A different level of rock star: The Yoshiki Show rolls on with documentary film We Are X

wearexapp

By now, everyone has heard about We Are X, the documentary film about one of Japan’s most legendary rock bands, X Japan. The film already won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Best Editing by the Sundance Institute, and extra buzz picked up speed when it was announced that the movie would be screened at this year’s SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas last week. SXSW describes the movie as “the arc of X – from phenomenal origins through tumultuous super-stardom and premature dissolution up to present day, as the band prepares to reunite for a show at the legendary Madison Square Garden while struggling to reconcile a past haunted by suicide, injury and cultish extremism with the insatiable thirst for perfection.” It’s the stuff of high drama and theatrics, just the kind band leader, drummer, and pianist Yoshiki lives for.

Here’s what I knew about X Japan by the time I purchased their first CD over a decade ago: hide was the most interesting, Yoshiki was the most tortured, and almost none of it mattered because the band had already broken up. hide was dead. Toshi was in a religious cult. And Heath and Pata were scrambling to cobble together new projects.

xjapanapp1The band cited few reasons for breaking up, but it was obvious that even before the release of their last studio album, DAHLIA, most of the members were unhappy. hide achieved the most success in his solo project, combining a different, less serious and more blithe aspect into his work, which incorporated more and more progressive and industrial sounds into the mix (he was a big fan of Garbage); in fact, hide’s signature loud and fun colors and style were the only remaining “visuals” in X Japan as the years wore on — pink hair and neon green latex suits were hard to miss standing next to everyone else in black. Toshi had started to second guess his fame and fortune, struggling with his identity and place in the world. And Yoshiki was too busy controlling every aspect of every facet of every second of every piece of song that made the cut; “perfectionist” might be one way to describe him. Control-freak would be another. Domineering, also a good one. Hogging the spotlight wouldn’t be too far-fetched either.

Before long, the credits on the track lists stopped featuring all the members and only Yoshiki’s name appeared. The other members stopped getting solos. Their songs were cut or heavily edited. Yoshiki, a classically trained pianist, dropped the others’ songs out to make room for more of his signature ballads. The band’s last album, featured two songs written by hide, one written by Heath and Pata, and seven songs written by Yoshiki. It’s not hard to see where disagreements and artistic differences started to crop up.

xjapanapp2Watching the trailer for We Are X is like seeing the evidence come to life all over again two decades later: I’m not sure what the movie actually features since I haven’t seen it yet, but the trailer is nothing short of the Memoirs of Yoshiki. His voice, or rather, his story and his point of view, narrates the entire time: like the last five minutes of all of his ballads, it is a creation of his mind, a rehearsed poem, with special attention paid to the darkest nights of his soul, and the highest peaks of success — which are now, naturally, even though they haven’t released an album of new material in almost 20 years (despite Yoshiki promising said album for nearly as long). “Why am I here? Why am I in this world?” he asks as the trailer starts, and we strap ourselves in to find out why Yoshiki’s existence alone matters in a movie about a band of five.

His ego knows no bounds: his talking head crops up countless times, while the other members don’t speak at all (the language barrier shouldn’t be a  problem when other voices get subtitles). Understandably, X was a band Yoshiki started with his childhood friend, but to take all the credit is nearly sacrilegious. This is not a movie about one of the greatest rock bands of all time, this is a movie about Yoshiki: Yoshiki the musical genuis, Yoshiki the frail, injured victim who seeks the medical help of doctors for tragic plot development (as already frequently chronicled on his Instagram and Facebook — cue the far away, searching look in his eyes as he delicately cradles his arm and looks out the hospital’s window for his staged photo), and Yoshiki the actor, taking his role in the spotlight once again, playing the part he’s been rehearsing since the days of Vanishing Vision.

