HALF JAPANESE: THE BAND THAT WOULD BE KING DVD
Well, I've certainly waited long enough for this. Made in 1992, it showed ever-so-briefly - about once, I recall - at the major film festival down here in 1993, then disappeared for nearly a decade (the back cover says copyright/2000, so I guess I'm a bit slow). I stupidly missed it at the time, but now it's finally stumbled into my hands, and what a hoot it is.
Take a timewarp back to 1990-'93 and you would've met a young man named Dave Lang who was pretty darn close to obsessed with everything Half Japanese. The obsession still lingers and lurks in the back of my mind, occasionally leaping out for a brief revival and resurgence, though I tend to keep it in check most of the time in this day and age. I'd like to think that's a mark of maturity, though if anything's going to bring out the beast, it's repeated viewings of The Band That Would Be King.
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, who also made The Devil and Daniel Johnston (which is apparently similarly terrific), TBTWBK is one hell of a snapshot of a place and time now probably lost forever: the pre-internet/pre-major label days of Underground Rock, when we all let the freak flag fly and The Man didn't give "our music" the time of day. You know, the Good Ol' Days, when you'd thumb through issues of Forced Exposure, B-Side and Your Flesh to get the latest tip on what's happening in the worlds of Homestead and Touch & Go and just about flip your wig if you encountered someone who'd even heard of the likes of Flipper. Of course, I'm being facetious, though the bulk of the interviews here, which are from the years 1989-'91, are a fairly hilarious trip into a period of time when even the likes of Gerard Cosloy seemed like a pioneering crusader carrying his well-worn bruises in his never-ending battle to kick against the pricks. I guess he lost that sense of fight after he made his first million or two.
You also get a hefty wad of Byron Coley right in your face, waxing lyrical on everything from the bogusness of Rolling Stone and Sgt. Pepper's to his original sense of astonishment at hearing the first Half Japanese 7" in '77 at the offices of New York Rocker magazine. Listening to him at length here, it only makes me wish the makers of We Jam Econo (the Minutemen doco) had given him more than just a soundbyte or two in their pic. He can mouth it like he pens it (which is, very well indeed). You also get notables like Phil Milstein (who comes across completely different to what I expected; why was I anticipating a fat guy with a beard?); Moe Tucker (and at this point in time, she really is the coolest and most clued-in ex-VU member); magician/comedian/actor Penn Jillette (it really is weird to know that a guy whose TV specials air down here in prime time is also the person who bankrolled some of Half Japanese's finest records, and he did it w/ the money he made from appearing in a season of Miami Vice!!); and David Greenberger (comic whiz extraordinaire), but most of all you get reams and reams of killer Half Jap footage: 1975 practices in the loungeroom; early '90s rooftop performances in NYC; the legendary Duplex Planet retirement-home gig from some 25 years ago and some absolutely mind-blowing footage of the band appearing on public access TV in the mid '80s. The DVD extras show the TV performances in their entirety, and lemme tell every man, woman and child reading this: you can not watch the classic 1984 line-up in all their glory, David Fair in tow, and not be moved by the awesome, primitive power they exuded. David Fair: give that man a cigar! There's no need for any instrumental prowess on his behalf; just give him a microphone to bark into occasionally and watch him dance. A party-starter, for sure.
Whilst the film isn't really the penetrating analysis it could have been, one must remember that Jad is a man of very few words ( I should know: I traveled for a week with the guy in a minivan in 1997 and chewed his ear off non-stop), and any history of the band is going to be covered verbally by the more outgoing David Fair or by the commentators mentioned above. The only thing I feel which is missing is perhaps a sense of context in which they were working in. Whilst brief mentions are made of the late '70s punk explosion and the indie scene of the '80s, if you were totally clueless about the band you'd think they were existing within a total musical vacuum, which of course they were, to an extent, but the full picture isn't really given. Maybe if they'd chucked a microphone in front of a couple of famous, loud-mouthed fans like Jello Biafra or Thurston Moore, the film makers might've given a better picture of where Half Japanese stood in the musical landscape. As it stands, if you were to show this flick to your uncool cousin, the only response would be a likely "So who the fuck is this band, and more to the point, who the fuck is Gerard Cosloy or Byron Coley?!".
Nevertheless, TBTWBK is an excellent, fascinating look into the musical world of a band who to this day stand vastly under-appreciated amongst music dorks worldwide, and a triumphant glimpse at how even the most awkward, hopelessly shy and "musically inept" geek can come out on top with a full-length movie documentary to prove it.
POSTSCRIPT: If you purchase this DVD, there is a "bonus feature" you absolutely must see: the "director's commentary" version of the film. I've only watched about half of it so far, though the first 45 minutes has already left me in stitches. Not only do you get Feuerzeig commenting on what's actually happening on screen, but he's got none other than Johan Kugelberg in tow to butt in and pontificate on such matters as: the late '70s DIY tape scene in the UK (you can tell he's just bursting at the seams to go off on a 20-minute tangent on the history of Fuck Off tapes or the Desperate Bicycles), SST's "Corporate Rock Still Sucks" bumperstickers and its cultural ramifications; Who's better - Beefheart or Zappa?... and tell me why in 2,000 words or less; and who truly was the first punk rock band (was it really Half Japanese in Michigan ca. 1975... or was it that obscure harp player from the '30s... or perhaps that hillbilly wildman from Kentucky in the '40s who made series of 78s in editions of 2? Perhaps we'll never truly know). And don't forget to mention Vertical Slit and Debris! Wait, he did mention them. Of course. I'm not knocking the guy; Johan probably has a legion of people he's pissed off over the years, though I'm not one of them. I laughed, you'll laugh, we'll all laugh. Why? Because it'll remind you so much of yourself.