have a sense of music. “Seek & Destroy” is good because they lifted the riff from “I’m A Man.”
Two numbers that were listenable were “Last Caress,” which showed the band’s punk influence, and “Breadfan” by legendary Welsh rockers Budgie. But in reality, Metallica is where the wall of sound meets the wall of death.
At Yoyogi last week, death won.
Drummer Lars Ulrich has some useful advice: “If you like it, come along. If you don’t, stay the f*** away.”
Don’t worry, Lars, I’m one step ahead of you.

(Originally published in The Japan Times)

May 14 2011


Korean rocker carries on the family business

By Fred Varcoe

Go to Korea and you feel like everyone’s got a chip on their shoulder. It’s like everyone wants to pick a fight with you. On this occasion, someone did.

I was just sitting at the bar drinking with Korea’s most famous rock band, Sinawe, and a few friends when this young salaryman started pointing in our direction and mumbling something about the “girl-like” longhairs in the bar. But like my friends, I tried to ignore him.

When he got up, I ignored him a little less, and when he knocked the barmaid flying into a glass table with a drunken lurch, I thought, “That’s . . .” I didn’t have time to think much more as the four members from Sinawe leapt on the guy, smashed their fists into his face, kicked him in the guts and finished him off by bringing a couple of chairs down on his head. Then we ordered another round of beers and resumed our conversation on whether or not Pearl Jam was mainstream or alternative.

If anyone in Korea has a right to be angry, Sinawe guitarist and leader Shin Dae Chul is well-qualified. At the age of 10, his life was turned upside down when his father, Shin Chung Hyan, was busted for drugs and sent to jail.

“When my father got busted, I felt betrayed by society,” the younger Shin said. “Even at the age of 10, I couldn’t believe people got put away just for smoking dope. Almost all the musicians around at the time smoked, but my father was the only one they crucified.

“It still bugs me.”

Just as Shin Chung Hyan was no ordinary musician, it was no ordinary bust. Shin Sr. was the very foundation of South Korean rock ‘n’ roll. But more than that, he was an integral part of the troubled social and political landscape in South Korea in the ’60s and ’70s.

After paying his dues playing for U.S. servicemen on military bases in Seoul, he went on to become South Korea’s top guitarist, composer and producer. Such was his popularity that President Park Chung Hee asked him to write a song for Korea. (“No deal” was the reply. Top marks for integrity, perhaps, but zip for political astuteness.)

In the late ’60s, Shin wanted to try and understand what was happening in the West. “I invited a lot of foreign hippies to my house after a concert in 1968,” he explained. “They smoked a lot of dope. I wanted to understand Jimi Hendrix — his music, his feelings, his image and his mood.” So Shin tuned in, turned on and dropped out.

“I woke up about a year later and got back to work,” he continued. “A few years later, some Korean musicians came to my house and were interested in finding out about marijuana. I didn’t really smoke any more, but I had a plant in the house and gave it to them.”

Bad move. One of them was an associate of President Park’s son, Park Chi Man. Eventually word got back to daddy and the defecation hit the oscillator.

A lot of musicians were arrested, but Shin took the rap and got thrown in jail for four months. At the time, Park was on the verge of a political crisis and since rock ‘n’ roll was a medium for unrest, it had to go. Shin’s music was banned completely in South Korea and when he came out of jail, he was basically a nonperson, shunned by his countrymen and divorced from his profession.

For five long years, Shin endured the pain of ostracism. Then, in October 1979, Park was assassinated. For Shin, down on his luck and running out of sanity, it was his moment of retribution, although he doesn’t look back in anger.

Although he never quite attained the musical heights he had reached previously, Shin’s exile did have one positive result — he could spend more time with his family.

Dae Chul learned well from his father and like a good Korean eldest son, he took over the family business. As his father was the prime mover in the first wave of Korean rock, so Shin Jr. became the prime mover in the second wave.

In 1986, when he was just out of high school, his band, Sinawe, released its first album. In a land dominated by disco in the first half of the ’80s, Sinawe’s brooding, if rough-edged, metal ripped across the musical landscape. It sold 400,000 copies and spawned a host of imitators. At 18, Shin Jr. became the focus of South Korea’s rock scene.

Although rock has been overtaken by dance music in the popularity stakes, Sinawe and Shin Dae Chul continue to maintain their position as prime movers in the heavier side of the Korean music scene.

