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Shibuya Awakening
By David Carlson

... let's start with a performer named Todd Rundgren and work our way from there. Who's Todd Rundgren you ask? .

As I rode the bus from Norita International to downtown, Tokyo revealed itself to be one of the world's most blindingly ubiquitous urban landscapes. Swathed in grey sky and populated with grey mid-rise buildings, nothing penetrates the atmosphere more than 40 stories and nothing stands guard to tell you that you are entering one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the world, at least not from my bus.

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, 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 at Tiananmen Square.

So what does Tokyo have that these other Asian spectacles do not? Well, let's start with a performer named Todd Rundgren and work our way from there.

Who's Todd Rundgren you ask? Those of you who know music well will know but as successful as he has been as a writer, producer and singer he has never been a big star. Yet, over the past 30 years he has released more than twenty five albums as a solo artist and with a band called Utopia. His songs 'Hello It's Me", "I Saw The Light" and "Bang The Drum" routinely appear in movie soundtracks and his work as a producer for Meatloaf (Bat Out Of Hell), The New York Dolls, Psychedelic Furs, XTC, Grand Funk Railroad and Cheap Trick have guaranteed him a place in 70s & 80s & 90s rock royalty. His 1974 album "Something/Anything" is on Rolling Stone's "100 Best Albums" list and it's been rumoured that his contract with Warner Brothers specifically stated that he had to do "one normal album" for every "weird one" he recorded.

In short Todd Rundgren has always been a musical visionary and pioneer and in a constant and almost dizzying series of reinventions continues to record and perform new and inventive music to this day. This year he toured Holland, Scotland, England, the US and Japan with a tour called "Liars" supporting an album of the same name.

My first opportunity to see Todd came late in 1974. I had just graduated high school and had bought the album Something/Anything. To say that record was an epiphany for me would be an understatement.

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. Having already seen Eric Clapton strung out on heroin and having also made it through Cheech and Chong 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 water skiing 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. The RA tour was an art rock or some would say prog-rock extravaganza based on eastern mysticism and using full costumes and an onstage metal pyramid that he would climb and play on top of. Yes, now it does seem a bit like Spinal Tap but I can assure you that as college students in the Midwest it was all we wanted to see that year. 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 in front of the band. 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. Security rolled our Trojan recording studio right up front and we lived in our own little utopia for the next few hours.

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. I've see him over 20 times since 1977. I have always looked longingly at the Japanese shows listed on his 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. This year Todd & the Liars were scheduled to play four shows in Japan, two at a club in Tokyo called Shibuya AX.

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 and decided to see what I could figure out once in Japan.

Just wait until you see Shibuya. Shibuya is a district in Tokyo 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 is allowed to be over thirty!
For the record Shibuya is the youth cultural capital of Japan and Shibuya Crossing, a five way tsunami of humantide, holds the title of "Busiest intersection in the world". 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 domination of implausibly perfect plastic food glaring out from the windows of 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 buy 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 the Marvhan Pachinko Tower, 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.

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 - a little plastic tub of coffee infused gelatin with a 1/4" of heavy cream on top to be mixed in before eating.

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. From old to new, from hippy to hip-hoppy, Shibuya holds all of it brilliantly and it's a testament to Todd Rundgren that he still commands a place of honor in this unbelievably divergent cultural pietrie dish.

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.

Down with the houselights and open to the strains of a new song "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. LED lighting proves to be novel yet effective and all members are dressed in different religious attire. 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. (see photo attached)

The album and tour "Liars" is a concept that illustrates the idea that everyone from the church to the government to your lover lies to you just enough to get you believe the illusion they are selling. It sounds like a cynical concept but with humor, compassion, inventive staging and killer sound the concept comes off superbly in a world that hasn't seen a "concept album" or show in a long, long time.

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, all in attendance for a 56 year old obscure pop star. Brilliant!

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.

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's music 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 a visa trip to 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 have any idea why a dog licks himself?"

Copyright 2004 David Carlson. All rights reserved. [email protected]


November 21, 2004