KEIJI HAINO: Watashi Dake? LP

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Takafumi Satō

Minor flier

Pitch-Black Convulsions: Watashi Dake? in the Context of Underground Japan
by Alan Cummings, London, June 2017

Even the most obtusely hermetic of records has a context, and Keiji Haino's classic debut, Watashi Dake? is no exception. It was originally released by Pinakotheca Records in 1981, then reissued on CD by PSF in 1993. Both editions have long been out of print, so to finally have the record back in print on vinyl courtesy of Black Editions is a goddamn miracle.

“Haino switched between free-form sax, wordless moaning and screaming, and pointedly surreal lyrics ripe with X-rays, massive penises, television directors, and vampires.”

First some of that context. Haino's first group Lost Aaraaff were regulars on underground festival bills throughout the early 1970s, sharing the stage with groups like Les Rallizes Dénudes, Takehisa Kosugi's Taj Mahal Travellers, and ur-punkers Zunō Keisatsu. Lost Aaraaff are often described as free jazz, but they were far harder to pin down: a rollicking and aggressive, theatrically absurdist fusion of determinedly non-prog free rock and occasionally jazz-inflected improvisation. Haino switched between free-form sax, wordless moaning and screaming, and pointedly surreal lyrics ripe with X-rays, massive penises, television directors, and vampires. When the group finally fell apart in mid-1974, Haino moved into a period of musical and ontological self-study (he performed, for example, under a variety of head-scrambling pronouns like Gods Orchestra White Watashi Yo). It was during this period that he started listening to country blues and discovered the intense hurdy-gurdy and rebec tonalities of medieval music groups like Thomas Binkley's Studio der Frühen Musik. His growing interest in similarly mind-pulverizing combinations of high and low end, acoustic and electric instrumentation can be first heard on Milky Way (recently reissued on LP by Black Truffle), a densely hallucinatory stew of snake-charmer's flute and low-end electronic drone. In these years he also played with an important and scarcely documented group called Vibration Society, a free improv group with a floating line-up that included some combination of Takashi Miura on reeds, Ken'ichi Takeda (of A-Musik, on taishōgoto and synthesizer), Hiroyuki Usui (later known as L, on percussion), and Haino on guitar and later vocals.

These scattered and fractured experiments would finally begin to coalesce into a scene at the tail end of the seventies, particularly around a venue called Minor. Minor was a tiny space in the western Tokyo suburb of Kichijoji, about 20 minutes by train out of Shinjuku. It was located on the third floor of a building in Kichijoji's red-light district. Minor's owner was a frustrated painter, drummer, and jazz pianist called Takafumi Satō. Over the two and a half years of its existence, Minor slowly transformed from a conventional jazz coffeehouse, all tablecloths, curry on the menu, jazz on the stereo, to a freezing, bare-walled, empty live space where anything went — usually to an audience in the single digits. Minor situated itself in an inter-zone both geographically and chronologically, half between the hippy ‘70s underground rock scene that continued to cling on in the further western suburbs of Tokyo, and the newly emerging punk sound of groups like Friction, Mirrors, and Lizard who were associated with venues further east in Shinjuku and Roppongi.

“Ōsato describes the history of Minor as a 'mad, destructive race to total ruin,' a space inhabited by 'troublesome howling boors... goblins, monsters and ghosts.'”

