TO CELEBRATE YESTERDAY’S RELEASE OF OUR 107TH 33 1/3 ON BEAT HAPPENING, WE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE FIFTH AND FINAL INSTALLMENT OF BEAT HAPPENING WEEK BY AUTHOR BRYAN PARKER !
For readers who still haven’t heard the word about 33 1/3’s newest volume, Beat Happening, which was just released yesterday, the book is structured as an abecedary—an alphabet book. Each letter represents one element integral to Beat Happening and their debut album. Today, I’m happy to share one of those chapters–J is for Japan–in full. Many of the chapters delve into narrow, focused facets of the band; this chapter on Japan incorporates discourse on all three members and their interactions as well as one of the core events that defines and identifies their ideology. It’s also entirely appropriate as I’m currently constructing this dispatch from inside an airplane, on my own little adventure to promote this book. Keep up with 33 1/3 and me on twitter for updates on my ten reading events happening this fall.
– Bryan Parker
J is for Japan
The ambitiousness and audacity of Beat Happening’s 1984 trip to Japan, only a few months after the band formed, typifies the courage that made them so unforgettable. According to Calvin, the “whole idea” of Beat Happening was “let’s go to Japan.” The adventure underscores the band’s ability to act spontaneously and imagine a world without limitation; it also displays Calvin’s philosophies of global connectivity. Although Calvin managed to arrange for the trip to provide school credit through Evergreen’s liberal Independent Living Contract and planned to use his time there to gather information for Op Magazine, the band’s visit to Japan had little aim or definition.
“We went there with nothing,” Heather says. “We didn’t have any shows. We just flung ourselves out there and hoped for the best. We didn’t really know where it was heading when we went other than hoping we’re going to play some shows there.” Similar to Bret’s trip to Bristol Bay the previous summer, the band headed for the horizon—just open ocean, hoping to catch some fish. Luckily, they did have one piece of information: the name of a person who might be able to help them get established in the city for their stay, a former Evergreen exchange student named Ai Miyake.
The Miyake family, Takaaki and his wife Momoe, proved instrumentally helpful for the band. “The one phone number we had was this family that knew a real estate agent who knew of a building that was going to get torn down,” says Heather. The trio was able to secure an apartment in the building for next to nothing. However, the building, on the verge of being condemned, had no heat or hot water. The band arrived in Tokyo in the spring, but the weather was still cold, and Heather remembers the apartment being freezing most of the time. What the apartment lacked in bare necessities it made up for in charm with traditional Japanese style including tatami mat floors.
Much of their time in Japan consisted of hanging around in the apartment and listening to Armed Forces Radio, likely one of the only forms of entertainment in English outside of speaking to each other. Members of the band all used some of their time to write letters and journals, and long, noteworthy excerpts from these can be found in Lois Maffeo’s excellent booklet included with Beat Happening’s box set Crashing Through. It was also via letter from Japan that Calvin first made contact with The Cannanes’ David Nichols, a fortuitous connection that would prove invaluable.
As for sources of food, the band had to practice resourcefulness with what little they had. “Calvin and Bret perfected an elaborate method of making whole wheat bread in a very small toaster oven,” Heather says. “This involved a trip to a department store specialty food section to buy very small and expensive bags of whole wheat flour. The baking process included an aluminum foil tent that was adjusted periodically. Then we would sit in our cold apartment eating hot bread slathered in butter.” Completely appropriate to the Beat Happening ethos, Calvin tells me the band didn’t have a recipe. Beat Happening’s elemental baking experiments in Japan parallel their approach to music and reinforce the idea that all one needs is the essentials. Calvin says, “We just knew bread was made with flour, salt, water, and yeast.”
The band did spend a good amount of time out in the city, trying to track down an opportunity for a show, “little missions,” Heather calls them. They played briefly in Yoyogi Park, a public space that served as a gathering place for rock bands on Sundays, but they underestimated the ingrained machinations of the park’s system and found their acoustic guitar performance vastly overshadowed by highly organized groups with amps and full arrangements. Still, things were happening in Japan. “We’d go off on some weird adventure,” says Heather, and one thing would lead to another. Eventually the band was able to play a show at a local high school after classes one day, a strange but oddly fitting place for a Beat Happening show. “The high school show was literally all girls in their uniforms sitting on their desks with their hands folded across their laps watching us play,” recounts Heather. She describes the show as a reflection of much of their time in Japan: “It was all really weird—very Beat Happening weird. People didn’t know what to think, but they were Japanese, so they were very polite.”
Eventually, the band locked down a few shows at actual clubs, even if they had to hit the pavement and sell the tickets themselves, and made connections with a few of the nation’s purveyors of rock music. In another important achievement during their stay, Beat Happening recorded five songs to boom boxes purchased while in Japan, advanced models not yet available in the U.S. These songs would be released upon their return as a cassette entitled Three Tea Breakfast, and all of the songs would be included on the 1996 expanded reissue of Beat Happening.
Japan itself becomes a character in these songs, both in lyrics as well as in sound samples. In “Youth,” Calvin sings, “When I was young I thought I was old / I sailed across the sea to Tokyo / I thought there must be more to this world / Than we’re being told / When you’re young / You can afford to be bold.” The lyrics document the band’s immediate location and offer insight to the line of thinking that enabled the band’s trip in the first place. That final line rings with clarity and wisdom. In truth, it parallels the sentiments of punk, implicitly encouraging the listener to shrug off the pressures of finding a career or succumbing to traditional patterns of behavior. But the message lands without vitriol and angst; it sounds like an ideology capable of sustainability instead of a flash of reckless anger.
The first track on Three Tea Breakfast, “In My Memory,” opens with a sample of a street vendor in Nakameguro singing in Japanese before guitar strums and simple percussive claps interrupt. The five-song cassette ends with “Don’t Mix the Colors,” an unapologetically juvenile song that features the line, “I like the yellow, as bright as your hello,” and ends with another Japanese voice and a sample of the Tokyo subway. In keeping with their artistic precepts, Beat Happening make their surroundings part of the songs. In “The Fall,” Calvin names several people evidently in his immediate presence, “Bye bye, Mari and Momoe / Bye bye, Takaaki and / Bye bye, Ai in America and / Bye bye Heather.” Everyone laughs. In this moment, Beat Happening incorporates not only Japan but also the very room they occupy. In the same way the mishaps of the firehouse recording altered songs’ endings, “The Fall” uses the circumstances of immediate time and space to create an artifact from the Japan trip that captures genuine fun with friends.
Heather sees all of these chance encounters, spontaneous shows, and impromptu recordings as similar to what she saw happening in Olympia. “I don’t know how we ended up meeting, but we always did,” she says. “Things just happened to work out.” She reflects for a moment on how connected and unavoidable current communication tools have become, then says, “Maybe because people were more open to taking what comes and not having a plan, not knowing what was going to happen. There’s always this pressure to make a plan and know where you’re going and where you’re headed.” She pauses again, and concludes, “Things like Japan and with the band and in Olympia just happened—it was like this cosmic wave.”