“After my father died, my mother bought me a drum set. Instead of breaking things, I started banging drums,” Yoshiki begins, and we’re immediately transported to one of his “Tears” sagas: a carefully practiced tale of sadness and woe. When the band segues into hide’s suicide, we get a shot of sad-Yoshiki, looking forlorn into a mirror while the facts are smeared to aid in the drama (hide was not a member of X Japan at the time of his suicide on May 2, 1998, as the band had already officially broken up in December of 1997). When we hear him say “X Japan’s era was over,” we get a cinematic shot of Yoshiki, walking alone down a crowded street. Pata who? That bassist guy, what was his name again? Even when Marilyn Manson chimes in with an informative soundbite, we see pictures of Yoshiki, pretty odd when hide was the known Manson fan. It’s not until about 1:50 in that we even see a single shot of any of the other surviving and current members.

xjapanapp3There is no doubt in my mind that X Japan was one of the best and most influential Japanese rock bands of all time, and this movie is a long-overdue recognition of the talent, skill, hard work, luck, and perseverance that are all hallmarks of the greatest bands since the dawn of time. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons a comment like Gene Simmons rankles so much: “If those guys were born in America, they might be the biggest band in the world.” But they weren’t. They were born in Japan, into a very unique time in history where their style of music and dress were able to resonate: influenced by KISS, they started out as a speed metal band  dressed in flamboyant hair and makeup, at a time when equivalent “hair metal” bands were already going out of style in America and the simplicity and dressed-down nature of grunge was gaining popularity. This creation of what would come to be called “visual-kei” would go on to influence countless number of Japanese bands from Dir en grey to Due le Quartz to Malice Mizer. America was already over it, trading in one type of cool for another. If they were born in America they wouldn’t be X. They wouldn’t be X Japan. And in the end, it’s a shame that particular pride is missing, when so much of the movie seems to concentrate on Yoshiki’s very personal emotional journey and comeback. In that sense, the movie seems like it’s going to be less factual documentary, than a curated collection of highlights that seek a predestined agenda and work off a script, one that clearly paints Yoshiki as the hero and savior of the band. One wonders why Yoshiki didn’t just drop the humble brags and false modesty, call the movie I Am X, and have done with it.

hide.

More than his or her musical debut, a musician’s death bears the mark of an era. Buddy Holly, Kurt Cobain, and Michael Jackson have all been memorialized not only for their contributions on Earth, but for the enduring legacy of their media-saturated deaths that accompanied them into the afterlife. Indeed, an early, and even mysterious, death can often immortalize an artist beyond what they could have achieved as living, breathing, creating individuals who, like everybody else, make poor choices and bad decisions. Trapped in time on the day of their death, their work can transform from increasingly lackluster, to an omen of things so great to come, their death becomes almost shameful.

hide was no different.

Lead guitarist of X Japan from 1987 to 1997, he helped pave the way for dozens of Japanese visual kei bands whose popularity would peak in the 90s and 00s. Originally intending to work as a beautician, he was recruited by Yoshiki, the demanding drummer/pianist of the band, introducing the trademark guitar solos that would mark their tracks from the speediest metal to the softest power ballads. Even under Yoshiki’s controlling musical environment, he was able to compose some of the best, if not eccentric, songs for the band, including “Love Replica,” an instrumental guitar number featuring spoken French, and “Scars,” one of the more traditional tracks on X Japan’s final album. The band’s most unconventional character (in a band of already peculiar gentlemen), he was often seen sporting plastic suits in lime green and bright red even after the band’s more visual look was toned down to black leather and slick haircuts. With his fuchsia hair and distinctive guitars, his energy during concerts was magnetic.

Despite his standout performance in X Japan, his solo work, too, captured unprecedented national and critical attention. Free to explore his more quirky musical influences, hide’s solo work evinced a futuristic charm that transcended the tired, bloated grunge and alternative of the Western 90s with a focus on the fantastic and otherworldly, though even with lyrics about pink spiders and majestic rockets and a predilection towards nonsensical musical accents, hide defined his nation’s musical decade by remaining ahead of his peers without ever forgetting his audience. Keeping the punk rock ethos in his glam rock aesthetic, infusing the lyrics with absurd realities, and perhaps dating himself with the older style of punctuating lyrics with English phrases rather than inserting foreign words at random transcended his albums beyond the sincere Japanese pop aesthetic into a world of deconstructing genre.

It’s too easy and too predictable, as well as foolish, to reexamine hide’s body of work as a series of suicide letters: as early as 1996, he sang “Hallelujah! I’m miserable” and composed “Good Bye,” the song inevitably playing in the background of montages and clips portraying his greatest moments; the work of all artists can be sad, lonely, depressed, and desperate as equally as they can be joyful celebrations of life’s more satisfying moments. The day before hide’s death is littered with amusing anecdotes and aggressive showmanship: set to release “PINK SPIDER,” he was interviewed and performed several songs for a television program before heading out for a night of drinking with friends only to be found dead in his apartment the next morning with a towel tied around his neck. Enter the media.

