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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Web Extra: Geoff Nicholson on The Ecstatic
Sometimes I think it can’t really have been as great as I remember it, because as I remember it, it was just the very best, most extraordinary, wonderful, moving, uplifting, and transformative experience of my life. It was Saturday May 6th, 2006 at the now shuttered Knitting Factory in Hollywood. It was the first time I saw Acid Mothers Temple perform.
I’d been aware of the band for a while. From the reviews and descriptions – “Japanese psychedelic freak out noise terrorists” was a typical attempt to summarize – they seemed to be a band I ought to check out, and one that I’d probably like.
I’d bought just one of their albums, out of a discography of hundreds, actually credited to “Acid Mothers Temple The Cosmic Inferno” and titled Demons From Nipples. (Titles, I think we can safely say, are not their strong suit.) The album contained just two pieces, with the title track lasting an unrelenting, exhilarating and ultimately exhausting 39 minutes. Somewhere in there was the sound of a heavy, four-on-the-floor prog rock band, but it was far wilder and indeed infinitely more interesting than that sounds. The piece didn’t seem to be exactly a composition but it was far more than just a jam. It was a terrific balance of form and formlessness, laced with spacey electronic noise and inscrutable Japanese yelling, then absolutely drenched with the gorgeously excessive sound of Kawabata Makoto’s electric guitar: brutal, distorted, tortured, with torrents of feed back, wah-wah and whammy bar: my idea of a very good time. It sounded like they’d be a hell of a band to see live. And they were.
There were a couple of support acts at the Knitting Factory that night, and then AMT (actually billed as “Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso UFO” – like god they go by many names) took the stage.
The effect was instant and completely mesmerizing. In trying to reconstruct the impact they had on me, I find myself describing symptoms: prickles on the back of the neck, a shiveriness, a throb in the chest, a feeling of lightness and amazement, a smile on my face and yet tears in my eyes, the words “Holy Fuck” coming unbidden to my lips, a slight (though resistible) urge to punch the air. If you’d asked me how I felt, and if I’d been able to speak, I’d have said I was in ecstasy, and I wouldn’t have been speaking entirely metaphorically.
The band worked as a supremely powerful unit, and yet it was Kawabata’s guitar playing that really did it for me. He was loud, very loud, and yet the incredible attack, the urgency, the controlled abandon, was as important as the actual volume. There seemed to be something elemental about it, something absolutely primitive and yet infinitely articulate. He wasn’t playing chops or licks and he certainly wasn’t playing any of those fancy scales with the Greek names that guitar shredders like to use. Sometimes it seemed he was just letting his fingers play wherever they fell, sometimes it seemed as though he scarcely knew how to play at all, which of course is a cornerstone of a certain kind of free jazz. Above all he was making a noise that was holy and unholy in just about equal proportions. I find myself getting chills and flashbacks even as I write about it.
Did anybody else in the audience feel what I was feeling? It’s hard to say. It wasn’t a crowd of diehard fans or celebrants, but they were open and receptive and the band certainly went down very well. It seems they usually do. Toward the end of the set a small group of guys in suits and ties appeared in the audience: escapees from a wedding or a sales conference, I’d guess. They’d gone out looking for a Hollywood club and they’d found this one. They could hardly have expected what they got, but they seemed more than happy with it. I assume their consciousnesses had been altered by alcohol rather than by anything more cosmic, but they sure had a helluva good time and they found the music surprisingly danceable. I’ll bet their legs ached afterwards.
How long is ecstasy supposed to last? My knowledge of the literature is not encyclopedic, but I understand that Dame Julian of Norwich was in a state of religious ecstasy for a good many hours while she was having her revelations of divine love. T.S. Eliot, by contrast, was content with the occasional moment in and out of time. My own experience in this case was toward the Eliot end of things. I can’t pretend that I was in a transcendent altered state for the whole of the Acid Mothers set, but the ninety minutes or so just flew by, and as the gig concluded with Kawabata’s guitar still howling its heart out, hanging from the rafters, even when he’d left the stage, I was still experiencing a tremendous sense of well-being, a feeling that didn’t wear off even as I walked along Hollywood Boulevard to the parking lot. It wasn’t quite Dame Julian’s revelation that, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” but it wasn’t a million miles away.
