Review : Mick Karn ‘Japan and Self existence – an autobiography
Japan are my favourite band. I know that at my age this sounds slightly inappropriate. The idea that I would have a ‘favourite’ anything by now, a best friend, a pair of lucky Jeans, posters on my wall, badges on my lapels. But, fuck you, I do. And its not ‘easy’ having Japan as your favourite band, especially if you mix high art with low life, as I like to think I do. Many’s the times I’ve bonded over copious amounts of hard drugs and alcohol with game chaps who are a mere notch sideways from Gangsterdom. And let me tell you, when it gets to 5.30 am and the fag fume filled air of the lock-in is fogged with talk of favourite albums, favoured films and preferred porn stars its rare that anyone but me puts forward ‘Quiet Life’ as their all time favourite album. The Clash, Bob Marley, The Jam, The Fall even Bowie on occasion but Japan? Forget it. Such an admission is akin to coming out as a narc’ in a crack den. But that’s another story...Anyhoo. I’m waffling because Karn, as such an irreplaceable member of my favourite band has given me so much aural pleasure over the years that I don’t want to actually admit that his autobiography left me depressed to the point where I gave the actual book away. The book is well written, the prose is clear, plain and lucid and flows even though the (un chronological) order sometimes irritates (Then again I guess you could dip in at will, ala Burroughs).
But the overwhelming feeling I got from the book is that its author considers himself unlucky enough to have been extremely lucky at a very early age. There is a tangible sense of barely curbed bitterness running through the book, of disappointment and near rancour. One gets the idea that Mick expects in retrospect his initial success with Japan to have set him up for life ; or at least to have made the going much easier. The frustration is rarely vulgar, hardly explicit ; the author remains I think at heart a decent, refined soul a dare I say it – gentleman - but the constant bad feeling directed at ‘one time best friend’ David Sylvian irks and rankles.
The bassist has two major beefs with his ex-singer – that Sylvian has held onto all Song writing credits and subsequent publishing royalties and that ‘Dave’ had the audacity to have grown up and moved on. Regarding the latter, particularly during the early and endearing anecdotes there is more than one reference where Karn cites Sylvian as his ‘best friend’ but no particular evidence or stories to support such a claim. The two come across as mates, far from yer common or garden variety Lewisham lads, kids born on the wrong side of the tracks but as buddies go, hardly on a par with Butch and Sundance or even Cheech and Chong. And as far as their relationship as band mates are concerned, whereas the author’s aim sometimes seems to be to paint Sylvian as a cold and manipulative money hoarding dictator, to my mind Sylvian merely comes across as an over sensitive, slightly neurotic working class boy driven purely by his art and accompanying Vision.
Karn bemoans Sylvian’s dominance of the band but rarely offers any alternatives, obscure or otherwise. Yet the main mantra in the book remains the fact that Karn is pissed at not getting a share of the writing credits and their revenue. (‘Shame on him and his greed’ he curses of Sylvian at one point). But there is no evidence (and I did ask, see Q&A below) that Mick wrote any of the songs (other than the sublime campfire slow burn of Tin Drum’s Sons of pioneers). And that’s the plain fact of the matter surely : Sylvian wrote the songs alone and this fantastic, perverse, oddly beautiful band of self taught mavericks arranged them, interpreted them. And that’s the main difference between Japan and Sylvian solo, as far as Karn’s attitude goes. Whatever any band members may say want, or wish, the songs exist with or without such fantastic arrangements and that’s why the song writing credits go to the... songwriter. (Unless some other U2 or Blur like arrangement has been made to share publishing regardless of individual credit). So I just don’t buy the main argument of the book and I don’t see how the author does either. (Its also worth acknowledging what Sylvian has done with the trickle of Japan related income over the years. Trout farm? UFO and Corn circle investigation? School of Racing Vultures? No. He has perused relentlessly a progressive work ethic over his career that does, to my mind, directly mirror an inner, spiritual progression. The scarcity of such a contemporary artistic life in ‘pop music’ justifies itself).
