We are both feeling rather subdued, and ready for a quiet time of reading and swimming at the beach today after a wild rollercoaster of a weekend in Tokyo : three packed days and nights of urban intensity; food; art, sex, and ludicrous amounts of cheap, but astonishing, vintage perfume.
The centerpiece of all this hedonism was, of course, the Lady Gaga concert that I had been looking forward to for months, and which we decided to turn into a proper event: staying at a nice hotel for two nights for ease and extra pleasure, with dancing afterwards, and the following two days just doing whatever took our fancy in the continously fascinating metropolis that is Tokyo: a city that I love and seemingly never tire of : this endless and ever-evolving urban proliferation of shining glass skyscrapers and hidden, old wooden houses; meandering, neon-lit warren-like streets, and mysterious twists and turns that, despite the often overwhelming numbers of people (especially around this time of national holidays, as people travel to and fro between the big city to their hometowns in other prefectures to celebrate ‘O-Bon’ – the time when souls return to their family’s homes and people pay their respects at their ancestral tombs and graveyards); is a city that, despite all of this, is almost dreamlike in its smooth efficiency, its safety, its people, and its limitless, intriguing, and stimulating distractions.
As I wrote in my piece on what to wear for the concert, I was completely undecided beforehand in terms of outfit and scent. But I was certainly buoyed up by the ‘just go for it’ comments that the post received by some readers of the Narcissus, and I gradually came round to the idea that extravagance was, in fact, the only option. Just after putting up that post, the evening before, we impulsively decided to head out to Yokohama to our usual haunts, D hoping to find some last-minute, unexpected items that might provide the perfect finishing touches to the ensemble he was planning (and in fact…..voilà! he quite quickly came across an old Japanese shop dealing in classic kimono accoutrements and other traditional Nipponesque haberdashery, buying the very nicely made aquamarine folding fan, or sensu, you see above : a perfect match with his geta shoes and summer yukata he had decided to wear to Gaga’s ‘Artrave’). Naturally, on the way to these places, never being able to stay in clothes shops for longer than a minute, I was compelled to just have a look; just a quick look in my usual founts of unwanted vintage perfume, just in case there was yet another bargain that I might be able to snap up, yet another rare and discontinued old perfume I could add to my shelves, and Wednesday evening, I wasn’t disappointed. I just happened to be walking by another one of those deeply unappealing old Louis Vuitton/ Chanel bag ‘brand stores’ that are so inexplicably popular in Japan with people here desperate to look higher class but who invariably end up looking more trashy in the event (the contrast can be painful); stores choc-a-bloc full of used, high end goods that I have no interest in; but in Japan, you see, you never know, and I had never been in this one before. And there, standing on the shelf for 2,000 yen (about eleven pounds, or twenty dollars at the current exchange rate), unaffected and uninterested in the ugly, overpriced leather stacked up all around it, was a proud, beautiful, pristine, 100 ml bottle of Caron Nocturnes in its original bottle.
When I love a perfume, but have been running out, and yet know that the particular formulation that I like no longer exists (ie. not the reformulation in the dotted Caron bottle, nor the brand new version that was released last year, which I haven’t yet smelled, I’m sorry to say, but which is by all accounts pleasant, with most of the original notes, but fast fading): to then find an untouched one, when only the other day I had picked up the dwindling miniature bottle of Nocturnes I have by the bed and sighed to myself, wishing I could find some more, to then find a huge bottle just standing there like that waiting for me to buy it feels almost miraculous, like telepathic destiny. I snapped it up without even thinking, hardly even able to believe my luck. Also there on the shelf for 1,500 yen was a full, unused bottle of Armani Pour Femme (1982), a gorgeous, long discontinued, baroque and rich rose-ambered scent that is also a rarity and which I wanted (and want: I can’t get these things out of my head once they are there: like an alcoholic or drug addict fixating ineluctably on what he needs); but left it there, regrettably, because I do have a bottle of Armani in the cabinet, albeit in a different flacon, a pure black bottle from when the scent was first released (………….no: writing this I will have to go back and get it – I have just decided: wouldn’t you?)
Instead, for 1000 yen, I plumped for what I thought initially was the now much coveted Rochas Byzance, very desired on ebay and significantly unavailable, but which was instead in fact a pristine bottle of the original Lumière: that sultry desert-like jasmine come-on scent from the eighties, housed in a bottle the same shape as Byzance (hence my confusion). Nice anyway though: sexy; off the shoulder, indeed luminous, and I look forward to reviewing it, and then possibly giving it to a friend, a relation, or someone reading this who really needs it. Or else, just have it there, beautifully scented, and solar bright Californian as part of my ever burgeoning collection (how far can all of this go? The bedroom is turning into a perfume mausoleum). So having bought these two, I decided to then put a limit on my purchases, and did deny myself the pleasure of going down to the shop further along down the street (where I recently bought the most perfect edition of Vol de Nuit parfum that is now one of my most treasured possessions: gorgeous), as things could have begun to get out of hand: I knew I would need plenty of cash available for the forthcoming Tokyo extravaganza, for all the restaurants, bars, just to move smoothly through it all. The city is not cheap.
