It was to be the biggest and most talked-about outdoor rock festival in Japanese history. On two stages over the course of a mid-summer's weekend, the Japanese concert promoter Smash had managed to assemble a daring crossover festival format, pitting some of the hottest bands in the alt-rock scene, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day and Foo Fighters, together with the hippest of the avant-techno scene, including Prodigy, Aphex Twin, Atari Teenage Riot, Massive Attack and Squarepusher. To top it off, the event was to take place at a spectacular location on the side of Mt. Fuji, a massive volcano that stands as the very symbol of Japan. Then Typhoon Rosie paid an unwelcome visit, making a muddy mess of the festival's first day. Here is Act I of my experience at Fuji.
ACT I: THE PERFORMANCE
Mud was the first thing we saw.
Mud covered the people and presented itself to us in many rivers that we had to cross to get wherever we were going. Mud seemed to be raining down from the sky even. It became clear that unless we were content to stay in one place for the rest of the festival, we would have to learn to live with the mud. The Primus song "My Name is Mud" was playing over and over in my head and, try as I might, it wouldn't go away.
We waded into the sludge, deciding that before we did anything else we had to pitch our tent so we would have someplace dry to leave our clothes when things cleared. We thought we would sacrifice ourselves to the mud Saturday, weather out the typhoon and then enjoy the clear weather that was forecast for Sunday in our dry clothes.
We had left central Tokyo at 9 a.m. Saturday to find our camp spot in Kawaguchiko, nestled on the edge of Mt. Fuji. For the past few days, the weather forecast had warned of the approaching typhoon, but we were determined to ignore their warnings. How, we thought, could anything possibly get in the way of such an incredible lineup of bands? The skies were hazy, but it wasn't raining.
It started as a drizzle, then a rain storm, and by the time we had entered the concert arena, we were showering in a downpour. It's got to pass, we thought. This is too good.
We could see a huge crowd around the main stage as we trudged up a ski
slope past some vendors from Tokyo restaurants selling a wide range of foods, from Ethiopian to British to Indian. Even the rock club Milk was there, with most of their regular staff, operating an all-night club, promising DJs, drinks and good times. The usual club stuff. Most people were walking around in the rain without umbrellas, clad mostly in cheap see-through ponchos. Everyone seemed to be trying to smile despite the rain.
In the effort to set up our small tent, amid a small village of other
campers, we were drenched and soiled, transformed into citizens of the mud. We were somewhat relieved though to have secured the dry space for our clothes. We could hear the Boredoms beginning their set on the second stage, thunderous sounds peppered with screams from their front man, Yamataka Eye, so we walked over to check things out.
The second stage was in a clearing at the end of a small path in the
middle of a ski run. A mud-infested mosh pit had formed at the front of the stage. We stood toward the edges and soaked in the scene, armed with an umbrella as our shield. We were surrounded by trees, standing in the pouring rain. The band was intense, riffing out techno beats under the delirious ranting of their frontman Eye, who prowled around the stage like a man possessed. We danced and sang along. Eye gave thanks to Mt. Fuji. He even gave thanks for the rain.
But, right then, I could not do the same.
LEVI'S TO THE RESCUE
We decided to try to get in to the Levi's hospitality area. Levi's was
one of the main corporate sponsors of the Fuji Rock Festival, and a friend of mine who works there had told us to drop by. With so much rain, it seemed like our best hope. Our friend met us outside bearing some passes for the hospitality area, and like a pack of wet rats we headed into what I now realize was the Mecca of Fuji Rock.
Outside, there was chaos. Mud ruled the masses and if you didn't get down and pray to it, shake hands with it, you were doomed. You had to become friends with the mud, treat it as your equal.
Inside, nearly everyone was dry, Levi's was hosting an open bar, and there were rock stars everywhere -- members of Prodigy and Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters were hanging out. Trying to come to grips with my new environment, I ordered a bourbon on ice and looked around to see what I could see.
We were in the middle of a ski lodge that had been converted into the
backstage area for the bands and staff at the festival. MTV had a mini-studio set up near the bar from where they were doing interviews. From the
massive windows at one side of the room I could see the scene outside
around the main stage, a swirling mass of muddy people that were now waiting for Rage Against the Machine to hit the stage. When they did, at about 5:30 p.m., I walked on to the ski-lodge balcony to watch the performance.
This was Rage's first trip to Japan (after a scheduled February concert
was canceled) and their fans were out in force. They busted out the political rhymes with verve and emotion, bouncing in time to the hip-hop inflected beats. We could see Anthony Keidis, the Chili Peppers singer, walking around behind the stage, right arm in a comically huge cast from surgery to repair a shattered bone he'd suffered in a motorcycle spill earlier this month.