Minor became a rehearsal, performance, and hang-out space for a tiny handful of Tokyo refuseniks of every stripe, a space in which anything went, no matter how amateur, inept, aggressive, or just plain weird. In an intensely over-populated city like Tokyo, lacking the squats or other free spaces of Europe, these kinds of venues were vital in providing a foothold for a tenacious sense of syncretic, outsider creativity. In Gaseneta Wasteland, Gaseneta bassist Toshiharu Ōsato's fabulous memoir of late seventies underground rock 'n' roll failure (recently translated and published by David Hopkins' Public Bath Press), Ōsato describes the history of Minor as a "mad, destructive race to total ruin," a space inhabited by "troublesome howling boors... goblins, monsters and ghosts." Music critic Shinya Matsuyama gives a cooler appraisal: "with no desire for compensation or recognition, the Minor stance depended entirely on the need for expression." A glance at the surviving Minor fliers provides a glimpse of just how wide-ranging that need for expression was. Free jazzers like Tamio Shiraishi, Motoharu Yoshizawa and Tori Kudo, outlaw punks/rockers like Michio Kadotani, Gaseneta, and Honeymoons, and free improv/unclassifiable types like Haino, Chie Mukai, Ken’ichi Takeda, and Toshi Tanaka were all regulars. Masashi Kitamura, later of YBO², and the composer Satoshi Ashikawa held listening parties where they would spin European prog rock or contemporary classical records. The creative ferment threw up large, ad-hoc free-improv workshop groups like the Vedda Music Workshop, Factory, or Sighing-P Orchestra, as well as a stream of smaller, incestuous groups like Noise, Kyoaku no Intentions, Taco, or Kousokuya that attempted to weld unstable improv, wild psychedelic rock, primitive electronics, and no-wave into some kind of personally meaningful amalgam. Minor, like the similar Drugstore in Kyoto, was one of those spaces whose importance somehow far outweighed the number of people who ever went there.

It would be at Minor that Haino would hone his blackhole style of long-form guitar and vocal performance (the Black Editions reissue includes a bonus downloadable track that captures a 1981 live take in this style). It was also at Minor that Haino's best-known group, Fushitsusha, would first coalesce. A manifesto for the group was published in Minor's in-house free-paper, Amalgam, in December 1978:

MY boiled up, seething blood will make your hearts seize up. The directed will of MY ensnared breath will creep in through the gaps in all your nightmares, strewing seeds of criminality, and making the universe’s elementary particles tremble and quake. MY spirit will pulverize arrogant good intentions and imprison them even in the midst of Christ’s brain. Or maybe I will slice that face in two with silver threads and bury it deep up his convulsing asshole. Gingerly touching the discharge of that imprisoned miracle, I will trace MY signature along your arteries. And then even you will come to realize that exposure is the birth cry of the universe. By MY gouged out catharsis, the incarnation of passion will be stood on its head.

Fushitsusha would perform for the first time at Minor, as a duo with Tamio Shiraishi on synth, in January 1979. And Watashi Dake? would be released on Pinakotheca Records, the label started by Takafumi Satō after Minor closed its doors in September 1980. The years following the album's release were fractured and difficult ones for Haino. Fushitsusha never quite achieved a stable line-up. Illness forced him to withdraw from live performance and back to a period of isolated, hermetic self-study for several years. Watashi Dake? would remain Haino's only available album in Japan until 1989, when PSF released the first Fushitsusha double album.

“For the ears of this listener, it remains not just one of the most singular and powerful listening experiences in Haino's entire discography, but also a skeleton key with which to unlock the endlessly rich vaults of his music that have appeared since.”

So much for the context — now let me say that Watashi Dake? is a honest, goddamn mystery. For the ears of this listener, it remains not just one of the most singular and powerful listening experiences in Haino's entire discography, but also a skeleton key with which to unlock the endlessly rich vaults of his music that have appeared since. Haino's abiding metaphysical concern with the bridging or collapsing of dualities — darkness and light, sound and silence, duration and decay, beginnings and endings, existence and non-existence — is palpably present. As a performer, what makes Haino's approach to these questions unique is that he manifests them and breathes with them, in the moment, through a deeply human vulnerability and emotionality. Haino often has a trickster's need to wrongfoot audiences. Watashi Dake? arises out of that impulse. Instead of the overwhelming density of his solo guitar performances at Minor, the record adopts alternate strategies of discombobulation. The opening track, recorded live with just voice, microphone-assisted feedback, and occasional ass on piano, places its vulnerability and anguish in a space where the air itself feels creamed, thickened, pregnant in its silence. The album's studio tracks were recorded late at night, in a pitch-black studio — so dark that Haino says he couldn't see the neck of his guitar and had to grope for notes. The results are repetitive and insistent blues guitar lines that hack out remarkably desolate and alien rhythmic spaces. Each note, each phrase seems to bulge or decay in counterintuitive durations and tonalities, through deep buzzing basses and wincingly high trebles, as Haino sings and murmurs improvised lyrics over the top. Like I said, a goddamn miracle. If you haven't heard it, you need to. Now.

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