The contrast between Friday and Saturday was startling.
The day before found me at the doctor’s round the corner, sat in a stuffy, overheated waiting room with a dozen or two pensioners waiting to be treated for pharyngitis (how on earth can I be expected to sing like this, I wailed to myself), and this, also, before a day of teaching at work where I felt like death warmed up and about as glamorous as a cold lump of dough.
And yet the next day was to be a birthday extravaganza organized by Duncan, participants unrevealed, activities secret, the only thing I knew being that I was supposed to be singing two songs at the Closet Ball Tokyo in Asagaya (in my debut cabaret performance (!)), something that at that tired, head-fuzzed stage, on Saturday morning as we sat on the train to Tokyo, my crappy Casio toy piano in hand, suitcase stuffed last minute with all kinds of costume possibilities, felt like an absolute, distinct impossibility.
Really I should have been in bed, sleeping, antibiotics and throat medicines and cough suppressants working their way through my system (oh how Japanese doctors like to dispense those pills!). Instead, we were now approaching Takadanobaba station, just in time for the appointed meeting – the morning had seen us shouting irritatedly at each other and leaving the house in an utter heap as we tried to pull everything together before the taxi arrived – as the first of our friends arrived for a birthday meal at a Myanmar restaurant called Mingalaba.
Me, third from right, looking pale and puffy.
(Un)surprisingly, once the red wine started flowing and the dishes came (interesting and new – I’ve never had that food before), and people were enjoying just meeting up and chatting – D had assembled a lovely group of friends who all talk, if you know what I mean: after a week of teaching I don’t want to elicit conversation from people; one thing I hate sometimes socially is when I feel as though I have to play the fool, the joker and make everyone laugh; on this occasion it was more like just swimming in a stream of words and interesting stories where no one had anything to prove (the scourge of being in your twenties, surely – how I hated dinner parties then, so many insecure yet pretentious people in London in the media, in theatre, in the arts, I used to feel so unsatisfied by social exchanges: really I think that the black hole post-university is the first often uncredited crisis we have, where no-one really knows what they are doing and are all panicking…) How lovely, then, to be in ‘middle age’, if you must call it that, and be with people who all know who they are, a diverse bunch who are all curious and sensitive and open-minded, with interesting things to say, just enjoying each others’ company. The time seemed to just pass by in a flash, and so some of us then decided to continue the proceedings at a nice cafe down the road, in that warm, unthinking, relaxed kind of way (or was I just monged out from the drugs); whatever, it was nice, although I could feel the fact that I was supposed to be doing something later on stage (how?) starting to tug at me. How?
I have written some posts on here before about Duncan’s recent performance art at The Closet Ball, a kind of anything-goes cabaret featuring burlesque, drag, and whatever else, organised by our friend Taylor/Tatianna, who we first met through a group of people who were protesting against the ludicrous ‘dance ban’ enacted a couple of years ago when the Tokyo mayor suddenly decided, in typically draconian, fascistic fashion, to ban dancing in bars and clubs for ‘moral’ reasons (and this in the child pornography and human trafficking capital of Asia for god’s sake; what kind of messed up ethics were these?). In any case, we soon found ourselves meeting up in Tokyo for dance-offs in the streets and ‘flash mobs’ (most memorably to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, such fun), and through it we made a whole new coterie of friends. One thing led to another and before we knew it, Duncan was on stage doing bizarre and highly inventive performance pieces every couple of months or so, letting his wild imagination go untrammelled and unexpurgated in public: thrilling, actually, and intensely liberating.