Nocturnes is a delicious and very underrated cent that I first found in miniature at the flea market. I loved it immediately, with its strikingly sharp accord of bergamot, neroli and that potent, heartrushing mandarin element so beautifully fused in the head notes to a flush but tenderly aldehydic, floral heart of tuberose, jasmine, rose, and stephanotis: a white floral similar in nature to jasmine but not as indolic. I also have a stephanotis room spray by Floris, and when I smelled that the first time the note was immediately recognizable to me as that of Nocturnes, the unusual and distinctive ingredient that sets the perfume apart from all the usual other floral aldehydics, where a jasmine/rose/ylang triumvirate usually holds sway over musk. What is great about Nocturnes is the way that it works in all its stages: while I am certainly addicted to that mandarin bergamot beginning, which gives the scent its initial burst of romantic energy and freshness, and also enjoy the beguiling flourishes of newly cut, florid outreaching flowers in the heart, I also always know that I am not later going to be annoyed by some musky, fatty old fashioned ending that doesn’t suit me. No: the ending of Nocturnes is quite unusual for a perfume of this nature. Though the vetiver in the base is immediately discernible from first spray, creating a woodland, silvery, sparkliness contrasted with the spray of radiance you get from the top notes, as the perfume progresses, that refined vetiver note becomes much more omnipresent, infused effortlessly with a gentle note of vanilla that clings to the memories of the flowers while teasing up, undistractedly, the cooler, earth-touched ending. This base note vaguely reminds me of Habanita by Molinard, that wonderful, dense and rich French classic, with its androgynous Cuban vetiver-vanilla finale, though without the tobacco and demi-monde heaviness; the heavy, rustling dresses, a different take. I could wear Habanita, certainly, and did, actually, when I was staying in Mexico city about eight years ago, walking around the streets in its sultry, thick and nonchalant smokiness. I loved it. Nocturnes, though, an entirely different kind of scent, is much less time specific than Habanita, which could clog you down if you wore it all the time; no, this delicate, refreshing Caron is a scent that works perfectly from post-morning shower, then way into evening: a scent that I could wear on a regular basis if I had a steady supply, each stage subtle and well-blended; mood-elating yet calming.
This is why, when we woke up and it was the day, as we packed our suitcase and got ready to leave the house and go Gaga, I wore Nocturnes on the trainride up to Tokyo with its grounding, soothing aspect; a pre-drama perfume if you like, unimposing but elegant. Fresh. Especially on a man. It locked me in, smoothed out my edges, kept a lid on the blood surging, excitable pressure cooker.
Although the weather forecast seemed increasingly dire for the Thursday night performance of the Lady Gaga tour, I kept hoping and praying that it wouldn’t rain (and couldn’t sleep the night before as a result: )that we wouldn’t just be left standing at our designated area in front of the stage drenched to our skin and miserable, or worse, the concert get called off; but as we arrived by taxi at the Grand Arc Hanzomon, a hotel located close to the imposing Grand National Kabuki Theatre and the Imperial Palace, with its grave, dark green bonsai-shaped pine trees and moat, the rain was pouring in sheets; the sky was a bruising, deep grey and you could barely even see the view from the window. The austere, well-to-do atmosphere of the place was so utterly at odds with my imagined colourful excitement of a Gaga concert (which we would have to leave for in just a couple of hours, once we had unpacked and got ready) that the dissonance was curiously thrilling, though I couldn’t, at that point, possibly even imagine coming down to the lobby again in weirdo attire and facepaint and mushroom clouds of perfume, horrifying the staff and patrons of the hotel. It seemed completely unfathomable, this gap, as we sat in the lounge, La Mer, drank sparkling wine, and gazed out at the rain and the mist-laden cloudy sky.
Duncan’s look was coming together. The yukata; the fan, the touches of face colour that he got from some painting by Francesco Clemente; it was inspired, stylish, and definitely in the right spirit of Artpop. I myself didn’t really have a clue what to wear as I am far less clothes-oriented (monthly expenditure on clothes and shoes on average: lzero), and, eventually, just settled for an old Gaga t-shirt that I bought a few years ago and still like; uninspired, but that was all I felt, at the time, that could muster. I tried the face paint: felt stupid; washed it off. Put some different colours on: hated it; washed it off again. But then I just thought, no, for god’s sake it is going to be boring otherwise: just slap it on, change your mood, dispel this feeling, come on – so I did, and suddenly a painted canvas rather like the recent Applause single cover started to transpire, transmute; topped with some plastic green sunglasses the D had picked up somewhere, it all began to feel slightly transformational and fun as the white fog began to clear up outside, the tipsiness slid into feelings of real anticipation, the hands on the clock went round rather too quickly, and time was suddenly running out. Reality quickly heightening into those chambers of the brain where the filtering out of the dull becomes plausible and you enter into a more enhanced state of being and you think YES. I feel it. But what scent? D had decided on his new favourite, Shazam! and while he was showering I rudely (because unasked) drenched the whole yukata in this scent for a double olfactory and visual whammy: hot, sexed, spice: patchouli, incense, sweet, molasses vanilla – rich; warm, impactful, strong – though when he then added a few sprays on skin right afterwards it was definitely way too much; overwhelming – like drowning in a liquified souk, outrageous. I hadn’t quite decided what to wear myself (I had, of course, bought a selection) but the Nocturnes suddenly seemed way too way behaved and classical. One fast hot bubble bath later, and I too, had gone down my (hyper)clean, soapy, but very strong smelling Arab route; saffron, roses and clouds of sweetness in my Bakhoor Al Arais (along with my favoured Parachute hair cream) and Jakarta ‘Pierre Cardin’ deodorant spray, all aldehydes, fly spray and nuclear strength rosish savon-ness, a swirl of sweet Arabia chiming well with D’s hot desert aura, but which must have made the poor taxi driver almost suffocate.
