(Concerto Moon, Double-Dealer)
Matsudou, Tokyo, Japan, May 27, 2007
Since my very early years of fascination with the Japanese language and culture, which was exactly in the university years, one thing that was on my mind is to find out what the Japanese people accomplished in the sphere of promotion of heavy rock music in their home country and abroad. It took some time to finally grab a hold of Japanese hard rock/heavy metal (HR/HM) releases but it was definitely worth it since most of the musicians and bands are highly talented and original artists. Obviously names like Loudness and, to some extent, Anthem still ring the bell to most of the people who ever touched upon the subject of rock music from Japan but my personal favorites are once and forever left with Keiko Terada of all-girl band Show-Ya, Norifumi Shima-led Concerto Moon and, of course, truly unique Seikima-II and its charming Demon Kogure Kakka.
There's a famous saying that if you wish something too much you will surely get it some other day. And when after many many years of thinking and dreaming of Japan I got a chance to visit the country for business purposes this May. No other word but luck seemed to be at my side because Demon Kogure Kakka was playing a solo show in the Shibuya-AX venue on May 21 and Norifumi Shima was holding a guitar clinic in the Tokyo suburb of Matsudou on May 27. Due to time zone difference between Russia and Japan I was forced to choose between those two events - and Shima-san became my choice. The best choice - keep reading to know why.
OK, I've never been to a guitar clinic in Europe or America but I visited several similar shows in Russia. Here's a snap of how it goes here - a huge crowd of fans comes over to a specific location, musician they are longing to see arrives in a high-class limo, security and organizers distance fans from the guy, he enters the place, plays for some 30-40 minutes and leaves accompanied by hurrahs and cheers of the audience.
STOP HERE! This is Japan - it's not Russia, it's not Europe, it's not America. It's the most unique country on the whole globe and its people are as polite and nice as you can only imagine in your wildest dreams. If you simply enter the smallest shop its owner and cashiers will greet you the moment you enter the place. And whenever you try to ask something anywhere everybody is more than willing to help you. (Sorry, did I mention the fact that you HAVE to know Japanese?! Forget English - almost nobody speaks it.)
Well, the infamous location of Matsudou was no more than 40-minute ride from my hotel but I am not your typical kid who arrives in the last minute wasting nerves on waiting for trains, which might be late (an extremely rare thing for Japan - but you never know). So I came to the Matsudou station almost 1,5 hours ahead of schedule. Obviously it was not a problem to find the music shop where the event was supposed to take place - all I had to do is to ask a couple of questions to a cute and very welcoming girl in a nearby supermarket. She almost led me there by the hand - well, you know, I do love the hospitality of Japanese girls. Upon entering the shop I went directly to the cashier and asked for the ticket, which cost 1,300 yen (don't look for exchange rates - it's close to 10 dollars). Still as in most official places I had to fill in a special form providing name, address, and phone. Being from Russia, name and hotel was more than enough.
When filling in the form I heard Shima-san's voice behind my back - and when I turned back I was a small TV playing Shima-san's DVD "Plays & Lecture Series (Part 2 - My Phrases)". OK, I'm not that much a guitar pro so I just wandered around the shop and finally went out on the street. That's where I saw a bigger TV at the entrance, which was playing the only (and only) DVD of Shima-san's another band Double-Dealer "Fate And Destiny Tour 2005 - Live In Tokyo". Having never seen this DVD before I just stared at it up until the whole event started. More Japanese people were coming in, some watched the DVD with me for a while and then went away and only I was standing there the whole time. So what?! All these people live in Tokyo or close to the city and they surely were on this DVD or, at least, visited one of the shows from that tour - most of the visitors wore T-shirts with dates of the tour. And only me, the only "gaijin" (foreigner) there, was thrilled to just get a chance to see the action on the TV screen. OK, let's go on - pretty soon Double-Dealer launched into one of my favorite tracks from the debut album, "Raise Your Fist". I was almost headbanging to the full - and at this very time I saw two Japanese people heading for the shop from the station. Imagine my surprise when I recognized Shima-san in one of them!!! Shima-san looked at the people there (including me) and said, "Konnichi wa!" (Hello). Everyone automatically answered, "Konnichi wa!"… and only I was standing with an open mouth unable to say a word - the legend just walked in the shop and greeted his fans in the typical Japanese manner. That's when I started realizing that no matter what a big star you are in Japan, first and foremost this is Japan and you are polite and nice first and foremost - and then you may be a rock'n'roller, a TV star, or any other type of celebrity. Nothing of your typical huge-ego Euro-American musician - Japanese nature all the way.