Beyond this main bitter thread, little joy comes across in the story, even in the early, megastar big in Japan (and Japan) years. Karn is ill or unhappy at being happy, seemingly always finding something to complain about. When Japan have faded so exquisitely to a sepia poloroid memory years on, our hero dabbles in occasionally inspired yet ultimately uneven solo albums and investigates Jazz whilst never committing fully to the genre. He takes up various courses – art, Psychotherapy – and never finishes them. He bemoans losing touch with early friends and later colleagues but doesn’t seem to have made any effort to maintain such relationships. His commitment to sculpture wanes after some early, easy promise. At times he seems to almost want to lack confidence in himself. Is this the same guy I saw at The Jazz cafe in 93? What a storming, demonically powerful show that was in places. (The opener, ‘Sound of Waves’ rocked then in a way no other music does, majestic done backwards and upside down but as powerful as an inverted Hendrix in it’s way). For the uber Japan nerd like me, the all to brief descriptions of recording sessions do hold a faint pornographic curiosity but there’s little in the way of true technical details and nothing that adds to the records themselves (But then what could)? There’s also little sense of how big, how popular Japan actually were ; maybe though that’s a true reflection of someone who was in the actual eye of the storm. I would have liked more on the ‘Titles’ and ‘dreams of reason...’sessions, particularly the writing of ‘Buoy’ . This is a shining, sky high example of how a Karn - Sylvian partnership could have flourished into a whole album’s worth of hook laden, truly alternative pop – Rupert Brooke crooning over Satie and Pastorius. And surely, the two were on great terms during this period? I came across a poetic Chris Roberts interview with Sylvian from Late ’87 the other day ; ‘I’m very supportive of Mick’ says Sylvian ‘He’s incredibly talented and he can’t even get a record deal’. (And, God, yes I am a freak, but this wasn’t, as Mick says the first time he’d seen ‘Dave’ since the split. All true obsessive’s will recall the photo of all five together at the reception of Sylvian’s Polaroid exhibition in 84...ahem..Oh, me so sad...).
The non Japan stuff is just as interesting, more so in a way. Episodes illustrating the day to day domestic struggles of a uniquely talented but resolutely unschooled artist in the late 20th centaury. There’s lotsa romance stuff in there too...and as a bonus silly Gary Numan gets a polite Jazz shoe kicking. There’s family stuff, some historical context, it really is an Autobiography and not just a memoir of Karn’s time in my favourite group. But the book is overshadowed by the grudge against Sylvian and this in turn, brings the danger of overshadowing Karn’s own actual music, whereas Sylvian’s work remains utterly apart, in my mind, from his personality.
I went back and watched a few Live TV appearances after finishing the book. The music stood up, as I knew it would (I still listen to it weekly) as does karn’s utterly unique contribution to it. The strange snaky, feline grace of his playing, the naive mastery of those basslines (who’s quirky beauty, Duran’s John Taylor once admitted, ‘made me want to cry’) the way they simultaneously bind and thread through the music in such a way that is so...erm... hard to describe. Imagine that same music with a regular four to the bar root note bass line - it would an almost completely different band. Karn’s contribution is total within its part. (Also, I happened to listen to Methods of dance via shuffle today – Karn’s Saxes are such an unobtrusive important texture, so integral and so subtle)... But it seems he merely lucked out way back then, being an exotic son of Andy McKay and Bowie for a while within the perfect context, accompanied by a true one off for a ‘best friend’. And it seems he begrudges not being able to be in that position again, which is surely no ones fault, least of all his own...not that he’s been specifically unlucky as such since (as Orson Welles said ‘The only thing in life that is unforgivable is bad luck’and its sobering to think that if this book had come out 20 odd years ago, it may have been a temporary best seller) . But Karn doesn’t seem to want to change his luck. With too much dignity to be a true media whore but lacking either a commitment or vision to make it as a seriously recognized artist in his own right he seems destined to live on in the shadow of his younger more fortuitous self. And this fine, readable, lucid but somewhat bittersweet book may only serve to fortify such a predicament.
Q&A With Mick Karn (author)
AR) What did you learn, if anything, about yourself from the book?
