Some records are more than just a collection of songs – they are keys to the gates of destiny. That might sound overblown and pompous, but it’s also true. The following story is my proof.

Part One
At fifteen years old there were two things that mattered to me: girls and records. Since I wasn’t exactly what one would call a success with the fairer sex, I had little choice but to focus all of my adolescent energies into a world that was just beginning to blossom for me: the world of obsessive record geekdom. More than any other record, Teengenerate’s “Get Action” was the perfect conduit through which I could let loose all of my stockpiled libidinal energy. Whenever I put the needle down and the ferocious opening chords of “Mess Me Up” shot from my speakers with hurricane force, I knew I was experiencing the sound of a life that was at that point foreign to me. It was the sound of a better life; a life where the party never stopped – where the music was wild, the booze was ever-flowing, and the girls were always loose. It was the sound of the freedom rock n roll has always embodied.

I was hooked.

Years passed and Teengenerate’s influence on me grew exponentially. I bought records by their friends’ bands (such as the Registrators and Rip Offs) and dedicatedly sought out whatever I could find by bands they covered (turning me on to veritable treasure trove of classic punk in the process: the Fun Things, Nervous Eaters, DMZ, Kids, Pagans, and Zeros to name but a few). What’s more, my love of Teengenerate eventually led to me obsessing over the then current Japanese punk scene. Whenever I found something from Mangrove or Wallabies, I snatched it up in an instant – greedily hoping for something that could match the aural kicks which sizzled from the grooves of Teengenerate’s records like bacon grease popping out of a skillet. Although I did end up buying some damn good records, it was very rare to find something that could stand side by side with the mighty Teengenerate (only the early Registrators were really sufficient to the task). Somewhere along the way, my fondness for Japanese punk turned into a full blown infatuation with the entire country – music, movies, literature, wrestling, pop culture, traditional culture, food, and oh yeah, girls. Eventually, Japan became a symbol for my ideal of a perfect life. As foolish as it now seems to me, as my twenties got underway I was under the illusion that almost everything Japanese was better than its American counterpart. Of course, I now can see that I was projecting the problems in my life onto the place I lived, with America standing for everything that had held me back in life, and Japan singing to me with the promise of something new and fulfilling.

Just like Teengenerate’s records when I was a teenager.

Part Two
A couple years later I found myself nearing the end of 3/4ths of a year spent living in Japan. During my time there I met a lot of friends, saw almost all my favorite Japanese bands, eaten miles of Japanese cuisine, drank innumerable Japanese beers and chu-his, sang karaoke a few times (including a duet of “Henry the Eighth” with Russell Quan), climbed a mountain, was laughed at by a prostitute (because I declined her proposition in polite Japanese), and somehow managed to convince Firestarter to agree to letting me interview them. This was no small deal for me, as I was just as big a fan of the post-Teengenerate bands the Tweezers, Raydios, and Firestarter as I was TG.

Sometime between getting Fifi to agree to an interview and actually conducting said interview, I had the opportunity to see Firestarter live. Simply put, it was the single best live performance I had ever witnessed.

Before Firestarter took the stage the club was already brimming over with people. Back in America cramming 300 or so people into the tiny basement venue that is Shelter would be considered a fire hazard. In Japan it was a regular occurrence. Through some feat of effort that has since been lost to that night’s alcoholic intake, I managed to cut a path through the jungle of humanity and carve out a spot for myself almost directly in front of the stage. The only person ahead of me was an extremely short girl whose head barely reached the bottom of my chin. We were so snugly packed by the mass of humanity surrounding us, I had no choice but to spoon this girl’s ass for the duration of Firestarter’s set (not that I was complaining or anything). It required no small effort to steal a sip from the chu-hi I smuggled inside my coat pocket, as I couldn’t move my arms more than half an inch to my side. None of that mattered though. I was about the see Firestarter live – it would have taken nothing short of the end of the world to get me down. Even that would have been fine, if the apocalypse at least had the decency to let me finish watching Firestarter first. All around me I could feel the tightly packed crowd buzzing with anticipation. It was like they were bracing themselves for a coming storm.