But I was wrong to think that it's just a rare occasion. In a minute or two a guy who sold tickets went out of the shop and handed questionnaires list and pen to everyone who bought tickets. This time I decided not to give my imagination too much space and asked the guy to assist me in answering those questions. (Should I say he agreed without any sign of complaints?!) Most of the questions were quite ordinary like how you learned about this event, how long you play guitar (OK, I said 3 years but I'm just an amateur and play for myself or some close friends - nothing professional as there's simply no time for learning and frequent practicing), what is your idea about "Schecter" guitar-making company (the whole event was organized under the guidance of the company, which also created and sells the official Norifumi Shima Model). But what shocked me most was the following thing, "What do you want to ask from Shima-san?" I laughed hysterically - if I had a chance I would have asked him at least 50 questions. After thinking for a while I chose two ones (there was simply no more space on paper for the answer). When it came time to write my name and occupation I took the pen from the guy and did it myself - after all, I'm Russian and it's very hard for the Japanese to write my name in katakana (one of two Japanese alphabets) and my occupation is also a little bit hard to explain but I know how to write it in Japanese characters.
After traditionally apologizing for the delay (actually there was no delay - just normal Japanese hospitality) the event host asked us all to enter the shop and sit down in a tiny room, which was supposed to hold the guitar clinic. Of course, I felt a bit awkward sitting around 30 Japanese people but a very nice girl Ayumi sat next to me so the awkwardness wore off too soon (if you know what I mean). Since the whole preparation process took some time the delay did happen but it was no more than 10 minutes. The event host apologized literally every minute this time. Finally at 3.10 p.m. Shima-san entered the room accompanied by the audience's passionate applause. Immediately he sat down and thanked us all for finding the time to visit this clinic. Then he took one of six guitars and got down to business. Oh, the second guy who came with him was an assistant and seemingly a person working at "Schecter" since he later answered some specific technical questions related with equipment. But mostly his job was to play tracks, so-called "guitar minus" ones. The first song was "Eye For An Eye" from my favorite Concerto Moon CD ""Life On The Wire" (2003). What can I say?! It's one thing when you sit at home and watch a "Young Guitar" magazine master class, where Shima-san plays the song entirely and then little by little explains all the details - it's a totally different situation when he sits right in front of you and plays it live. I was blown away and trembling with excitement from just watching him play!
After each song Shima-san commented on them a bit and then asked whether someone has questions concerning the song or general ones. I have to say that mostly Japanese men are a bit too shy so they were not really asking questions - two or three guys were the most active ones. After the first song Shima-san launched into the Double-Dealer staff playing some tracks of the brand new (and final) album "Desert Of Lost Souls", in particular, "Howl Of The Wolf" and "Stained Life". Concerning "Howl Of The Wolf" he said that he still likes early albums of Bay-Area thrash bands namely Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax so that's the reason why the song is so heavy and thrashy. Of "Stained Life" fans mentioned that it reminds them of classic German power metal bands like Helloween but Shima-san shot down those concerns right away saying that the only German rockers he's aware of are Accept and Scorpions, which influenced his style in teenage years. But what else can you expect from a Japanese guy who grew up in the early 80ies and probably attended "Super Rock In Japan" in 1984 when Scorpions, MSG, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi rocked and ruled?! Finally the ice broke up and other people started asking questions as well. And here I witnessed the Japanese language nonsense all the way. Here we go - a guy asked a question and called Shima-san "sensei". Well, well, well, most of the people know that this worked means "teacher" - but even in the university years I was told that it's not a typical teacher in school or whatever, it's more a spiritual master. However, in this particular case this word was just senseless - Shima-san saw the guy for the first time and could not be his "sensei" at all. As a result after the guy pronounced the word all the people including Shima-sann started laughing and could not stop for some time. Of course, Shima-san answered the question in the end but asked not to call him "sensei" anymore since he's just a normal guy and not a spiritual master or whomever you can imagine.
