My life as a tape-head

 

From unsplash.com / © Tobias Tullius

 

I was surprised to hear the news last month that the inventor of the audio cassette, Lou Ottens, had passed away at the age of 94.  Surprised because the audio cassette seemed such an elderly piece of technology to me that I’d assumed its inventor had been dead for many years, indeed, many decades already.

 

I used to love cassettes.  They were small, light and portable whilst at the same time durable and not vulnerable to the scratches and occasional breakages that bedevilled my vinyl records.  Though of course when their tape got caught in the tape-heads of a cassette player, having to free and unravel the ensuing tangle was a pain in the neck.  Much of my music collection consists of cassettes and I suspect I must have something in the region of a thousand albums in that format.  But, like most of my worldly possessions, they’ve spent the 21st century occupying boxes in my Dad’s attic in Scotland.

 

Cassettes seemed old-fashioned even in the days before the appearance of the compact disc, a type of technology that itself must seem prehistoric to modern youngsters brought up in a world of Internet streaming.  I remember in 2019 entering a second-hand record shop in Edinburgh and being amazed, and delighted, to find that it still had several shelf-loads of cassettes on sale.  (The shop was the Record Shak on Clerk Street and sadly, due to its owner’s death, it’s closed down since then.  But at least the Record Shak managed to outlive most of the other record shops that once populated south-central Edinburgh, like Avalanche, Coda Music, Ripping Records and Hog’s Head Music, so in its humble, durable way it was like the retailing equivalent of a cassette.)

 

I was such a tape-head that even during the 1990s, when the CD was supposed to have achieved market dominance, I still indulged in that most cassette-ish of pastimes – creating cassette compilations of my favourite music of the moment, which I’d then inflict on my friends.

 

I also made party cassettes.  For much of that decade I lived in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, was something of a party animal and would hold regular shindigs in my apartment.  My home was a typically modest, urban-Japanese one, consisting of two normal-sized rooms plus a little bathroom and toilet, but that didn’t prevent me from piling in the guests.  During one do, I did a count and discovered I’d squeezed 48 people into the place.  I even managed somehow to set aside one room as the ‘dance floor’.  And before each party, for the dance-floor room, I’d compile a few cassettes of songs that I judged likely to get the guests shaking a leg.  How could anyone not shake a leg when, in quick succession, they were subjected to the boisterous likes of the Cramps singing Bend Over I’ll Drive, the Jesus and Mary Chain doing their cover of Guitar Man, Motorhead with Killed by Death, the Reverend Horton Heat with Wiggle Stick, AC/DC with Touch Too Much and the Ramones with I Wanna be Sedated?

 

At the party’s end, if somebody complimented me on the quality of the music, I’d simply give them the party cassettes and tell them to keep them as souvenirs.  By the time of my next hooley, I’d have discovered a new set of tunes and slapped them onto some new cassettes.  Who knows?  Maybe those 1990s party cassettes are still being played at gatherings in Sapporo, where the partygoers are no longer young and wild, but grey and arthritic instead.  Surely they’d be considered priceless antiques today – the cassettes, not the partygoers.

 

Anyway, feeling nostalgic, I thought I would list here the most memorable cassette compilations that other people have given to me over the years.

 

© Factory

 

Untitled compilation – Gareth Smith, 1991

I never imagined that in 2021 I’d still be humming tunes performed by the now-forgotten New Jersey alternative rock band the Smithereens or the equally forgotten 1980s Bath / London combo Eat.  The fact that I am is due to a splendid compilation cassette that my brother put together and sent to me while I was working in Japan. Actually, the reason why I’m humming those tunes today is probably because they weren’t actually written by the Smithereens or Eat.  The Smithereens’ track was a cover of the Who’s song The Seeker, while the Eat one was another cover, of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City.

 

As well as featuring those, the cassette contained the epic six-minute club mix of Hallelujah by the Happy Mondays.  No, this wasn’t a cover version of the Leonard Cohen song, but the Mondays’ impeccably shambling dance track that begins with a falsetto voice exclaiming, “Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!” and then proceeds with Shaun Ryder intoning such lyrical gems as, “Hallelujah, hallelujah, we’re here to pull ya!”

 

On the other hand, the cassette contained the hit single Right Here, Right Now by Jesus Jones, which I thought was quite good and which induced me to buy their new album when I saw it on sale soon afterwards in my local Japanese record shop.  Big mistake.