It was time. And we were slightly late. Down in the elevator; out into the lobby: hiding behind sunglasses, no problem, despite eyes trailing us as we left, a pair of gaijin oddballs, laughing to ourselves, amused. Taxi to Tokyo station, the driver not batting an eyelid, nor clearing his throat: out the cab; through the throngs of vacationers milling in the station, and off to the ticket gates (definitely battings of eyelids there and staring and pointing – and lots of smiles), and then, finally, on the train, past the northern fringes of Tokyo; Tokyo Disney Sea; vast stretches of grey, concreted suburbia; and all the way up to edges of Chiba and the Gaga concert.
Which was held, to my great dismay, in some boring little dump called QVC Marine Stadium. In the sticks. And as soon as we left the station I knew; no, this isn’t going to be what I was dreaming of. It’s going to be mundane, somehow. Too everyday. No magic. Prosaic. Glum. Dull. I hate baseball, for a start. Everything about it. I am not a sports person to begin with, but some sports do at least have some aesthetic appeal on some level, be it the physical perfection of their practitioners (soccer, tennis, athletics), or the sport itself so kinetically thrilling, as in the aforementioned sports or some Olympic events, gymnastics, diving, speedskating, that you can’t help but be a bit drawn in on the rare occasions that I catch them on someone else’s TV (we haven’t had TV for twenty years). Baseball, though, really strikes me as one of the very ugliest of sports, almost as boring as golf: stodgy, bearded slobs chewing gum in those dreadful kits and occasionally hitting a ball with a stick, standing around arrogantly doing nothing but jutting out their jaws and thinking of steak; the drabness of the stadium; the hot dogs and french fries there on sale; the friendliest but least artistic people on earth, drenched in the rain but cheerily dressed in rainproof coats and carrying glo-sticks, shouting along happily as the support act, one of those Japanese girl-groups with co-ordinated dance moves and voices like four year old toddlers, Momoiro Clover Z, whipped people up into an animated froth of frenzy: fun, in a way, if you are into that kind of thing, but all of it immediately striking me personally as lacklustre, industrialized, and completely not in keeping with the whole Artpop ideal (which, cynical as you might be, I think had some genuine artfulness to it: you only have to watch the fascinating interview with Miranda Sawyer on The BBC’s Culture Show to realize that Gaga, though possibly ‘pretentious’ (depending on your viewpoint), certainly is no ditz and knows exactly what she is talking about and doing. This is an intelligent and highly creative individual, musically gifted and innately theatrical (in a perfect world the show would have been held in a theatre) and I personally do believe that she is a true artist. It is precisely for this reason, the sense that the woman is definitely of a different ilk to the other current pop stars of today, with her ability to change the songs at will, transforming them into totally different ballads at the piano (watch this spooky studio version of Applause where in the bridge near the end she sounds just like a young Kate Bush; or this gorgeous rendition of Do What U Want done with xylophone live on a TV show for examples of what I mean): ad libbing, duetting proficiently with Tony Bennett (who has called her one of the most natural jazz singers he has ever met), a performer who worked her way up from the performance art scene in New York and produced some of the most stunning pop videos I have ever seen, all of it with a tongue-in-cheek ferocity that makes much of her work just transcend her peers. Whatever you personally think of the music, there is an intensity and sincerity in her work, the beautifully mindless pleasure she, and we take in all those attention-grabbing costumes (” Enigma pop star is fun, she wear burqa for fashion : it’s not a statement as much as just a move of passion “), (“Aura”), or, this line from Marry The Night : ” It’s not that I’ve been dishonest, it’s just that I loathe reality” , an emotion I can most definitely, and readily do identify with, myself.
