Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
In a month's time I'll fly to Tokyo. I'll be living in an apartment in Meguro, a leafy area in West Central Tokyo, in a quiet fourth floor walk-up. My futon-mates will be Shizu and Chie. Down the phone I've already heard the characteristic sounds of the apartment: the voices of children in the nearby junior high school, the cawing of the cunning, ubiquitous Tokyo crows.
In my first three months in Tokyo I'll be playing some shows in support of the Japanese release of 'Folktronic', producing a mini-album for a Japanese artist, and just hanging out, riding a folding bicycle, as neat, small and silver as a pair of travelling scissors. I'll be cycling by the river, under the Cherry trees, towards the Organic Cafe.
E Mail from Shizu, Meguro, March 24th, 2001
'Hello Mr. 22nd Century Man,
You know already that Nakameguro is like the Lower East Side, the hippest
place in Tokyo now. But you didn't know that it's called 'Nakame-kei', did
you?! Shibuya-kei, Shinjuku-kei, Nakame-kei. Nakameguro is the next stop from us on the Yamanote Line. It'll be a beautiful riverside walk to get there from this place in a couple of weeks with the cherry blossoms in bloom!
The trendiest cafe in Nakameguro (which means the trendiest in Tokyo) is
called Organic Cafe, which is on the same riverside. They opened an art space
called Organic Depot recently in Kamimeguro, and now they are showing 'Mike
Loves Jenny', an exhibition by Mike Ming and Shingo Wakagi. I'm not so
enthusiastic about these places though. They are too inside jokey. The Organic Cafe could be a place in Williamsburg, reserved for those familiar Williamsburg types.'
Probably nothing will beat the picture of Nakameguro I have in my head right now, a month before my first glimpse of it. Travelling so often brings with it a heroic effort not to be disappointed, when places you've read about and constructed in your mind fail, in reality, to live up to the charm and glamour you'd imagined.
For my actual impressions of Tokyo, watch this website throughout the summer, or buy the September issue of Index magazine, for whom I'll be contributing a diary of my impressions and experiences. In the meantime, here's my preview of Nakame, and of the Organic Cafe, the centre of the centre, the hippest of the hip. Maybe, in your mind and mine, this is as good as it will get.
On Unknown Prospects
My love of scenes, and the places that hatch them, is gadfly frivolity, certainly. But it's also an important part of my work. Getting my mind around the dominant 'kei' phenomenon of the 90s, Shibuya-kei, not only provided me with years of perspiration, fun and inspiration, it also put bread on my table when my productions for Kahimi Karie took off, becoming part of a Tokyo youth culture explosion.
It remains to be seen whether Nakameguro, still a sleepy backwater by a canal, can mushroom into a place with its own sensibility, a scene, a style, a 'kei' to rival Shibuya-kei. Many things, not least the Japanese economy, have changed since the mid-90s. But one can always dream. I combine fevered imaginations of a vital new Tokyo beehive with facts I've gleaned from the new edition of Composite magazine, which has no fewer than four articles about the Nakame-kei phenomenon. I've been poring over the tiny photos and pestering my Japanese friends (thanks, Hiroshi!) to translate articles like:
Nakameguro: Tokyo's Newest Hideaway Uncovered
Alternative View Of "Trendy" Nakameguro
On Unknown Prospects For Nakame-Culture
(Interestingly enough, one of the journalists covering Nakame in Composite is Chiharu Watabe, an old friend of mine from London in the early 90s. She's the Japanese voice you can hear on 'Summer Holiday 1999'. These three months in Tokyo are going to be full of renewed friendships, I know. Many of my Japanese friends over the years, leaving Paris, London or New York when the money ran out, have seemed to 'fall off the radar' or 'die and go to heaven'. It'll be odd and somewhat reassuring to find them in 'heaven' -- locate them on my i-Mode GPS system, run into them on the street or, more likely, track them to the Organic Cafe.)
Different Cafes, Different Cities
What would we do without them? They're the place we go to escape cramped apartments, to see other faces, to be seen, to load up with new information.
Let me sketch a few of the cafes I've known and loved. The Royal Mile Cafe was the ornate, appropriately Kafkaesque cafe in Edinburgh where Postcard Records' enigmatic, jangly beat group Josef K used to sit nibbling biscuits in the early 80s. Through the first floor picture window you got an overwhelming view of the stern cathedral of St Giles, where John Knox used to preach. The seedy, stuffy, mirrored space felt more like Prague than Scotland, though the Tunnock's caramel wafers and milky tea gave the game away. Don't look for it. It's gone.
London in the late 80s. My daily routine is to stroll from my eggbox on the King's Road up to South Kensington, buy a copy of Liberation, and sit in the French Institute Cafe pretending I'm in Paris. Thatcher's Britain is hell, but just next door there's Mitterand's France, where monetarism and denationalisation are tempered by a solid sense of pharaonic socialism, the trains are all Tres Grands Vitesses, the buildings Grands Travaux, the national hero is a witty nihilist pervert called Serge Gainsbourg and they have great magazines like Actuel. I sit there wearing a pale cream suit, sometimes casting shy glances at the pretty girls from the Charles de Gaulle Lycee, who troupe in fresh from classes at 4 o'clock. Often I conduct interviews there with the likes of the NME, slow to realise that England's traditional Francophobia is at its height in the rock press. At night there are dance and film events, and I take dates, keen to impress them with glimpses of a more refined and cultured world. One evening I see Leigh Bowery there, dressed in denim, playing with a baby.