 

Songs from Brad’s Land – Brad Ambury, 1991

Around the same time, I received a compilation cassette from a Canadian guy called Brad Ambury, who worked on the same programme that I was working on but in a different part of northern Japan.  I think Brad saw it as his mission to convince me that there was more to Canadian music than the then-popular output of Bryan Adams.  He must have despaired when several years later Celine Dion popped up and usurped Bryan as Canada’s number-one international musical superstar.

 

Anyway, he made this cassette a smorgasbord of Canadian indie and alternative-rock bands with quirky names: Jr. Gone Wild, Blue Rodeo, the Northern Pikes, SNFU, Spirit of the West, the Doughboys and so on.  During the rest of the 1990s, whenever I was introduced to Canadian people, I’d waste no time in impressing them with my encyclopaedic knowledge – well, my shameless name-dropping – of their country’s indie / alt-rock musical scene.  All thanks to that one cassette.

 

Actually, stirred by curiosity 30 years on, I’ve tried Googling Brad and discovered he has a twitter feed that’s headed by the logo for the Edmonton ‘punk-country’ band Jr. Gone Wild.  So it’s good to know he hasn’t succumbed to senile old age and started listening to The Best of Bryan Adams just yet.

 

© Jr. Gone Wild

 

A Kick up the Eighties – Keith Sanderson, 1993

I must have received dozens of cassette compilations from my music-loving Scottish friend Keith Sanderson and this one was my favourite.  It even looked distinctive because, for a sleeve, he packaged it in a piece of flocked, crimson wallpaper.  As its title indicates, A Kick up the Eighties was a nostalgic collection of tunes from the then recently departed 1980s. These included pop hits, new wave and indie classics, Goth anthems and lesser-known tunes that were both ruminative and raucous: the Associates’ Party Fears Two, Blancmange’s Living on the Ceiling, Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick, Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives, Bauhaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood, Aztec Camera’s Down the Dip and Girlschool’s Emergency.  The collection was disparate yet weirdly balanced, and even songs I hadn’t particularly liked before, such as Rush’s Spirit of Radio and UFO’s Only You Can Rock Me, seemed good due to their calibration with the music around them.

 

However, when I played this cassette at parties, I had to make sure I stopped it before it reached the final track on Side A.  For my friend Keith had sneakily inserted there, like a street-credibility-destroying booby trap, Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran.

 

Japanese and English Guitar Pop – Yoko Koyama, 1994    

By the mid-1990s I was lecturing in a university in Sapporo.  My Japanese students there gradually come to the realisation that, despite being a curmudgeonly git, I had one redeeming quality, which was that I was into music.  So a steady stream of them presented me with cassettes of tunes they’d recorded, which they thought I might be interested in.  I can’t remember who presented me with a recording of the Flower Travellin’ Band, but well done that person.

 

A smart indie-kid in one of my classes called Yoko Koyama gave me a cassette compilation of what she termed ‘modern guitar pop’, i.e. melodic pop-rock stuff with lots of pleasantly jangly guitars.  Apparently, this was a sound that a few Japanese bands of the time, like Flipper’s Guitar and Pizzicato Five, were into.  She’d interspersed their tracks with ones by what she described as four ‘English’ practitioners of the same sub-genre.  These were Teenage Fanclub and the BMX Bandits, from Bellshill near Glasgow; Aztec Camera, from East Kilbride in Lanarkshire; and the Trash Can Sinatras, from Irvine in North Ayrshire.

 

© Polystar

 

I expressed my thanks but observed with some bemusement that the four so-called English bands on the collection were actually all from Scotland.  Yoko smiled politely but said nothing.  However, a year later, she wrote a feature about this type of music for our faculty’s English-language students’ newspaper (which I edited) and made a point of talking about ‘Scottish guitar pop’.  So despite my multiple failings as a teacher, I managed at least to teach one fact to one person during the 1990s.

 

Guns N’ Roses bootlegs – the guy who collected my Daily Yomiuri payments, 1996

While living in Sapporo, I subscribed to the English-language newspaper the Daily Yomiuri, which is now the Japan News.  One evening every month, a young guy would arrive at my apartment door with the newspaper’s monthly bill, which I paid in cash.  (Direct debits didn’t seem to be a thing at the time.)  When I opened the door for him one evening, The Spaghetti Incident by Guns N’ Roses happened to be playing on my stereo.  The guy’s face immediately lit up and he exclaimed, “Ah, you like Guns N’ Roses?”  We then had an enthusiastic ten-minute conversation – well, as enthusiastic as my rudimentary Japanese would allow – about the gloriousness of Axl Rose, Slash and the gang.

