The doorman had just called out ticket numbers sixty when the crowd waiting outside Morioka’s Change Wave collectively gasped. Casey and I walked up loudly, fresh from the convenience store where we had deposited the husks of beer that had brought us from the station.
I endure these gasps with some difficulty. Music is rightly considered a universal language, an art that transcends borders and prejudices. Even in Japan, a country perhaps too quick to categorize, I had foolishly assumed that concerts (especially of an internationally renowned Math-rock outfit such as Toe) would harbor an open mentality. Morioka is Iwate prefecture’s largest city, yet still only weighs in at a humble 300,000 people. I have lost track of my visits to the city’s two rock clubs: Change and it’s younger, bigger brother Change Wave. What hasn’t escaped my memory is the incredulity that has met me at each visit. At least the kids who work the door, and they are almost certainly still kids, have stopped trying to speak to me in their maimed English. One could argue whether they have accepted (let alone celebrate) the fact that I am a regular customer. Was it my mistake to think this visit would be different?
“Hell yeah! Right on time. We’ll get in in a minute or two,” I said, pulling out ticket ninety-nine.
Those around us did not share our excitement. A group of three passed their tickets around. “Did he say sixty? I’m sixty-three, but he only said sixty. It’s okay. I’ll just wait for seventy.” And as that number also came and passed, the shuffling of feet grew into a nervous scraping, never bringing its bearer another step closer to the door.
“Tickets eighty! Tickets eighty and under!”
“Fuck it. He’s going to say ninety by the time we get down to the door,” I said, the crowd outside all too willing to part in front of me.
No one was rushing to the disturbingly short line. Cutting may have been an offense, but the club had about as much will to enforce that rule as the crowd had of seeing the band for which they clutched pre-purchased tickets. Despite Wave being the much nicer of the two rock venues, hosting national touring acts rather than the local punk scene that Change was known for, the ten or so stairs that led down to the entrance might as well have been the river Styx. The automatic sliding glass door at the bottom, a high-class touch to what could have easily been a steel slab, sat silent, its red-eyed sensor waiting patiently to whir into motion at the approach of a rock hungry patron. Casey and I were all too happy to oblige. Looking back up the stairs, I had little faith that the rest of the crowd would follow.
And what a crowd it was. If ever Morioka was to consolidate hand-wringing deprecation, tonight was the night. Painstakingly crooked hats balanced atop undulating mops of hair that, while might have sent this youth-heavy crowd’s mothers to the loonbin, stank of imported wax and denial. Most were clothed in black, likely colder inside than the last grasp of winter that clung to the air around them. I wondered if I had missed the news of Toe’s tour van careening into a river. Or perhaps the crowd had anticipated the course of the evening: Mourning as the knife slowly wrenched in the belly of fun.
The lobby triggered further alarms. Far from clamoring for front row space around Toe’s gear, or bee-lining for the bar (as was my destination), most of the death-clad crowd stuttered somewhere between the door, the merch, and the concert hall itself, voluntarily sacrificing itself in the No-man’s-land of live music futility. I can already hear their later claims: “Yeah, I caught Toe the other night, but I couldn’t really make it up front. It’s no big deal or anything.” Meanwhile, fresh beer in hand, I snaked through self-hating stragglers to somewhere near “the front” of a concert where the band plays in the middle of the venue.
With nearly twenty minutes to kill and the stillness of death wafting around us, Casey and I begin to discuss the smothering, ritual silence. Eyeing the crowd, I make a not-so-bold prediction for the night.
“I’ve seen bands play to the pussiest fucking encores in this country. Headliners from Fuji Rock coming out for a second encore to golf claps with half the crowd out the door.”
Shoulder-to-shoulder with (what I could only guess to be) overwhelming toolboxes, I killed my first drink and headed back to the bar. Matt had yet to make an appearance. When he did, I knew it would be as if an angel had descended upon us: a gyrating, vulgar angel.