That can be seen in some of Shin’s lyrics. Thirteen years on from his debut album, Shin has abandoned the rather predictable ’80s metal of his formative years and is now exploring the grungier, darker side of life and music.

The gravel-edged vocals blend in with a meaty rhythm section and Shin’s dominant guitar, the music reflecting the gloom that seems part of the Korean national psyche.

Shin himself leads the band from a position of strength. He handles most of the music and most of the business.

With his latest album, “Psychedelos,” Shin has taken a step back from the Kurt Cobain-like primitiveness of his previous two albums and tried to blend a few more melodies in with the mayhem. There’s no less power, but it’s less abrasive.

After jamming with Sheena and the Rockets a few months ago, Shin has now opted to bring the whole band over for a couple of live dates in Tokyo. More than a few curious Japanese rock stars are expected to turn up to see what the Koreans already know: Whether he’s swinging a chair or an ax, Shin Dae Chul will knock you out.

(Originally published in The Japan Times)

Apr 18 2011

Motorhead at Nakano Sun Plaza, June 10, 1991

Volcano rock blasts crowd at Sun Plaza

By Fred Varcoe

Standing so close to the blast, they had no chance. It ripped into their bodies, made their flesh peel, loosened their teeth. Their hair fell about their faces as their bodies convulsed, uncontrollable, beyond all help.
Old men and women ran into the streets in fear. Nothing like this had been seen or heard for years. The dormant Nakano Sun Plaza, in the heart of Tokyo, had erupted, spewing (cigarette) ash, molten rock and unidentified supercharged gases into the atmosphere.
Motorhead, the original pyroclastic rockers, were back, led by the godfather of punk, the grandfather of thrash, the mother of all greasers: Lemmy.
Motorhead’s first tour of Japan in nine years has been eagerly anticipated by fans of grunge rock and thrash metal. Although thrash is a fairly recent phenomenon (around five years), Motorhead and its unique brand of headbanging rock have been around for 16.
The band predates punk but incongruously took off in the punk era, a time when the predominant theory of music was to buy a guitar and thrash it until you sliced your fingers off.
Lemmy’s approach to music is summed up by the axiom on the back of the tour T-shirts: “Everything louder than everything else.” (Borrowed, incidentally, from an aside by Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan to his sound engineer on the “Live in Japan” album.)
Motorhead and punk were brothers separated at birth but united in the aim of bludgeoning their audiences to death. It was rock’s Pol Pot era, a time when subtlety, melody or (God forbid) intellectualism in music was ruthlessly suppressed. The wall of sound gave way to a wall of death.
Every gig I went to in the late ’70s seemed to have Motorhead as the support act. The band were awful. They seemed to get louder and faster every time I saw them, and they were frighteningly loud and obviously fast. (This point is based on visual observations rather than aural ones as your ears would implode after a few bars of the opening song.)
But then the band did something right. It released a single – “Bomber” in December 1979 – that revealed trace elements of musical construction (a great lead guitar riff) and had been mixed by someone who wasn’t totally deaf. Listening to “Bomber” was like being able to hear all over again. It put the band in a new light and set them on the road to commercial success. Less than two years later the live L.P. “No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith” crashed into the charts at No. l.
After “Hammersmith” and “Iron Fist,” which came out in 1982, the band’s fortune took a slight reverse but they plugged on regardless, spurred perhaps by Lemmy’s addiction to rock’s peripheral pleasures as revealed in a recent interview in Q magazine:
“I like girls. That’s the only reason I’m in the music business – I discovered you could get women to take their clothes off if you had a guitar. And they come off a lot faster if you can play it.”
In common with many of his contemporaries (he’s 45), Lemmy has entered the ’90s with a new determination. He moved to Los Angeles, changed record companies and is now being managed by the toughest boss in the business, Sharon (Mrs. Ozzy) Osbourne.
The Japan tour follows the release of “1916,” an album regarded as being mellow by some hardcore Motorhead followers but still solid enough to kill a Bon Jovi fan at 50 paces.
As anyone who was at Nakano Sun Plaza for the opening show would agree.
The first five numbers didn’t sound any different from the last five numbers the last time I saw them 13 years ago at London’s Roundhouse. The only difference was you could tell at least one of the instruments being fed through the PA was a guitar.
Lemmy looked virtually the same (long hair, mutton chops, black clothes) and the remaining band members, Philthy “Animal” Taylor (drums), Wurzel (“the bastard,” according to Lemmy) on guitar and Phil Campbell (guitar), looked like they had recently been regurgitated from the stomach of a very large lizard – in other words no different (although the two guitarists are relatively recent additions).
Lemmy’s peculiar vocal stance (the mike set so high he has to look at the ceiling) is no less peculiar than his voice, which sounds like his throat is in the process of being riveted to his spine. Usually the only words you can discern are those in the song’s title, as in the excellent ”I’m So Bad (Baby I Don’t Care)” off the new album.
In all, the band played seven of the 11 songs on “1916” and there wasn’t a duffer among them. In fact they were the band’s best numbers and showed that if they really want to, Motorhead can sing to ordinary folk without having to kill them in the process.
“Going to Brazil,” about touring in South America, was the pick of the bunch with a driving beat that hits you in the gut. “Angel City” sounds like a good Sweet song but with typical Lemmy vocals. “Love Me Forever” contained not only – gasp – arpeggios, but also – shock horror – harmonics and – swoon – vocal harmonies. A great song. Where did it come from?
In order to make up for this and “Just Cos You Got the Power” – “This is a blues song, which means you can fuck to it” (actually it wasn’t and you can’t) – the band struck back with “Ramones,” a “very, very fast” (45-second) dedication to Motorhead’s brothers-in-grunge across the Atlantic.
“Killed by Death” ended the set after just 55 minutes to the amazement of the fans. Motorhead may be fast but 55 minutes is hardly value for money. As a further insult to the audience only one of the two scheduled encores was played, “Ace of Spades” getting the nod over “Bomber.” If ever there was a case for putting support bands on bills here, this was it. But Japan’s promoters want nothing to do with the idea in spite of the fact that it would cost them nothing.
In spite of the brief set, Motorhead did get through 15 numbers (that’s four more than Whitesnake managed) and the new songs showed that Lemmy and the boys are improving with age.
Lemmy may only be in the business for girls, but if he doesn’t watch out he may end up getting a reputation as a rock musician.

