Having lived in Asia for the last nine years I've been a frequent visitor to Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and a resident of Seoul. Save for Seoul, all of the afore mentioned cities boast a skyline and urban impression designed to impress. For shear Buck Rogers futurism, pick Shanghai. For international architectural sophistication it's Hong Kong, and in Beijing, Colonel Sanders has finally taken Tiananmen Square where Kentucky fried capitalism lives hand in hand with old-school communism. Yes, you can actually see a KFC sign and that huge picture of Mao without your peripheral vision.
So what does Tokyo have that these other Asian spectacles do not?
Well, let's start with Todd Rundgren and work our way southward from there!
My first opportunity to see Todd came late in 1974. I had just graduated high school and had bought Something/Anything on the strength of We Gotta Get you a Woman (not on that record of course) and I saw The Light. To say that record was an epiphany for me would be an understatement. I rolled right into the album Todd and was sold forever. I only wished I had acquired S/A in time to get the postcard that would have gotten my name on the Todd poster. That fall Todd had scheduled a show in the Quad Cities, a little collection of towns on the Illinois/Iowa border where the Mississippi river actually runs East to West. I had seen him dressed like Peter Pan on the Midnight Special and heard stories of his bank of tape machines and such odd phrases as "wait another year, Utopia is here". Having already seen Eric Clapton strung out on heroin and having also made it through Cheech and Chong and George Carlin there seemed little that this Rundgren fellow could do to surprise me. I was wrong, but wouldn't know that for yet another three years.
In the fall of 1974 God sent me a little present in the form of a hospital stay and operation for an injury incurred while waterskiing that summer. My Todd tickets would go to my friends and I would, luckily, live to wait another day for my first Utopia concert.
Fast forward to 1977 and the RA tour or would it be the RA/Oops tour? I only ask that question because they used the pyramid but we didn't see that image in print until the Oops album. Too many brain cells have been lost since that show and all I can honestly remember is the Utopia theme and Singring and the Glass Guitar where he climbs the Pyramid and hurls the guitar (made of ice) into one of the amp towers. The tour played Davenport Iowa and my friend, a chap named Dale Mayne, and I must have been the two luckiest guys in the hall, a beautiful fading orchestra venue in a quiet Midwestern city of 100,000. Dale had not been so lucky at birth, having come into this world with cerebral palsy, but on this particular evening his affliction would come to his, and by association, my advantage. Having called in advance to inquire about wheelchair access we were informed that all wheelchairs would occupy a reserved spot on the rail directly over the orchestra pit and front and center with the band of the moment. Dale, a DJ, and myself, son of an electrical engineer, wasted no time in figuring out how to conceal a cassette tape recorder under his wheelchair and run it off the chair battery. We arrived at our first Todd and Utopia concert loaded for bear and as much Runt as we could get.
To this day, I'm not quite sure where that tape is. I know I taped the Redux shows in CA and have good copies from Michigan, Texas, Baltimore and Chicago but little could I know just how important a tape like Davenport Iowa 77 would be in later years. I am absolutely sure it was my first audience tape and I remember Dale and I cleverly affixing stereo microphones under the arms of the chair and marveling at how stealth the whole rig was. Security rolled our little Trojan recording studio right up to the front and we lived in our own little utopia for the next few hours. I do remember the tape being pretty good.
Ah, the serendipity and freedom of youth. Would I ever get the chance again to feel as if I had outsmarted the establishment in the pursuit of pure happiness?
Well many Todd gigs have now happily come and gone for me. The Ringo shows, two. Utopia in camouflage, the Pod tour, Second Wind, Acapella, Chicago Halloweens and New Years shows, Swing to the Right, Willie on a spinning motorcycle drum kit and a handful of solo piano and guitar outings in different settings - even Todd at a computer convention and a Tower Records in Chicago. Being overseas for nearly nine years has kept me away from With a Twist and Powertrio, also from AWDAR and whilst Korea and Japan make look close on a map I can tell you from experience that they are culturally galaxies apart. Anyone remember a little skirmish called WWII and the liberation of Korea from Japan at the finish? Hiroshima!
I have always looked longingly at the Japanese shows listed on the schedule but never found a way to mesh them into my Korean life. From here it's virtually impossible to traverse both countries using only the English language and the flights are as expensive as flying to Hong Kong or in some cases the states. I have great admiration for Sue Williams, the English woman who attended not only some of the British shows but all of the shows in Japan, not only for her devotion, but because I know that her pound sterling burden was not a small one. Sue and I met after the final Shibuya AX show and I told her that it was she, in part, who convinced me to make the leap across the Sea of Japan (oops, the Koreans prefer to call that the "East Sea") and get my first taste of Todd in the land of the rising sun.
And what a taste it was. AWATS to remember, so to speak.
Reading the name "Shibuya AX" on the schedule listed here and negotiating Shibuya for real are two totally different things. A visit to the AX website provides no ticket information and in fact no English, save for some of the performers names. I printed out the map for safekeeping while in Korea and emailed Roger, our host, to inquire about tickets. Roger politely emailed me back saying he didn't know exactly how to get tickets but would try and put me in touch with someone in Japan who would. Since those emails I have been dutifully spammed by people from Yahoo.co.jp in a font that only translates as ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? My computer is configured to read English, Korean and even Mongolian but not Japanese, so the default character for everything Japanese seems to be a question mark.
