We had had one of those busy Saturday mornings and afternoons, traipsing all over Tokyo and Yokohama, rootling through junk at the Salvation Army and scouring the recyle shops of Yokohama, but aside a new collection of one dollar books and a few unusual odds and ends for future costume preparation (our next event, the circus-themed ‘Trapezista’, with performances and clowns and freaks and glittering show girls is only three weeks away), there wasn’t any eye-catching perfume.
Yet eventually, as is often the case, the two rather pleasing scents that you can see in the picture above did surface among the dross. Madame Rochas, in the eighties Byzance bottle, I got for 1,000 yen (about ten dollars) and, just tossed into a bargain bin full of old lipsticks and half used gels and soaps – a boxed, mint condition bottle of the now rare-to-find and loved by many, sumptuous in her fulsome 80’s heyday glory, Byzance, for just five hundred. Five dollars, when converted, or as it sounds even cheaper in English money, ₤3.32. Which, considering that bottles of Byzance now go for around $300 on the internet, is really quite something of a bargain.
Such finds certainly quicken the pulse and put you in a good mood when you sit down for a pint of beer with your loved one and set about trying them on your skin. I have always liked Madame Rochas in its original vintage incarnation, though until now I had only tried it in the sixties parfum. This eighties edt is a very different scent, but made with the same quality materials, as perfumes always were back then. But where the parfum is cool and demure, compressed in its white marble rigueur into its essential components of rose, jasmine, ylang ylang and aldehydes, the eau de toilette is warmer and more enveloping (and sexier, in actual fact, particularly on me): the heated, musk/sandalwood base more a basin of sensuality for the florals, mainly rose and ylang, at the heart of the scent, the aldehydes and citric top notes giving expansiveness and freshness. It is very nice, and, for me, the strangeness of seeing Madame Rochas in a different flacon only adds to its appeal.
Byzance is one of those perfumes that is sometimes mourned for by its fans as it is one of those decade-specific, but perfectly made, scents, that have been unjustifiably discontinued. Of the classic Rochas perfumes, only Madame Rochas (1960), the incomparable Femme (1943) and Mystère (1978) – my personal favourite – still exist (in neutered and watered down, unsatisfactory reformulations), alongside the ever popular – in France, at any rate, Eau De Rochas (1970). While some of the masculines have been given a revamp recently – you can still buy a current version of Moustache, for example – the house of Rochas does tend to create perfumes that fall along the wayside, often releasing perfumes long after the fact and just missing the boat. Byzance (1987), for instance, is immediately recognizable to anyone with any direct experience of perfume history as being very influenced by the beautiful (and in my view, superior) Ysatis by Givenchy, albeit a softer and more light-hearted tribute. While I will come back to Byzance in a moment, it strikes me that Lumière, Rochas’ on point, American-smelling floral from 1984, was in some ways a more original and olfactively successful scent.
It is strange that I had never even heard of this fragrance, though, until I came across a cheap second hand bottle one afternoon at a fleamarket here in Japan. In fact I did have two bottles of Lumière, one in a bottle shaped similarly to Madame Rochas and another, in better condition, in exactly the same bottle as the Byzance Madame Rochas (you had to read the label on the bottom of the bottle in fact, to find out what it was). The company must have re-released all their scents at this time in the same flacons for uniformity and newness, and the thick glass and sturdy materials do seem to have nicely preserved the contents within as all three of these perfumes smell pristine, lush, and clear. So much so in fact that my mother made off with that particular edition of Lumière when she came to stay last year. She always rocks a jasmine to perfection, in any case, and Lumière is a great rock jasmine: one of those solar, luminous florals that take you to the promontory of a slow, happy, cocktail sunset, or else just straight back to the naïve penthouse optimism of the eighties. Its sun-fused fruit shimmer of honeysuckle, tuberose, hyacinth, orris and back-combed aldehydes put me in a good mood every time, as the perfume really does capture the feel of all those feel-good, glamorous, eighties movies and the beautiful evening light of L.A, which has to be experienced to be believed. Maybe things were never quite as innocent as we perhaps thought, but it is always nice, in any case, to sometimes believe that they were.