(Original published in The Japan Times)
Photos by Fred Varcoe

Apr 5 2011

Paul McCartney live at the Tokyo Dome, 12 Nov. 1993

Politics cloud McCartney’s success


(Originally published in The Japan Times)

Paul McCartney may not be looking for absolution, but he’s going to get some anyway. At the Tokyo Dome last Friday, the first of five concerts in Japan, he proved that he still has the wherewithal to put on a decent show, but his desire to make a political statement threatened to overshadow the proceedings.
Many Beatles fans have given up on Paul, especially since John Lennon died. John no longer has the chance to sully his reputation and fans have largely forgotten his largely forgettable swansong “Double Fantasy.”
But Paul is still on the active list and as such is capable of recreating such bilge as “Put It There,” “When I’m 64” and “The Girl Is Mine,” which was also the nadir of Michael Jackson’s career. Mercifully, none of this was apparent at the Tokyo Dome. The only hint of danger was having wife Linda on stage behind a Union Jack and a banner reading “Go Veggie” – a curious way to address her husband.
Linda gave the impression of being seated behind a keyboard, but whatever it was, it remained hidden by a curious collection of toys and the aforementioned flags. No aural evidence of a keyboard struck one’s sensory organs and requests to McCartney’s staff for a tape of Linda’s contribution to the gig were turned down. I concede that she was the best tambourine and maraca player of the day, but her presence still smacks of nepotism to me. The biggest compliment I can pay Linda is that she appears to be well ahead of Yoko “Let’s Karaoke” Ono.
If the show was an overall plus, it started with a massive minus. As the fans entered the Dome, they were handed anti-vivisection leaflets, presumably at the instigation of the McCartneys. This was more or less confirmed by “Help – a Day in My Life,” a 10-minute video of Beatles songs and images from the ’60s.
At least, that’s how it began. As the fans took in the sound of the Fab Four and watched the screens surrounding the stage, everything seemed happy enough. But as the video neared its climax, the images changed to pictures of nice animals, and then we saw a bullfight, cows being roped in a rodeo, harpoons piercing whales, toxic waste being dumped in the sea, a Greenpeace inflatable under attack.
Then the pictures became more sinister, showing animals in labs undergoing cruel experiments and having various parts of their bodies ripped apart in the name of science. It was disgusting and, Paul and Linda, you have succeeded in converting one lost soul – I am never going to eat monkey meat again.
But the most sinister part about the video was the fact that Paul was using Beatles music to soften the blow. The whole thing was reminiscent of Alex’s treatment in the movie “A Clockwork Orange,” when he is drugged and shown violent films that make him throw up, so putting him off violence. Because the soundtrack contains the one beautiful thing that Alex can appreciate – classical music – the treatment effectively kills off any pleasure he derived from music as well as violence.
No one can deny Paul’s right to fight for a cause, but his fans go to see him for his music, not for his politics. Japanese fans, who never get an opening-band warmup despite paying the highest ticket prices in the world, have a right to have their precious leisure time unsullied by such liberties.
As for the concert itself, at least McCartney left most of his own material out of it. As in his 1990 world tour, he relied largely on Beatles numbers to carry the show, the difference being that this time around they had a bit of life to them.
