In June 2000, Phish played their only headlining tour through Japan. A few dozen American travelers joined several hundred newly initiated Japanese phans on a phenomenal seven-night run of intimate venues, resulting in a series of fiery shows, unique cultural exchanges and the birth of the Japanese Meatstick. Longtime fan Stanch had been living and teaching English in Japan for a year when Phish arrived. In honor of the 10-year anniversary of the tour, and with help from a detailed journal and inputs from his traveling companions, he recounts his memories of the tour’s first four shows.
06/09/00 On Air East, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Nestled in the heart of Tokyo, Shibuya personifies Japan’s neon lit glow and lightning-speed pace, and is the heart of its vibrant youth culture. It is literally a place where you are apt to see just about anything on its streets – from magic mushroom vendors to transgendered vampire unicyclists, but even still, I was not possibly ready for what we encountered as we turned up the alley toward one of Tokyo’s hippest small music venues. Moving closer, we saw what you do outside every Phish show in America – fans, scalpers and vendors swarming outside the club, buying and selling wares and tickets, and reuniting with friends. But that is where the similarities ended.
[Photo via FrankZappa.org]
Approaching from the rear, I heard what I thought was Phish playing on a stereo. But then I realized – no, that was live: Phish was still soundchecking, and the doors at the back the venue were open, with music spilling out into the boiling summer afternoon. As I advanced, I saw no security: who has heavy security at a club that holds 500 people? While most fans milled around in the front of the club or waited for the doors to open, a handful twirled and danced in the back outside the wide-open double doors, getting a head start to the evening. Next to them stood Phish LD Chris Kuroda. I thought, why not?
I introduced myself and asked Chris about their experience so far. He very graciously filled me in: the band had been in town for a few days and was having a great time. He mentioned how outrageously expensive it was to lug Phish’s equipment across the globe, and even said the band was blown away at what a hard ticket that night’s show had turned out to be. Even more, they were really excited that most of the crowd seemed to be Japanese. He then motioned over to a Japanese language Phish promotional poster and said he wished he knew what it all said.
READ ON for more from Stanch about Phishing in Japan…
Without really thinking, I translated. It says “Phish: American Jam-Band.” He looked at me like I had just told him I was Keyser Soze. It was then that I realized how much Japanese I actually had learned in the past year. When it happens bit by bit, it feels glacially slow. But when you compare yourself to somebody still on day two in Asia, you realize how far you have actually come. It was a bit like The Simpsons episode when Bart realized he had unwittingly become fluent in French.
As I walked away from Kuroda, I began to understand two things: 1) I was accidentally in a bit of a unique spot – among the only Americans on tour who knew how to navigate their way through Japan, and 2) the scope and scale of these shows would be unlike anything I’d experienced, with unprecedented proximity to the band and its crew. I returned to my friends, who stood at the edge of a Shakedown Street forming in front of the club.
We plunged into the scene.
“Takoyaki!” screamed the sweaty man wearing a rising sun headband and a sushi-chef robe. Standing over a small grill, he waved a stick that skewered what looked like fried Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins and smelled like something that had washed ashore after a hurricane. “What is Tak-o-…what is that?” asked a friend as we walked by. “Fried octopus balls,” I explained. He looked at me like I had just said fried octopus balls. “Japanese phatty burritos,” I joked.
Next, we saw the first scalpers, notable because our crowd of nine Americans was still short four tickets. I spoke in Japanese for a minute to the first scalper I saw and reported back to the group: 30,000 Yen per ticket. “$300 each?!” replied my friends, amazed. (An aside: this was the year 2000. For those who don’t know, while there were a few instances of tickets being scalped for hundreds of dollars in the 1990’s, commonplace rampant inflation for scalped tickets didn’t really begin until after the hiatus and the rise of sites like Ebay and Stub Hub. While high costs in Japan caused these tickets to have a very high $60 face value – unheard of in 2000 – paying $300 for a ticket outside a venue at that time was close to unconscionable.) But these guys had come some 6,000 miles to see some Phish shows, and we were going to make it happen. After 45 minutes and a flurry of high wire act negotiations with some Yakuza mafia types, and only moments before they opened the venue doors, we had secured the four tickets for a total of about $1,000. Still an insane price to pay, but the deed was done.
[Photo via FrankZappa.org]
As we stood in line and shuffled our way into the venue, the energy really started to ramp up. 85% of the crowd was Japanese, almost all attending their first show. The other 15% were Americans about to see Phish in Japan at a tiny venue, and everybody was pumped.
It was while standing in line that I really started to notice the Japanese hippies around me. Where the hell had these guys been for the last year? The suburban Japan I had come to know was a pretty cookie cutter and conservative place – almost every office worker I saw daily wore the same white shirt and one of about three possible ties, and sported a carbon copy haircut. Japan is a country where rocking the boat is not something that is often done. Even the youth I knew who broke the mold did so by wearing a now defunct style that uncomfortably combined cowboy gear, zombie make-up, spray tanning and Valley Girl sensibilities. And those folks were no Heads.
Yet as improbable as it was that Phish was playing Tokyo, equally as crazy for me was the fact that Japan actually had its share of hardcore hippies that listened to Phish. And like everything else the Japanese do, when they get hippied out, they go full tilt. Several were straight out of central casting, like they had gotten a hippie starter kit in the mail, wearing a similar pair of patchwork quilt pants and/or Dr. Seuss hats, and sporting 30 inch dreadlocks and long beards. As we shuffled our way into the club behind a guy who told me his name was “Lucky Moonbeam,” I was already a bit overwhelmed by the situation. I would need to save my strength.
[Photo via FrankZappa.org]
We entered the venue to find about 12 people milling around a dead empty room much smaller than a tennis court. Our first inclination was to rush to the front, until we realized that the whole freaking venue was “the front.” This place was a postage stamp, and at the end of the room stood Phish’s iconic stage set-up. You’ll have to excuse me if I gush for a moment, but the last Phish show I had seen had been Big Cypress, and now I was standing in a small room so empty it looked like I had shown up too early to a junior high school dance. Let me say it for the record: see Phish abroad, if you ever can.
My friend grabbed my shoulder – time to set up our mini-disc players to try and record the show. We made our way toward the rear of the shoebox and found a taper generous enough to let us use a patch from his gear. As we were securing our machines to a small, free space on the floor, we ran out of duct tape. In fact, everybody around us had somehow run out. As we openly wondered what we would do, a voice said, “let me see what I can do to help.” As I turned around, I saw Brad Sands scurrying from us and returning with a role of tape and instructions, “you guys will want to get some space up close soon before this place fills up – I know how much everybody likes to sit before the gig starts, and I don’t know if this place is big enough for everybody to sit comfortably at the same time, so you’ll want to get up there soon.” That’s right, we were receiving thoughtful and practical advice from Phish’s Road Manager on strategies to comfortably get as close as possible before the gig starts. Was I being punked or something?
Check back tomorrow afternoon to find out what happened when the lights went down during Part Two of Stanch’s four-part series on Phish in Japan.