When quotidian consciousness returned, I was left feeling utterly surprised by the extremity of my reaction to Acid Mothers Temple in general, and to Kawabata Makoto in particular. True, there have been a few high points in my life that have involved the electric guitar and great amounts of noise (Zappa, Caspar Brotzmann, John McLaughlin with Lifetime before he went spiritual, Steve Albini, Sonic Youth, Nels Cline, a few others) but in general I had become jaded and disillusioned by much live rock music, and the bigger the name and the show, the more jaded and disillusioned I was likely to be.
I’d go to a gig, and there’d be some guy up there on stage sweating, posing, pulling agonized faces, performing (it seemed to me) a show or a mime of ecstasy. And the audience was worse. They’d be blissed out and going crazy, as though they were experiencing ecstasy too, and I’d be thinking, “Can’t these people see that this guy just isn’t very good? Can’t they see he’s a fake? Don’t these people have any critical faculties?” To which, of course, one answer is that they’d deliberately left their critical faculties at the door. They weren’t going to a seminar, they were taking part in a ritual. That almost makes it sound attractive, but it wasn’t to me. It seemed to be more like supporting a football team than enjoying music.
I do, of course, understand that it can’t be easy to go on stage every night of a long tour, to stand in front of a large, expectant and demanding audience and unfailingly deliver the goods. Once in a while you just might not be feeling it, you might not be able get in the zone. Everybody fakes it once in a while, and I’m sure Kawabata has some nights that are better than others.
But I’ll say this: when I see and hear Kawabata Makoto playing “Pink Lady Lemonade,” based around a wonderful, endlessly fluid two chord riff, he always seems to be able to get in touch with something deeper, more intense, more (what the hell, I’ve gone this far) spiritual than, say, Eddie Van Halen gets in touch with when he plays “Eruption” or even when Carlos Santana makes another damn “Soul Sacrifice.”
Kawabata Makoto talks a pretty good game about this stuff. In an interview on the Acid Mothers website he says, “Music, for me, is neither something that I create, nor a form of self-expression. All kinds of sounds exist everywhere around us, and my performances solely consist of picking up these sounds, like a radio tuner, and playing them so that people can hear them.”
Which of course begs the question, if he’s a radio tuner, what station is he tuned into? Doesn’t the signal sometimes fade? Isn’t there static and interference from other stations? He’s got that covered too.
“Where do these sounds come from? Who is sending them out? That is not something for me to know, and neither is there any way that I could find out. I simply believe that they come from the ‘cosmos’. (Maybe other people would call God the source) …
“However, in June of 1999, I finally discovered my own ‘cosmos’ and I experienced an instant of total union with it!! … The energy and vibrations contained within that it (sic) far exceeded my imagination in scope and beauty. I can only describe the miraculous instant when my ‘cosmos’ accepted my consciousness as MAGIC.”
Well OK, a little of this goes a long way, and I think it isn’t only “Orientalism” that makes it more acceptable coming from an inscrutable Japanese musician who’s part of a “soul collective,” than it would be coming from, say, a native of New Jersey. Even so, the main thing that prevents it being absolute pretentious New Age claptrap, is that when you actually hear Kawabata’s music you understand exactly what he’s talking about.
Acid Mothers Temple were due to start their 2011 US tour on March 23, less than two weeks after the Japanese tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster. As the news got worse, there was a lot of speculation online about whether the band would make it to America, even for a while speculation about whether they’d survived.
My own feeling was that if it were humanly possible, if they were alive and could get on a plane, they would tour. Touring and playing is evidently what they live for. I mean, I’ve heard Kawabata’s guitar playing: it would take more than a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown to stop this guy.
