The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

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MAY 2022 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: Music

1. Munich, 1970

This 21-year-old Japanese musician has been wandering through Europe supporting himself (barely) as a busker. He has played and sung on the streets of Sweden, Denmark, Germany and France. In winter, when the weather turns too cold for outdoor performances, he finds work in restaurants or on farms. Although his musical skills are limited, he is able attract attention. At the time there are few Asians to be seen in Western Europe. In addition, his long hair and slight build give him an androgynous look that seems to fascinate some onlookers. Not all the attention is positive. Many days his busking is cut short by the arrival of the police, who more than once throw him in jail.

The young man’s circumstances change in Munich, where he joins the cast of Hair, a hit musical celebrating the hippie lifestyle. For the first time, he is making good money but the daily repetition of showing up at the same place and performing the same songs soon begins to bore him. Although no longer needing to busk for a living, one day he launches into an impromptu street performance. Sitting in a nearby café are two members of a German experimental rock group whose vocalist has just suffered a nervous breakdown and gone back to the United States. Even from a distance they notice the young Japanese man, who is yelling and singing and, as far as they can tell, offering prayers to the sun. “This is our new singer,” one of the German musicians announces to his bandmate, who says, “You must be kidding. You don’t even know who he is!” Undeterred, the German introduces himself to the stranger from Japan, explaining that his band is booked for a sold-out concert that very night and that he would like him to appear as their vocalist. Intrigued, the Japanese busker asks if there would be time for any rehearsals. The German replies that rehearsals will not be necessary. All he need do is show up at the venue and join them on stage, ready to sing.

That night he does indeed appear with the band. Calm and meditative at first, he soon transforms into, as one of the musicians recalls, “a samurai fighter.” His aggressive, screaming performance drives away all the audience except for some 30 people. Pleased with this result, the band invites him to join the group. The recordings they make over the next four years featuring his distinctive vocals delivered in a mixture of English, Japanese and German are crucial in developing a new style of contemporary music. When he leaves the band in 1973 (to join his girlfriend in the ranks of the Jehovah Witnesses), he has participated in what will become, in the decades that follow, one of the most admired and emulated musical groups in rock history.

(Damo Suzuki, Can)

Contributor

Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

All Issues