But then, that all makes a lot more sense to me now.
Just wait until you see Shibuya. Shibuya is a district in Tokyo much like a borough in Manhattan and the only way I could describe it would be like this: Imagine you are standing at the apex of Times Square except all the people there are from LA and no one, I mean no one, is allowed to be over thirty! That would be an inadequate primer for those who have never visited Shibuya but a better introduction than I had at the time.
For the record Shibuya is the youth cultural capital of Japan and Shibuya Crossing, a five way tsunami of humantide, holds both the title of "Busiest intersection in the world" and "Highest density of cel-phone penetration" on the planet. And that ain't the half of it.
There's the Seibu, Tokyu and Parco department stores, meccas to conspicuous consumption so grand that the world's largest Gap had to take cheaper real estate on a side street around the corner - Parco even has Parco Too because one was apparently not enough. There's the absolute total gastronomic domination of implausibly perfect plastic food glaring out from the windows of literally thousands of eateries as a van painted with the image of a star named "Rupee" drives around playing his song and telling you that it's the #1 salsa record in the country and if you're Japanese at all, you'll do like all good Japanese do and do the same thing that everyone else is doing ñ buying that record. A trip to the HMV or Tower records could well relieve any music lover of more than a few paychecks and make Debeers' suggestion of how much to spend on a diamond look positively childish. And speaking of records stores have I mentioned used vinyl? Yes, everywhere, from the latest hip-hop DJ shops to a place called Peet Moss Records where a copy of "Kellogg's" (yes, the cereal) Greatest Hit's Of The 5,6,7,8s (not a mis-numbering) sits comfortably in a window next to Nazz Nazz.
And then there's Pachinko, or the Marvhan Pachinko Tower to be exact, a six storey gaming extravaganza that produces a din matched only by a sonic a twin sister in Vegas. And for those who really want to know, yes, the sound of tokens coming out of hundreds of Pachinko machines is markedly different than that of the same tokens being dispensed from slot machines. To hear the difference, simply ride the escalator through the complex and read the signs as they announce the type of game on each floor. There were, however, some people over thirty in this place though.
So back down to street level and off to Shibuya AX, but first a stop at the convenience store.
A convenience store in Korea will baffle you with it's selection of drinkable yogurts and canned coffees whilst a CV in Tokyo will baffle you with stuff that you just have no frigging idea what it is. My favorite was a product called "Coffee Jelly with Cream" which was, surprisingly, exactly what it was ñ a little plastic tub of coffee infused gelatin with a 1/4" of heavy cream on top to be mixed in before eating. Aside from that you just can't beat Coke that comes in a white can that's shaped like a bottle but not a Coke bottle ñ more like the shape of a squat beer bottle or the cans that brake fluid used to come in.
For all the blandness of Tokyo's initial approach, putting your togs to the pavement is where the city really starts to shine. The streets surrounding Shibuya Crossing are a treasure trove of quaint European cafes, second hand stores, antique shops and modern furniture outlets. On the way to Shibuya AX, I stopped on the steps of a furniture store and conversed with a more than knowledgeable young man on everything from Frank Lloyd Wright, to Charles Eames to Marcel Breuer to the beginnings of the Prarie Style architectural movement in the states and it's origins in Japan around the turn of the last century. If you love 20th century architecture and design, you'll know where I'm coming from. From old to new, from hippy to hip-hoppy, Shibuya holds all of it brilliantly and it's a testament to Todd that he still commands a place of honor in this unbelievably divergent cultural pietrie dish.
Traveling north from Shibuya Crossing the AX can be found in just a few kilometers but not so easily. With my Japanese map firmly in tow it took me nearly four convenience stores to get proper directions to the AX. That's a lot of Jelly Coffees!
Situated next to a municipal park that sports an outdoor amphitheatre I had a fleeting hope that the AX was actually outdoors but that was not to be the case. For what it is Shibuya AX is actually the perfect hall to see a top-notch act. An unimpressive steel building from the outside, Shibuya AX is a bi-level affair inside with SRO on the main floor and a balcony with seating on the second. A total of 800 people can fill the place and this night would see the hall nearly full. Since I had not purchased a ticket beforehand I was particularly worried about the show being sold out. Fearing a stiff at the ticket window, I gave 7000 Yen or around seventy bucks to a scalper with a ticket valued at 7500 yen. This turned out to be a great deal as the window ticket price was set at 8000. I was in and ready for the Liars.
Inside the merchandise was better than I had been led to believe by other reviews. A full selection of Todd Cds and three or four different t-shirts, the best being a white shirt with a fresco-like illustration of the band inside individual gothic arches, much like the stage setup. Just so you know, the Japanese CD of Liars features a different cover than that of the western release. Quite possibly the Easter Bunny joke isn't one that would play well in Japan so the cover features a profile of a man's head with archival drawings of the humorous workings of one's brain as if a Rube Goldberg style machine was creating the entire ruse of reality and projecting it out through his eyes and mouth, in effect, lying.
