In the morning my head hurt from drinking too much without realizing it. But the bigger discomfort in my head was the feeling I’d discovered my entire worldview was skewed. Now that it had skewed another direction, it was like walking off balance all the time.
Let me see if I have it right. Buddhism, the martial arts, spiritual enlightenment, musical modes, most of the ancestors of the instruments we play, the highest form of improvisational music and the classical tradition, all came from India? How could it be I’d never even given the entire country more than a passing thought?
Bart and I used to eat in an Indian restaurant in Kenmore Square sometimes, and they would have Bollywood movies playing on a tinny, piece of crap television above the door. Gave me the impression that current Indian music was a lot of screechy yet overproduced pop that all sounded the same. I suppose that was the equivalent of judging all American music based the Miami Vice re-runs played in a bar.
They say the point of traveling the world is it changes your perspective. Mine had changed so much in a single day I felt like my clothes didn’t fit right.
Was that why Ziggy went to India? Did he have the same experience? Or was he still looking for it?
I was in a kind of daze, deep in thought, when Remo found me getting something to eat in the hotel restaurant and asked if I wanted to go with him to some Japanese shopping district. I didn’t catch the name. “Huh?”
“In English they call it Guitar Street,” he said.
My ears perked up. “They do?”
We took the train and no translator. I think we were relying on the “universal language” of music to get us by. As it turned out, that works pretty well in music shops where they let you try the merchandise.
“Guitar Street,” which is actually called Meidai Dori, should probably be called Musical Instrument Street. Yes, there were at least ten shops selling nothing but guitars, but there were also ones that specialized in violins, or school instruments, or pretty much anything else you could name. That made for an interesting mix of people on the street, because there were on the one hand all these schoolkids in uniforms pulling their parents around by the hand while they looked for their first trumpet or viola, and on the other hand there were these rock-and-roll types complete with fringed jackets and bandannas around their heads and the whole Sunset Strip look to them, except they were 100% Japanese. There were some punks, too, with textbook perfect mohawks and facial piercings, and some glam rockers in the vein of Prince. All of which made me wonder what the cultural signals of dressing like that really were. Did it translate from one culture to the next? If it wasn’t really language, what was it? Was a mohawk a statement of rebellion here the way it was in the State and in England? Or was it more of a costume? Or a commodity? For that matter, wasn’t it a costume no matter where you were? And wasn’t a look a commodity the second it gained popularity?
This only increased my indecision about what to do with my hair, by the way. It had been growing nonstop since Ziggy had trimmed it. Was that May? I had easily put on six inches. It was uneven because of the part they’d cut because of the explosion but I had gotten used to that.
One of the shopkeepers had met Remo before. He spoke reasonable English and I gathered that Remo had been brought here by a Takamine rep earlier in the trip, or on a previous tour. Amusingly enough in his shop we played a pair of top of the line Martin guitars, though only for a few minutes because Remo didn’t want to stress his wrist. We thanked him and moved on.
Others sussed out who we were easily enough though. It’s not like we were hard to identify. Two obvious white guys looking pretty much like rock stars. Everyone was polite and respectful, though, and I didn’t feel stalked.
In one shop where they had traditional Japanese instruments I got into a long discussion with an English-speaking clerk about the shamisen and koto, and a bunch of instruments I didn’t even know about, which led to us talking about the lap steel guitar and the sitar, two more instruments with strings that have some common DNA with the guitar but clearly went off in other directions. I was tempted to try to buy a sitar from the guy but it would either have to get shipped all the way to Boston from here, or come along with us everywhere… I told myself I should wait and see if I actually wanted one when I got home.
Maybe it was talking about the lap steel that conjured them up, but it was at that point that Cray, the Mazel brothers, and Flip came in, kind of surprised to run into us there and yet not surprised because it made total sense for us to go somewhere like that. I mean, that’s as close to the temple of guitar as you get, right? And I made Cray come over and talk to the clerk about the lap steel, and the next thing you know he was trying to get us play some instruments. I fussed around with a biwa, which I was told was an antique and to be careful with it, and then while the first clerk was showing Cray an elaborately decorated koto, another one swapped me the biwa for a shamisen.