Nevertheless, very little of this artistry or visual acuity was in evidence at Thursday night’s performance. In fact, the entire show was very disappointing. With the depressing shock of Robin Williams’ sad and lonely suicide hanging over everything in the headlines on top of the far greater magnitude of misery on a world scale, from Ebola, to the Ukraine, to beheadings and bombings in Syria to the shooting in Missouri, both of us were hoping for an event that would blend intense visual stimulation and imagination with banging, thrilling pop songs, to let us lose ourselves in something, just to dream and escape from it all for a couple of hours; ‘ a lovefest, it should have been‘ as Duncan said this morning, something that had all very much been in evidence at the far smaller concert that Gaga did at the London’s Roundhouse late last year when she debuted all the songs from Artpop in a way that can only be described as exhilarating. As I have said, for me at least, the woman’s essential abilities are not in doubt. What we went to, though, was a cynical attempt on her or her promoters’ part to milk as much money from the pop-loving public by packing as many people as possible into a grubby old open air baseball stadium and charging them a fortune for the privilege. Tickets right at the back in the stands, where you not have been able to see anything, cost 10,000 yen (100 dollars); standing tickets in the main area of the stadium were 15,000, and we had stupidly been duped into thinking that by paying an extravagant 25,000 yen each for ‘premium standing’ ticket, that we would be near enough the stage to make the experience of seeing Madonna at Tokyo Dome back in 2006, when she literally was the size of a penny, seem like a long, and distant, memory. Instead, although there was definitely a thrill to be had in weaving through the crowds towards our designated area (and we did have some fun, as you can see from the pictures), once we were ushered into the so-called premium zone, we realized very quickly that unless you were willing to be crushed right at the front by the stage barriers in the ‘pit’ ( I can’t: I am claustrophobic), where we were standing was not premium or advantaged in the least: merely a half decent view of the stage, where watching the video screens, while distancing and uninvolving, was still, realistically, the only option. You couldn’t really have seen anything otherwise. The special stage that had been designed for most of the world tour, with catwalks for the dancers and the star to walk right into the crowd nice and close, had not been assembled at all for this Tokyo leg of the Artrave: at the moment the concert began, a black, nondescript, pinned-up curtain fell down to reveal a stage set that held virtually no visual pleasure; a blobby white ‘psychedlic’ back drop, ostensibly ‘Kubrickian'; bunches of so-so gyrating dancers; lumbering musicians whizzing on air guitar, and then, finally, the lady herself, who was rushing through truncated edits of all the hits in peremptory fashion, looking not especially interesting nor cutting edge, to a sound system that did not deliver the musical thrills I was hoping for ( I am a bit of a muso nerd at heart: I need the sound just right to feel total satisfaction and I wanted it crisp, clear, and booming). And I was just standing there, feeling crestfallen and one step removed from it all, neurotic.
Things improved somewhat with Do What U Want, the synths fanning out throbbingly into the night sky, and I was slowly beginning to get a bit hooked in (Duncan was dancing, egging me on), then suddenly it was like we were in a different world; spliced into emotion; there. The band, the dancers, had gone: she was at the piano, alone; invited a young girl fan from Hokkaido onto the stage to sit with her, and it was immediately just a new, and beautiful, universe. Gone were the exhortations to ‘jump!’ or ‘put our hands in the air!’ at the expense of actually singing the song in question; the backing track; the whole lame caravenserai, and suddenly the entire arena was filled with the voice of Lady Gaga singing the drug ballad Dope and Born This Way in beautifully rendered acoustic piano versions that seared right through the collected audience and had many people, myself included I am afraid to admit, immediately in tears. The little girl, quite starstruck, was delighted to be up there, the music fluid and real, and for ten minutes or so the artist had us all, absolutely, and completely, in the palm of her hand.
Then, just as suddenly, it was back to el cheapo dancing, some cruddy and very unflattering outfits and wigs, and a rushed countdown to the too fast end (she wasn’t inhabiting the songs, just tossing them off), where Gaga came back on for the encore in a glittering white dress to sing the beautiful ‘Gypsy’ – Duncan’s favourite – beautiful, in a way, though replete with the sense that everything had had a time limit. And it did. The moment the concert finished, workers in hard hats began coming on stage to get the stage ready for annual Summer Sonic festival that was to be held the next day, as though they had been waiting in the wings for her to get a move on. The lights went up; it was over.
Well, more fool me for being so adolescent in the first place and expecting the concert of a lifetime (though there’s nothing wrong, ultimately, with a little passion, I don’t think, otherwise you may as well be dead), but I did most definitely feel flat, with the sense that there was little of that elated electrical, buzzing energy that you feel in the air at the end of a really good performance. A lot of people had a ‘so-so’ look on their face as they made their ways towards the exits, and we swore that we would never again go to a stadium concert. They are so impersonal, large scale, overly expensive – and, in this case, mediocre in their entirety – that the star in question is often just drowned out in the hubbub, the logistics, the banal and uninspiring venue and the horrendously extortionate tickets (we did feel ripped off: what justification could there have been for such monstrously elevated prices?).
It doesn’t have to be this way: one of the best concerts I have ever been to in my life was back in 1989 when I saw the Pet Shop Boys at the NEC arena in Birmingham. Now that was dazzling. Huge video screens showing specially commissioned, churlish and provocative art videos by Derek Jarman; giant, grotesque puppets on stage; beautiful choreography, and a refreshingly ironic attitude towards the ‘live’ performance, the two Pet Shop Boys not even on stage for some of the songs. This was artpop, a quarter of a century before the Gaga attempted to do it halfheartedly in this crappy concert series, dressed in an octopus costume that made her look like some idiotic kiddy entertainer at a Disneyland revue. The PSB concert was ravishing, fun, and indelible in my memory as a brilliant slice of pure pop performance, though in terms of musicianship and the sheer thrill of actual raw musicality, nothing has ever ever really come close to Erykah Badu, not even Tori Amos, the so called ‘neo-soul’ singer from Dallas who we have seen three times in Japan on separate tours and been blown away each time by her band; her energy, and her electrifying voice. Sometimes that is actually all that you need: just the music.