 

A month later, when the guy came to collect my next Daily Yomiuri payment, I was immensely touched when he presented me with two cassettes, on which he’d recorded two Guns N’ Roses bootleg albums.

 

Okay, strictly speaking, these weren’t compilation cassettes.  But I’m mentioning them here as a testimony to the power of the audio cassette.  They allowed the Japanese guy who collected my newspaper-subscription money and I to bond over a shared love of Guns N’ Roses.

 

Yeah, beat that, Spotify.

 

From pinterest.com

Jim Mountfield rides shotgun

 

© Shotgun Honey

 

Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write fiction of a (usually) dark hue, has just had a short story published in the webzine Shotgun Honey, which is dedicated to the ‘crime, hardboiled and noir genres’.

 

The story is called Karaoke and is inspired by the seven years I spent living in Japan – seven years during which, astonishingly, I spent a lot of my free time hanging out in bars.  The majority of those bars were frequented by suited salarymen, staffed by immaculate hostesses and equipped with karaoke machines.  Although I was always too shy to sing at the start of an evening, I’d have somehow overcome my shyness by the end of it – a dozen Kirin beers might have had something to do with it – and I’d be up there warbling into the microphone with the best, or worst, of them.  This was in the 1990s and the English-language selection on the machines was pretty middle-of-the-road and non-raucous – Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Pat Boone and the early Beatles – which meant I was usually crooning stuff like Fly Me to the Moon or Love Letters in the Sand.  Eek.

 

As Shotgun Honey is about crime, however, the story features yakuza gangsters as well as karaoke-singing.  Incidentally, the three main characters are named after three people I knew in Japan.  Mr Ashikawa and Mr Hiraizumi were both teachers at the high school where I worked for the first two years – Mr Ashikawa was a calligraphy teacher and he’d answer the staffroom phone with a memorably singsong cry of “Ashikawa desu!”  Maybe that’s why I made his fictional namesake a talented singer.

 

The character Umeki, meanwhile, is named after a lovable rogue I had in my classes while I taught at a university in Sapporo, which was my job for the subsequent five years.  Let’s be tactful and just say he wasn’t the hardest working of my students.  A week before I left Japan, the real-life Umeki invited me out for a few drinks and we ended up in one of his haunts, a bar whose interior resembled Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s penthouse in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  I think he was keen to create the impression that he lived the lifestyle of an international playboy, but I can’t help suspecting that today he’s become a grumpy and greying Kacho-San (‘Section Chief’).

 

For now, Karaoke can be read here.  This story comes with a trigger warning for lovers of alcohol, who may be traumatised by the fate that befalls a 21-year-old bottle of Hibiki Whisky.

 

From unsplash.com / © Alex Rainer

Time to learn about Hearn

 

© Tuttle Publishing

 

As we approach Halloween, I thought I would re-post some blog entries about my favourite ghost and horror-story writers.  Here’s what I wrote about Lafcadio Hearn in 2014.

 

19th-century writer Lafcadio Hearn surely had a confused sense of identity.  Perhaps it’s unsurprising that he had to travel to Japan, considered by westerners at the time to be the ends of the earth, before he found some cultural peace.

 

He was born in 1850 to a Greek mother and an Irish Protestant father, but was reared in Dublin by a great-aunt who fervently embraced Catholicism.  Later, he was later dumped in an austere boarding school in Durham in northern England.  It was during the unwelcome rough-and-tumble of boarding school that a playground accident cost him the sight of his left eye.  At the age of 19 he arrived in the USA, where he found employment as a journalist.  First he worked in Ohio, where he lost his job with a Cincinnati newspaper for committing the crime of marrying, briefly, a black woman, and then in New Orleans.

 

In 1890, he found his way to Meiji-era Japan where he worked as a school-teacher and university-lecturer whilst doing his best to chronicle the minutiae of life in a traditional and, to him, exotic Japanese culture that was fast vanishing under the wheels of Western-inspired industrialisation and ‘modernisation’.  Nowadays, to the Japanese at least, he is the most accomplished foreign scribe who ever attempted to describe their country in writing.

