Days for Days
385 · 13 June 02
BUMP OF CHICKEN: jupiter
Now that everybody has played at least two games, and the format's demands have switched from seven consecutive hours of live-television watching each night to two two-hour blocks (on, for the simultaneous game-threes, two side-by-side televisions), my physical condition is much improved. It is possible, at least according to simplistic addition, that I am currently spending more of each twenty-four hours asleep than I would in my normal routine.
My mental condition is different, but not necessarily better. I am no longer hallucinating from sleep deprivation, but the emerging cycles are as disorienting, in their own way, as the free-fall they replace. I have become detached from the planet's rotation, and now live a series of miniature days in place of every whole one that transpires around me. They seem normal enough in paraphrase (get up, get dressed, do something, go to bed), but they each last somewhere between five and eleven hours. I get up at 2:15am, pour a glass of juice and toast a bagel, turn on the TVs, watch the first half, wash the dishes and catch up on my non-soccer affairs during halftime, watch the second half, and then turn off the TVs and the lights, set the alarm clocks, and go to bed. That's one day. Get up at 7:10am, shower, get dressed, turn on the TVs, watch the first half, grab a banana and deal with some email during halftime, watch the second half, and then turn off the TVs, set the alarm clocks, and go to bed. That's another. Wake up at 12:30pm, get up, get dressed, make a sandwich, run a couple errands, come home, check the web for news, feel puzzled that there's been no new news for days, realize that it's only been about eleven hours since two days ago, send some work-related email, try to remember when I said I was going to show up for work again, fail, look it up, realize it's either one-and-a-half or seven days from now depending on how you look at it, feel relieved, go to bed. I'll wake up again at about 9:30pm, completing my third day of the day, with enough time to squeeze in a fourth before the early games begin again.
The only constant theme to these days, obviously, is soccer. The days I don't spend watching soccer, I spend reading about soccer, either analysis of what's happened or predictions of what might be about to happen. Everything else in my life proceeds, if it proceeds at all, with the freeze-and-occasional-jerk of a time-sliced application waiting suspendedly for its next time-slice. My social circle is temporarily composed entirely of athletes, former athletes, and Rob Stone.
If I had to join in, if I had to become one of the players in World Cup 2002, I think I really have only three viable choices. For sheer soccer skill, I would be Roberto Carlos. Most places in the world, the back-to-front line of a soccer team's formation amounts to a scale of talent. Your players with touches of cryptic genius are strikers, the clever dexterous ones are midfielders, the ruggedly determined ones are defenders, and the oldest, wisest one stands in the goal. They do not operate this way in Brazil. In Brazil the strikers are the flighty ones who aren't good for much else, the midfielders are the ones whose only shortcoming is that they're lazy, and the goalie is anybody they can find who has good reflexes despite not being a soccer player. The best player plays left back, because from there you get the best view. I have never seen a Roberto Carlos game in person, and watching him on television tends to raise more questions than it answers. I have begun to suspect that he isn't actually there in person, and somehow infiltrates games as they are being broadcast, because I can't otherwise explain his movements. There he will be, calmly playing defense, acting like physical laws apply to him. The camera, lulled into complacency, moves away. Play continues. Then suddenly something happens, and the coverage jumps to another angle, and there Roberto Carlos is by the opponent's corner flag, whipping in a cross. You'd think the cameras would have learned their lesson, but no, they follow the cross, and by the time they think to look for Roberto Carlos again, he's at right midfield taking a throw-in. As best I can tell, the only viable game-plan for beating a team he is on involves never letting the ball stay in one place for more than four seconds, and never giving up a free kick in your own half.