Then Fifi, Fink, Sammy, and Jimbo took the stage.

Everything broke loose. The air of tension that had gathered while waiting in a cramped basement was released into a mass-frenzy from the opening chords of “The Beat Goes On” (this was before “Livin’ On The Heat was released so I had yet to hear that song before). I can’t recall too many particular details of the performance itself – I remember being blown away by how great the new songs were, Fink being so much the man he could control the stage just by playing guitar, Fifi’s voice sounding as honest and true as any I’ve heard, Sammy’s work on bass giving the songs that trademark bounce he’s known for, and Jimbo’s drumming rolling over the hapless audience like an avalanche. The crowd all seemed as enraptured by their performance as I was. I couldn’t believe how precise, yet at the same time loose, Fink’s guitar leads were. Jimbo seemed like the Japanese love child of Keith Moon. The girl’s ass in front of me was a pleasant sensation as the tidal wave of humanity sent my pelvis in contact with it in time with the beat. And, song after song I could do nothing but marvel at what an incredible songwriter Fifi is. The whole thing was perfect.

And then, with the frenetic one-two attack of “Slam Rock” into “Johnny Moped Was Right” that served as an encore, it was over. Standing there basking in the afterglow of the best band I had ever seen, I felt a mixture of exhaustion, elation, and excitement not unlike the feeling one gets after the best sex. I was as happy as I’ve ever been.

Sometime after the show I remember Fifi introducing me to Fink. I was amazed at how approachable and humble the both of them seemed. Fink bought me a beer and we sat around talking about music for about an hour until I had to catch a cab over to an all-night show a friend’s band was playing. Actually getting to talk to one of my musical heroes was surreal enough – that he actually bought me (italics please) a beer and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say was downright incomprehensible. That was the first time I experienced the dichotomy between the ferocious musical juggernaut Fink, Fifi, and the rest of the guys are on stage and how down to Earth and generous they are once the show is over. I’m happy to say it wouldn’t be the last.

The interview came and went. For those of you who haven’t read it before, you can check it out here. Sometime after the interview wrapped up, I remember asking Fifi if it was okay for me to accompany them to a show they were playing in Niigata prefecture – about as far from Tokyo as Minneapolis is Chicago. Normally I wouldn’t have been so brazen, but since the show was the weekend before I was scheduled to return to America, I knew it would likely be my last chance to catch Firestarter live. They seemed non-committal, and didn’t really give me much of a definitive answer. I thought I had overstepped the boundaries of our relationship, and that the interview we had just conducted would be the most I ever got to know them.

Luckily, I was wrong.

A couple weeks later I was sitting around my apartment studying Japanese when I heard an email come through on my cell phone. When I opened it up and read the message I was so surprised the phone almost slipped from my hand. Fifi had sent me a message asking if I still wanted to accompany them to Niigata. I didn’t waste a second writing back and telling him I would love to.

On the morning we were scheduled to leave, I was sharply awoken from an all too-brief slumber by my blaring alarm clock. It was 5:00 AM. If I was lucky, I probably slept three hours the night before. Still, not even waking up at the crack of dawn with a vicious hangover (the night before was a going away party of sorts with some friends…since I wasn’t paying for anything I ended up drinking way too much), was enough to hamper the enthusiasm burning in my heart as I anticipated what lay ahead for me that night. I hurriedly brushed my teeth, shaved, showered, and dashed out the door with still-bleary eyes and excited thoughts of what the day would bring.

When I got to Fifi’s apartment he made some coffee for us and immediately started spinning records. Among them was the record he paid the highest price for of any in his collection – the first album by a band I had never heard of before called Ivy Green. As the blazing first track proceeded, I increasingly got more and more into it. Fifi beamed at me and succinctly exclaimed, “One chord!”

I hadn’t realized it before, but he was right. Throughout the entire three and a half minute plus song the guitar player only played one chord. The rest of the tunes were just a tad more complex than that. Looking at the LP jacket, it seemed like these guys were total hicks – I think two guys had beards and none of them were decked out in anything that could have been considered punk apparel back in the day. Obviously, they had no idea what they were doing. They were fucking great.

