Like some cat
from Japan

A tribute to
David Bowie

From The Japan Times

Photos by Masayoshi Sukita and Yoshiaki Miura

David Bowie performs live at the Nippon Budokan on June 4, 1996. | Yoshiaki Miura

The late David Bowie's appreciation of Japan and its culture was strong. Following his recent death, The Japan Times asked five people who share that connection with the country, and who witnessed the decades-spanning trajectory of this starman, to recall what his sound and vision meant to them.

Bowie’s portable Japan

By Nick Currie
Special to The Japan Times

I first learned that David Bowie had died while riding the Beetle jetfoil ferry from South Korea to Japan. Among the myriad thoughts that flooded through my mind during the crossing — for Bowie has been my lodestar, an absolutely determinant influence in my life as the musician Momus — was the bittersweet idea that I was returning to a land that provided a large part of Bowie’s inspiration.

Visions of “Bowie’s Japan” rose in memory as the Kyushu coastline loomed closer. I pictured images taken by photographer Masayoshi Sukita, of course, including the glazed Expressionist-inspired pose on the cover of “Heroes,” later revived for his penultimate album “The Next Day.” I then recalled the costumes of Kansai Yamamoto, in particular an outfit depicting moon-dwelling woodland creatures first unveiled at a 1972 “Ziggy Stardust” show. And I remembered Bowie sipping milk during a 1978 interview for TV show “Star Sen Ichiya” while he explained that kabuki theater had taught him “the discipline of movement.”

I thought of the places in Kyoto — Bowie’s favorite city in Japan — he loved to return to: Tawaraya Ryokan, where he stayed with Iman on their honeymoon, and the now-vanished Cafe David on Sanjo-dori, just opposite the Museum of Kyoto. The “David” in that case was U.S. Sinologist David Kidd (who also died of cancer at the age of 69, back in 1996). Kidd had a house in Kyoto called Togendo, as well as a school dedicated to teaching traditional Japanese arts. Bowie stayed at Togendo in 1979 for some weeks, and even hinted to Western press that the city might become his permanent home.

“I’m not quite sure where to go next,” he told radio interviewer Andy Peebles in 1980. “The East beckons me — Japan — but I’m a bit worried that I’ll get too Zen there and my writing will dry up.”

Sukita took the opportunity of Bowie’s stay in Kyoto to photograph him on the subway — images in which Bowie looks both otherworldly and strangely at home (his fellow Japanese passengers share his lean look and high cheekbones). The photographer also made a series of studio shots in which Bowie, dressed as a salaryman in a belted Burberry coat and makeup redolent of early Yellow Magic Orchestra, stands between the numerals of a huge white clock face, an attache case and newspaper tucked under his arm. The shots didn’t see the light of day until Sukita published “Speed of Life in 2012, a limited edition book of his Bowie portraits.

In the end, Bowie decamped to New York, which became the closest thing to a permanent home this nomadic soul would have. But whenever I re-enter Japan, I think of myself as somehow inhabiting one of the singer’s discarded skins, living out for him one of the lives he sketched for himself and — ever impatient for the next thing — moved on from. Based on my experience, I would guess that living in Japan wouldn’t have made Bowie’s writing dry up at all — quite the contrary. Japan seems to turn expat artists usefully in on themselves, making their earliest and deepest influences clearer to them and threshing inconsequential chaff from the cultural wheat. As Donald Richie noted in his journal one year into the nearly 70 he would spend in Japan, “Another country, I am discovering, is another self.”

However, Bowie was never short of other selves to explore, and seems to have carried his own personal Japan with him wherever he went. Returning here without him is heartbreaking but it’s also, in a sense, returning to him — to some of this amazing artist’s deepest creative roots.

Nick Currie is a Scottish-born writer and musician who records under the name Momus and currently lives in Kyoto.

David Bowie in Kyoto in 1980 | © Photo by Sukita

The Voice that stayed with me

By Morgan Fisher
Special to The Japan Times

It’s That Voice. I suddenly realized it today when I saw a YouTube montage of clips from his concerts. No matter the song, the style, the era, David Bowie’s voice rings out clear and soars over the music, from a rich fruity baritone to heart-rending falsetto bends, grabbing me like no other singer has.