That may augur well for Paul’s proposed reunion with George Harrison and Ringo Starr next year when the trio plan to produce some music for a Beatles documentary. It is not, according to McCartney spokesman Geoff Baker, intended to be an official Beatles reunion, but the trio will get together in the studio “and see what happens.”
Baker also confirmed that McCartney’s current “New World Tour” is not his final tour, contrary to rumours in the Japanese press.
Judging by the quality of the music in last week’s show this is a good thing. The whole show was a vast improvement over his last effort three years ago. Everything was much simpler. There were no gimmicks; the light show and set were spare (just a couple of explosions during “Live and Let Die”); and Paul laid off the patronizing patter (his previous attempts at simple English for the Japanese were far closer to simpleton’s English – this time round he spoke a bit of Japanese, but mercifully all communications were kept to a minimum).
Basically, Paul let his music do the talking for him and on that score he was a winner all the way. Having been together for some time now, the band showed the value of not messing around with a winning team. Guitarist Robbie McIntosh was nothing short of brilliant, providing some real feeling to numbers that had previously been numbed by overexposure and taking a load off McCartney at the same time.
But the biggest plus of the night was Paul himself. Paul has always been thought of more as a songwriter than anything else, but listen to any Beatles record and you will discover a truly stunning bass player and a closet Little Richard bursting out. After the band’s mediocre performance three years ago, there was little point in hoping to see anything new. But at the age of 51, Paul can still belt with the best of them, and on numbers such as “Let Me Roll It,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Magical Mystery Tour,” he wasn’t holding anything back.
Paul’s vocals may have carried the tunes, but, of course, the tunes ain’t bad themselves. Starting off with “Drive My Car” and ending with “Hey Jude,” the set contained many of Paul’s highlights as a Beatle, including “Lady Madonna,” “Let It Be,” “Back in the USSR” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The biggest surprise was how strong some of his softer stuff sounded. “Yesterday,” “Michelle” and “My Love” all sounded surprisingly fresh thanks to Paul’s fine vocals, and McIntosh’s funky guitar work transformed “Coming Up” from the realms of the also-rans to that of a soulful front-runner. Even the stuff off Paul’s new album, “Off the Ground,” was strong, especially the somewhat Beatlesque “C’mon People.”
The biggest disappointment was the absence of McCartney’s one solid classic as a solo artist, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” but “Live and Let Die,” with one of the great riffs of the ’70s, went some way to making up for it.
Paul may not be the most likeable ex-Beatle in the world, but as a live performer, he showed he still has the cojones to live up to his illustrious past.
Whether or not he has the cojones to lose his tambourine player is a different matter.

Apr 1 2011


Would you leave?

Surely that should be “Running Scared”? Well, it was originally until some wiseguy in Tokyo actually used the phrase to describe my flight from my home.
Why wouldn’t I be scared?
A 9.0 earthquake, perhaps?

The 9.0 quake and how it shook Japan (see scale at the bottom). The epicenter is marked by an X in the top right corner.

Make that a 9.0 earthquake 400 km away. Only a few things fell down in my house; it didn’t do any damage. Physically. Twenty-five minutes after that quake, another one hit. It felt slightly stronger, but wasn’t so different. The second one was 7.9 on the Richter scale – but only 120 km away. In earthquake terms, that’s local. Scary enough for you?

The 7.9 quake; much closer to home.