Having said that, I also like artifice. I prefer the cinema to the theatre. Expertly, highly produced CDs to live ones. An imaginisitic sheath pulled over, disguising or enhancing ‘reality’. Art: music: cinema: perfume. I live for it. And isn’t perfume, in some ways, also, an ‘alternate reality’? Just a drop of which can whisk us away from our colourless and odourless surroundings and plunge us straight into dreams?
What was great about the Artrave night, despite the disappointment, was the fact that because we did transform ourselves, and made a real effort, the event itself really did become charged with something exciting and engaging. Where most of the concert goers just slowly made their way back to the station in a slow, lumbering crush, we found ourselves drawn into a mêlée of ‘monsters’ and other people wanting to take our picture; the hard core Gaga fans who had been there in the front of stage and who were dressed up and in the proper spirit, exhilarated (perhaps I should have tried to go up there………?) People singing; groups photos being taken left right and centre :
And we both really couldn’t help enjoying this part of the evening, meeting all kinds of J-people singing Gaga songs, just having fun and being silly. There was a sense of camaraderie there that fired us up to then go on and do something somewhere else. Back, then, to the hotel: a quick shower and change, and off to Shinjuku Ni-chome in Kabukicho, the most dangerous place in Japan, the centre of organized crime, where the yakuza, long entrenched there, hold sway: Tokyo’s gay zone, which, though relatively small compared to most capital cities, and a Wednesday, was still quite kicking after midnight: people in cafés, bars and restaurants, the usual places to see and be seen for the fashionable and the buffed; but somehow, no, we are perverse: neither of us thrill to such places, and, winding through the clandestine streets like hungry night rats we found ourselves gravitating instead to a place we had never been before, an intriguing, old looking dive called New Sazae that was playing some disco hit or other and channelling it straight into speakers on the streets outside: we thought why not; went up the stairs, and walked straight into a time bubble.
There is a natural yearning in people around my age and over for youth and disco nostalgia; places that specialize in memories: seventies, oldies, and 80’s nights: the music of your youth, the carefree light of adolescence: and much as such places can be fun for a while, they can also feel rather depressing at times, almost mournful, like a sentimental, and somewhat forced, bad wedding disco. At our own twice yearly club nights, like this year’s Sexual Emergency, we always mix the music up so it feels contemporary and spiced: older songs woven in the mix to create surprise and invigorating juxtapositions, which also makes those cherished and bygone classics that you love sound fresher and revivified. The dance-around-your-handbag-to-The-Village-People type of shenanigans, the wasn’t-it fun-to-be-young-thing not really our boat. However, when you enter a weird but pure and honest space that feels not like a ‘seventies night’ as such but actually as though were back in the seventies, it really is like walking straight into a time chute; a dream. In the same way that in the traditional Japanese art culture of wabisabi there is an acute sense of form; of something being pared down; smoothed; honed, and perfected until it becomes its own very essence – be it a vase, an incense holder, a cup – this place had absolutely become itself a full one hundred per cent. There was no room for it to evolve further or change; it was doused in itself, marinated: a time trap. And, as I say, like a dream, Like A Prayer (lord that sounded good in there) – a bunch of curious looking people, many ‘of a certain age’, many of indeterminate gender, sat in their dark, disco-ey corners nursing their drinks as other happily energized patrons twirled on the dance floor to Chic or Chaka Khan: the sound system perfect for a geek like me: the graphic equalizers, speakers, volume just exactly right sound-wise (the owner was even playing cassettes); the disco ball, the twinkling lights sucking you into a strange world that the unkind might say was desperate, but which we, after all the baloney of the bland and largely atmosphere-free stadium concert, dived into with real aplomb. Oh yes. Give me a cuba-libre or two, let me try and dance on this splintered knee of mine….. I felt happy, free, released, and completely liberated. We both did, and couldn’t keep the grins off our faces. How could we not have known about this place? we kept asking each other, after all these years of living in Japan (it has been going since 1966, apparently), as we got lost in music, spinning around with strangers, not caring if it was unfashionable (it was actually very cool, if you ask me, in its lack of pretence, the joy on those strange people’s faces, its total fulfillment of atmosphere and function). Who were these people? Sleeping a while, dancing again. Sleeping. New, younger people coming in for a while, swirling about and leaving; Duncan dancing, constantly (he never stops) in a fresh pair of geta; the disco ball spinning, the familiar songs sounding fresh and new as though they were still climbing the charts, there, at that very moment; a soothing cocoon, this mini disco down a Tokyo backstreet, of yes, nostalgia, but somehow a feeling of being utterly in the moment.