Of course it’s everything else, too: a complete, unassailable product. The unique songs, startling melodies, enigmatic lyrics, innovative arrangements and soundscapes, the bizarre yet alluring makeup and clothes, the ever-changing personality and controversial behavior — the whole package was extraordinary. Written off by some as a cracked actor, a hollow man, there were also thousands like me who were drawn to this man who in front of us all was openly seeking, experimenting, searching in a way that no spiritual seekers, avant-garde experimenters, or philosophical searchers have done. He did it large, within the public arena, the music biz, the pop scene.

In 1966, age 16, I first saw him play in the tatty old Marquee Club in London’s Soho. He played there 15 times that year, billed as David Bowie and the Buzz. I saw him at least three of those times, and after the initial impact, I made sure I’d get there earlier next time so as to be nearer the front and get a closer look at this charismatic being with piled-up blond hair and impossibly wide belts. I’d rush straight from school, still in uniform, this timid little lad who hadn’t even become a mod yet (that happened a year later). The Marquee didn’t have a drink license yet (only Coca-Cola was served), so I didn’t need to lie about my age to get in.

Fifty years on, it is the sound of his voice that stays with me even now, echoing through a cheap PA system, and yet it thrilled me. The song from that era that lingers the most is “The London Boys” — a surprisingly mature, compassionate ode written by 19-year-old Bowie, about young lads who moved up to London and got into the pill-taking scene, bought flash clothes and realized how hollow it all was. I didn’t understand the lyrics much then, but the repeating refrain — “The London boys, the London boys” — gave me goose pimples and echoed in my mind on the Tube ride back home. Melodrama or magic? It felt like the latter to me.

Three years on, in 1969, by now a fairly successful musician, I was drinking one night in The Speakeasy — a secluded London hideaway for rockers where, over the years, I bumped into icons from Hendrix to Tiny Tim to Sid Vicious. On my way out in the small hours, having imbibed, as usual, several Scotch-and-Cokes, a record company exec I knew thrust a 7-inch promo record into my hand, saying, “Here — you might like this. It’s a new single by an interesting singer-songwriter.”

“Ah, OK, whatever,” I replied.

The next day, after a bleary breakfast, I played the single, not expecting much, and was immediately transported into a shimmering other world. I hadn’t even looked at the label, but there was That Voice again. It was Bowie.

The song was “Space Oddity,” released just a year after Kubrick’s epic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The opening words “Ground control to Major Tom” in that edgy baritone voice gave me the familiar shivers, and I tried not to spill my tea on the sofa. Then the arrangement — still one of his best — held me open-mouthed for the entire five minutes of the song (very long for a single). I played it again and again, awed by the evolving blend of guitars, vibes, Stylophone and Mellotron. There was no YouTube in those days, and precious little exposure on TV. It was the sound of an artist that grabbed us music lovers 99 percent of the time. And grab me this did.

Jump forward four years and I am out of work and about to experience a major change in my life, directly due to Mr. Bowie. Famously, he rescued a band called Mott the Hoople from splitting up, by giving them one of the best songs he ever wrote — “All The Young Dudes.” It gave them their first hit (No. 3 in the U.K.) and steered them in a new direction, away from the Dylan/Stones blend of rock they had been wowing audiences nationwide with (but without the accompanying boom in record sales — hence their decision to split). Bowie then produced their album of the same name. Their keyboard player didn’t much like the new direction they were going in and left the band.

Through an audition, I got the job in the summer of 1973. A whirlwind of U.S./Europe tours and recordings followed, culminating on Dec. 14 in a sold-out show at what was then Hammersmith Odeon, with a new young band called Queen as opening act. Throughout the afternoon rehearsals, the gossip was going around backstage that not only Bowie but Mick Jagger (with whom it was rumored he had been having an affair) would attend. It was on, it was off, they would be coming, they won’t make it — all through the afternoon conflicting calls were received, doubtless from some hapless secretary egged on by the giggling duo. Finally, just before showtime, they strode smiling into our seedy old dressing room. I handed them paper cups of cheapo wine — this is what gigging musicians are used to anywhere. They went into a huddle with our singer Ian Hunter, teasing him as he got dressed, saying, “Ooh, getting ready for our audience, are we ...?”