My friends and I decided to try to go on to the stage -- it was relatively
easy to get up there and watch the proceedings up close. We found ourselves perched on the Foo Fighters' equipment with lead singer Grohl standing right next to us. Luckily, he was too busy getting into the music to care.
After Rage Against the Machine, we headed back to the Levi's room. Our
plan was to stay dry until about 8 p.m., then hit the second stage for Aphex Twin, and head back to the main stage for the Chili Peppers, who were to be the last band of the day. At the bar, Dave Grohl was talking with Prodigy's Maxim Reality about the Rage set. Consensus: they both loved it. Reality mentioned that he had joined Rage at their Tokyo show the night before.
TALKING TO GROHL
Meanwhile, Grohl was being shepherded onto a couch so that he could be interviewed by MTV. He asked me for a light. I gave him a box of matches, he did the 30 second MTV interview, handed me back the matches and we spoke.
"Addicted to Noise? Cool! They flew you out here?" he asked me, after I introduced myself.
"I live in Tokyo," I told him, and then asked him what he thought of Fuji Rock.
"This is so fucking amazing. We should do this all the time," he said. Grohl
was clearly enjoying the camaraderie of so many contemporaries in the same place at once. And then, just like that, he was whisked away.
Prodigy singer Keith Flint, and producer Liam Howlett were sitting at a
table eating dinner -- the same free Chinese food as everyone else. They were just hanging out, enjoying the scene, not scheduled to appear until Sunday. Ex-Clash leader Joe Strummer was walking around, wearing one of those see-through plastic ponchos. He was scheduled to DJ that night in a massive club tent that would be set up near the second stage. With his piles of dreadlocks wrapped in a colorful knit cap, Eye from the Boredoms walked over, looking exhausted.
He told us Aphex Twin was getting ready to take the stage, so we decided to venture out into the storm once again.
YET MORE MUD
Back to the mud. It is only raining lightly now. Umbrellas disappear from view. We sloshed our way up the hill and through the little path to the second stage, to find that Aphex Twin had just started. His brand of techno is known for its humanistic touches -- although all of the sounds are electronically generated, the whole thing is delivered with a soft edge. As we approached the stage, the sound of this soft techno started to overwhelm us.
At center stage sat a pink and white doll house, complete with miniature windows and chimney, with about enough room to fit a person lying down. And this is exactly where Richard D. James (aka Aphex Twin) decided to stage his performance. His face, behind a laptop computer, was visible from behind the front door of the house, and his boot-clad feet stuck out the side. As if this weren't enough, three people in 10-foot-tall day-glo bear costumes danced around the stage, with Richard D. James' likeness plastered onto the bears' faces. Aphex Twin, at the leading edge of the UK bedroom scene, seemed to be trying to make the point that techno doesn't have to be serious. Techno, he demonstrated, is something that you can do even lying down inside a doll house.
The audience danced along, now splashing in the mud. In between songs, James engaged in witty banter with members of the audience who were encouraging him by shouting, "Come out of your house."
But for reasons few could explain, James refused.
CHILI PEPPERS TAKE THE STAGE
With only one pass to the Levi's area and two people seeking shelter, we had to sneak past the security guard to get back stage. Just a few minutes after we left the Aphex Twin, we were on stage with the Chili Peppers.
They opened with a fiery rendition of "Suck My Kiss," which had the audience singing along. All of the band members were shirtless, and Keidis was sporting a blue sling on his right arm that seemed to restrict his mobility but not his intensity. Keidis, who had what appeared to be a skunk's tail affixed to the back of his black jeans, also had a natty goatee, giving him the image of a scrappy pro-wrestler. I was standing at the side of the stage, just to the right of Flea, who wore L.A. Laker's shorts and a new pair of Air Jordans, all the better to jump around the stage with.
The Chili Peppers played everything from "Backwoods" to newer stuff such as "Walkabout," "Aeroplane" and "Power of Equality." Flea locked in with drummer Chad Smith to deliver the essence of funky bass; Dave Navarro's guitar provided the psycho-delical; and Keidis, despite the sling, was the clown-prince of good-times-roll-let's-give-thanks-to-pussy-posturing.
Having returned to the backstage, Grohl looked at me and blurted out, "This is so fucking great," before climbing into prime viewing position on a ledge of scaffolding.
He was right. And that's what hurt the most.
The full force of Typhoon Rosie hit at about the same time as the Chili Peppers. And where previously bands had been sheltered by a tarp on top of the stage, a new mixture of wind and rain caused audience and band members to be soaked with equal intensity. After the first song, Keidis and Flea began urging the crowd to move back from the stage. But it wasn't going to be easy.
By this point, people were permanently packed in the mud, trapped in a quicksand-like ski slope with only a few remaining lights on the stage to see by.
To be continued...