But. When ‘Can’t keep my eyes off you’ came up again on the stereo for a second (or third?) time, the seams in New Sazae’s seamlessness began to be revealed, and I realized, of course, that the man who woke up from his sleep each time to dance to the song yet again could quite possibly be doing this night after night for all I knew: he might live here; fine, obviously – each to his own – but it all suddenly began to feel like some honeytrap of light and sound, a place to never find your way out of, and less innocent than it had initially seemed. Especially when I looked over and, in the shadows, straining my eyes, thought to myself, god, what is that? What is that shape?
And it was two middle aged women, who had previously been dancing in different areas of the dance floor, one ecstatic, the other troubled and lifting up her skirts, locked together in some block-like shape; an angry, inchoate, crouching creature on the floor immersed in a catfight, tearing each other’s hair out, Duncan trying to prise them apart – no no no please don’t do that, the proprietor shouting Rika, no, stop it, will you stop it, get off her, Rika being physically thrown out, pushed out the door, the victress, smoothing her hair and sitting smugly in her corner with a fresh drink, trying to control her breathing; smiling (fuming), and with a proud look on her face waiting for the next glittering song by Duran Duran to come on that she could throw herself into it with abandon on the dancefloor, as if there were no tomorrow.
Time to leave. Blinking in the dawn light, the hot summer morning of Shinjuku: the smell of hot asphalt, garbage, drains. 5.30 am, the city coming to life as delivery people in white bandanas and overalls, already sweaty in the steaming heat, open truck doors and began the city’s transformation from bar fly vampire to light, business; and the living. But there she was, right near the door, dazzled and totally drunk on the pavement: Rika, bleeding. Incoherent. Furious.
We want to just check she is alright. You can’t just leave someone, no matter how crazy; need to decide whether we should call an ambulance for her. And reluctanctly, I slowly peeled back the elegant long grey silk scarf she had coiled around her neck, to check there was nothing more than the (quite deep) scratch the other woman had left on her forehead with her fingernails. But, now, the chilling revulsion and horror of one’s hands being covered in someone else’s blood: possibly from that cut, I don’t know, or from another one I couldn’t see in the folds of that bloodened grey, which was drenched in dark crimson blood, oh jesus: I had to wash my hands and get out of there; we checked, couldn’t see the source of this bleeding and thought she was ok but that didn’t stop her, our last image of her, dragging herself back up those stairs, to get back into that club.
Us. Staggering to the metro station for the first train of the day; disturbed, naturally, by this violent ending, but still, in truth, happy and replete in the blinding sun from the night of full Tokyo dream, we make our way back to the hotel, hardly able to keep our hands off each other: getting the wrong train, not caring, kissing in the strain station. No, not here. We’ll get arrested. Up, now, for a very intense twenty four hours, we both, an hour or so later, just fall into a very, deep sleep.
The next day, we didn’t leave the hotel until 3.30pm (to the consternation of the chamber maids), but now it was time for some real Art. To first explore the nice area we were staying in, with its chichi, fashionable restaurants and cafés patronized by all the embassy employees that work nearby, and then off to see a retrospective exhibition by Australian/Indonesian artist Fiona Tan I had heard good things about. But first, let’s just check out that British antiques shop again, where I found perhaps my most beautiful ever vintage treasure, that exquisitely designed bottle of Jolie Madame by Balmain, which I can hardly bear to use I love how it looks so much, but, nothing new going there (the patchouli glass bottle is still there; still mulling it over). Good, it wasn’t that cheap a place in any case. Italian lunch – Japanese do Italian very well – then, walking down the street – oh look – a recycle shop. One of those places that sell all kinds of things from washing machines to second hand DVDS, but, as you will know if you read this blog, a perfume hunter never knows what he might find in these places. Perfume can turn up anywhere. And I walk in and what is the first thing I see on the shelf ? A boxed, unopened, 14ml parfum of vintage Caron Infini parfum with no price on it. And a whole shelf of stuff: Chanel Nº5 vintage colognes, lots of Y, a recent Patou, and I don’t know why, but I just instinctively pick up a whole shitload of perfumes and plonk them down by the cashier, just in case ( I have a feeling this place will be cheap, and if not I can put it back). How much for all this, please? We are speaking in Japanese but the owner is Indian, and he looks at the loot I have unceremoniously placed there in front of him.
Caron Infini parfum, 14ml:
Cabochard eau de toilette, 100ml:
Cabochard boxed set with perfume and soap (god, the soap: I love the Grès paper: that winter tree pattern that looks so poetic and sad somehow despite its elegance – would you keep it or use it?)
Le Galion Snob parfum, sealed: (so beautiful: the perfect jasmine/rose Joy substitute)
Patou Forever, 30ml, good for Duncan’s mum – a true perfume lover, obsessed with Montale and Magie Noire: a raspberry rose ambered chypre:
‘2000 yen is ok.’