After listening to Ivy Green, the others had yet to arrive to pick us up, so Fifi kept enthusiastically digging out records and smiling his expansive smile when they inevitably blew my mind. His record collection was so sprawling that “voluminous” would be a meager term to describe the extent of it. Records filled every corner of his living room from floor to ceiling, and there were numerous others stored in his bedroom. What’s more, he seemed to be able to deliver a detailed back story on all of them with infectious enthusiasm. It was obvious music was the love of his life.

Another fifteen minutes or so passed, and the rest of the guys came and picked us up. The drive was fairly uneventful. Upon arriving in Niigata-ken, the kids who had booked the show met us on the roadside, and led us to the club. After sound check (which included an incredible rendition of “Don’t Mind” – the first time I heard Fink sing live) we navigated our way down winding streets and alleyways, rain mercilessly beating down on us as we single-mindedly sought out our lone goal: records. Fifi had brought a book with him called “the Record Map” which was just what it sounds like – a listing of every record store in Japan with maps included. Fifi confided in me that part of the reason they were playing the show was that they wanted to hit up a prefecture where the records weren’t as picked over as Tokyo. Unfortunately, there didn’t turn out to be much worth picking up, but that still didn’t stop us from digging through stacks of 45’s until well into the opening band’s set.

That night Firestarter was every bit as exciting as the first time I saw them, but this time they were the headliner and played a much longer set. I remember them closing with a fucking incredible cover of “Janie Jones” by the Clash and everyone going nuts (and let me just say this now for all of you trendy Clash-bashers: the Oblivians NEVER recorded a thing as good as the first Clash LP. Deal with it). When Firestarter finished playing, complete strangers were exchanging jubilant grins and gushing proclamations. I know, because I was one of them. Once again, Firestarter had totally killed.

Upon packing up all their gear, we headed over to a nearby izakaya (sort of a cross between a restaurant and a bar) for an uchiage (or “after party” in English). The main thing I remember about being there was me and a guy from Keen Monkey Work trying to rustle up some action with a couple chicks and failing miserably at it. This relates to another key point of my time in Japan: I had, despite innumerable efforts, yet to sleep with a Japanese girl. As some of you may know, I have something of a fetish for Japanese girls, and being bombarded everyday by their picturesque faces, alluring eyes, slender waists, smooth skin, and intoxicating feminine charm – yet unable to do anything but watch them from a distance – had me vexed to the point of neuroses. I carried around the burden of sexual frustration on my back like the Atlas of Not Gettin’ Any. Not only that, but I was convinced I could never settle for an American girl again after seeing how beautiful the girls in Japan were (if any of you American girls reading this right now feel like smacking me at this point, I will offer this in my defense: I know it’s silly of me to have felt that way, but I just couldn’t help it. Still next time you see me, feel free to give me a slap or two if it’ll make you feel better). Making matters worse, I was going to be leaving the country in just two days. It was tonight or never.

As it turned out, it looked like it was going to be “never.” Things were winding down at the izakaya and the girls we had been talking to ended up going home. We then headed over to a bar managed by a guy from one of the opening bands. It was shut down for the night, but he said we could have all the drinks we wanted for a flat eighteen dollar charge up front. Even though I had by that point been awake for twenty one hours on a paltry three hours of sleep, there was no way I could turn down a deal like that. Plus there was a slim possibility more girls would be there.

As bad luck would have it, the only girls that showed up were a few that had been at the izakaya earlier, and all of them seemed to be with other guys. Evaluating the situation, what I had to do was clear. I was going to get as drunk as humanly possible.

Setting about this mission, I ordered a drink, pulled up next to Fifi – he was drinking straight whisky by the glassful – and started talking about all sorts of things: girls, music; books; movies; and just life in general. I must have been successful in my mission, because I only remember the rest of the night in disparate shards of memory: defiantly flirting with girls in front of their boyfriends, asking the guy behind the bar to play some Undertones, being pissed when he played Abba instead, and getting to know Fink better over the course of a long conversation about Billy Childish and 90’s garage rock. It was a blast.