We now essentially have two lives: the working week, when we hardly see each other because we are just working and coming home and sleeping – me on lates, he on early; during the week we are respectable ( I like to kid myself ) teachers, conventional in many ways, and pretty hard working, though secretly with eyes, always, in truth, on the weekends, which have, quite frankly, become quite ridiculously exciting. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either infantile, or perhaps merely adolescent, or else, perhaps just incredibly lucky. We are told that once we hit thirty and have commitments and responsibilities and are in a long-term relationship that life will become calcified, stultified, that we will become these zombies and shadows of our former selves, set in our ways; bored, and boring. But does ‘adult’ have to mean this? As long as you are a responsible citizen during the week, pay your taxes, your bills, and all the rest, as far as I am concerned you can do what the hell you like the rest of the time especially if it is something you love, that makes you feel passion. As I said to my students yesterday, passion is key.
And for me and the D, I suppose that ultimately comes from the imagination and from art. Everyone is different; we are drawn to different inspirations, but I know for us, what lurks beneath or beyond, in dreams rather than reality, in what touches the senses and the aesthetic rather than the practical or the prosaic, is what turns us on, what thrills. When you go ‘under the membrane’, pierce something, get away from the commercial and the brainwashed and access something more instinctual and intuitive, you feel alive, and to have reached an age where you almost have nothing to lose, when you are doing it for the sake of pure experience, to me, that in itself is beautiful.
But now there is a show to be done. And on this occasion, our roles are reversed. Usually I am doing the music and taking the pictures and assisting backstage (a little upstairs dressing room I love hanging about in), but tonight, it is me, my first time at trying this – Duncan had said a short while back, it’s your birthday, do you want to perform? And although the idea terrified me, I thought it was just too boring to say no. So here I am: Burning Bush, my brand off-the-cuff new alter-ego, in homage to Kate Bush, my favourite ever singer, but also a stage name, I thought, with several other possible interpretations. Not really being a clothes person (call yourself a drag queen?) I am being styled by D, who has picked up various things in cheap recycle shops, and for obvious reasons, I am wearing Aimez Moi by Caron, because I do absolutely want to be loved by the audience.
Rather than sit and quake upstairs and wait my turn, though, I decide to watch the first few acts, including the deliriously fascinating Die Schwarze Frau, a friend from Sweden called Yukiro now (he won’t tell us his real name), who is a ‘drag queen’ but also not, somehow, as he often seems to be subverting the genre (which, in truth, I can find really quite tedious with all its conventions and false eyelashes and camp stereotypes, just one more unthinking part of the gay canon). No. Yukiro is a true sight to behold, as you are about to see. Tall, slender as a snake, he transforms himself into creatures that people are speechless in front of: there is something icy and cold, even terrifying about him (though in truth he is gentle and sweet) – at our Delicate Delinquents party in July he absolutely stole the show: people were open-mouthed and dazzled. What is fantastic is that we are fast becoming very good friends, with a great deal in common in terms of musical and cinematic taste, and in fact Duncan and he are, as we speak, writing a screenplay and are set to co-direct a film next year, a very low-budget (or rather no-budget), but quite hilarious sounding spoof on the British cult classic The Wicker Man, but set here, at the Closet Ball itself. A collection of people are quickly becoming involved, including Tom, the amazing Reuters photographer, sat next to me at the Burmese restaurant, who took some of these pictures (the really clear, professional-looking ones) and who has volunteered to be the chief cameraman for the film. Duncan is on a complete creative roll at the moment (I think I lied when I said that we were concentrating on our jobs properly during the week, as he is currently completely burning the midnight oil with ideas for this film and keeps going up to Tokyo to meet people: he is going again tonight to recruit a Japanese friend who is to play the Brooklyn detective’s Japanese side-kick. I can’t wait for it all to start filming).
D + Y, much later on….