That’s two huge quakes, but listen up: It wasn’t “The Big One.”
Tokyo got hit hard, but stood up to the quake pretty well. The northeast of the country has been pole-axed. There’s disruption everywhere, but not largely due to the earthquake itself. The BIG quake.
But the BIG quake wasn’t “The Big One.”
Tokyo’s last “Big One” occurred in 1923. The magnitude: 7.9, the same as the one that hit up the coast from me. It was at a depth of 23 km – not ultra-shallow, but not deep (the one near me was 39 km under the sea). Mainstream media almost never report the depth of an earthquake (although CNN’s meteorologists has been trying hard to improve, perhaps to compensate for their crap news reporting), but depth is crucial to what happens on the surface. The nature of the plate and fault line are also important. Some areas move more than others. And there are different kinds of motion.
The 1923 quake did not hit under Tokyo; it was in Sagami Bay, about 50 km away. But it was a long quake (an amazing 4-10 minutes according to Wikipedia), near the surface and produced a lot of ground movement. But it was not under Tokyo.
But both Tokyo and my house are close to major fault lines. The fault line that prompted the 9.0 quake on March 11 runs down the entire east coast of Japan, roughly from the northeast. Another fault line then cuts in from that about 75 km south of my house and juts into the bay south of Yokohama and Tokyo and then breaks south from Mt. Fuji. This fault line caused the 1923 quake and another large quake in 1703 (the Genroku Earthquake) that resulted in a massive tsunami in the area where I live (the Boso Peninsula) and, apparently, prompted an eruption from Mt. Fuji (still listed as an active volcano).

The fault lines around central Japan.


But the next “Big One” in Japan is supposed to be a Tokai quake that will hit the Shizuoka area roughly 150 km southwest of Tokyo. Experts tell us it’s on the way, based on previous earthquake cycles. Of course, in the meantime, we’ve had a number of large and deadly quakes, including Kobe in 1995 (a mere 6.8 on the Richter scale, but at only 16 km depth – 6,500 dead; Niigata 2005 (6.9 on the Richter scale, also at 16 km depth – 39 dead); Niigata 2007 (6.6 at 10 km – 11 dead). The Tokai quake is expected to be 8-8.5 on the Richter scale in an area where the plate is near the surface. Estimate deaths: 10,000 (that will only be revised upward after the recent quake). A big Tokyo earthquake or a Tokai earthquake will cause more disruption and damage (at least from the quake) than the recent 9.0 quake. Judging by what’s happened in the last few weeks, it will be devastating to Japan’s economy. The human cost will also be horrendous.

Where the Tokai earthquake is expected to take place.

According to The Japan Times of March 20, 2003:

“A Tokai quake centered on central or western Shizuoka Prefecture or Suruga Bay would force the evacuation of some 2 million people and disrupt the water, electricity and other infrastructure of 5 million others, the panel said. … A massive Tokai quake could also trigger tsunami of up to 10 meters striking coastal regions stretching from the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture to Mie and Wakayama prefectures on the Kii Peninsula.”
Tokyo’s last big earthquake was in 1923, 88 years ago. Before that, came the Ansei-Edo quakes in 1854-55. That’s quakes. Not one, but three over a period of less than two years. There’s always more out there. Yes, I’m scared.


And then there are tsunamis. We live 100 meters from the sea at an elevation of roughly 5 meters. I have had unsettling dreams about tsunami since I moved here. I know the danger. I know we have to get out and away from the sea when a quake hits. I’d always had a plan in mind. Assuming that I could get out in my car and the roads weren’t blocked, I figured I could get to my friend Mike’s clifftop house in a couple of minutes. Plan B (if the roads are blocked, a likely scenario) is to walk up the little road in front of my neighbour’s house and climb the hill above it (the sea’s on the other side). I can’t quite figure out how high the mountain is. I’ve always based my escape plan on the basis that a 10-meter wave would be heading our way. This is very possible.
My next-door neighbour reminds me that the Tohoku quake and tsunami was a “once in a thousand years event.” Not quite true. The media have reported it that way, but the truth is that it was a “once in a thousand years event” in that location. There’s a lot of locations… I live at a different location; the clock is still ticking.
The urgency I have about evacuating is the result of knowing about another earthquake and tsunami that happened in Japan in 1993, and which, curiously, has been largely forgotten, even now. A 7.8 earthquake struck off Okushiri Island in northern Japan on July 12, 1993 (more information here:

A tsunami wiped out Aionae village.