Eventually daylight came and we groggily made our way back to the spacious house of one of the kids who set up the show. We were so trashed that some of us had to be woken up, speech was a struggle for others, and a couple among our numbers had to be carried out. As we surreptitiously drove through the streets of suburban Niigata with the just-rising sun spreading it’s rays over us, it felt like we were a gang of vampires racing to get back indoors before the sun’s rays incinerated us alive like old photographs tossed in a fireplace. Ours was a different world; a nocturnal world where the party raged all night and the kicks were as innumerable as all the records that have ever existed. It was the world I first sensed myself being initiated into when I listened to Teengenerate as a teenager. Now I was a full blown member.

Of course, once I woke up about four hours later, I realized all that was the bleary-brained, overly-romantic, fancies of a drunken mind. Fifi, Fink, Sammy, Jimbo, and everyone else I knew who played in bands had to work a day job for a living, and their world was far from a perpetual party. We weren’t rock n roll vampires; we were software administrators, clerks, cooks, students, and construction workers. All of this playing in bands, going to shows, and obsessing over music was nothing but a temporary fantasy – an all-too brief escape from the mundane realities each one of us woke up to on a daily basis.

But it was also the best thing in the world.

On the drive back to Tokyo, conversation was sparse for the most part. All of us were running on fumes after the previous night’s revelry. Thinking, let alone giving those thoughts utterance, was a task even Hercules would have shied away from. Fifi seemed the most haggard of all of us, and I don’t think he spoke more than a few words the first hour we were on the road. Eventually, he broke his silence to tell Fink to put in a CD compilation called “Shake Some Action vol. 3.” Once it started playing, his whole demeanor changed. He was smiling again and nodding along to the beat the way he was when we listened to Ivy Green in his living room the morning before. And he had good cause to. I was dumbfounded by how consistently amazing the comp was. What’s more, I had barely heard of any of the bands before! When I told Fifi how impressed I was by what we were listening to, going so far as to call it as good or better than any comp I had ever heard (a statement I still stand by…well the first sixteen songs anyway), he turned to me and beamed, “I agree! So many great melodies!”

And so it went. As the CD progressed, the color seemed to flow back into Fifi’s face, and he grew increasingly more animated – giving me the rundown on each band we heard.

“Do you know the label called Good Vibrations?” he asked.

I somewhat hesitatingly answered that I didn’t.

“Good Vibrations was a great Irish label,” he said in perfect English, “They put out so many great bands, like Protex and Rudi…have you heard Rudi?”

Again, I reluctantly told him I hadn’t.

“You’ve got to!” Then, in Japanese this time, he told Fink to put in a Rudi CD he had brought with.

Once more, I was floored by how good the songs emanating from the rent-a-car’s speakers were. They were all first rate tunes, played with boundless energy, and possessing killer hooks. Just like Firestarter’s.

Fifi again sunk back into silence, but this time it was more of a quiet repose in appreciation of Rudi than a hung over conserving of energy. Perhaps the most distinct memory I have of the entire weekend is winding through the arrestingly beautiful mountains of rural Japan at seemingly breakneck speed – marveling at snow-capped peaks reaching to the clouds, rays of sunshine turning the lake at our side into a shimmering ocean of gold, the blue sky above us stretching out into eternity with hardly any evidence of human habitation in sight, Fifi, Fink, and Jimbo all wearing looks of complete serenity, and the rock n roll perfection of Rudi’s “The Pressure’s On” leading us on like a guiding star helping sea-weary sailors find their way home.

At that moment I realized what I had come to Japan for.

Back in Tokyo, I said my goodbyes to Fink, Fifi, and Jimbo (Sammy had caught a bullet train back to Tokyo before the rest of us woke up) and thanked them for letting me come with them. I couldn’t begin to express what going with them had meant to me. When I saw their car pull off, I knew it wouldn’t be the last time I saw those three great guys.

Luckily, this time I was right.

(To be continued...)

Steven Strange
1115 Paul Parkway #102
Minneapolis, MN 55434

To read past installments of Mess Me Up go here.