Saturday, January 30, 2010

Upset the Apple Cart, Shinjuku

Shinjuku 3-chome is an odd little block full of bars, serving as something of a slope to allow the declination of standards as one goes from Isetan's glamorous flagship store east into 2-chome (no offense). This, to me, is what Shinjuku is all about - more adult than Shibuya, where they listen to pop music. More dirty than Ginza, where they listen to enka, or maybe classical, or may jazz. Shinjuku is a rock town. A rock bar town.

We were casting around for a bar after dinner between the bistro and the train. Experience wasn't much help; the only ones I had been to in the area were Saudade, an expensive Spanish bar specializing in sherry that I wasn't about to visit again, and Marugo, which we had, er, gone to before dinner.  One building had rock bars on three levels, including one dedicated to, I kid you not, Steve Marriott (Small Faces, Humble Pie). I chose the third floor on the basis of the name, which made me immediately think of the Rutles 'Ouch' (but I didn't get a chance to ask), and up we went.

Here's the door - it looks about a foot thick, reinforced with concrete and acoustic foam. We could hear gentle music from inside, and hesitantly opened it to find an average-size bar (6 or 8 counter seats and two tables) completely filled with high-pressure rock music pumping out of a big pair of speakers and a home theater-style amp with a 'live concert' reverb enhancer (if that sounds a little punishing, I meant it to). And 3 customers and a master, going deaf with blank facial expressions.

Sitting down, we confirmed the fairly miraculous and heaven-sent language we had seen outside. While the three sweetest words in English may be "I love you", I'm here to tell you that the six sweetest words are not "I love you I love you", but in fact "For Foreigners We Exempt Cover Charge".

Beer - your choice - Heineken or Bud. Everyone else was drinking Heaven Hill from kept bottles (interestingly, I see now that Heaven Hill, which I thought was a real bottom-level brand, is America's largest independent family-run distillery and also owns the Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and Christian Brothers brands. None of which has done much to change my opinion about the quality level.). Y'know, I didn't mind drinking Bud at all.

But here's the real point - the song list. Nishikawa san has his whole collection on a Mac running into those speakers. You can just page through the book, write what you want to hear on a slip of paper that he'll collect from you, and sit back in expectation of rocking out. At a rough guess, I'd say this binder has 50 songs per page, each side, and it's full - maybe 300 pages? We're pushing 30,000 songs. (Oddly though, no Rutles.) Much of what you want to hear will be available, both Japanese and foreign.

Here's the mad scientist at work, hunched over his equipment. As one might expect, picking songs in what's more like someone's living room is bound to be a balancing act, or a dialogue. Since there was a soul song playing, I asked first to hear the Box Tops Soul Deep, sung by 18-year old Alex Chilton. Nishikawa san chose to follow that up with Big Star's Back of a Car, sung by Chilton at 23, then The Replacements Alex Chilton (released when Chilton was 36 and probably at the peak of his obscurity, incidentally). I thought this was extremely clever (and so did he, because he posted it on his blog)!  Later, when I requested too many power-pop songs in a row, he retaliated with a blast of Johnny Winter (7 minutes of Highway 61 revisited) and later some actual Bob Dylan. It's like listening to a radio over which you somehow have a degree of control. One thing that I really struggled with was not singing along to songs that I's loud enough that you wouldn't be too audible, but the other patrons would probably mind.

You can see in the above picture the B&W movies that play non-stop, showing city views as filmed from public transportation (both trains and buses). At first I was charmed, thinking these were vintage clips. Later, I was similarly charmed when I learned that they're actually modern, and he spent several months traveling and taping them himself. The only thing we could identify conclusively was Kyoto by bus, but I thought the initial clips were Yamanote train rides.

If I had only a few words to sum up, I'd say "Frustrated DJs and lovers of rock music, get thee hence and blow out your ears. Places like this make Tokyo great."

Ouch! Please don't hurt me.


  1. But I didn't even post about the great conbini we went to afterward!