Since May 2, 1998, greatest hits compilations, remix albums, toys, tribute concerts, and museums have all been released, held, opened, and closed. Unfinished recordings have hit the market, taped footage of the funeral has become legendary for the morose portrayal of a former band wilting behind their instruments as Yoshiki and X Japan vocalist Toshi belted out their signature hit “Forever Love,” and several dollars have been made under the hide brand while fans formed theories on whether or not the death had been intentional or accidental. Yoshiki vowed never to drum again. Japanese rock music was never the same. And a twelve-year-old girl in Chicago discovered her first hero.

For fans of hide, the songs were more than therapeutic, they were intimate reflections of a society seen by freaks and outsiders. Like all the world’s popular artists, hide was viewed as a physical manifestation of late night dreams and unspoken aspirations, not just as an entertainer, but as a man who found a way to skirt the system and get paid for tearing it down. The oft repeated saying about finding one’s favorite music before one becomes an adult or never at all sums up the notion of the unformed, emotional mind and its relationship to sounds that, literally, are nothing like what you’ve heard yet; without broader contexts, without better or worse comparisons, it is one of the only times in one’s life where music can be pure. Even after resurrected corpses via holographic technology, for a generation of music lovers, hide will always be the guy on late night shows who told funny stories about being mistaken for a prostitute in Los Angeles, blogged his love for Garbage before blogging was a word, and gave thousands of people an escape for brief moments of time. Even when the world gave you nothing, it gave you music.

Friday night shuffle X

I put the ol’ iRiver on shuffle and post the first five songs that come up.

hide – POSE (MIXED LEMONed Jelly mix ver.9): “POSE” is one of the more popular hide solo works, even featured in X Japan concerts as his rather promiscuous solo spot (not everybody got one, and some people who didn’t deserve one got one, ie Heath, Yoshiki, everybody else besides hide). “POSE” was remixed a lot, probably due to the catchy upbeat industrial vibe of the original which opens up with a ping-pong game before the guitars and industrial beats come in while hide waxes eloquent on the state of human nature. This remix is found on the posthumous In Motion single release. It sounds very much like the original, making it a rather superfluous track on an altogether superfluous single release.

Hikaru Utada – Boku wa Kuma (Instrumental): As the end of 2006 drew near, singer/songwriter Hikaru Utada released “Boku wa Kuma,” a rather hypnotic nursery rhyme meant for children. I find this particularly strange, as her core-audience is cetainly not children, although the song was featured in Minna no Uta, a children’s music program, where it became quite popular. Although the song itself is quite fascinating (“I am a bear! a bear! a bear! a bear! who is not chocolate!“), this instrumental version came up on shuffle, so enjoy it sans vocals.

hitomi – My Planet (Tatsumaki Remix): Probably one of the greatest trance compilations ever released was song+nation 2 trance. Fresh off the heels of song+nation, a Japanese pop star tribute to the victims of 9/11, came the remixed edition. Spanning two discs, the album is probably the best and my favorite dictionary definition of trance. Each song ranges from seven to twelve minutes apiece, gradually building up, gathering instruments, getting synthtastic before the chorus comes in and the song reaches a trance plateau before gradually beginning its descent. Amazingly enough, while I find each and every song on the original “song+nation” drab, expendable pop music, I love pretty much every single track on this album; that is how amazing and unique each remix manages to be. hitomi’s “My Planet” remix is no exception. If you’re ever wondering what real trance sounds like, wonder no further.

Ringside – Cold On Me: Ringside is a pop rock band from California that mixes contemporary electronic sounds in their work that injects an almost Depeche Mode-like quality in their work. “Cold On Me” is a good example of this, a plaintive song about a failing relationship. Surprisingly, the key changes are similar to late 60s/early 70s pop music, which comes in strongly through the vocals. Not a song I play very often, but a decent track on the 2005 self-titled album.

The Cure – Just Like Heaven: If you haven’t heard this song before, then yeah. I pretty much have nothing to say about that.