Yukiro is dazzling again tonight, performing some kind of excoriating German Christmas song where he looks more like a devil from a fantasy movie, and, later, a death-metal rendition of a Britney Spears song, Oops…..I Did It Again, which comes across as incredibly exciting, thrashing, and spellbinding. After Dolly Tarton, a Scottish girl who does cute 50’s style Carmen Miranda routines has finished her Christmassy Edward Scissor Hands act I glance worriedly at the schedule and suddenly think shit, maybe we should get ready as we are on soon, just after the Lip Sync Til You Die contest, and I am still in my Christmas jumper and jeans. In our confusion and Saturday morning rush we have failed to bring the music stand (and I have been too busy, or too lazy, to memorize the chords properly, to Tori Amos’s Leather, my first song) and thus have no way of reading the music while I am singing. Shit. But Duncan has dressed me, I have slapped on the same face paint I used for my Halloween costume, and as somehow the nozzle to the Love Me perfume has come off rendering it unsprayable, I decide on my second choice of scent, Louis Feraud’s Fantasque from ’82, which I also wore at Halloween and which has now become deeply redolent and affecting as a result of this last Saturday evening where I reeked of it – a kind of deeply eighties, and intentionally on my part, musky Anais-Anais type affair, all aldehydic and hair-sprayey which for some reason garnered compliments all night.
‘BURNING BUSH! BURNING BUSH!’ the host(ess) Tatianna is screaming up the stairs…..YOU’RE ON!!’ and I have no choice but to oblige, drunk though I already am (thank god, or I might never be able to do it otherwise), emerging on stage ready to take to my crappy, pedal-less keyboard that exposes every wrong note horribly and will undoubtedly make me look like a total fool (if I don’t already), in the fabulous yellow and black jacket that Duncan has got me, and my Kate Bush meets Kabuki white, black and red make up.
The bright white stage lights dazzle me. I close my eyes and start playing. Thankfully, the red wine has loosened up my throat and this song and its key usually suit my voice okay anyway, and although I cock up some of the chorus’s chords, I feel that I am making the audience hang on every moment. I camp it up with deliberate pauses during the song where I stare at certain people standing there in the dark shadows at the front of the stage, and by the time the third verse has come I slow it down a bit and LOVE EVERY MOMENT. I am in my element. I could do this again, I think to myself, but by now it is time for me to do my second act, which, in truth, I shouldn’t have done. Next I am doing Wuthering Heights as a parody, which I know makes people laugh when I have done it at home before as I can do a pretty good imitation, in a kind of screeching falsetto, of Kate’s most famous number, but it really needs full, proper vocal chords in healthy condition to do properly, to make it genuinely comical. Although I have risen to the occasion with the first song (if anything, my cold has made my voice more husky, in a good way) it sounds rubbish with the second, just a lame piss-take that I know isn’t working, a kind of junk-falsetto, but which it is too late to get out of, and it makes me lose my bottle (and Duncan tells me this is obvious) : I end up leaving the stage before the last chorus. Suddenly I can’t stand the eyes on me anymore and just want to run up the stairs. I wish, at this moment, that I had just done a ballad, done something impromptu and different, rather than continuing with the original plan, but I can tell from people’s reactions that the whole thing had something to overall, and that they seem to have at least enjoyed the first song. And that is enough.
We are upstairs. Friends come up to say goodbye, and it is the end of the evening, and time to go home. Duncan and I swore blind that morning before leaving the house that we would go home, that, given my health condition, we definitely were not going to go anywhere afterwards, we were without doubt going to get the last train. Not this time. We can’t stay out all night, particularly when it is so cold, particularly when I am wearing a dress. Don’t want to catch pneumonia again.
Clearly charred by the experience…..
But Yukiro and his boyfriend are discussing a place, now, called Department H they are on their way to, a weird underground club at a disused cinema in Uguisudani, or Nightingale Valley, the seedier end of North Tokyo, where, he tells me, the freaks and weirdos of Tokyo gather and you can see unbelievable things. Duncan and I are pretending that we are going to be sensible and go home, but as we listen to this we know, in truth, that I am feeling fine, now, that we have shaken off the cobwebs, that the performance has exhilarated me, and anyway, you can’t put the idea of an abandoned cinema in my head and expect me not to go there. No, it is obvious that we are going to go (who are we trying to kid?), and so, once we have said goodbye to the friends that have come to the Ball, we all set off in the opposite direction of where I should really be going (home, to respectable old Kamakura), to get the last train instead to the Other Side Of Town.