Eleven pounds? Twenty dollars? I say no, let me give you more, 3,000 at least, but he says, no, we pay much less for it, so 2000 yen is fine. Thank you very much, sir. I realize at that moment that I could have smash-and-grabbed the whole lot, the Chanel N° 5 colognes included, the Madame Rochas, the Eternity, the YSLs, and he would have probably charged me the same: but no, it would be greedy (and how far can I take this vintage mania, anyway? It has become very difficult to send perfume out of Japan, so sending it to other perfumistas is a real headache, as would trying to sell things on e-bay………) Do I just keep on buying it all for possession’s sake?
Infini, though, is something that I can just never resist. Especially in perfect condition, boxed, and practically free. Of all the Carons, many of which I have in my collection, including Narcisse Blanc, Narcisse Noir, Bellodgia, Alpona, Poivre and Nuit de Noël in extrait, and the delightfully weird Montaigne in eau de toilette, but don’t wear except to experience at home, it is Infini and Nocturnes that I enjoy and wear on a regular basis. There is just something so natural about them, somehow, a similar presence in the scents despite their very different makeup: Infini with its animalic sandalwood and vetiver base, its aldehydic floral sheen, that beautiful narcissus note in the top with hyacinth and tuberose, the perfect perfume in many ways; Nocturnes with its fresher, mandarinic uplift, its delicious vetiver and vanilla, but somehow a similar atmosphere (the subtle vetiver anchoring?); and it was in fact with surprise and pleasure that I read the other day that they were both created by the same perfumer, Gerard Lefort, obviously something of a genius. The Nocturnes I found in Yokohama was in perfect olfactive state, as is this Infini. Boxed (a rare thing for a lot of vintage perfume), fully intact, and smelling it on my hand, the concept of infinity the perfume’s original concept is based on does suddenly becomes more apparent: a perfumed, gentrified laserbeam searching into the skylights and the beyond with its perfected swathes of wood; fruit: flower; aldehyde……. a more rich and sensual alternative to Calèche, if you like, but with similar levels of taste, refinement, and bearing. I was delighted to find this as an accompaniment to my Nocturnes find, vintage perfumes that I will not only sit and ogle over but wear quite happily when I go out as well.
I ask him. How often do you get new perfumes in? Every month, he replies, on the first. (Where from, I wonder? Aren’t you also curious? Who is throwing this stuff away?) In other words, despite the Shinagawa Flea Market, the Jiyugaoka arcade, the Isezakicho thrift shops and other regular sources of vintage perfume I am privy to, this place looks like it could be the most terrifyingly exciting place yet: they are practically giving the stuff away in bulk. And who knows what else might surface? I have to be there, at the start of every month. I can’t miss it. I need to get my hands on it. Don’t I? Wouldn’t you? I will, of course, keep you posted. And yes, I will try to find a way to share the wealth. And yes, also, in case you were wondering, there is still more perfume to come in this piece, from the following day that we spent in Tokyo More perfume for a pittance. More vintage perfume. Am I sick?
Bags full of loot, we happily make our way to the Metropolitan Museum Of Photography in Ebisu for a wonderful exhibition by Fiona Tam, a photograper I had never heard of before until reading an article about her in The Japan Times, and the retrospective made for a very calming, contemplative and beautiful antidote to the previous night’s multicoloured wildness and disturbances ( I couldn’t quite get that bleeding woman out of my mind and needed some kind of catharsis from it). The museum was certainly the best way to achieve this; open until 9pm that night, it included a fascinating film made by the artist on the power of images, photography, life, and death, interviewing photography collectors around the world and examining her own motives for her obsessive draw towards images and their overwhelming power. Cerebral, but unpretentious and really very purifying, somehow, delicately and expertly made, it also helped me understand my own inexorable draw towards the visual, and explored some aspects of the modern overabundance of images on social media and the like (more photographs are of course being taken now than ever before, the vast majority of little value artistically, aesthetically, even spiritually): all the selfies, just like my very own Gaga photos above, where the act of trying to capture a moment becomes more important the the moment itself. At the beach today, I was watching various examples of this: a group of young women, girls, really, the Japanese ideal of pretty young beauty, giggling way and doing endless posing and jumping in the air for ‘action shots’ ‘capturing’ their day at the beach. But rather than living in the moment and just being at the beach with a snapshot to remember it by, it seemed to me that the Facebook representation of their ‘day at the beach’ was their experience: a strangely hollowed out, instantaneous, flat-mirrored transposition of lived reality. In the same way, the pictures you see of the Artrave have already, in some ways, transcended the actual live experience: the afterimages, contrived, selective, will become the memory.
On the second floor of the gallery were some of the artist’s film installations, one a very slow and hypnotic film made inside an enormous antiques warehouse in China, slowly, slowly moving over the surfaces of the entire space, taking in each object, the colours and textures, the silks, sculptures, spices and shadowed, five-spice, dusted, anisic nooks……… and sitting on bean bags on the floor in the darkened space, what many would find deeply tedious was for both of us meditative, lingering; profound , somehow, and exquisitely, aesthetically pleasing. As was the other film, filmed in Iraq and various other countries, the artist capturing an unaffected beauty in so many things, in so many different kinds of people, that it proved to be quite moving in its breadth of ambition. After an excellent meal at an Indian restaurant in Hanzomon, we drifted back peacefully, in reflective, softened mode, to the hotel.