Still the biggest shock for me personally was right up ahead when Shima-san's assistant handed to the guitarist our sorted out (according to the Japanese alphabet) questionnaires. Shima-san took out the first one, named the respondent (that's when I learned the cute girl's name - Ayumi), she raised her hand, and Shima-san answered questions looking directly at her! And that's what he did to each respondent including yours truly!!! I was just speechless… Again, this is Japan - politeness, hospitality and respect to your partner go without saying in this country - but it's still shocking every time you face it. OK, emotions aside - my first question was about the future of Shima-san projects. Double-Dealer split up right after the last album "Desert Of Lost Souls" was completed and seemingly the future of Concerto Moon starts right here. Shima-san, "Absolutely. We're going to play a short summer tour and recently our record company proposed to record an anniversary album since officially our debut disc "Fragments Of The Moon" came out in 1997. After that we're going to record a brand new album. There are also plans to do a solo album but it's not clear yet." The second question, which I always wanted to ask musicians of Concerto Moon and Seikima-II, "Why albums never get released outside of Japan?" Shima-san, "I'm not competent enough to answer this question - it's the business side of things. I'm a musician and I just record albums and then it's up to the record company to promote and release them anywhere they want to. Yes, we negotiated about the overseas release of brand new Double-Dealer album but since the band split up right after the recordings ended it did not happen in the end. Concerning Concerto Moon, we personally have nothing against it. I don't know about the anniversary album but the record company will negotiate about releasing the next album in Europe, at the least. Speaking of the past albums, if the record company gets a good proposal then why not?!" I personally think that Ayumi's question was good especially for young guitar players, "How long do you practice daily?" Shima-san, "Nowadays I practice up to 3 hours a day but if you just started learning I recommend to work for 5-8 hours depending on how much free time you have."
Once again a funny thing happened when some guy asked, "What is your favorite food?" Shima-san (and obviously all of us) were behind ourselves with laughter and our hero summed everything in one phrase, "Seems like I'm becoming an idol!" Of course, Shima-san answered the question but apologized several times in the course of the matter, "Well, I actually like ramen" (traditional Japanese noodles). After answering all those questions Shima-san picked up one of the guitars again and played three more songs, namely Double-Dealer "The Enemy", Double-Dealer "Judgement", Double-Dealer "Long Way Road" and (my all-time favorite ripping instrumental) Concerto Moon "To Die For" making no interruptions between the last two.
Believe it or not, but the whole thing lasted for 2,5 hours! And that was not the end. Pretty soon Shima-san thanked us all for coming again and left the room. The event host immediately came up and promised that in some 10 minutes Shima-san will be glad to see us at the signing session. My initial thought was the following, "OK, he will come again, sign some booklets and leave us all behind in no time." Man, was I dead wrong!!! In 5 minutes of Shima-san's absence a table and a marker were brought in the room while all of us aimlessly wandered around the shop. Then Shima-san entered the room again and the event host invited us to the signing session. A small queue formed at the entrance to the room and when my time has come I entered the room to see nobody except Shima-san, his assistant, and event host. Immediately bringing up all the booklets from Double-Dealer and Concerto Moon albums (most of which were bought via my friends on eBay or by myself in Tokyo during the whole week) I asked Shima-san to sign them. All the people in the room freaked out right away saying, "Sugoi, sugoi, sugoi!!!" (Great). My reply was, "Yeah, it seems great to you because you all live in Japan, you saw Shima-san at every tour he did with Double-Dealer and Concerto Moon while I come from Russia and can only dream of the slightest chance of hearing his voice. And here I finally got the chance to see him personally - I'm speechless!" Regardless of this amazement and surprise Shima-san never stopped being the classic Japanese person - he signed everything without any complaints and then the assistant made a memorial photograph of me and the legend, which still looks like the craziest dream whenever I look at it. Now you know what a guitar clinic in Japan is. May it ever be the same anywhere in Europe or America…