The people welcoming the crowd at Department H…..
As soon as we get to the place, and the convenience store outside, we can see that the reputation of the club is justified. There are extreme looking people everywhere, and I am one of them. In my Burning Bush guise I get in much more cheaply (Duncan, tonight’s straight man, is dressed much more conventionally and pays the full price), and here we are: through the looking glass and into a world I have never been in before, the Japanese world of geeks and freaks and fetishists, all anime otaku and leather and Lolita obsessions and fat-fanciers and god knows what else, and I feel sheepish as I enter (through profoundly intrigued) as I see a naked woman is a glass cage (as you do), people dressed up as cartoon characters, in rubber, as animals, or just in normal clothes, lounging about talking and drinking (things they have bought at the convenience store, there is no bar) the atmosphere heady and potent. I actually find that I am not really speaking.
I am just looking and taking it in.
The place is both relaxed and boisterous. On the main stage various acts are performing: a topless girl does a Star Wars suite; there is female wrestling, there are comedians, drag acts, an opera singer performing Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro, all kinds of things, but suddenly I realise that I have been with other people for over twelve hours now and I just have to go outside and get some fresh air and solitude.
Wandering around the cold night streets though for half an hour or so, I suddenly remember what I look like when a policeman cycles past me and rolls his eyes, tutting at yet another freak that has graced, or rather soiled, the streets of this borough of the great metropolis ( I love Tokyo, you know : it is so endless; vast, ever changing, ever morphing, you could never know it fully and can just immerse yourself forever in its glittering anonymity), but, starting, now, to get cold, I decide to go back to Department H and see some more.
Yes, there are some vaguely frisky and seamy goings on in some of the corners of the spaces, but you know, you imagine something similar in America or Europe and it would just be so much more decadent and steamy, even sordid. This is different. It is almost innocent. It is fun, even child-like, although after a few hours it does all start to pall, and I begin to find the infantalizing titillations almost tedious. I have had enough now, I am finding it unpalatable, fascinating though it all has been. At one point Duncan asks me if I am alright as I am so quiet and I say yes, I am just……watching. We dance. To some seventies disco 12″. And someone (this freak you see here with the beard)
swerves up to me on the dance floor and says to me in English, god you smell so eighties and I say yes I know that was the idea and he says I knew it and in fact, my smell, Fantasque, has allured me all night to the point where I am sick of it now, sticking as it is to my entire being but D says I love this smell, your hair smells lovely; but it isn’t my hair; and this fascinates me.
The next day, when we are finally home, after being asleep on the train and a mortifying taxi journey where in the cold light of day I am aware of just atrocious I am now looking – though of course a Japanese taxi driver would never even bat an eyelid as they are self-control itself – when we have had a good sleep, and I come downstairs in my pyjamas again I smell that perfume on my clothes, on the wig, on that yellow and black jacket, it is me, but then it isn’t. It is my alter ego. I am remembering myself, as someone else. And this bifurcation is strange. I have the sensation of illusion, but there is a solidity to it. Like the images you see in the photographs, most of which are not mine but a professional photographer who was there and an acquaintance of Yukiro’s, someone much more used to that world than I am, a guy called Shinobu Morohashi, there is a mesmerizing disconnect between the way I saw things there, and the way that he did (and the way that we all did).
Just as Tom makes me look much more superstar-like (and alluring) than I actually was in the photos you have seen of my performance, this photographer hardens, and heterosexualises, the place I was in at the same time as he was and it just makes you realise: we all see things differently, whether it is with your eyes or looking through a machine, a lens.
In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter; it all just adds to the heady, kaleidoscopic brew. Which, come Tuesday morning when I shower and shave and pack my bag for work, to be honest, is already in the past and has started to take on something like the colour of a dream.