Archive for August, 2003

Wesley Willis RIP

Yesterday, I received this sad news in the mail:

08/22/03: Rock Star Wesley Willis Dead at 40

Dear Friends and fellow Wesleynauts,
We are deeply saddened to report that one of our artists, Wesley Willis passed away yesterday, Thursday, August 21st. Wesley will be greatly missed by all that had the privilege to know him, as well as the fans who have been fortunate enough to experience his genius. Wesley was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML) at the end of 2002, and had to undergo emergency surgery on June 2nd to identify the source of, and to suppress internal bleeding. It is not clear if this bleeding was related to his leukemia or not, and the exact cause of death is still unknown. Wesley had been recovering at a Hospice in Illinois, and since the surgery his health had deteriorated rapidly. His songs were simultaneously disturbing, hilarious, blunt, and intoxicating. Wesley’s sheer excitement and unaffected honesty about every cultural phenomenon, defined his music as truly individual, and truly punk rock.
Wesley released well over 50 albums – 3 of which are on Alternative Tentacles, and a 4th, entitled, Wesley Willis Greatest Hits Vol. 3 (CD) had already been
scheduled for release in October of this year.

Six years ago, I witnessed a concert by Willis in Ann Arbor, Michigan, knowing very little about the guy or his obvious mental illness. Here’s a email report of it I sent to a friend.

Fri Nov 21 14:17:18 1997

Wesley Willis ambled on stage with an arm full of notebooks. He warmed up the audience with, “My demon’s been talking shit. I hate that mutherfucker. This ain’t the good Willis tonight. It’s the bad one. My demon’s been talking shit and I’m going to kill that fucker.” He picked a green notebook, propped it up on his Casio, sat and that’s where he remained planted for the entire show. That was it, no band. Then he fired up the Casio and started his set, which included:

Taste the Camel’s shitty hole
Suck the pussy’s dick
Don’t Drink and Drive
Lick a racehorse’s booty hole
Kiss my Rotweiler’s ass
Eat Donkey Shit
Suck a crazy sheep dog’s dick
Shoot down my happy music
Michael Jackson sucks little boys’ dicks
Jordan Mike suck my dick
Sonic Reducer
Avoid the splattered brains
Beware of the turd burglar

In between songs he ranted more about his “mutherfuckin’ demon.” It quickly became apparent to all but the beer swilling frat boys in the back that Wesley was legitimately nuts. None of this commodified tortured posing a la Trent “I’m so tragic” Reznor. This was the real McCoy. During the entire concert he didn’t react once to the audience’s cheers and shouts except to occasionally roar “Shut the fuck up.”

Wesley looks like the sort of person you would avoid on the subway–huge frame, army fatigues, a stained shirt with a gold “W” painted on it, a beat up and heavily duct taped CDman slung around his neck, and a completely glazed expression on face. The most notable thing about this guy was the large grey bruise on his forehead, assumably from delivering one too many of his hallmark headbutts of appreciation.

The audience’s reaction was perhaps more interesting than the concert itself. At first they were enthusiastically cheering, but slowly the audience slid into stricken pallor punctuated with nervous tittering. The fact that for each song Wesley used the EXACT same melody (the one used in his single “Kurt Cobain”) lead me to believe that he was hell bent on taking the audience with him on his spiral descent to loonyville. Imagine being trapped in a room with a constant loop of “We Built This City” and you get the idea. I doubt that Wesley actually ever touched the keyboard once, instead he limited himself to three function keys. Most soon left, but a few stalwarts (like me) held forth to the bitter end. My overeducated overdeveloped critical sensibilities groped blindly for some satisfying hook to hang this ceaseless onslaught of a mad man’s ravings. Part of me though that this was a true voice from the margins, unschooled and raw. And part of me thought that the concert was some freak-show brought about by a cynically hip Svengali-like manager. Anyhow, Wesley Willis was, if not good, then certainly memorable.

The Joys of Jetlag

Howdy all. I’m back in the US of A, struggling to shrug off the waking stupor of jet lag. In the morning I feel fine, but as the afternoon progresses I can feel my brain spinning down, shedding IQ points by the hour. By the time 6 or 7 rolls around, I’m a drooling idiot who losses keys and who forgets what he was saying in mid-sentence. Feels like being old but without the bladder control problem.

