M1-43 1/2 Japanese
BACK after a long unforeseen break, your Miniatures blog revives itself just in time for Jad Fair’s 61st birthday (give or take a few hours) so congratulations to you, sir! Also, his band Half Japanese (formed with brother David Fair) have been blowing minds and eardrums for 40 years on and off, so congratulations to them too.
The brothers started as a duo in 1975, and within a couple of years they released their first single, on the aforementioned 50,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Watts record label – whose name alone was obviously a big attraction to yours truly (it’s now been shortened to 50 Skidillion Watts – but you get the image – broadcast over as wide an area as possible and fucking loud!).
They were perhaps unique in that Jad was never really interested in tuning his guitar. A video released in 1993 starts off with David Fair explaining their marvellously simple DIY concept of music, and especially guitar playing (does Jad’s comment right after that really indicate that he doesn’t know the difference between a chord and a cord…?). It’s part of a gripping 90-minute documentary available from Amazon.
The uniqueness continued when they released their first album – a triple LP set. Probably the only band known to have done that. It was called “Half Gentlemen / Not Beasts” and the cover was very impressive, with its half african / not picasso style of facemasks and body paint. It was released the same year as “Miniatures”, but a bit later. But by the time I started organising this project I had already heard one or two singles and had read enough about them to really want them to be involved; even in that pre-internet era, the essential news travelled pretty fast. When I received Jad Fair’s letter of acceptance to the invitation to become a miniaturist, I knew right away that here was a multi-talented artist
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His letter looked like his music sounded. Their version of the Stones’ classic showed me one thing clearly – you don’t need to get the melody exactly right to put across a song. As long as you go up when the melody rises, and go down when it falls, people will get it. The size of each step taken can be approximate. I expect some neuroscientist or musicologist somewhere has done a whole thesis on the subject.
From the 1980’s on, various members have joined and left Half Japanese, and one particularly long-serving semi-oriental is multi-instrumentalist (especially bass) Jason Willett. It is he that is chiefly behind the recent vinyl reissue of Miniatures; he has been running the True Vine record shop, and the Megaphone Records indie label for quite some time, in Baltimore. Jason plays on the band’s latest album “Overjoyed” (released in marbled blue vinyl!).
31 years on – in 2011, Jad and I finally met when he came to play in Tokyo, and we had not one but two jam sessions. Totally unrehearsed, of course – the way we both like it. The first was in the small but tasty Hiromart Gallery, where Jad was exhibiting his marvellous, witty paper cutouts. Evidently he had moved on quite a way (but not too much) from the simple childlike style of the letter he first wrote to me. His cutouts were getting quite complex and even quite symmetrical – but not too much.
Jad sang and clapped adlib and acappella while I tooted around him, and somehow it was not chaos, it was rhyming raps and rhythmic patterns; we literally pulled a few songs out of thin air. No wonder he’s a happy performer, he never has to rehearse. As Neil Innes says in the DVD of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s 40th Anniversary show – “if you don’t rehearse, what can go wrong?” Or to quote another Miniaturist, Robert Fripp: “In strange and uncertain times such as those we are living in, sometimes a reasonable person might despair. But hope is unreasonable and love is greater even than this. May we trust the inexpressible benevolence of the creative impulse.”
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Jam #2 was a proper concert in a proper club in Shibuya. This time we had serious artillery: Jad had his folding guitar, handmade to be easy to carry on planes. He sometimes folds it while playing, producing some amazing bent notes. Naturally, he rarely, maybe never, tunes it. I, in addition to my fancy red-and-black Hohner Melodica, was equipped with a marching band kazoo and my ipad on which I could write big-font messages and comments via a (sadly no longer available) app called Hey! At one point he asked me to start off a number, so I had a go at singing (badly) King Pleasure’s “Moody’s Mood for Love” – a song I had (almost) memorised since Georgie Fame’s version had thrilled me in 1964.
Jad teamed up with his Japanese friend Nao plus some hand puppets for another part of this fine show.
He is a wonderfully prolific artist both visual and aural, and loves collaborating – his Wiki page is full of info and lists of recordings – as is the one for Half Japanese. It would seem to have been the most obvious time to ask him – why the band name? – while he was here in Tokyo. But I never did. Another time. Thanks Jad thanks David thanks all half-Japanesers. Till the next time, Sayo-bye ! Or Good-nara.
Coming up: Simon we miss you