Every trip has them. The unexpected moments—the random and chance occurrences. A nap in a cathedral’s shadow in Paris. A perfect meal at a shopping mall in Fukuoka. The Utah capitol building at dusk in Salt Lake City. They tend to be just as memorable as the larger experiences anchoring travel and exploration. Though unexpected, they are something to look forward to because while you know they’ll happen, you just never know where or when they will occur or why it will affect you. No surprise, sometimes these moments for me are musical or music is at least at the root of them. My last trip to Japan was no exception. Her name was Mei.
My friend and I went to see Mutant Monster, a brilliant female J-punk trio, at a dingy club called Club Missions somewhere in a nondescript part of Tokyo. We were treated to four additional acts. Mei was first. We were expecting a series of bands more befitting the punk headliners and were so tired from travel and a mind-blowing gig the night before (I’ll get to that one another time) that we sat in the back of the small space at a tiny table hoping we’d be kept awake by the energy of loud and local rock offerings. In front of all of about five people in attendance when the doors opened, a young, reserved girl took the stage with an acoustic guitar, seated herself in the folding chair behind the mic, and offered an adorably soft welcome and thank you. So much for energy.
She sported a dirty blonde bob. Light make-up. No sexuality on display. Just a modest and plain housedress revealing nothing but her socks. Like Elaine Benes in the early seasons. Demure and self-conscious she started playing. Her guitar skills were intermediate at best but she was definitely on to something. She then starting signing. Soft. Pretty. Learning to be ethereal but not there yet. There was a charm in her melodies and timbre. The little guitar mistakes just added to it.
Though unsophisticated, her material was beyond endearing. She took a few breaks to tune and explain her efforts and with a combination of my improved Japanese and a little common sense deduction, we learned she worked at the bar and was giving her first solo show away from her band. She had a demo, available later at one of the little tables at the back of the room. She then played the most memorable song of her set. I didn’t understand more than a few words but it was the most touching and enchanting in that night’s repertoire. She thanked the few in the room and gave a little bow. Just too precious.
I was sorry the set came to an end but by this stage we were so relaxed that maybe it was for the best. The night went on and I kept an eye on Mei. She was first sitting at a nearby table. Then as more people filtered in she drifted behind the bar or found a place to stand as to be out of the way. Wallflower. I never took a photo of her. Rules for that in Japan are iffy and as I learned the hard way on my previous trip, sometimes it’s best to just assume you can’t. Then I found out otherwise. Oh well.
After other acts, including a pleasant surprise from a killer stylized rock-jazz trio, Mutant Monster kicked our asses with a blistering punk set in front of what had become a larger (though not huge) and more enthusiastic crowd of supporters. I lost track of Mei and lost myself in the show, occasionally thinking on what shirts I’d get on the way out. After the gig, the trio made their way to the tiny makeshift merch corner and we got a chance to meet them. The drummer spoke English but I got to drop a little Japanese anyway. We bought shirts, chatted a bit, and told them we couldn’t wait to see them on their upcoming UK tour (every show if I can make it!). But just two feet away near the door, was Mei.
While the other acts had their wears for sale, schmoozing dispositions at the ready, Mei sat at the end of the table, hands in her lap, hint of a smile on her face, and a small stack of her demos in front of her. No one who didn’t work at the bar had engaged her yet. I said goodbye to the Mutant Monster girls and turned to face Mei. I knelt before her and in my best Japanese said “excuse me… I loved it.” She cheered so loudly that maybe punk is in her future after all. She handed me a demo and frantically said something about “please take one.” I asked how much they were. Free. She had nothing to sell. She laughed at my surprise and insisted there was no cost. My friend then met her as well gladly taking one as she offered another CD. Loudly cheering and asking for a high five from us both it was hard to believe this was the same nervous young woman who sheepishly sang and played guitar just hours prior.
When we returned for the night, I took a look at Mei’s disc. She had carefully folded around the CD a makeshift sleeve of a printout. Just a sky and some clouds. She wrote on the CD-R by hand. Some Japanese I could not yet decipher, and her contact info. Completely adorable. With little time and a lot to do as we planned the next few days, I tucked the CD away and didn’t pull it out until I was back in London the following week.
I went through my bags upon return and found the disc sitting on a pile of way too expensive band merch from everyone else I had seen on the trip. I put it straight into my laptop. Just one track. It was my favorite one of that night. Imperfect recording, but it was just right. “What is this salty discharge!?” as Jerry once asked. This is a rare thing for me. Babymetal’s “The One” does it. The Japanese film Evergreen Love does it. Now this. I sent her a thank you message. She wrote back “It’s I who should be thanking you. You listened.” Oh stop it already.
The purpose of the trip was (shocker) Babymetal’s sold out two-day takeover of the 55,000 seat Tokyo Dome. It was a stunning pair of concerts and the combined experience competes for the greatest concert I have ever attended. But of all of the great moments on that trip orbiting the epic Babymetal shows, the wallflower stands out. I remember her timidity, her bow, her loud cheers and high fives, and her little socks. Most of all, I remember her beautiful music.
I learned that, roughly translated, the demo song is titled “Let’s Become a Family.” I listen to it every day.
I’m back in Japan soon. Hope she’s playing.
Song of the day – “家族になろうよ” by Mei @konnomei