But identifying with the best player in the tournament is dull, and I would make a poor Brazilian, anyway. If I'm going to become somebody towards whom I'm not temperamentally inclined, I'd rather be Stig Tofting. We are bait-and-switch body types, at least, him what a short stocky person could theoretically become with enough fanatical fitness training (and some tattoos) and me the practical alternative for people who'd rather read about Jenny Holzer than rollerblade. I'm more inclined to lonely vigils and sudden incisive action, making defensive midfield the worst possible place on the field for me. I'd have been a good goalkeeper if I could jump, a decent striker if I could run. As it is I may now have finally found my true soccer calling on injured reserve. But watching Stig Tofting harry El Hadji Diouf (once Denmark and Senegal get eliminated they should simply take their show on tour), I can imagine being content with tireless pugnacity.
And if I'm in a quixotic mood (and if I'm imagining myself as a World Cup player, then I must be), there's always Chilavert. Actually, if you imagine him seven or eight inches shorter, with a third the kicking power, he's kind of been playing like me, ungraceful and sporadically lost, misjudging crosses and tipping a shot into his own net with the inside of a leg. He was once the greatest goalkeeper in the world, and I was not, but our skills are converging. Paraguay go into their final match with only one point, needing a combination of a multi-goal victory over a tenacious Slovenia and Spain's b-team, with nothing to play for, beating a South Africa needing only a tie to clinch their country's most successful foray into international football. I have Spain and South Africa on the WEGA, because Univision's feed is exquisite, Chilavert and the Slovenians on the decidedly puny-looking old Fisher. Paraguay is down one, South Africa has equalized. Spain scores, South Africa scores again, Paraguay is still behind. Chilavert takes a free kick, and you can see why they still let him, but he doesn't score. But then, somehow, his will takes hold. He's standing there in the back, and whenever somebody kicks a ball at him you can see him flinch for a split second, trying to remember what to do about it. But he's there, and he doesn't want to lose. He didn't get to play in Paraguay's first game, because after a qualifier against Brazil he spit on Roberto Carlos, but he's there now, and I wonder if there's a whole generation of Paraguayan goalkeepers who decided to become pastry chefs or cartographers because there's was no point trying to compete with Chilavert. From Seogwipo to Daejeon, his will somehow elicits another goal from Raul (Roberto Carlos' professional teammate; it's a big World Cup but a small planet), so now Spain lead South Africa again and Paraguay have thirty-four minutes to score three goals. Then they have twenty-four minutes to score two goals, then seventeen to score one. Chilavert is about to explode, and I swear I can see the dotted line extending from his forehead to the Slovenian goal, like Sluggo spying a pie on Nancy's windowsill. The rest of the Paraguayan players are flung around like puppets. Then, six minutes from elimination, Nelson Cuevas fires a shot over Mladen Dabanovic that hits the crossbar, bounces down, and bounces back up inside the goal, the net bulging upwards like the underside of a Carl Sagan gravity demonstration. Slovenia are too drained to respond, Spain shut down South Africa, and miraculously Chilavert and Paraguay are through. Did he carry them, or was he carried? It's part of the glory of soccer that you can't really say.
Picking the players I'd least like to be is even easier. There used to be an astonishingly short Colombian forward nicknamed The Smurf, but we should think of some other nickname for him in retrospect, because Smurf should clearly be saved for Uruguayan striker Dario Silva, who looks as much like a cartoon character as any human I've ever seen who wasn't actually the basis for one. He is also my pick for the champion whiner and injury faker in a disappointingly crowded field, feigning mortal distress so poorly in one game that even thirty thousand Koreans could tell from the stands that he was an asshole, and booed him sensibly for the rest of the match. A close second in this category is Brazilian midfielder Rivaldo, who distinguished himself with one inspired moment of abject dishonesty, falling to the ground clutching his face after being hit on the leg by a soccer ball. Trying to cheat is bad enough, but Rivaldo's attempt stands out in two respects: one, the ball wasn't even in play, so there was almost nothing to be gained from the gambit; and two, apparently he is so monumentally stupid that he forgot about the stadium full of state-of-the-art slow-motion cameras trained on him, which would convey the exact reality of his maneuver to the watching audience of worldwide billions via instant replay approximately seven seconds after he did it.