X, re-mastered and re-united: “Jealousy”/”Blue Blood”

X / Jealousy (Special Edition) / February 14, 2007
♫ 03. Miscast / 07. Stab Me in the Back
04. Voiceless Screaming (Instrumental)

X Japan is pretty much the reason I invested so heavily into Japanese rock and pop music in the first place. In fact, Jealousy was the very first Japanese CD I ever bought, way back in 1999. Up until that point, I had heard plenty about the band from online mailing lists and the like, but I had never heard one song by them except “Crucify My Love” which was a dangerous starting point, considering the genre culminating the bulk of their discography. I was quite startled to find their CD in a downtown, independent music store that I frequented and absolutely loved until it closed down. I left the store without purchasing it, as I found the $40 too much to spend on ten songs but the CD stayed on my mind all day until I decided to buy it on the way back home.

I popped the CD into my player and proceeded to hear the opening strains of a quiet piano solo. It was quite beautiful, or something like it. The next song started up and again, a haunting piano melody came up and I thought, Dear Lord, the whole CD better not be all piano and then boom! the drums kicked in and a saucy little guitar riff and the next 7 minutes and 15 seconds rocked my little world. The next song started up, even better than the one before it. “Miscast” entered with pounding drums accompanied by sweet guitar solos and plenty of nonsensical calls (“Game is over! Game is over! Miscast! You are fired!“) and is probably the best rock song on the album, infact, despite its understated praise. “Desperate Angel,” track number four, was just as good, with an extra 80s glam-band drum intro. “White Wind From Mr. Martin ~Pata’s Nap” was probably the only track I found myself skipping, a listless acoustic guitar solo from the rhythm guitarist du jour of X Japan, the curly haired Pata. “Voiceless Screaming,” another acoustic number, this time with vocals, was also a rather dull listen at first, but the power and intensity of Toshi’s vocals coupled with the understanding of a rather polished Engrish language had me attached to the song in no time.

With track number seven, “Stab Me in the Back,” the whole album proceeded to finish with dizzying triumph. “Stab Me in the Back,” a hide composition, was a short and bad-ass speed metal number worthy of the most nonsensical Engrish lyrics, but coupled with drive, melody, and screaming, lots of screaming, the angst of Toshi all coupled in the repeated shouts of “Stab me in the back!” before the electric guitar came in for more aural assault; definitely a track I overplayed plenty of times in my perceived angst-ridden childhood. “Love Replica,” however, was the song that captured me the most. Another hide composition, it was a simple, eerie, carnivalesque number with a French-speaking female elaborating on the mysticism of mirrors and butterflies and God knows what else. And at the very end of the ten track epic stood “Say Anything,” the only Yoshiki ballad on the entire disc, wrapping up the gift with shiny bells and pretty bows and a beautiful, tear-jerking finish.

Needless to say, I played this album obsessively for the better part of the last stretch of grade school. Without it, I probably would not have gotten into hide’s solo work as much, my greatest gateway drug to other Japanese visual kei artists. Just as T.M.Revolution and Two-Mix bourgeoned my interest in Japanese pop music (Ayumi Hamasaki, Rina Aiuchi, move, etc.), X Japan brought my attention to Dir en grey, Luna Sea, etc. All because of a little album released in 1991.

X / Blue Blood (Special Edition) / February 14, 2007
♫ 05. X / 04. Endless Rain (Instrumental)

Blue Blood captivated my interest slightly less, although considerably more than Vanishing Vision, the X Japan album I’m least interested in (probably the second album I’m most interested in is DAHLIA). Blue Blood contains “Week End,” a slightly less hurried song that culminated in an ecstatic live version during the DAHLIA TOUR 1995. But most importantly, it contains “X” the quintessential X Japan-anthem, as Toshi screams “X!,” a triumphant exclamation that renders fans during the lives completely servile to the jump-up-and-make-an-X-with-your-hands dance. The second most stand out track to me was “Orgasm,” a frenzied four-minute combination of Yoshiki’s unmistakable lightening paced drums and hide’s hurried, erratic guitar screeching, reminiscent of the typical X Japan rock number, morphed into a twenty-four minute live event during the DAHLIA TOUR as the band members jumped around, screamed, riled the crowd up, and Yoshiki pranced through the crowd with a fire extinguisher as fans grappled to savor a mere touch of him; probably the best twenty-four minute “Orgasm” you will ever have. The rest of Blue Blood…meh. Sure, I like it (“Endless Rain,” “Rose of Pain,” “Kurenai””), but Jealousy has always ranked above it, perhaps because of the nostalgia and credit I owe to it.