Inside the hall and an hour before the starting time of 7pm I could have stood on the rail, but as many times as I've seen the man it's no longer important to me that I be the closest, especially when the worst spot I had all night was just five people away from the stage. The actual show started closer to eight.
Down with the houselights and open to the strains of Truth. No one is on stage. One by one the band members take their places in their respective temples and pick up their musical parts. The LED lighting proves to be novel yet effective and all members are dressed in their respective religious attires. And then finally Todd, shrouded in a floor-length cape and hood and wearing sunglasses. Under the cape he sports a studded viking-style calf-length kilt and a tank top. After a minute or so the cape seems to be impending movement so it's discarded and the real show begins.
For what it's worth I found the lighting and stage design and sound system to have been somewhat restrictive. Whilst Todd had the freedom to move at will, and he certainly did, I found the rear screen lighting behind the boys made them often appear in silhouette and lining up a band of four from left to right with Prarie on the far left and John far right just keeps them away from each other, and maybe musically as well. At Shibuya AX there are two large hanging columns of speakers on either side of the stage above the floor audience and pointed and angled to serve the balcony best. This made the sound seem to come out of one side or the other but never meet in the middle. At one point in the show I thought I would go up into the balcony and see if the sound was any more "combined" up there but I was told by staff that my ticket restricted me to the floor. The lack of any visible monitors or amps on the stage left a big hole in the middle of the soundscape and whilst it did seem to improve throughout the show, never left me completely satisfied.
For their part the Japanese seemed to know all the words and pumped to all the songs. Populated with plenty of salary-man and secretarial types the crowd was much more twenty/thirty something and a few pair of rabbit ears on the ladies gave it all a distinctly Todd-like feel.
My musical highlights were as follows: Truth was a knockdown starter followed nicely by Buffalo Grass. Mammon seemed a touch bombastic and Fascist Christ has never been one of my favorites, although I don't fault the delivery or power of the piece. I liked the original video quite a bit better than anything I've seen done on stage with it. While My Guitar Gently Weeps was the first time we could see what he can really do with a guitar and it's a fitting tribute to the original. Nobody seems to mention the oddity and sincerity of Lunatic Fringe done on solo electric and I found it to be one of my favorites of the evening. Back with the pimp lineup, Seoul Brother shined and Love Science (mis-starts and all) was a treat for me as I'd forgotten what a brilliant bit of power pop it really is. Want of a Nail nailed the entire show nicely and who can argue with Hello and JOV as encores? I would echo the sentiments of one reviewer who longed for the days of three encores and seeing that it did happen early in the tour I would have enjoyed one last hurrah on the final night.
All in all a fine show, but it won't go down in my book of favorites.
Why not you ask? Well you might ask yourself why it took me three pages to get to the review part of this story and I would tell you that that is entirely the point. What I love most about my over 30 year journey with the music of Todd is that's it's always been about the journey and never the destination. No matter what incarnation I have seen him in it has always made me happy. And I await the next page to turn as it may. I'll fly anywhere to see Todd, Joe Jackson and Ethel! Those who long for a greatest hits tour or some sort of neat little packaging of this enigma just may be missing the point. The whole of Todd Rundgren is truly greater than the sum of his parts but to expect that to be encapsulated into a two and a half hour show just doesn't hold a lot of logistical water.
My enjoyment here is the experience that Todd has once again given me and maybe the motivation to do something more creative again with my own life. For the love of Todd I was able finally to go to Japan and to do that I had to use some of that mischievous spirit that caused my friend and I to rig the Trojan wheelchair with a stereo tape recorder in 1977.
Originally my ticket had been booked by my employer for embassy business in Osaka on Wednesday, not a day that Todd would play in Osaka. I had carefully researched the possibility of doing my business in Osaka and taking the two hour and fifty minute train to Tokyo after my meetings to see the show, and then taking the train again back to Osaka to make my plane the following morning. This would have cost nearly $300. But as luck would have it God delivered yet another small gift to me on the night prior to flying in the form of a nasty cold and flu. I overslept Wednesday and despite racing an expensive taxi to the airport was unable to make the Osaka flight. Undaunted and knowing I could do my embassy business in Tokyo as well, I inquired about changing my missed Osaka ticket for one leaving in another hour to Tokyo. Bingo. And the cost of changing that ticket? About the same as my original plan to take the train back and forth from Osaka.
Before I left Korea I had mentioned to some of my musician friends in about the possibility of seeing Todd in Tokyo and they were all a little bit jealous. When I returned on the weekend, the first thing they asked me was "Did you see Todd, did you pull it off?"
High fives filled the air and a barrage of questions was levied to be answered. All of the stories I've related here were my answers. When asked why I went through such an ordeal to see Todd Rundgren in Japan, having seen him already seen him more than twenty times, I ask those who inquire quite simply,
"Do you know why a dog licks himself?"
The answer is no lie at all.