The US's group is bringing up the rear, schedule-wise, and will play the final pair of third games on Friday morning. The US are now, to everybody's either surprise or chagrin, expected to advance, since they need only a tie against an already-eliminated Poland that has yet to manage a goal. The US v South Korea game was excruciating, though, a half-field practice session in which the Americans chalked up a mental point every time they snagged the ball, and then kicked it back to the Koreans to try again. "The Koreans' finishing was crap", Ray Hudson would later succinctly clarify, but Clint Mathis highlight-reeled one of the US' three chances (Landon Donovan fanned on the other two), Brad Friedel became the first keeper to save a regulation-time World Cup penalty kick since 1990 (when two were saved, one by current US backup backup Tony Meola), and the US escaped with a suspiciously diplomatic tie. Portugal woke up in time to thrash Poland, and now the South Koreans must try to duplicate the US upset of Portugal, while the US attempts to dispose of the last shreds of Poland's self-respect.
But the upsets are flowing. The defending champions are out without ever scoring a goal, former champions Argentina and Uruguay are also gone, and as I write this Italy is in trouble. We could enter the round of sixteen with only three former champions still playing, and although I'd still be betting on Brazil beating Germany in the final, if there were money involved, we're three tufts of sod, if that, from having a new winner. We may not, as a species, be able to reconcile any two major religions, find one man with a beard, or put out forest fires, but at least we seem to have gotten pretty good at soccer tournaments.
And even with these short days filled with soccer, there's still a little time for music. When I tell people that I've become obsessed with Japanese pop music, their next question (after a frown and a quick-glance inventory of exits) is usually "So what's that like?" I want to answer, but the truth is that it's like American pop music. I think they expect that Japanese pop music will be overtly ethnic in the way of Mexican pop music, or Indian pop music, but either it simply isn't, or else I haven't found that vein yet. I'm pretty sure I could draw up a listening test mixing the instrumental tracks of a bunch of J-pop and a corresponding set of American and British music, such that without the words and accents you'd basically be reduced to guessing. There are differences, but they're subtle, things I discover as results of my investigations, not the causes of them. I'm starting to think that my Japanese studies, the language and food parts along with the music, are not about foreign culture at all, they are efforts to understand a piece of the same composite global culture in which all the things I already know already participate. It's not that Japanese pop is better than American pop, it's that Pop encompasses both, and if the Japanese can learn English and buy Celine Dion records and come to America to take pictures of each other standing in front of the statue of John Harvard, then it's worth some of my time to find ways to return the favors. The World Cup merely reiterates this idea for the slow of uptake: there are the parts of the planet that still think rivers and mountain ranges circumscribe them and the creatures on the other sides are animals, and there are the parts that send delegations to play soccer against each other and yell at our televisions while they do. There are the wilderness lands, where children forage for food, and there are the civilized prefectures where kids get stupid haircuts and learn to play electric guitar.
And the most intriguing sign of my awareness' ever-so-gradual expansion, at least to me, is that I think I'm nearly to the point where I stop mentally labeling the Japanese albums in my rotation as "the Japanese albums in my rotation". My two favorite records, at the moment, just happen to both be Japanese, and if I review them together, it's less a thematic statement than a practical acknowledgement that you're going to have to mail-order them, and you'll save shipping costs by ordering them together. Lacking good ways to find out about new Japanese music, I've taken to padding out my mail-orders of the things I know I want with completely random selections from elsewhere in the online catalogs. jupiter was one of these, and here is my total body of external factual knowledge about the band BUMP OF CHICKEN: there are four members; the one who probably doesn't sign his own name as "Motoo Fujiwara" writes most of the songs; this is their third album. That's all I've got. They have a web site, but I still don't know enough Japanese to read it.