I should have heard of it, though. By my teenage years I was stalking the perfume counters back in my hometown and knew all of the perfumes on them (or so I thought), even though it was sometimes embarrassing and shame-inducing for an adolescent boy to be smelling ‘women’s’ perfumes. I just gulped and asked anyway, because I wanted to smell them. It was certainly easier to do with Helen, certainly, we mad teenage perfume partners in crime, but I bet she doesn’t remember this one either. Taken off the market, like Byzance, as is often the case with Rochas perfumes, perhaps it just didn’t quite capture the public’s imagination, didn’t have a strong enough tagline or like the other pervasive blockbusters such as Poison and the like, the same big melodic punch.
Byzance is a gorgeous scent, though. Rich, warm, enveloping, sweet and sexy, it is in some ways the archetypal floriental, totally redolent of that period (Red Door, Alfred Sung, Carolina Herrera and their brethren), all jasmine, tuberose (in some ways a re-working of Lumière, I would say – they were made by the same brilliant perfumer, Nicholas Mamounas, who also made Mystère): ylang ylang, Turkish rose and other white flowers, spiced up tidily with anise, carnation, cinnamon and cardamom, given glamour and glint with notes of fresh mandarin, basil and aldehydes in the top, and sensually laden down in the heart and base, with a soft, vanillic veil of amber, sandalwood, heliotrope, and cedar. Complex and symphonic, in other words, one of those classic off-the-shoulder numbers made to seduce, although if I am honest, I do find it a touch on the sweet side and lacking the sheer audacity and depth of the marvellous Ysatis, which obviously inspired Byzance but which did the same thing but in a more animalic, intense fashion. As a softer, more streamlined alternative, though, this Rochas rarity is still lovely, even though I could never possibly get away with in on myself. As one Basenotes writer says, probably only the only man who could get away with this would be Rupaul – it just smells wrong on a man’s skin (whereas the eighties Madame Rochas I found smells great – perfectly androgynous and suitable, and something I intend to wear it as a subtle daytime scent).
We are lucky. I realize that. We have these lovely weekends, where we just recover from the teaching week – although that is also going very well at the moment and I am enjoying it now I have got back into the swing of things; the new students and I have settled into each other finally, and are enjoying the mutual atmosphere of the class and what we are studying. Nevertheless, the energy it all requires is certainly often exhausting, and so it is always great, when the weekend finally comes, to just indulge fully in whatever we want, whether it be write, play music, watch films or recently, even make them (!), plan some event, walk around Kamakura or just explore a new area of the metropolis, do our performance art at the Closet Ball run by our good friends in Asagaya, whatever : we live in a self-acknowledged bubble of dreams and beauty – very much deliberately, I might add, neither of us ever having been able to deal with the hard-edged, metallic dreary corporate reality of lumpen, so called ‘adulthood’ back home, and, in all honesty, even if we were to find ourselves on our death beds tomorrow, I don’t think we would have any regrets. I know in the last few years particularly, we have both experienced a huge amount of pure, genuine, happiness, and I know that that is not as common as it should be. Plenty of people are miserable. Life is not easy for anyone, for countless reasons that I don’t need to elucidate here, the world is a mess, and scarily so, getting more polarized and intolerant as each moment passes, and it can be hard sometimes, in all honesty, to find genuine peace, calm and contentment.
Of course you know what I am going to talk about next, but I can’t really not. The events in Orlando last Saturday night were appalling and upsetting, and yesterday, in the unusually cold, persistent, rain, I did feel an absolute pall of – not abject misery exactly – but certainly great sadness, come over me. I spent the day alone, feeling pensive and depressed, just reading about the shootings, shocked to then hear that a friend of a friend was one of the victims murdered (shot in the back as he tried to help his boyfriend escape, a man from Sarasota, where we spent New Year’s with Duncan’s family in 2014), pondering the fact that we had only been in the same area of Florida quite recently ourselves, that we also had been dancing the night away in a gay club in Tampa as well, although, as is usually the case, it was full of all kinds of people, straight, mixed, whatever, just people dancing on a Saturday night – a evening of great fun and hilarity we still sometimes talk about, and that someone could have just then come in and senselessly massacred everyone. Whether it be from mental illness, or religious fervour, some nut job could just have calmly sauntered in with his easily-obtained battery of weapons, pointed a gun at mine or Duncan’s head, and shot us and forty seven other people in the middle of their lives, cold dead.