The other day as the jet lag hallucinations were just beginning to cloud my mind, I was replenishing my food supply at Vons. While looking for a daikon radish in the vegetable section I heard the green grocer chatting with one of the customers –a middle aged woman with a great tan. He asked if she lived in Stevenson Ranch — a particularly loathsome subdivision in a town filled with loathsome subdivisions. She responded, “Hell no! I’m not one of those goddamned Stepford wives.” Wow. I sort of thought you might be tarred and feathered for airing such opinions in this town. Later while in the checkout line, I overheard one of those goddamned Stepford wives complaining about the new computer thingie where you swipe your credit card. The cashier, who looked like she spent most of her life standing in front of a cash register, patiently explained how to use the machine, ending her spiel with a sympathetic “Yeah, they’re kind hard to figure out.” Suddenly, Kenny the bag boy, who clearly was not all there, piped up. “Yeah. Imagine explaining how to use that to a 150-year old man. I mean an exactly 150-year old man. That would be really hard. That would be really really hard. And trying to explain using that thing to a 200-year old man would be really really really hard. Just impossible, really. (slight pause) I can’t believe I’m going to be 30 soon.” As Kenny continued his running monologue, the cashier wearily ignored him and rang me through. Kenny continues: “I see your name is Crow. I understand that they have a new rock star who’s also named Crow. Sheryl Crow, I believe. I really like her song Winding Road. Thank you for shopping at Vons, Mr. Crow. Etc. etc.”

Tokyo — You Can’t Go Home Again

Omotesando circa 1974I’m in Tokyo now watching a TV show with some Japanese starlet in Peruvian jungle suffering through a meal of turtle penis.

Every time I go to Tokyo there is some new building or development being thrown up. The other day I dropped by Roppongi Hills — a shiny new complex with a huge movie theater, a sundry of overpriced shops and an impressive collection of bad public art. This being summer vacation, the place was packed with family’s and young couples snapping photos with their cell phones left and right. The place looked like it would be more a home in West LA and I soon left feeling like I had seen the place before. Instead I sought out some of the bars where I danced all night in when I lived in Ibaraki eight years ago. My favorite bar had since been turned into a Starbucks. Tokyo has been wrecked and built up so many times, and each new building is more ridiculous and inhuman that the last, giving the place increasingly a feel of a dystopian sci-fi flick, that part of me simply wants to say: build more. Make Tokyo more gigantic and bizarre. But then yesterday, while R and I were looking for an over-priced macrobiotic restaurant along Omotesanto — Tokyo’s answer to the Champs Elysee — we noticed that the famed Dojunkai Apartment complex had been demolished. The Dojunkai apartments was one of first examples of Bauhaus architecture in Japan which somehow survived the 1923 Kanto earthquake and US Air force in 1945. They were elegant and gave the whole area a certain charm. In its place I sure they’re going to throw up some shiny glass box featuring another fuckin’ Starbucks.

Speaking of times gone by, the other day I ventured up to Ibaraki for the day. I first went to Tsuchiura, located on the far finger of Lake Kasumigaura. It was where my friend Ted lived and where I frequently went to escape from the tedium of Ogawa machi — small farming berg where I was placed. The place was more depressing than when I visited two years ago. The shopping mall where Ted and I bought used CDs and drank beer was a ghost town and all of the old department stores have gone belly up. There is a new department store monstrosity that opened up about five years back across from the train station. My friend Yuki predicted that it would go belly up too in a couple of years. Yuki and I spent most of the day catching up over okonomiyaki at one of the few stores still open in that shopping mall.

I told her about working at BIG and R and we talked about our mutual distaste for George W. Bush. She told me about her dumb job and her cat Godzilla who is getting on in years. We gossiped about mutual friends. One is working in a wedding salon as a hairdresser and another has expanded to an alarming girth. Yuki also told me about a dream she had in which she was along with Ted helping me move from my apartment in LA, which was literally on the beach. When the moving guys showed up they brought out a vast array of exotic vacuum machines to clean my house. I was apparently wildly fascinated by them and kept pestering the moving guys with questions. Eventually, they mentioned that they had a vacuum cleaner shaped like a dog. After repeatedly pleading with them, they grudgingly brought the thing out of their van. It was only a beat up plastic toy dog and clearly in no way a vacuum cleaner. I was very disappointed. It was good talking to Yuki. The more my Japanese improves the more I realize that I actually have something to talk about with her, which I’ve sadly learned isn’t always the case.