However, because of their early production, Jealousy being released in 1991 and Blue Blood 1989, the quality was always slightly questionable. However, as of February 2007, you can purchase the re-mastered editions for a limited time; sales stop May 2007. jrocknyc spoke of the lackluster quality brought to the reworked edition, although there is at least a noticeable volume increase and slightly more distinct sound, but altogether nothing amazing. However, there are still other bonuses you can enjoy from the CDs: each comes with an extra disc containing instrumental versions of the songs; good for those karaoke fiends and allowing for a closer inspection of the instrumental masterpieces created by Japan’s most popular rock band pretty much ever.

In other news, on February 11, Toshi, lead vocalist, guy who broke up the band, joined a cult, and shunned his former rock-star life, announced that X Japan would be reuniting to mark the band’s 25th anniversary. I’m still not quite sure how to react to this news. I mean, the dude renounced his former life and ruined a good portion, if not all, of Yoshiki’s musical career (I know since X Japan he has managed to gain a minimal amount of press for Eternal Melody II, Violet UK, (the Chinese Democracy of Japan), and various other small projects, but he has not managed to produce anything of much startling significance because I guess the false promises is how he rolls). Not to mention that, umm, he broke up the band. Sure, sure, they were all pursuing various solo careers, blah blah blah. Choose to believe what you will, the group is reuniting, sans the lead guitarist hide. Because he’s, you know, like…dead and stuff.

Official Site
Buy Special Edition Blue Blood / Jealousy

RIZE’s “PINK SPIDER”

RIZE / PINK SPIDER / November 22, 2006
♫ 01. PINK SPIDER / 02. GHOST

If hide’s stint as the lead guitarist of the most popular Japanese rock band, X Japan (now defunct), didn’t earn him a name in his home country of Japan, than his death most certainly did. It’s an old cliche that one can earn more money as a rock star if dead, and while that has certainly proven true for many before, the question is, does this apply to hide? And what does any of this have to do with RIZE? RIZE was brought to my attention during one of my more bored moments of deciding to browse hide’s official site, now less than a shred of what it used to be. The site had plenty of banners advertising yet another re-release (the best albums, the box collections, they’re all getting a bit redundant at this point; and consequently, money grubbing on the part of the record company), this time of his single PINK SPIDER. “PINK SPIDER” is a song riddled in controversy, mostly because of its supine connotations of involvement in hide’s suicide. Without going into too much detail (you can always Wiki it), one of the largest ongoing debates among fans surrounding the iconic Japanese punk rocker is the meaning behind his ill-fated suicide: was it intentional or merely an accident? To this day, the question remains unanswered, the realm where it will most likely stay buried forever.

So what does “PINK SPIDER” have to do with any of that? When fans are split amongst themselves on the debate, the side in favor of arguing the utmost intention behind hide’s act point out both the lyrics and video for “PINK SPIDER,” both which discuss and depict themes of suicide. Claiming this was a “suicide letter” of sorts, the song has become one of the most popular in hide’s discography, particularly due to its official release and subsequent pre-recorded television performances aired just days after his funeral. As such, “PINK SPIDER” is arguably his most cherished and legendary pieces of work alongside “ever free,” another post-suicide release.

So you can imagine the shoes RIZE has to fill, which does nothing but confuse me as to why they thought they could release a cover of the classic. Aside from the official tribute CD to hide, arranged by former band mate Yoshiki and comprised of bands close to hide in his career (OBLIVION DUST, Luna Sea, to name two), nobody has really come close in attempt to covering his songs officially (I am not counting remixes or those piano and guitar solo compilations). As expected, RIZE lives up to none of the standards set up for them. Their cover of “PINK SPIDER” is nothing but a mediocre guitar jam, serving no purpose than to once again allow the record company to re-release hide’s official single in conjunction and bring some dirty promotion to the band themselves, whose own songs on the single are as equally in need of fixing. Admittedly their songs are something like hide’s own solo work; rock with a tinge of ska thrown in and some punk rock influence. Maybe even the lead singer shares some similar nasal quality that reflected hide’s own distinct vocals, but ultimately, this is a terrible let down and further endorses the truth behind a pretty sad sentiment; maybe he is acheiving more popularity and money after his death, or at least some businessmen certainly are.

Official Site
Buy PINK SPIDER