But I can listen, and by listening I know one more thing: this band is great. I assume they never expected to have native-English-speaking fans, since their name is so idiotic it's hard to imagine they even thought it meant anything, but if we forgave Mott the Hoople, we ought to be able to deal with BUMP OF CHICKEN, stentorian capitals and all. I said that this Japanese music sounds like American and British music, but I glossed over the questions of time and fashion. BUMP OF CHICKEN is a ragged, glorious, charging rock band of the sort we were about to be ecstatically overrun by, in 1997, before the combination of OK Computer and Nick Drake in those VW ads fucked everything up and left us with ambient misery and New Acoustic listlessness. They are the band the Stereophonics were poised to become after "Local Boy in the Photograph", the one the Manic Street Preachers looked in the eye and turned away from after Gold Against the Soul, the one we would have reached as pop melody reunited with the jagged punk edges of grunge, except that it didn't. jupiter is a magnificent, galloping, open-hearted record that could be descended in parts from the Housemartins' London 0 Hull 4, the Slingbacks' All Pop, No Star, Cactus World News' Urban Beaches and U2's October. It's Sparkle and Fade cut with Cocoon Crash, Smart pushed through Hagnesta Hill, Cinerama rousted out of sentimental melancholy by Jimmy Eat World, Josie and the Pussycats remade by Hirokazu Koreeda. It's brash and deliberate, squalling and pensive, howling and impish. Guitars whir and sparkle and peal, drums rumble and clatter and crash, the bass throbs. The singer's voice rises from storytelling simplicity to a hoarse Kelly Jones-ish bellow. I recognize words here and there, verb endings and syntax, not enough to tell you if any of these songs mean anything (translating the katakana song titles, like, I'm pretty sure, "Melody Frog", suggests maybe not), but I find myself enjoying the language even without understanding it. The syllabic regularity and generally steady accents of Japanese are distinct assets for kinetic pop music; consonance is almost free, rhymes cheap and natural, the convolutions English singers go through to match sense to meter rarely in evidence. Spoken Japanese is rhythmic by its nature, the pauses and held syllables inherently metric in a way English has to be brute-forced. I can make out little of "Bench and Coffee" other than "coffee" ("koohii"), but if it's not a touching love song grounded in tiny telling details it could be the blueprint for one. I don't know what to do with the jumble of verb endings in "o shite ita", in the slashing "Title of mine", but they bounce along with the music in a way English lyrics can only rarely contrive to (and must contrive). "Hitotsu" and "futatsu" click far better than "one" and "two", with the added virtue that the Japanese use of different suffixes for counting different sorts of things renders a bunch of lazy English "poetic" ambiguity impossible. And lest you slip into assuming that any lyrics you can't follow are probably profound, the album tacks on a hidden bonus of a couple raucous, falsetto-packed live recordings that suggest BUMP OF CHICKEN might also be Japan's answer to Too Much Joy.
Garnet Crow: Sparkle
If they didn't share a language and distributional limitations, and I didn't happen to be listening to them in alternation, there'd be vanishingly little to connect jupiter to Garnet Crow's eagerly awaited (by me, and presumably some Japanese people) second album, Sparkle. Garnet Crow are, to put it bluntly, a soft-rock band. I'm not currently that fond of very many English-speaking soft-rock bands, so it is reasonable to wonder whether I would like this one, either, if it weren't for the language novelty. What a few moments of pondering this question remind me, though, is that there aren't really many English-speaking soft-rock bands in quite this sense, at the moment. We've got dance-groups doing treacly ballads, and when somebody needs a movie love-theme we've still got Enya's number on file, but Garnet Crow don't do either of those things. These songs are unhurried but not static, delicate but not precious, string-buoyed but not pathos-saturated. Even Clannad circa Macalla never quite struck this balance between intimate small-band pop and sweeping orchestral ambience. "Timeless Sleep", which I loved as a single and hear as the album's centerpiece now in context, is symphonic in its overall extravagance, but grounded by measured, twitchy drumming, blearily distorted guitars and Yuri Nakamura's defiantly elfin voice. "pray" is pretty and spectral enough to sub for the pivotal Enya song in LA Story if somebody decided to remake that in Tokyo, and I can imagine any number of Western pop stars essaying "Last love song" (except they'd probably take out the twittery drums, which are essential for keeping the thing on course). "wish*" falls into the sludge of drum-looped mock-r&b, but the choppy, booming "Please, forgive me" hauls the album out again, and the sweet lullaby "Holy ground" sends it off refreshed and glowing. Remixes of "Timeless Sleep" and First Soundscope's "Mysterious Eyes" seemed like a potentially horrendous bonus-track idea, to me, but the "dry flavor of 'G' mix" of "Mysterious Eyes" does it little harm, and the rearrangement of "Timeless Sleep" is actually an interesting re-setting, trading the strings for keyboard washes and the original's organic drumming for a lumbering loop, but somehow ending up, overall, more or less the same.