Once we started the show I, seated stage right behind my grand piano, sensed some movement behind me. It was the dynamic duo, arm-in-arm in the wings, dancing to our music with daft grins on their faces. They kept it up for the whole show, keeping me on my toes, playing the best I could for these two leaping legends just a couple of yards behind me. Then they slipped away sneakily before the encore, and that was the last time I saw David Bowie.

I kept in close touch with his music throughout the ’70s, buying every album, always moved and impressed by the multifarious ways he could sing. “Station to Station” was an LP I played constantly during one U.S. tour, on my portable record player. The long opening sound of a steam train leading a full three minutes later into the shiveringly haunting words, “The Ret-u-u-u-rn of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes” had me enthralled every time. There is no question in my mind that without That Voice, Bowie’s career would have come to naught. It is the essence and soul of a deeply passionate, deeply creative artist.

That Voice still emotes and exhilarates as richly in his swansong (the “Blackstar” album) as it did that evening when a shy young schoolboy, on his own, watched an almost equally young singer in a tatty rock club all those years ago. RIP, you Singer.

Morgan Fisher, formerly of Mott the Hoople, has been making music and art in Tokyo since 1985.

David Bowie performs live at the Nippon Budokan on June 4, 1996. | Yoshiaki Miura

Fifteen minutes more

By Mark Thompson
Staff writer

One day in 1996, when I was working as an editor/writer on the features desk, I arrived at work and was told as I walked in the door that an unnamed person had called. They were looking for someone at The Japan Times to do a one-on-one interview with David Bowie.

I thought I was being pranked. I had to ask the person who took the call several times to confirm its veracity. One on one. David. Bowie. The Bowie. Three hours from now . Got it.

I briefly tried to rationalize backing out. Earlier that morning, I thought I was coming down with a fever, but for some reason, I decided to come into work anyway. What if the Man catches my cold and has to cancel his tour, disappointing his legion fans in Japan? I would be the cause of immeasurable pain.

Truth to be told, I was starting to lose faith in the latter-day Bowie. Critics were hailing his reunion with Brian Eno, but I really hadn’t listened much to his 20th studio release, “Outside.”

I was, however, interested in news of the tour: Nine Inch Nails opened the U.S. leg, he was experimenting with fresh sonic textures, and best of all, the new and improved Bowie was performing reworkings of past gems. That sounded like a good excuse to question him about songs of his heyday. I also was keen to talk to him about how he felt playing Andy Warhol in the soon-to-be-released “Basquiat.” And this was ... you know, that guy.

I had previously had a not-so-close encounter with him in 1983. My college roommate and I had journeyed to a Washington, D.C., suburb to witness my thin but slightly tan hero play to thousands. Lacking the best seats in the cavernous house, we contented ourselves to the sounds of serious moonlight and the awe-inspiring vision of his face, singing on the three-story-tall stage-side monitors.

Thirteen years later, I found myself in a Hotel Okura suite, 3 feet away from that face. The curtains were drawn and only one light lit the corner. It was probably the last interview of the day. I was given only 15 minutes.

I was an amateurish mess. By birth, I suck at time management, but I partly blame him — for being genuinely talkative, incredibly generous and remarkably human. If only he had been curt and arrogant.

We talked about the shiny new toys on the World Wide Web (he liked its potential but concluded that it seemed to be for the “dumping of inconsequential crap”); the irony of him portraying Warhol on the silver screen; and how it was to play with Trent Reznor (he said something, as diplomatically as possible, about him being raw and unsophisticated).

In hindsight, I am embarrassed by my hubris. Who was I to challenge him about my perception of a rivalry between him and Warhol? Who said I could ask him virtually anything?

His minder, who could have easily been his mother, came in at the 15-minute mark and politely said time was up. I silently panicked, realizing I hadn’t really done my job properly. I had forgotten the prime reason I was here with him in this dimly lit room. Conversely, maybe Bowie was wondering if this fanboy would ever get around to asking him about his latest album, the tour, his love of Japan. Or maybe I was just amusing.

He asked if we couldn’t extend it for another 15. She tilted her head, as if she was about to say, you’ve smoked too many cigarettes today, talked too much, and you have a show tomorrow. But she said yes, and I was back in the game.