The koto is kind of like a big zither, and the shamisen is sort of like a square banjo. The clerk was showing me how to hold the gigantic piece of bone they used for a pick, which filled my whole hand.
Remo came over to stir up trouble. “You boys gonna play something for us?”
Cray and I looked at each other. I had the easier instrument, I figured. I could pick out a melody without too much difficult now that I had figured out the relation of one string to another. It was kind of up to him whether he could pull anything useful out of the thirteen strings he had in front of him. It was kind of like he had a harp lying on its side in front of him. Or maybe like he had the interior guts of a piano ready to be plucked.
He didn’t break eye contact with me except to glance down every few seconds to see where his hands were on the strings, and he started to slowly play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” This produced exclamations of amazement from the clerks and curiosity-seekers. the mode was a little funky, but I joined in easily enough, and before long we’d had three go rounds of it, each of us with a jazzy solo, and then a round in unison.
We ended before we pushed our luck too far and received congratulatory handshakes and bows from all and sundry. It was kind of ridiculous, given that we’d played one of those songs that in the U.S. was almost always on page two of your lesson book, no matter what instrument you were learning. (“Mary Had a Little Lamb” was on page one.) But music is music and we accepted the praise humbly.
Later we were all sitting around in a noodle shop not far down the street. The place was noisy, the only people I could really hear were the two nearest to me, Flip and Cray, and Flip was going about something to Martin. So that left me talking to Cray, who told me his secret. “I had a girlfriend once who played koto. She showed me a little.”
“No shit. Well, it impressed the hell out of me anyway.”
He snorted like I was kidding.
“No, really. And it blew the minds of the people there.”
He gulped his sake out of a tiny cup. “Yeah, I’m sure they thought they were going to make fools of us.”
“I doubt that. They’re too polite for that.”
I really didn’t understand his relentlessly negative attitude. “Cray, not everyone is out to get you.”
“Yeah, and not everyone is out to crown you king of the universe.” He looked at me with round, brown eyes, betraying little emotion. But like I said, I was sensitive to underlying aggression.
“I could care less whether people crown me or not,” I said. “I just do my thing, you know?”
“And that’s a really privileged, self-centered attitude,” he pointed out. “Though, sorry for calling you Little Lord Fauntleroy before. I should be better than name-calling.”
“Call me what you want, Cray.” I took a pull on a ricey Japanese beer. If his tactic was to be overly blunt, I could do that, too. “Well, anything but fag. I’d break your nose for that.”
He almost spat sake out his nose. “What?”
I delivered the following in a calm manner, only loud enough so he could hear it. “I’m saying there’s some shit I’ll put up with and some I won’t. You’ve got some kind of inferiority complex? Fine. I don’t care. But I’ve got no tolerance for homophobes. If that’s what it is, we may as well have it out right here, right now and then one of us can go home.”
He blinked and stuttered. “That’s… that’s not… Wait. Are you gay?”
“I am. Got a problem with that?”
“No! How the hell did you even–”
“Then I’ve got no problem.” I liked that beer. And I liked having Cray totally off balance. I decided to yank his chain one more time, since I could. “What the hell did you mean by Little Lord Fauntleroy, anyway?”
“Shit, you know. Spoiled brat.”
“Let me get this straight. You, whose mother has a lifelong career in music and who cleared a career path for you, is calling me, whose mother wouldn’t even let me practice in the house, a spoiled brat.”
He got up suddenly and walked out, at which point Flip turned to me. “What did I miss?”
“No, really, what did you say? You were so calm I thought you guys were just talking.”
“He’s got a wild hair across his ass. All I did was pluck it.” I shrugged.
I was a little less calm when Remo cornered me about it on the train. “He’s a big boy and can take care of himself but should I be aware of something going on between you and Cray?”
The last thing I was going to do was turn tattle-tale. “No. I’ve got no problem with him, Reem.”
“You two are actually a lot alike.”
“Other than he’s a moody sonofabitch.”
Remo gave me a look. “Oh really. I hadn’t noticed.” That was his way of saying he could have called me out for being the pot that called the kettle black, but he would pretend to ignore it if I would. “He’ll come around.”
Or he won’t and I won’t care, I told myself.