Morrissey in Tokyo

On our first morning in Japan, as soon as I opened my eyes, I told Nora I wanted to go to the Starbucks overlooking Shibuya Crossing to get breakfast. Nora and I have watched quite a bit of anime in our day, and one of the last things we did to prepare for this trip to Japan was to watch an anime movie that heavily featured this famous Times-Square-style Tokyo landmark in its opening minutes. It was time to see it in real life.

A still from The Boy and the Beast

A still from The Boy and the Beast

 Situated in our seats, looking out the window at all of Tokyo passing by, it was clear that Tokyo was already imprinted on my mind. Not this actual Tokyo. How could it? I'd never been to Japan before, never been anywhere in Asia. No, the Tokyo I knew was the animated version. I recognized the boxy taxi cabs (why were they rendered like that in anime, I had often wondered, the shape so old-fashioned? Because that was how they actually looked in real life, Duh!)

Tokyo rolled by, indescribably cute busses, my favorite covered with cartoon vegetable characters. And the lights changed every few minutes and the people all crossed, all Japanese, all straight outta anime. And here, look, I pointed out to Nora, a grown woman out at 9am in full anime princess costume. A few minutes later, I pointed out another.

"Is she on her way to work, do you think?" I asked. "Maybe she works in an anime-themed cafe where she has to wear a costume."

"Costume?" Nora said. "Why do you keep saying costume? I think she's just being herself."

Yes, wow, of course she was. Fantastic. We were really here, really in real-live Japan.

The first Morrissey show was that night, a seated show, so we had the day free to entertain ourselves. 

"I want to do weird quintessentially Japanese stuff," I said to Nora who was Googling our options on her iPad.

"How bout a place where carp swim up and nibble at your feet," she suggested. "It supposedly exfoliates you."

"Okay, not that weird."

We ended up going to a cat cafe where Japanese people pay by the hour to hang out with and pet cats. Our server explained to us that the ones wearing collars were having the day off and weren't to be petted.

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Settled in with our tea and the beautiful Japanese cats, my brain pinged again, like it had been doing every six seconds all day, I AM IN JAPAN! And then another ping began, WE SEE MORRISSEY TONIGHT! The two pings combined, MORRISSEY AND JAPAN AT THE SAME TIME! What kind of awesomeness was this going to turn out to be? I could hardly wait.

The venue, Orchard Hall, was right across the street from our hotel. We went in as soon as doors opened and took our seats in the front row of the very harmoniously designed concert hall along with our other Morrissey pals who had traveled from Europe and the U.S. for this tour.

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The stage wasn't very high. There was no barrier. At the end of the videos (between which there was pin-drop silence, Japanese fans were very, very quiet) we stood and took the two steps forward to stand and lean our elbows on the stage to watch the show. Magic.

But oh, something very unexpected happened at that moment. It wasn't an unexpected occurence at a Morrissey show in general--it happened literally everywhere else all over the world--but I had been told it would definitely never happen in super-polite Japan.

The fans rushed forward from their seats and swarmed into the space between the front row of seats and the stage.

Oh my. 

Local security was utterly unprepared and overwhelmed. Without a barrier to work behind, they were jammed in with the fans. I found myself pressed full-body against a Japanese security guard who was battling furiously to get fans to go back to their seats, but they were having none of it.

Chill out, I tried to telegraph to him mentally. We're all just standing here, it's cool. Roll with it.

But Japanese security guards were not roll-with-it kinda guys.

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I really can't write a coherent account of what happened on the stage, what Morrissey sang or said, what he did, because my primary experience of the show was of this security guard pressed up against me and his battle with the fans. He did not let up, not for an instant. When he wasn't trying to shove fans back to their seats, he was pulling their hands down when they tried to take forbidden pictures on their cellphones. 

There was nothing I could do except focus on accepting what was happening. I accepted the hell out of that security guard during that show. I also had to accept myself, the limits of my attention. I could be there with the security guard, I could be there with me, but I couldn't continuously be there with Morrissey and the band. I mean, yes, I followed along, was undistracted for whole songs at times. But my attention was always pulled back to security's shenanigans. It was a very weird night.

The second show was at the same venue the very next day. I woke up and for the first time ever, felt a hint of dread at the prospect of going to see a Morrissey show. I was looking forward to it, of course I was. But what if things got weird with security again? 

"Today we should visit a Buddhist temple," I told Nora as we drank our morning beverages overlooking Shibuya Crossing, "for the show tonight..."

I paused as I tried to put into words my need to address this tinge of dread. I wanted to face the show with a clear and light heart.

"Cause you need to do a spiritual thing?" she said.

"Exactly."

"Frankly I'm surprised you've held out on the temples this long."

Buddhism. What can I say? I have written before about how massively important all kinds of meditation and awareness work are to me, how inextricably linked they are to my Morrissey fandom. The Buddha is the guy who came up with my all-time favorite practice to do before shows, Loving Kindness. Though I am not officially Buddhist, have never studied it, I adore the practices, the retreats, the tenets that underlie Buddhism. In the US, where Buddhism arrived only in the past couple of hundred years, it is not possible to be in spaces where people have been meditating for a super long time. But here in Japan, it seems like the age of your average temple is oh about 1000 years. I was so excited to visit these spaces, absorb the energy, be around people who have been steeped in this tradition for eons.

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We went to Sensoji temple. Approaching the gate, we could see that it was big, beautiful, crowded. And loud! All of the Buddhist spaces I have been in in the US have been super, super quiet--meditation halls where beautiful silence reigned.