Speaking of that, for dinner I jogged up to Mito where I briefly saw Ikuko, an ex-girlfriend of mine. I met her at the used-clothing shop she opened up two years ago. The store itself is roughly the size of my bathroom in LA but the location was pretty good and her wares were cool if pricey. She introduced me to her ferret-faced boyfriend who scowled at me for twenty minutes as she closed up shop and then hopped in his Jeep Cherokee and left. We ate dinner at a Thai restaurant that her brother opened, talked about old times and R and ferret-face, and then I grabbed the last train back to Tokyo, which for some reason is at the appalling early time of 9:30pm. On the way back, the train stopped for an hour at the station closest to Ogawa-machi. Something was messed up because of the heavy rain and freakishly cold weather the area is experiencing. Across from me sat a young mother who passed the time staring into her cell phone and whacking her spastic child who was terrorizing the train car.

Anyway, it’s only a few days before my grudging return to the US of A whereupon I’m going to have to find a job fast or move into a cardboard box.

Kumamoto — Sayonara

I’m in my last few days of living here in Kumamoto. On Tuesday or so, R and I are heading to the bright lights and big-city bustle of Tokyo where R is finally going to shoot the bulk of her thesis. Yesterday, before Chakko returned to Fukuoka with her mom — R’s aunt — she gave me a picture book that cataloged every weird ghost and spirit in Japanese mythology including a ghost for umbrellas that have been around too long, a disembodied horse leg that whacks unsuspecting victims in the head, and a truly bizarre ghost called a meoshiri which has a big round eye in its backside. In return, I gave her a couple tapes of my movies. Chakko also has a four-year daughter named Sakura who is the most relaxed, poised four-year old I’ve ever met. R’s mom tells me that kid’s preternaturally good disposition is because all the brown rice Chakko when she was pregnant with her.

Anyway, during some of the slow days at BIG — when everyone was planning shoots instead of doing them — I sometimes would take the company digital camera in hand and troll the city looking for things to shoot. The dangerous thing about digital cameras is that there are no worries about taking a bad picture. If you don’t like it, erase it. I ended up taking something like 400 pictures of things like street lamps, vending machines and ugly buildings. I don’t know why, but when it comes to photography I’m really not all that interested in shooting people; it’s architecture and physical space that really does it for me. I’ll spare you those pics, but I assembled a few photos that would give you, the loyal reader, a sense of my life here in Kumamoto. First the touristy stuff·

This here’s Kumamoto castle. As I noted earlier in this blog, this castle was used in Kurosawa Akira’s Kagemusha. The original burned down in 1868 during a final desperate stand against the Meiji restoration. The battle was famously bloody ending with much mirth for the victors and beheadings for the vanquished. The castle’s painstakingly detailed reconstruction in the 1960s is limited to the exterior. The inside looks like an East German municipal hall. But the really remarkable thing about this castle is that stone wall in the foreground, which is original. They were designed so that a gullible invading army might be able to scale half way up the wall before it curves up at a deceptively steep angle leaving flailing soldiers open for all sorts of missiles, boiling oil and the like. The castle apparently took 20 years to build and when it was done, warlord Kato Kiyomasa killed the architect and everyone involved with project to keep them from leaking its weaknesses to enemies. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before Halliburton adopts a similar policy.

This is the international headquarters of BIG. Actually, BIG takes up only part of the second floor — next to an acupuncturist — and part of the third. The landlord lives on the fourth floor with a dog that yaps incessantly.

And here’s a shot of me that Horita took during the Anesis shoot in June. That’s Miyazaki in the background checking his cell phone and that guy in the back is Fujita, Yamano-san’s assistant. I think Yamano was off smoking a cigarette or something. We were all waiting for the sun to set. That intense expression on my face is not because of my concern for anything going on in the shoot, but rather a profound concern that I would make an ass of myself from some half-understood command.

Alas, I have no still shots of the Touro maidens from my Yamaga shoot, but I do have this reasonably scenic shot of the town. Along with hot springs and pink clad women with funny lanterns on their heads, Yamaga is famous for making shochu and most of the buildings on this stretch of road are actually old distilleries.

Closer to home, this is Hachi, the Sumi’s emotionally needy dog. R’s parents are more camera-shy than she is, if that’s possible. But I was allowed to shoot pictures of Hachi with impunity. He doesn’t really bark so much as howl as if your were removing his hind leg with a butter knife. This is especially the case when he senses the slightest whiff of abandonment, such as going to the store or the bathroom. Today, I went shooting a bit in the morning with R’s camera. When I return, Hachi wouldn’t stop smelling my feet. He wouldn’t wait until I sat down either so I kept tripping over him. Anyway, strange dog.

You can see more pics of Kumamoto, mostly of the grim architectural variety, here.