And maybe Garnet Crow aren't exactly a soft-rock band, or maybe I don't entirely want them to be, because my single favorite song here is the one throwback to the band's early singles, "Naked Story". For a few short minutes, they abandon GIZA's meticulous studio polish and scritch and sputter through a cheerfully low-fi synth-pop song they could easily have done in one of their basements. I am flabbergasted to discover, looking through the credits (which are in English, I have no idea why), that some part of this album was recorded here in Boston, and although it doesn't say what part, I immediately resolve to think of "Naked Story" as the song they did here. When, I wonder? I came upon First Soundscope late, so they might have been here then. Possibly as I was falling in love with their first record, with a random album I could never have planned to discover, made by four people I would never expect to meet from a country I did not, until a few months ago, ever anticipate visiting, they were sitting in a studio a mile away from me, trying to keep a bizarre and yet oddly familiar culture from distracting them from recording. Maybe, on a break one Sunday afternoon, they hopped the subway out to Porter Square for a little reassuring microcosm of home, and walked right by me, sitting at the bar at Kotobukiya, trying to memorize counters and decipher the in-group/out-group rules for all the give/receive verbs. And maybe the idea backfired, and a little corridor of noodle counters and one tiny Japanese grocery store made them feel farther from home, not closer, and if I'd realized, I could have swiveled around on my stool and spotted them. Do I know enough Japanese to have said anything to them? "Anata wa Garnet Crow desu ka?" That's approximately "Are you Garnet Crow", although I have no idea whether you can ask a group of people their collective identity that way. "Anata no ongaku ga daisuki desu. Anata no rekoodo ga totemo kirei desu yo! Hajimemashita. Sumimasen, watashi wa Nihongo o benkyoo shimasu kedo, amari joozu de wa arimasen." If I'm really lucky, that says "I like your music a lot. Your record is very pretty! How do you do. Excuse me, I am studying Japanese but I am not very skillful." If I screwed something up, it probably says "Your goiters are ornamental. I have lost your maternal aunts. This area is contaminated, and I apologize for the dilemma of Japanese literature. I am a ceramic moose." But maybe that would have been close enough. Maybe, in a moment of homesickness, a gibbering ceramic moose would have made their day. But they walked by, or they didn't, and they went back to the other side of the planet and finished this record, and later some other people mailed it to me. We do this all day, every day, however short or long our days become. We brave the unknown, seldom if ever cognizant of how densely the unknown is shot through with the known. Our mysteries and tragedies, arguably, are mostly products of incomplete information. Maybe I wouldn't love these records so much if I understood them. But that's only another argument for becoming obsessively devoted to tantalizingly familiar pop songs from far away. Mystery is important enough to justify import prices, if that's what it takes. And if I'm awake, here in the day's third night, cherishing these records while they're still incomprehensible to me, even as I study to comprehend them, maybe the tension of impulses isn't that different from the ones that will keep me awake through the day's fourth night, too, to watch four more soccer teams counterpose their nations by proxy. I'm watching these games live, when I could make my life significantly easier by taping them, because it's worth the lost sleep to discover the outcome along with the rest of the planet. It matters what happens now. We send these songs and pictures and balls back and forth, over this wire-crossed globe, to share the precious instants before we know.