But here there was such fantastic noise! Monks in robes at the gate calling out for donations, people rattling cans to shake out little sticks that told their fortune. We got in a line going up the stairs--what was it for, we didn't know, to buy tickets?--and at the top arrived at a giant metal grating where the people in front of us threw in coins, put their hands in prayer position, bowed and silently made their petition (clapping their hands first though, because why not make a little noise while you're at it, to grab the Buddha's attention?)

When it was our turn, I threw in all the coins I had and asked for help with that night's show, and moved on. What fun it all was. Such beautiful peace and energy enveloping the throng visiting the different statues and shrines on the grounds. I couldn't resist and rattled a can and shook out a stick to tell my fortune--oh, a bad one. Not to worry, the paper it came on told me to remember that fortunes could be changed and instructed me to tie it to a nearby railing to leave the bad luck in this space so it could be cleansed.

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Arriving at the show that evening, everything was different. We heard that one of the reasons security had been so freaked out the night before was because we'd all been standing on a temporary floor that covered an orchestra pit. It wasn't designed to take that much weight and they'd been afraid it would collapse.

But there was no danger of that happening tonight. Security were ready. As the videos came to an end, they took their positions, standing in the aisles, their arms outstretched, nobody was going to get past them. 

And so Morrissey and the band appeared. 

I dream a lot, and one of the things I dream about most often is being at a Morrissey show. Of course it's always extremely unrealistic. There are other people there but I'm the only one standing by the stage. There's never a barrier. Morrissey is just casually inches away, singing. Sometimes we talk. In one dream, he handed me a microphone and we did a duet. 

This show was as surreally fantastic as one of those dreams. First of all, he began with Let Me Kiss You, and did a shirt toss at the end of the song. What? A shirt toss at the start of the show? It made it feel like preliminaries were being dispensed with. We were starting tonight in the deep territory where most shows normally ended. Everyday is Like Sunday followed, then Irish Blood, English Heart, a song that had come at the end of a lot of recent shows.

Where could we possibly go from there? Could that kind of intensity be sustained for the duration of a whole show? You bet it could! And it was the best kind of intensity, the kind that only Morrissey could bring. In that dreamlike landscape, us foreign fans in the front row were the only ones allowed to stand at the stage. The whole rest of the audience was held at bay by security. But it did not matter one bit. Morrissey put his everything into reaching out and connecting with the faraway crowd. 

It sounds contradictory, but he was doing two very different things at once. On the one hand he was a powerhouse of intensity, filling the space to the rafters with his energy, relentless. On the other, he was connecting very sweetly and gently with his audience. This was seamlessly all one thing.

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The net effect was a sense of powerful heart connection. And being in the front row for that. No! Not just in the front row, but so close, I had to pull my hands back when he walked over to my side of the stage in case he accidentally stepped on my fingers--it was beyond special. The intimacy of a living room show--I was close enough to hear the dinging little notes of Boz tuning his guitar between songs--combined with an arena-sized outpouring of energy. I can hardly believe it happened. A real-live waking dream.

Morrissey spoke some words of Japanese to his audience. He thanked Japan for giving the world Yoko Ono at one point, asked the crowd what they thought of her. Unlike shows in other parts of the world, there were very tentative and quiet responses from the crowd. I had read before coming to Japan that Japanese people, though they learned quite a bit of English in school, were filled with shame about how imperfectly they spoke it. I could only imagine how self-conscious they might feel when faced with the prospect of engaging in witty banter with the Real and Proper Poet Laureate in front of a huge audience. 

And speaking of poetry, one of my favorite moments in the show arrived when Gertrude Stein appeared on the screen. She is the backdrop image for the song All the Lazy Dykes, a song I love hearing Morrissey sing for so many reasons. It was the very first Morrissey song that Nora put on a mix for me, one of those first songs that entered my awareness and started the process of reeling me in. It's not just a coming-out song, it's an incredibly accurate and evocative specifically lesbian coming out song. How did a man conjure this out of himself? I can only chalk it up to damn good writing. 

And Gertrude Stein sitting in front of an American flag? I love that she is the backdrop for this song. She was a lesbian poet who was big in the 1930s. Nora read a book of her poetry last year, it was called Tender Buttons, and she read me snippets of poems that were endlessly wildly juxtaposed images and sensory impressions, poetic synesthesia. 

"Gertrude Stein," Morrissey said pointing to her image. "Former president of the United States."

Tokyo didn't give this one much of a laugh, but oh my God, Nora and I were so tickled. Can you imagine a world with a lesbian poet in the White House? It's such an absurdly fantastic image, did I dream he said it? No, it really happened. Because I remember turning to Nora and saying, "She ran on the Tender Buttons ticket." Then the room fell silent. Then the music began and Morrissey sang the song like he was living it, like he was ready to cross the threshold and begin his sweet new life among the girls. So beautiful. And followed by an even more heartfelt It's Hard to Walk Tall When You're Small.

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There were so many other is-this-really-happening moments in the show (did the kick drum really blow smoke rings through the fog during Jack the Ripper?) but I can't write all night. We are still in Japan, we've taken the train to Yokohama, a train ride during which every flat roof, every telephone pole pinged my brain, I'VE SEEN THIS IN ANIME!

Is this all really happening? Is it a dream? Where do we go from here? To the Cup Noodles museum here in Yokohama, and then we take the bullet train to Osaka for Sunday's show. And in between, we'll squeeze in as many Buddhist temples as we possibly can. Will they all be as loud and fun as Sensoji? We will see... 

My book I Will See You in Far Off Places: A Memoir of Following Morrissey's 2015 South American Tour is now available on Amazon worldwide