Guitar techs in place, a roadie shined a flashlight from the stage and the lights dimmed. As Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” evaporated from the atmosphere, I closed my eyes and hoped. I would have taken anything at that point, a yell, a clap, a breath, even. Unfortunately, hope is tender, and it’s infantile skull is easily dashed upon silence. The crowd stared down the band in mortified reticence, either too starstruck or insecure to make a sound. It wasn’t until guitarist and front-man Hirokazu Yamazaki quietly engaged them that the daring made their move, first by lightly bringing their hands together, building into what one might ignorantly name “applause.”
Between pulls from his three-dollar bottle of whiskey, Hirokazu, fumbled with Morioka’s tepid crowd as a Chef might contemplate a freshly opened box of Lunchables: Within sight, yet just beyond the grasp of euphoria. Even in his most tongue-in-cheek, off-mic rumblings, his charisma was only matched by the red glow of his face that flare up with the beat and booze.
The band was taint-deep in musical masturbation and I wondered why anyone at the show had even bothered to come out. Some stared at the ceiling, or at other people in the crowd. Movement was strictly forbidden, smiling was villany. Disgusted, I told Casey I was going to find Matt. Running for the bar, I found Matt near the door that led into the main room. He was just out of view of a band that was quite literally putting on a goddamn show, yet blinded by the walking dead that stood between him and art.
“I’m gonna grab another beer,” I said. Then I remembered that, even after the lights had gone down and the band had appeared, not a single person had moved from the spot where they had begun the night. “There’s some room by Casey and I. We can grab some spots near the front after this song.”
Matt danced an emphatic “yes.”
Just outside the door to the club proper, I found a man reading a magazine. Beyond him were a small group of people perusing the merch table, yet others examining the chipped plaster near the coat check. I would have forgiven them this sin had they not been at a sold out concert with only one band. Unfortunately they were, and I flung myself into the bathroom, using the toilet as a surrogate for their pleasure-hating corpses.
This reprieve didn’t relieve me of my burden, as that is precisely what the concert had become. Grabbing Matt and his girlfriend, I shoved them into the spot I had once occupied, feet from righteousness. For a band that has spent the last ten years artistically groping “American Don,” Toe was consistent and convincing in their dedication to a higher form of music. What they left out of their (admittedly consistent) albums was the conviction with which they attacked their instruments, the immediacy with which they expelled a haunted spectre from their being. I guess it makes sense, though; if all of their shows were like this, it’s a fucking miracle they haven’t declared jihad on their fans, filling the bass drum with C4 and strychnine.
Having far surpassed my threshold for heretical bullshit, I crept back to the soundboard. Forcing my way between two douche-loving assfisters, I contented myself to close my eyes and sip my beer. It took a few songs to fully cleanse myself of the filth around me; one more song to forget I was awash in detestable mockery of everything that music stood for. For the next forty minutes I was happy to dance in the darkness by myself. I bumped into the people around me, stumbled a few steps forward, a few steps back. I spilled my beer onto my arm and bent to lick it as if to tend a wound. My feet kicked themselves up and down, out of beat, against the wood behind me, testing the strength of the ground. My head decoupled from it’s neck, rocking left to right, pitching up and down.
When the first calls of “Encore!” burst around me, coming obviously from the only other foreigners in the crowd, I snapped back into reality. Standing next to me was a woman in her thirties. Her hat was pulled down low, an empty cup in one hand, a full cup in the other, and two more knocked to the ground between her feet. She raised her hands into the air and let out an honest scream. Shivers ran down the back of my legs and I saw Matt whip his head around. He was looking at me, but I wasn’t the one screaming. Between my ears was a smile torn wide across my face.
Leaving the show, Matt compared this Toe concert to the previous time we had seen them live. “The setting was perfect,” he said, “having the crowd in a circle. It was like seeing a completely different band.” I couldn’t deny him that. Walking out of the front door of the club, however, I had to wonder if I couldn’t see a new Toe one more time, one final time, with a real crowd.
Photo Credit: Junk Online