Waves of at least 10 meters (and up to 20 meters) hit the island within two minutes at its nearest point. Villages were wiped out. But not everyone was killed. Although 269 people lost their lives, another destructive earthquake 10 years earlier (no “once-in-a-thousand-years” event here) taught people that they had to run to higher ground very, very fast. I’m hoping the hill near my house is high enough for refuge, but I don’t know how high it is, or even if I can get to the top with a wife and 3-year-old child. It could be pitch black and in the summer there are poisonous snakes and other wildlife in the hills. And what if the waves were 40 meters high. Apparently, it’s happened before. Of course, if I thought it would happen to me, I wouldn’t have bought a house so close to the sea. You run a risk. There might not be another major quake in this area for 500-600 years. There might be one tomorrow.


Three days after the March 11 quake, a friend called me. He had spoken to a couple of credible nuclear engineers. They advised him to get out of town. He advised me to escape immediately. Others were urging caution. A number of friends reminded me that no official spokespeople could be trusted, least of all the buffoons at TEPCO. The government couldn’t afford to have 30 million people in the Tokyo area panicking.
I had this vague belief that my toxic lifestyle over the years would grant me immunity from any poisons heading my way, but that wouldn’t apply to my daughter, who was a week away from her third birthday. Cancers start easily in children hit by radioactivity. But there were other reasons why getting away would be good.
For a start, aftershocks. I actually had some work to do when I got back to Japan on March 10. In fact, I had a lot of things to catch up on. There were around 150 recorded aftershocks on March 12; that’s around six an hour. They just kept coming. I would sit at my desk, the cabinet would rattle and I’d be out the door like a shot. And not just six times an hour. There were aftershocks that shook my house that didn’t make the earthquake list. Just little jolts. Little jolts that would wake me up and get my heartbeat racing. I couldn’t concentrate in such conditions.
We had only transferred our bedroom to an upstairs room a few months ago. The upstairs shakes easily and the bedroom was not designed for a quick exit. So, after returning home on March 12 (we slept at the local golf club on March 11), we slept downstairs near the front door with the entrance light on and the door unlocked, keys and passports at the ready. Sleep was fitful at best. And what was it doing to my daughter. If there was a significant aftershock, we’d bundle her up and head for the front door.
“Jishin? Jishin?” she would ask, practising her latest Japanese word. When she looked at the news on the TV, she would say the same. “Jishin? Jishin?” I was worried her nerves were as frazzled as mine and my wife’s.
Gas for cars was already being rationed, electricity cuts were on their way, you couldn’t buy milk and some foodstuffs and there were predictions of large aftershocks and serious pollution from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.
Geez, what would be the sensible thing to do in these circumstances? Ah! That’s it! Stay at home and take it like a man, and tell my wife and child to stop whining. Living in fear would toughen them up!
Or I could go to a place where there were no earthquakes, no power cuts, plenty of gas, milk, water, food, life.
On March 15, we headed to Shimizu in Shizuoka Prefecture to stay in a hotel for four nights. After that, a friend lent me his family’s mountain house near Umegashima hot-spring resort – very remote, very peaceful, fucking cold and famous for landslides. And right in the region where the Tokai Earthquake could occur, I foolishly reminded myself.
But lightning doesn’t strike twice, does it?
We celebrated our escape that evening in a Korean restaurant. The beer tasted good. We could relax. As I drank my cold beer, the ground started shaking and shaking as a 6+ earthquake (on the Japanese scale; 6.2 on the Richter scale) shook Mt. Fuji, 50 km away.

In Japan, you can run, but you sure can’t hide.

Feb 20 2011

Manic Street Preachers

(Originally published in The Japan Times)