When I move to Paris in the mid-90s, I find a dearth of good cafes. Ironically, across the city that gave birth to our idea of the cafe I find only provincial machismo. The ceramic footgrids that pass for toilets, the peremptory waiters, the horrible wickerwork chairs. My idea of a cafe is not this Latin zinc with its poor excuse for tea, its supercharged expresso, its tartine pate, its bar ambience. For my idea of a cafe I have to travel to Holland or Germany. Clean, modernist, well-designed places full of well-selected magazines. I guess I'm irremediably protestant. A cafe is an information environment for me, a place fit for the anglo-saxon business model. By which I don't mean time-is-money sandwich bars, but a place with global views, like the coffee houses of 18th century London, frequented by poets and wits as well as empire-building entrepreneurs. I guess my favourite cafe in Paris was the least typically Parisian place you could find: Cyberia, the internet cafe in the Pompidou Centre where Shazna, my wife, worked. Futuristic design, computers, a poised mezzanine from which you could watch the milling factory floor of the huge cultural machine of the Beaubourg.
Back in London at the end of the 90s I found cafes much improved. There was the Shoreditch Electricity Showroom, big, funky and comfortable, full of curators lunching with artists and press officers (hi, Andy!) steering their bands towards journalists. Or there was Quiet Revolution, a new place that opened on Old Street, very close to my penthouse at Smithfield. Quiet Revolution was a new kind of organic cafe with slick Japanese design, a range of custom soups, a clientele culled from the ad agencies springing up on all sides. I'd go there to read the Guardian and gulp back shots of wheatgrass juice; bitter, thick and green with an aftertaste of liquorice. If it wasn't good for you, it certainly tasted bad enough to be, and looked great in the little pots on the counter, whiskers of grass surrounding an infopanel about 'The Wheatgrass Philosophy'. Scoff at the design and the neo-hippy metaphysics if you wish. But in the Britain of today, staggering through an apparently uncontrollable meat panic, people are going to start taking the idea of vegetarian and organic food a lot more seriously.
New York. They do cafes well here. My favourites are Space Untitled on Greene Street, Soho, dubbed by Shizu the 'oriental meat market' because there are always so many Japanese girls in there. It's a classic thin-pillared Soho post-industrial space, roomy and roof-lit, with bold, changing art displays and lots of people tapping at laptops. The other place I go is Universal News on Broadway, a magazine store with a cafe attached. In British newsagents, if you so much as flip through a magazine at the rack they set sniffer dogs after you. It's 'Make a purchase or get out of my store, you criminal!' Here in the US there's an amazingly civilised convention. It's 'Stay as long as you like, take a seat, order a coffee, flip though a magazine, then another, read them from cover to cover, put them back on the shelf. That's okay, that's what they're for'.
Silence Would Be Better
In Universal News' tolerant, curiosity-rewarding atmosphere you might browse six or seven titles in depth before buying one. It was here that I researched the Nakame-kei phenomenon, putting Composite back when I'd finished my lunch, then returning the next day to buy it. It's the Napster approach to magazines. The only trouble with Universal is the music. I swear the last two times I've been in there they've played 'Careless Whisper' by George Michael. The Arabs who run the place whistle along to the sax solo. It's unbearable. (Space Untitled tends to play trance, which is annoying, or Japanese pop, including Kahimi Karie, which is... embarrassing.)
Why are good cafes so often let down by poor music? Having radio on in a cafe is the worst. Forcing your customers to listen to commercials is unforgiveable. I'm paying for being here, don't make me pay twice! Letting the kitchen staff dictate the music getting played doesn't make much sense either. Kitchen or till staff aren't necessarily going to have the same taste as the customers.
Never have I been in a cafe where they played Eno, or Kreidler, or Thomas Brinkmann, or Pole. It's always some dire melismatic contractual hetero-pop diva, with a sax break. Silence would be better. Once, in a cafe on Charlotte Street where I and a couple of friends were the only customers, I made them play a pre-release copy of 'Snowbug' by The High Llamas. The exquisite lines of the music fitted the retro-chic of the chairs perfectly. For once all that expensive design was matched by the music; hardware and software meshed. But the staff were suspicious. As soon as new customers came in, they handed me back my CD and put on the usual warbling soul diva instead.
Maybe at the Organic Cafe things will be different.
Utopia In A Teacup
The Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk's Electric Cafe, Joni Mitchell's Chinese Cafe with its Unchained Melody, the Korova Milk Bar where Alex and his Droogs would listen to Beethoven and plan atrocities, the Cafe Flore and the Dome, where Sartre and Camus pondered Man's Sisyphusian agonies, the Garden Cafe in New York's Lower East Side where Trotsky and the Jewish radical intelligensia sipped tea while reading the Daily Forward... many a cafe has been mortar and pestle for a popular movement, blue touch paper for a revolution, crucible to a crush.
One of the things we fight for, when we demand civic charters, human rights and written constitutions, is the right to assembly. That means the right to gather in places where like-minded people can commingle, exchange ideas, foment plans, ferment new viral spores, found art movements and institute scenes. Some cafes have the ability to make it seem that something vital and creative is happening right here, right now. That people are interacting in a creative but unstructured way. Organically, if you like.
The word organic also leads, inevitably, to visions of a better, more healthy, more interestingly-shaped, friendly and sustainable world, a place beyond the sharp-edged impoverishment wrought by the industrial revolution, a place where pioneering visionaries like Rudolf Steiner, Antoni Gaudi, Verner Panton, John Cage and Harry Partch are given their due alongside contemporary designers like organically-inspired computer shaper Jonathan Ive, recycling architect Shigeru Ban, found sound group Matmos (who collaborate with Bjork on her new album, Vespertine), and inventor Dean Kamen, whose mysterious Ginger I like to imagine replacing cars sometime soon.
It's a tall order, I know, to expect the world to be reshaped in one tiny trendy Tokyo cafe. But one thing's for sure. The revolution won't be happening at Starbuck's.