When the interview finally finished, and I had gathered my things to leave, he asked if I could come along to the show later, as if he was just playing a few ditties down the street in a little pub — and not the Budokan. I didn’t tell him that my pilgrimage from the South to the capital — in an aging VW bug in August, with no AC — took 24 hours and that we constantly fought over control of the tape player. I didn’t tell him that I had memorized the lyrics of most of his pre-1984 catalog. I didn’t even ask him for his autograph. I just said yes, I’d catch the show, thanked him for extending the chat, shook his hand and tried not to faint.

I know what I’ll be singing next time we go to karaoke. Forgive me if I get choked up, but it will happen.

Mark Thompson is the deputy managing editor of The Japan Times. Proof of his encounter can be found here.

David Bowie performs live at the Nippon Budokan on June 4, 1996. | Yoshiaki Miura

The man who sold the world on music

By Giovanni Fazio
Special to The Japan Times

The Starman has departed for his home planet. I can’t imagine a world without David Bowie, but the strange thing is, he never was in my world, at least physically. So why do I feel the loss as dearly as I would my closest friend?

Maybe because even though I never met Bowie, his voice, his thoughts, his style, his different colored eyes, his music has permeated my life and become part of it, a marker as clear as any anniversary or season or journey.

It’s not celebrity worship, although there’s no denying his aloof sensuality, a male Garbo for the Moonage generation. Bowie was our white rabbit, racing headfirst down that hole into Wonderland and daring us all to keep up. If you grew up in the ’70s or ’80s, and you felt a bit different, a bit too skinny or queer or daydreamy or strange, Bowie was the one to tell you to go for it, to be more that thing that sets you apart, to embrace it, for in that acceptance is power.

I can put on “Heroes” and my freshman year of college unfurls before my eyes: my first girlfriend and I swallowing a little piece of paper made by bearded wizard M.I.T. undergrads and dissolving into an undulating spring dusk as we saw the world like we’d just been born. Side two of “Heroes” — electric, still, and shimmering — was the first clue on a trail that led to Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, ambient music, the Berlin School, and a whole realm of innovative electronic music that would inspire my own career as a musician. “Moss Garden,” in particular, insinuated an interest in koto music and Zen, which would soon lead (along with other influences) to a year abroad in Kyoto, where I knew Bowie had a home as well.

Years later I learned that on “Heroes” Bowie had used Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards with mysterious bits of advice that Eno had invented where you would draw one at random to throw a little chaos into the creative process; I would go on to use them on my own albums — with one piece, “Ghost Echoes,” entirely inspired by a card — but more importantly, this technique taught me how to make good use of chance, and to recognize it when it came.

All this just from “Heroes.” Bowie’s albums teemed with ideas and possibilities; they were gateways. As the years go by, as pop music races by in a blur of Marilyn Mansons and Lady Gagas, and as gender-bending becomes the cause celebre, his influence looms ever larger.

Bowie was ubiquitous when I first came to Japan in 1983, as Nagisa Oshima’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” had just opened to great acclaim. Later the band Boowy would take his name and inspire an entire genre, visual-kei (though goth and cosplay surely owe as much to Ziggy and the Starman). Working as this paper’s critic, many of the films that got deepest under my skin were those by David Lynch, and Bowie was there too, appearing in “Twin Peaks” and contributing to the soundtrack for “Lost Highway.” Anyone of a certain age will never forget the use of “Modern Love” in Leo Carax’s “Boy Meets Girl”: Pure euphoria on film. Dare I mention “Labyrinth,” that silliest of secret ’80s pleasures?

These days, my girlfriend and I are in a habit of throwing on “Hunky Dory” for morning coffee. Might have been that “wake up your sleepyhead” line, but for several years now, we still listen to it more often than not, and Bowie’s been with us to Angkor Wat and Sedona’s Red Rocks. If a day starts with Bowie, it’s usually gonna be a good day. It also reminds me, in this age of fragmented attention spans, the pleasures to be found in a committed relationship with an album. Everyone knows “Changes” and “Life on Mars,” but listen long enough and “Quicksand” and “Andy Warhol” become just as good.