I suffered a great deal as a young child because of the realization that I was ‘different’ and from the fact that was also living in a homophobic environment (my hometown, Solihull, was once chosen by the Guardian newspaper as officially the most homophobic place in the whole of the UK); then going through some kind of religious torment as a university student convinced I was damned, somehow evil, and going straight to hell. I was in a great deal of pain. And it was only after thinking rationally – I have a good brain, after all, and just had to use it – reading a lot of different kind of books and hearing the words of differing thinkers, but far more importantly, just listening and trusting my inner voice, that I was just being my natural self and that nothing could make me go against my own instincts because then I wouldn’t even be a real human being, plus then meeting Duncan, and moving to Japan, that my life began to fall in place and solidify as real and properly fulfilling.
As I have written before, I certainly don’t want to be pitied, nor for people to think that I had a bad childhood. If you read this blog you will know how vivid my imagination was as a child, that perfume often takes me back to joyous past experiences, which is one of the reasons that I love it so much, an immediate passage back to half forgotten experiences. I was an utterly alive child, sentient, sensitive, absorbing everything, probably to an unusual extent actually (my parents often can’t believe how many things I can remember from my childhood); I had an exhilarating teenage life, particularly because of my love of music, cinema, perfume and literature, and I view my awakening adolescence back then as a wonderful time as well. That ‘other thing’ was compartmentalized to a certain extent, repressed and pushed down into the recesses of my psyche as much as I could, (which is why I am so neurotic now, I think), and it certainly didn’t wreck the other more vigorous aspects of my life.
Nevertheless, it certainly wasn’t a bed of psychological roses. And although I do understand homophobia, perfectly, having the (un)fortunate ability to emphathize with virtually anybody or any idea, what I don’t understand is the idea that you have kill people to make your point. Nor the idea that, if you believe in God, that you think you have the right to judge people to the extent that you can snuff out their lives. Surely, you should just get on with your own life and leave it to the creator to decide on judgement day (if there is such a thing) and let that deity then do the sentencing. How can you take it upon yourself to take that liberty? What kind of arrogance is this? And how, logically seen, and from looking at any religious scriptures, can destroying lives in such heartless fashion be seen as virtuous in any case? Is that what ‘heaven’ is? A place full of people that have murdered?
Religious ideas aside, the day to day, undeniable realities of the Orlando shootings are surely the stupid, stupid, gun culture (based purely on the greed of the firearms industry and the politicians it supports), which allows such tragedies to happen in the first place. American readers reading this: what, do you think (if anything), can be done? Will people ever let go of their firearms? Why do Americans love their guns so much? Is it something in the national psyche that will never ever change? I understand the whole ‘wild frontier’ thing, the hunter, the whole cowboys and Indians shebang, the emphasis on freedom and all the rest of it, but doesn’t all that belong in the nineteenth century (if it even did then?). To me, guns are nothing but objects of terror. I don’t even want to be near one, let alone hold one, or god forbid, use one. How can they be so easily, readily available? How can you just order one on the internet, for god’s sake? I honestly want to understand.
Because in Japan there are virtually no guns. Only the yakuza organized crime gangs have them, and even then, they only shoot each other, and even then, hardly ever. The public never comes into contact with them. They are simply not part of the culture. They belong only in the movies. Yes, there are bizarre murders on occasion, here, of course, and plenty of twisted and insane people wandering the streets, but the great thing, you know, is that they don’t have guns. Nobody does. Because nobody actually has any access to them.
Much as I have criticized what I personally feel are the negative sides of Japanese culture, inevitable when it is so different from my own (which is why it has fascinated me for so long), criticized it for its harmful oppressive repression of emotions (which, nevertheless, conversely, does create a beautiful harmonious atmosphere in a myriad of ways), at the same time, the great, blanketing ambiguity of Japanese culture, its avoidance of black and white, its love of obfuscation, its love of privacy, the acceptance of the unspoken and the reality that there is more to people than meets the eye, all this means that in many ways, as long as you behave correctly in society, you can do what you like in the privacy of your own life with no one intruding or trying to murder you for being different to them. In many ways despite is surface conservatism, Japan is an intensely liberal place. This is why subcultures flourish so wonderfully here: whole worlds of individuals following their hearts in their own private, personal ways, living the way they want to, yet still belonging to a culture that is far more egalitarian yet simultaneously prosperous than most western nations.
Which is why I am thankful that I can spend the weekend with my lover here in any way I see fit. That we can plan our performances, that I can drench myself in Rochas perfumes, have them by our bed at night, a touch of Byzance to send me to sleep, some Madame Rochas worn stylishly with a white shirt, dress in any manner I see fit, dance in a Tokyo nightclub in any way I want without anyone batting an eyelid, let alone come in and want to blast me and my friends to death.