Kumamoto — Gerogerigegege and the Island Beauty

Hey gang. Yes, I’ve been an errant blogger as of late and to my legions of loyal readers, I bid you a heartfelt apology. Today was clear and not the blazing inferno it has been for much of the week. On Wednesday or so, the temperature here in Kumamoto was the same as Santa Clarita, that high desert suburban armpit where I call home, only Santa Clarita doesn’t have 85% humidity. Just walking from the tram to my office at 9:30 in the morning caused me to sweat through my shirt. Quite unseemly.

Today while eating dinner with R in front of the TV, I saw a show that featured an old man making out with a Boston terrier; a contest that pitted a group of comedians against a sumo wrestler (they lost); a guy who put crabs in his mouth to see what would happen (answer: excruciating pain); a wrestling match between bikini idols; and an Andy Kaufman-like Japanese comedian who was arrested for streaking in Pyongyang. The other day I saw a trivia show that included such morsels of information as very single member of the 1998 Yugoslavian soccer team had a name that ended in “-vic,” that spiders get drunk on coffee, and that if one where to buy every single item in a train station kiosk shop the total price is ¥940,000 (about $75,000). They arrived at that figure by actually going out to a kiosk in Ebisu station and buying every damned thing. The expression of the woman behind the counter was priceless. Sure, Japanese TV is mostly crap, but at least it’s memorable crap.

Anyway, today R and I spent most of the day hanging out with Chakko — R’s cousin. In a family that includes a Communist and a rock star, Chakko stands out as an eccentric. She is one of the few people I’ve met who seems utterly impervious to social expectations. She doesn’t give a wit to fashion, she speaks unselfconsciously in a thick Kyushu accent even though she lives currently in Kyoto and she refers to herself using ore, the coarse masculine word for “I.” She dropped out of art school a while back (she’s a very talented draftsman) and is now taking a stab at filmmaking. Yesterday, she showed us one of her videos, which was a portrait of her friend who makes pictures with his own bodily excretions. It was pretty harrowing to watch, but had a certain style to it. She’d fit right into CalArts. She also told me about a Gerogerigegege concert she witnessed a few years back. I became aware of Gerogerigegege when my friend Ted lent me an album called Tokyo Anal Dynamite — which is either the most God-awful album or the most brilliant album I’ve ever heard. I haven’t figured out which. Anyway, for the concert Gerogerigegege, who is apparently very fat, stood stark naked on stage shouting “Ecstasy” over and over again for a full hour. R, Chakko and I lamented that there this sort of weirdo decadence was hard to find in the states.

On Friday, a huge typhoon blasted through. Friday was also my final day working at BIG, which is ironic because my first day at BIG also had a huge typhoon rolling through town. It was a teary-eyed departure filled with promises to stay in touch and to work with each other again. Actually, Horita liked my work so much that I am the official head of the BIG Los Angeles office. I doubt this is going to lead to much actual work, but who knows. The night before there was a big blow-out party on my behalf at a recently opened hip nightspot build in a refurnished traditional house. Hereâs a picture of the gathering below:

The lanky white guy in middle is me. Going clock-wise, the guy in the greenish shirt is Fukushima-san. He’s a producer and was out for most of the day, so I really didn’t know him all that well. The guy with the glasses giving the requisite peace sign to the camera is Miyazaki-san. He’s the guy who I dragged all over hither and yon for my shoot and who likes to eat grilled tripe. Next is Oshima-san who was my producer for my Yamaga shoot, and finally there’s Horita-san’s wife Naomi who is in some convoluted way related to R’s dad.

Anyway, several pitchers of beer and several plates of sushi later they presented be with a going-away gift — the entire set of manga called Monster by a manga artist that Miyazaki and I both like. Then Horita-san ordered a local shochu made from potatoes called Island Beauty.

“You might not like it,” he warned, “it kinda stinks.” Indeed, it did have a strong though not unpleasant odor and did taste a bit like natto. That was the first cup, of course. By the fourth or fifth cup, I wouldn’t have cared if it tasted like Tom DeLay‘s jockey shorts.

Here’s a shot of Horita after two or three glasses of the stuff. Around this time, he said (translating roughly), “Y’know Jon, you have a really serious face and when I first met you I thought you were this real straight arrow guy who likes to study a lot. But somewhere along the lines, I realized that you’re a really weird American.” He then said that my Japanese was really cute and sometimes really funny. I found this a little disconcerting because most of the time I wasn’t really trying to be funny. As the night progressed, Oshima and Miyazaki made fun of the size of Horita’s head. Miyazaki and I complained about George Bush and the idiots in government on both sides of the Pacific.

And of course, lots and lots of silly and rather embarrassing pictures were taken with the company digital camera. Friday morning, most members of the BIG crew were staggering around in a post-Island Beauty haze.


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