And so, a little before ten o’ clock on March 23, as planned and hoped for, Acid Mothers Temple began to set up their gear at Spaceland in Silverlake, Los Angeles. I was in the bar but I could see through to the stage area and I watched Kawabata wander on, plug in his guitar and instantly it began making a wonderful, obscenely strangulated, metallic roar. All my symptoms came flooding back. I actually ran to the front of the stage thinking “Oh boy we’re in for it tonight” and then Kawabata unplugged his guitar and wandered off stage again. I guess he had played for about twelve seconds.
Ten minutes later the full band started. They were good, loud and powerful and actually tighter than when I’d seen them before. I thought this was going to be great. But then there was a problem. The symptoms of ecstasy were not happening, and the guitar was absolutely inaudible. After a while the band became aware of the balancing issues and Kawabata came up a little in the mix, but he never came up to the full, joyous, bone-liquefying, ear and brain damaging level that I wanted.
The set continued. It was good but it wasn’t great, which is to say it wasn’t as cosmically great as I wanted it to be. I knew this was absurd. Few things are more pitiful than standing in an audience craving ecstasy, even worse is standing there willing the guy on stage with the guitar to make you feel ecstatic. But I kind of did.
Fortunately they started playing “Cometary Orbital Drive” a trance-like piece of maximal minimalism, a six note progression (A-E-D-A-G-Dflat) that according to the CD liner notes, “creates resonance waves deep in the brain, awakening the second mind that slumbers behind our consciousness and invoking a sense of almost infinite ecstasy.” If that doesn’t do it nothing will, and yes indeed it was wonderful and it hit the spot, and the prickles, shivers, smiles, tears and whatnot that I’d been hoping for were duly present. (I could still have used a little more guitar volume though.) And leaving aside any doubts about whether “almost infinite” isn’t a contradiction in terms, the experience just wasn’t as intense as that created by those twelve seconds of random guitar skronk. Still, I’m not complaining. Sometimes twelve seconds of ecstasy may be all you can have. Sometimes it’s all you need.
So, having seen the first gig of the Acid Mothers Temple tour in LA, I decided to make the two and a half hour drive to see the last gig of the tour in San Diego. This seemed quite a cool thing to do, but couldn’t help feeling it would have been much cooler if I’d been an 18 year old as opposed to a man of a certain age.
The gig was in a small club called The Casbah, convenient for (which is to say crammed in between) freeway fly over, rail tracks and the airport. Out in the street traffic roared, lonesome whistles blew, and the roar of aircraft coming into land would occasionally explode out of the sky apparently just inches above the rooftops. Of course, the AMT fan takes a certain pleasure in such industrial noise. And inside the club there was plenty more to come.
The first thing to say was that the band had solved the problem of “not enough guitar.” On this occasion Kawabata’s guitar was so loud that it was frequently impossible to hear vocals, bass, and drums. In fact it was so fucking loud that sometimes you couldn’t hear it as guitar. It sounded more like plates of sheet metal being dropped from a very great height, and landing a couple of inches from your ears. (Incidentally, right before the gig I noticed a few people fiddling around with something in their fingers and I thought they must be rolling joints, but no, they were molding their ear plus. Lightweights.)
In the intervening month the band had become louder, faster, much more brutal. It’s not hard to see how this might happen. Playing 32 gigs in 32 days, with an itinerary that covered both US coasts, took in Georgia, Texas, Nebraska, Montana (to name just some), with cross border Canadian jaunts that included Calgary and Montreal, well that might suck the subtlety right out of you.
The set in LA had begun with a couple of minutes of improvised spacey introductions before the band kicked into some hard, driving rock. In San Diego that intro lasted maybe ten seconds before the mayhem started. And yet there was no sense that they were rushing things, trying to get it over with. There was absolutely no sense that they were just going through the motions. They were doing the business and doing it with extra seriousness and intensity.
I also experienced a couple of new symptoms; first a rubberiness in the knees, which I’m pretty sure was caused by the strength of the bass frequencies. And I also occasionally felt I might lose my balance and fall over. Not just the knees I think, but rather because the higher frequencies were causing disruption to the equilibrium structures of the inner ear.
And did I also experience ecstasy? Oh yeah, by the truckload.