Manic Street Preachers’ angry tunes turn up Japanese fans

By Fred Varcoe

To some, the Manic Street Preachers are the new Sex Pistols, the new Guns N’ Roses, the new Nirvana, the British Guns N’ Roses, the British Nirvana, etc., etc.
You get the idea.
Whoever they are – and they will insist, no doubt, that they are merely the Manic Street Preachers – there always remains the danger that this week’s new wild boys could turn into New Punks On The Block.
One of the horrors of old age (35.96 years) is that you keep telling yourself, “That’s been done before.” Of course, my parents tried to say this, but lacked the conviction of actually knowing what had gone before. In fact, they were hoping that nothing like (insert horror of your particular generation here) had ever happened and merely thought that if I thought something wasn’t original I would lose interest in it.
In reality, of course, if what had gone before was so horrendous as to unsettle my parents, then I certainly wanted some of it as part of my antisocial weaponry. As a result, my parents were convinced in the ’70s that I was: 1) worshipping the Devil (Black Sabbath); 2) taking acid trips to Katmandu (Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd); and 3) killing off prominent members of the establishment (the Clash and Sex Pistols).
Little did they know that I was secretly conforming to their social values – well, I was closer than they thought – and that, far from worshipping the Devil, we were actually fairly good mates.
The Manic Street Preachers, like most bands, are doubtless not interested in comparisons to what’s gone before. Straight musical comparisons of the type “The Beatles are better than the Stones” or “The Jam is better than the Who” rarely do more than irritate musicians. Still, the past is an important point of reference and, as music is an evolutionary art, it has significance.
The band’s ironic allusion to the past in “Condemned to Rock ‘n’ Roll” makes the point that we’re talking about an indefinite now rather than a series of generational crises:
“The past is so beautiful
The future like a corpse in snow
I think it’s all the f—ing same
It’s a life sentence babe.”

The Preachers have been shot out of the same gun that produced the angry sounds and sneers of bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols. (On Fuji TV’s “Beat U.K.” recently, lead singer/guitarist James Dean (groan) Bradfield tried to impress the viewers with a couple of “f— you’s” while bassist Nicky Wire did his best Sid Vicious impersonation and came across as being genuinely thick.)
Perhaps significantly, they too have risen to the fore in a deep economic recession. The bleak prospects facing the young and unemployed of Britain have given rise to a new breed of angry young musicians and, just as important, a new breed of angry young fans.
As punk was a welcome antidote to the disco dross of the ’70s, so the new breed of the ’90s is welcome relief from the neo-hippy dirges of the Manchester scene.
That the Manic Street Preachers arc the most exciting band to come out of Britain in recent years is hardly surprising. They are virtually the only exciting band to come out of Britain in recent years.
The band’s Japanese debut at Club Citta on May 11-13 was sold out weeks ago and could easily have stretched beyond a week. After Nirvana’s Japanese tour earlier this year, it was the most eagerly awaited rock event of 1992. But unlike Nirvana, the Preachers went some way to delivering live what they promised on their debut album, “Generation Terrorists.”
The main difference was balance. The songs on the album, while leaving no doubt we are dealing with anger, were presented with a slightly sugar-coated production job. Live, the energy level hits the high end of the scale as 1,000 sweaty Japanese punks and rockers bounce up and down to the Preachers’ very direct brand of rock ‘n’ roll.
Where Nirvana is slightly flakey and occasionally laid back in delivering the message and the music, the Preachers slam it into your face. The guitars of Bradfield and the slightly – okay, let’s be honest, very – redundant Richey James grind along like a rivet gun, laying down a foundation for Bradfield’s excellent and, unlike Johnny Rotten’s or Joe Strummer’s, controlled vocals.
If you can’t tell how angry Bradfield is just by looking at him (believe me, you can), you can take a peek at the lyrics that accompany the CD.
“Madonna drinks Coke and so you do too
Tastes real good not like a sweet poison should
Too much comfort to get decadent
Politics here’s death and God is safer sex”
(“Slash and Burn”).
“Useless generation
Dumb flag scum
Repeat after me
F— Queen and country
Repeat after me
Imitation demi gods
Repeat after me
Dumb flag scum”
(“Repeat (U.K.)”).
The Japanese fans may understand the album title, but probably don’t make much headway with the semi-literate lyrics. The important thing is the gist of the message gets across. With the concert being held in the all-standing human crush heat of Club Citta, there is an intensity there that is usually lacking at theater venues.
Added to which, the Preachers’ penchant for choral-style hooks allows the Japanese audience to actively participate and get closer to the band and the music. A few adventurous fans climb over the shoulders of the mob down front and threaten to get on stage, but always back out at the last minute, much to the disappointment of the fans and the band, who are hoping that the barrier between the two will break down. But this is Japan, so it won’t.
Still, as events in the metropolis go, it made its mark. The band has the same universal appeal as Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana, and, like the Seattle rockers, it has just taken the first big step. Fame and money are on their way. Providing Bradfield keeps his muse (with five more years of a Conservative government, this should be no problem), the future looks bright. Next time round, the Manic Street Preachers could be playing the Budokan.
Except there may not be a next time round if the band members are to be believed. They have said they will break up rather than outlive their usefulness. They don’t want to end up as memorial pieces.
A wise move. Otherwise we could be looking at a fate worse than death: the new Sham 69.