 

Since Hearn’s death in 1904, the Irish – who are good at doing this – have claimed him as one of their own.  So to me Hearn will always be the oddball wandering Irishman who got, and seized, the opportunity to record for posterity the details of life in old Japan just before it changed forever.  But in fact Hearn finished his life as a Japanese citizen.  He’d married a Japanese woman called Koizumi Setsu, fathered four children and taken on the Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo.  He strikes a solemnly Japanese-looking pose with his wife in the monochrome family photographs of the time.  His head is always in profile with the right side of his face towards the camera, so that his disfigured left eye is out of view.

 

Nowadays, some historians and cultural commentators chuckle at Hearn and at how he hankered after a disappearing Japan that, as an outsider, had never belonged to him anyway.  Indeed, one wonders how much the old Japan described in his writings was embroidered by his own fanciful yearnings.  There’s also an irony in how the Japanese were happy to adopt Hearn as their foreign champion after they’d modernised themselves and dumped the very culture that Hearn was so preoccupied with.  In a way, Hearn’s writings have become the literary equivalent of a holiday brochure, advertising an ethereal version of Japan that now exists only in the imaginations of tourists.

 

But nonetheless, I admire Hearn’s writings greatly.  The descriptions of late-19th century Japan in his journalism, with their gaudy colour and intricate attention to detail, are startlingly evocative.  In our modern digital world, where you can point your phone at just about anything and instantly preserve its image in pixels, the business of writing detailed descriptive prose no longer seems necessary.  It’s probably become a lost art.  But when it was necessary, Hearn was one of its greatest practitioners.

 

© Tuttle Publishing

 

Hearn was instinctively drawn to stories about ghosts and the uncanny, perhaps because of his pedigree.  The supernatural is another thing that the Irish are good at.  Accordingly, his books In Ghostly Japan and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, in which he recorded the weird and creepy folk tales circulating in his adopted country, are among the most famous works in his canon.   What I like about Hearn’s stories, or, more precisely, about Hearn’s retellings, are how commonplace the supernatural elements seem among the human tableau of medieval Japan.  The ghosts, spirits, goblins and demons don’t suddenly and unexpectedly intrude into the world of men and women.  They’re already there.  If they don’t quite exist alongside the Japanese people, they certainly inhabit the forests, mountain gorges, snowy plateaus and crumbling Buddhist cemeteries located at the edges of their existence.

 

Hearn’s tales also make a fascinating bestiary of the creatures of Japanese legends and folklore.  The story Mujina, for example, contains a being called a nopperabo.  In Japanese folklore this is almost perfectly human in its form and dress, apart from its face, which is as smooth and featureless as an egg.  Meanwhile, in the story Rokuro-Kubi, the title creature is a type of goblin with a detachable head.  Once detached, the head can flit about through the air, this way and that, like a giant bumblebee.  (Incidentally, in Japanese folklore, there’s another type of rokurokubi with an elastic neck that can stretch to grotesque and snake-like extremes.)

 

Perhaps the nastiest of Hearn’s supernatural beasties, though, appears in Jikininki, in which a travelling priest called Muso arrives in a village plagued by a hideous monster that materialises whenever there’s a death and a corpse becomes available for it to feed on: “…when the hush of the night was at its deepest, there noiselessly entered a Shape, vague and vast; and in the same moment Muso found himself without power to move or speak. He saw that Shape lift the corpse, as with hands, devour it, more quickly than a cat devours a rat – beginning at the head, and eating everything: the hair and the bones and even the shroud.”

 

I lived in Japan for much of the 1990s.  I encountered several foreign residents – gaijin as the Japanese referred to all us foreigners living in their country – who reminded me slightly of Lafcadio Hearn.  Seduced by Japan and its culture, they’d become ardent ‘Japanophiles’.  They’d ended up as a sub-species of gaijin that ordinary gaijin sniggeringly described as “being more Japanese than the Japanese.”  Such foreign types never seemed to me to be particularly happy.  Unfortunately, when you fall completely in love with a place, you become disillusioned when the place then spurns you by daring to change, losing what it had that attracted you first of all.  And at times there seemed no place in the world more capable of bewilderingly rapid and sudden change than Japan.

 

This certainly happened to Hearn.  Towards the end of his life, he wrote wearily that, “I felt as never before how utterly dead Old Japan is and how ugly New Japan is becoming.  I thought, how useless to write about things which have ceased to exist.”  Well, they may have ceased to exist by then, but I for one am glad that poor old Hearn bothered to write about them in the first place.

 

From the Asian Review of Books