These are just my memories, but they’re memories intertwined with and shaped by Bowie, and you have yours, then multiply that by millions around the world. The magic of music is this ability to insinuate itself into the fabric of our lives, to become one with our deepest, closest memories. I hope that whatever corner of the universe the Starman now finds himself in, that he can look down and see this matrix that he has transmitted. Right now, all across this blue, blue, electric blue planet, people are playing “Heroes,” “Jean Genie,” “Cat People,” “Subterraneans” and more.

Look out your window, I can see his light; if we sparkle, he may land tonight.

Giovanni Fazio is a film critic for The Japan Times and also has a 20-year recording career as the artist Makyo.

David Bowie performs live at the Nippon Budokan on June 4, 1996. | Yoshiaki Miura

Ground Control to Major Jack

By Roger Pulvers
Special to The Japan Times

I first met David Bowie in August 1982 in Auckland, New Zealand, where the crew of Nagisa Oshima’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” had come together for the flight to the film’s location in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. From the outset he came across as a man of great personal warmth, devoid of any pretence. And this proved to be the case throughout the shoot, which lasted from late in that month until the end of September, when we returned to Auckland to film the flashback scenes in the life of his character, Maj. Jack Celliers.

I was with him every day, on the set and off, drinking with him in the seaside hotel bar, at the little island’s Chinese restaurant (the Jade Garden, no longer there), and in scene after scene in the jungle’s clearing. I stood in for him in a sandpit in the dead of night. In fact, I should say “sat in,” because there was a chair in that pit. Boards with sand on them covered the area around my head. I spent about 40 minutes in that pit, trying to blow away huge moths attracted to the bright lights. Bowie was rushed over from his room. He entered the pit and five minutes later the shot was taken. He threw me a sympathetic smile as he was whisked away.

“I feel terrific on this island,” he said to me as we strolled to the old courthouse in the town of Avarua. We were going to a wedding … a real wedding. Producer Jeremy Thomas and his fiancee had decided to marry on the island.

“This is the only place I have ever been where I am not recognized,” Bowie said.

He was totally at ease on Rarotonga, not even bothering to use his real name. In Auckland, he registered at the hotel under his real name, David Jones. There was no media presence on the island. (As author of the film’s press releases, I was the only “media” there.) When we were in Auckland, he was much more protected and considerably more wary of strangers.

He was soft-spoken. He smiled when he spoke, and that gorgeous smile only enhanced his charm and charisma. It was hard to see how anyone, female or male, could not be attracted to this gentle man. He had different colored irises, one blue, the other light green. The result of being punched in the eye when he was 15 years old, this disconcerting feature in his eyes simply increased the aura of this “man who fell to Earth.”

When Ryuichi Sakamoto arrived on Rarotonga, it came to me to introduce the two musicians to each other. It happened in the morning on the pristine beach by the hotel. The younger Sakamoto greatly admired Bowie and was rather speechless as they shook hands.

Bowie was modest and relaxed with everyone, from Oshima, whose work he knew well and loved, to the many crew. During the shoot, he rehearsed with some of the female crew, and they put on a song-and-dance show for us in the hotel dining room.

He may have been on less secure ground as an actor than as a musician, but this was not noticeable in his demeanor or performances. I think he received much confidence for his natural abilities from film director Nicolas Roeg, who in 1976 gave him his first lead role in “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” When I met him in London in the autumn of 1983, Roeg told me that working with Bowie was all pleasure, as his instincts for creating a character, despite having had no formal training in acting, led him straight into the deepest and truest precincts of performance.

Finally, one incident remains vivid in my memory.

The two of us were sitting at the bar by the beach in Rarotonga. The sun had just set — the soft light of the twilight was altogether exquisite — when an attractive young woman passed by, stopped dead in her tracks, let her jaw drop and exclaimed, “Oh my God, I don’t believe it. It’s Roger Pulvers!”

I was the one who couldn’t believe it, and Bowie, half rising to acknowledge her shock and awe, gave out a hearty laugh.

My heart was pounding like a bongo drum as the young woman walked toward the shore. We both sat back down and returned to our drinks.

“That was wonderful,” Bowie said, turning to me and smiling generously. “Just absolutely wonderful.”

Roger Pulvers, a frequent contributor to The Japan Times, is an Australian author and translator, who has published more than 45 books in English and Japanese.

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