What follows is a true story. Or, in the words of Damon K., formerly of Galaxie 500 and presently of Damon and Naomi, “here are the dirty facts.”
It was sometime in the first decade of the 21st century. I was minding my own business in my fair adopted city of Kyoto. You see, I live in North Kyoto and unless I have good reason, prefer to stay in orb of the north-central part of the city. The south is for business, the east for the occasional mountain jaunt, and the west too wild and forbidding for a humble man such as myself. Mostly, I just try to stay north of Shijo Dori (positively 4th street, so to speak). That’s my zone.
As with any excellent locality, there is plenty to explore in North Kyoto. One place that the locals know is Cafe Independants–a cafe with a small bar which from time to time hosts shows. Cafe Independants is located in a basement with exposed white pipes and stone walls. It’s hip if you’re into that kind of thing, certainly not trendy though. And, it features a kick-ass pair of sneaky staircases that are worlds into themselves. I have enjoyed those staircases many a time my own self.
I have had the pleasure of seeing the great Bill Callahan open for the immaculate harpist Joanna Newsom there when Ms. Newsom was just breaking through. Callahan was the bigger name, and his generosity in opening for her was striking. That was a great night. I may have even smoked a rare cigarette. I also saw my mate Darren Hannah play bass there with a bow. That was something–and the dude executed a beauty of a bow toss at the end of the show. A bow toss for a bassist is like a mic drop for an MC. Show’s over folks. So you see, I’d had some nights there.
The Cafe runs an open kitchen which serves right through gigs and back in the day also had a record shop open in the back. It’s a small place, seating maybe 35 on a good day, and when a show is on people tend to pack around the big pole in the center and squeeze into communal tables. Smoking is allowed. The Cafe, at the best of times, is not a quiet place. This is to be borne in mind with what followed.
So one evening I had secured tickets to see Damon and Naomi play. Damon and Naomi were members of the late 80s/ early 90’s band Galaxie 500 with Dean Wareham. The band didn’t really know what it was doing at first, like many a band before, and kind of stumbled into near-greatness before Wareham walked and started Luna, the world’s greatest band. Wareham details the reasons behind the break-up in his memoir Black Postcards. Poe is supposed to have said that any man who tells the simple truth of his life would write a masterpiece. Wareham gets pretty close to following Poe’s dictum.
The ending of Galaxie 500 came about, according to Wareham, essentially because Wareham was tired of being treated like a child by the other two, a long-time couple. I think he wanted his own band, and wanted to chill a little. From Black Postcards:
Traveling is stressful. And with Damon tour-managing, it seemed like every hotel check-in, every seat assignment, and every rental car was a problem. Damon would argue about what floor his room was on. He would get annoyed if he didn’t get the seat he wanted on the flight. I shouldn’t have let this bother me. I should have minded my own business. But traveling together highlights your differences.
At one show in late 1990, a techie shone a spotlight on Dean as he stepped downstage for a solo. This seems to have been the breaking point. Black Postcards again:
Damon: “In retrospect I notice that Dean chose the L.A. show to launch this new trick, when the audience was full of music industry people. We hadn’t had any spotlights in Columbus or Dallas!”
Dean in his contemporaneous tour diary: “Damon said he doesn’t like me walking in front of his drum kit–it throws him off. I didn’t tell him to go f*** himself.”
Things were rough, and Dean split in 1991. (Wareham quotes a Damon interview saying “Here are the dirty facts! What happened was simply that Dean quit, more or less out of the blue, on the telephone one day.” Ah oui, les sales faits.) Galaxie 500 is still an interesting band and has a handful of great songs. Then, Damon and Naomi formed their own group, named eponymously. They are pretty good. I like “This Car Climbed Mount Washington,” from More Sad Hits, and the whole record Playback Singers is strong. Still, they are a far cry from Galaxie, much less Luna.
Nevertheless, I was excited to hear they were coming to little old North Kyoto in fact to play the Independants. I showed up early with a friend and we had a few drinks, as you do. There were 30 or 40 people there, as normal. People were chatting, eating, smoking, and a local warm-up act started preparing on stage. Actually, there is no stage at the Cafe, just floor space. The show, from my point of view, HAD NOT STARTED. Additionally, I WAS BEHIND THE POLE. I wish at this time to stipulate this very clearly in light of what followed. I also wish to stipulate that no-one is a bigger fan of the idea of the local warm up act than my good self. Nobody. By god, I remember seeing the Tenniscoats, a much beloved Japanese band that you won’t have heard of, open up in Kyoto for someone, Bonnie Prince Billy maybe, and saw the great Saya Ueno play in her barefeet. I support the local art community with a whole heart. And no blasted interloper will tell me otherwise.
Anyway, on the night in question I will admit I was talking to my buddy while the local artist was getting set up. And yes, she may have said something into the microphone. I don’t really know. Because before I could do anything, here comes Damon K. bounding across the room, right in my face, and shushed me. “Don’t speak when the ARTIST is talking,” he hissed. Right…in…my…face.
Now, the human mind is a remarkable deal. When Damon shushed me, two simulataneous and equally strong thoughts came into my head. The first was, “wow, Damon from Galaxie 500 just shushed me. Cool.” The second was, “dude, f******** you! This is my city you pompous SOB, the show HAS NOT STARTED, there is a room full of chattering people, and you are going to lecture me about the ARTIST.”
What did I do next, you will ask? Well, in my mind I like to think I produced a gesture equivalent to Dave Moss’s finger flips in Glengarry Glen Ross, the single best fuck you even put on screen. Or, I may have stared dumbly at the guy. One or the other.
On the Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City, the future poet and songwriter Jim Carroll famously “ruins” the recording of “Sweet Jane” by asking for a double Pernod. You can find reference to this incident in works as scholarly as The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, published by Oxford Press: “‘Excuse me can I have a Pernod, get me a Pernod’. Poet and author Jim Carroll’s boorish demands for a bloody Pernod ruined (this) illegal cassette taping.”
Well, let’s look at the (dirty) facts. Carroll’s supposedly boorish demands are almost entirely heard between songs when the band is tuning. He doesn’t know that the show is being taped. On Sweet Jane, for example, Reed finishes the song and then we hear Carroll:
“Oh yeah, I wrote it, but it’s pretty new, yeah. Did you get the Pernod? You had to get the, you had to go to the downstairs floor.”
Sure, he is a little lit. Sure he is close to the mic. But the song is over. There is downtime. The man is thirsty. The recording is “illegal.” Now I ask you, is this “ruining” the song? Only if you are an honest to god prat. Otherwise, this is called local color. Guess what Damon, buddy? I’m a local. This is my city. I’m colorful. And I’ll take my bloody Pernod whenever I goddamn well feel like it.
Stylistic Note: The style of this piece is deeply indebted to Eric Ambler’s The Intercom Conspiracy. Inspiration from this master of form is acknowledged, with deep gratitude.