It was now the last day, and it had been decided that we would go to a film in the afternoon: but could we not, perhaps, just visit the Salvation Army Bazaar in Nakano-Fujimicho in the morning, first, as we are (kind of ) in the area?
Greed, I hear you cry, but this place, which I have of course written about before, is the best place to get inexpensive and interesting books (an anthology by the best Japan writer, Donald Ritchie, for 100 yen, a dollar, for instance, was one thing I was very pleased with): loads of old books: crockery, furniture, old records, clothes, and, if you are lucky of course, discarded perfume.
We arrive, walk through the boiling streets, the sun beating down in its typically unrelenting August manner; stop for cheese toast and caffe latte at a very nice, if austere, coffee shop along the street (the Japanese take their coffee very seriously, and it is delicious); and then, make our way towards the friendly if downtrodden bazaar full of bargain hunters from all corners of the city at 11am sifting through the old junk, all kinds of people looking for a good deal, something worthwhile.
I go to my usual corner. The perfume is no longer there. They have moved it. Oh I see, it’s over there, a bit further along. I can see some bottle or other. And then: the beautiful box, that I never tire of seeing or being excited by……. that classic Guerlain parfum box that I think is possibly the most beautiful ever made. That box. But which one is it? When I found my Chamade extrait in Ofuna last year I almost flipped my lid, as I do on the rare occasions I find a Vol De Nuit, my favourite (there is never L’Heure Bleue, Nahéma, although I did once many years ago find miniature boxed samples of vintage Parure extrait). To me, though, this design has the beauty of something you might find in a classic museum of egyptology or such like: this beautifully designed outerbox – the black and white imperfectly symmetrical zigzagging; the gold, scarabbed, embossing – never mind the perfume sealed within – it is all enough to make my pulse quicken. My eyes widen like saucers as I reach out to see what it is.
Vintage Mitsouko extrait. Sealed, unopened: 1200 yen. And to the left of it,vintage Samsara extrait, in less perfect condition, but boxed as well, resplendent in red, for 1500.
And this brings me again to my main theme; the perfume addiction dilemma. When you find such unbelievable bargains, but wouldn’t necessarily wear the perfume yourself, what do you do? From a collection completist perspective, this Mitsouko is necessary, to sit on the cabinet next to its sisters. Its sibling parfums. It is an object I covet, but a perfume that I don’t like anywhere near as much as other Guerlains, personally, despite its mythical status among perfumistas and my own full length review of its obvious charms. Somehow there is, ultimately, something musty and fusty about Mitsouko. Dour. And Samsara, is, when all is said and done, really rather crass and vulgar in its faux-operatic, heaving cleavage, despite its plenitudes of real Mysore sandalwood – readily discernible here.
So I decide to show some self-restraint, to leave them: no I don’t need them; I already have one Samsara extrait, and surely the Mitsouko parfum de toilette is the by far the most beautiful strength of the perfume you have smelled anyway. You know the vintage extrait, have smelled it countless times. You don’t need it. I smile at the fortitude of my own resistance. I begin to walk away.
But a large and determined looking woman has now moved towards the perfume stand, picking bottles up with a quizzical look on her face, and I find that despite myself, I am instinctively reaching rudely across her and grabbing the Guerlains. I just can’t let them go, I have to have them: these vintage Guerlain extraits that are too precious to just be left there unattended or to be bought by someone else: I know how beloved Mitsouko is for people, and if I don’t keep it simply as an essential part of my own ‘museum’ then it can be gifted away to someone later. She gives me a discount, anyway, plus a Javan jasmine massage oil tossed in, for 2400 yen. Fantastic, obviously. But then if you continue buying whatever you find at that price, no matter how cheap, it will soon begin to add up, surely. Am I just buying these things for the sake of it, in some self-soaked delirium of vintage perfume mania?
On reflection, in any case, to assuage my unnecessary guilt, all these scents, from the Nocturnes on the night before Gaga to the Mitsouko on the last day in Tokyo before we came back to our quiet and leafy Kamakura (after a brilliant documentary film, incidentally, appropriately titled the Queen Of Versailles, the story of one of the richest men in America, David Siegel and his trophy wife Jackie – a fascinating character – and their financial struggles during th 2008 economic downturn); all of this precious haul came to a grand total of about 6,000 yen. Sixty dollars. Thirty four quid: it all definitely sounds even better in sterling, desperately cheap, less than what most people spend on a T-shirt.
I lay it out before me, my loot, at home. My treasure. We unpack the case; the yukata. I lift it to my face, the smell of Duncan and Shazam, and that whole evening fresh and alive, flooding back to me. Hedonistic, yes. Indulgent: fully. Dangerous: possibly. But also memorable: alive: wonderful, imprinted, and consolidated by the perfume, in my brain as full-hearted; deep and puncturing lune-touched night to remember. As D said that morning as I washed the blood from my hands in a Shinjuku park fountain, but how can people not, sometimes, just lose control? How can they just keep going, in their routines and not let go? How can they stand it?