MK) I learnt it was something I'd needed to do for a long time, a
cathartic process of putting ghosts to rest. Strongly connected to the same feelings as when writing music, in that it became so important to me, almost an obsession, to have it made available and read. I also learnt to acknowledge the parts of my life that were and are important. Although I was aware of how many years I'd spent as professional, I hadn't realised just how many obstacles had continually been there along the way until written down, and that some of them had been of my own doing.
AR) Has it inspired you to do further writing?
MK) Yes, definitely. A lot has happened since 2006 when I began writing Japan and Self Existence. Many things have changed, including feelings towards some of the events. Perhaps another instalment some time in the future, but in the meantime I'd like to try a novel.
AR) Please name some of your favourite authors and why.
MK) I seem to be drawn mostly to female authors, but to even things up, generally speaking, some of my favourites are Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, John Fowles, Donna Tartt, Gunter Grass, Lionel Shriver. They all push the boundaries of the imagination and are hard acts to follow.
AR) Within the book, one of the main points you bring focus to is the writing credit/Publishing aspect of Japan's material. But even you yourself state in the book that DS brought songs fully formed to rehearsal and the group then arranged and embellished them. As you know there is a long accepted method of working out writing splits in song writing (which you also mention).
So why do you think you and the other chaps were due a writing/publishing credit?
Surely if this logic was followed then you and the guys would have received a credit for your radical reworkings of the Motown songs you covered?
MK) I don't believe we did justice to the Mowtown songs, which is another reason why not to receive any credit, but no, they were strictly reworkings as you point out.
AR) But this is irrelevant, surely? Song writing credit is afforded to the songwriters and never to anyone covering the song - even if it were based on the subjective idea of whether the musicians covering the song did it 'justice' or not?
MK) I agree. It was just my way of leading into the answer, making it more conversational...I'm going to have to quote part of the book to make my point clear, taken from chapter 20 - Quiet Life.
“The rhythm section forms the basis to many a piece of music, and
writing together as Japan would invariably begin with Steve and I playing along to a sequence of chords and an often complete vocal line supplied by Dave. Keyboards and guitars would be experimented with to a smaller degree, but generally, there would be a long wait, sometimes taking days to find something that clicked with both of us as being
new, original and worth pursuing. The preliminary chords would then often be discarded, and the song built from the foundations we had laid. The finished songs as we hear them on the albums, certainly from Quiet Life onwards, had all started with drums and bass and sometimes vocals”.
AR) But this just sounds to me a description of the arranging of a song and not the composing or writing of, which I presume DS did in private?
MK) I don't believe I am the sole music writer of Sons Of Pioneers, as I didn't write any of the chords progressions for Richard or any of the drum parts for Steve. By the same token, neither did DS on any of the Japan material. It was not a case of simply arranging the parts or structure toa piece, but of actually writing all the musical content.
AR) Many bands 'jam' or improvise together in the Studio and thus the result could be said to a joint composition. But as you make clear, this is not the case with Japan...
MK) No it was not jamming, but usually built upon the drums and bass parts that Steve and I had written.
AR) You don't mention bringing your own material to the group - I assume this is because you didn't? If so - why not?
MK) That only happened once with Sons Of Pioneers on the Tin Drum album, the main reason being that I hadn't started to write my own material until then.
AR) I always assumed that the splits on 'Tin drum', in your case
were down to you bringing DS the music which he then wrote lyrics and
melody to. But in the book you say this wasn't the case and that credit was given to you at random. Did you ever think to question this?
MK) In my case, the Sons Of Pioneers bass line was brought to the rest of the band for contributions, much in the same way as stated above; drums first, keyboards from Richard and lastly vocals from DS. The two co-writing splits between DS and Steve were random, and Rich was never credited for anything.
AR) I always assumed the split on Visions was for Steve's sublime Drum solo...
MK) A drum solo does not constitute any of the music in a track lasting some 5 minutes or so, but rather creates a rhythmic interlude. If, for example, I had suggested to Steve that he play a drum solo at that particular point, then who should receive the credit, the person who created it or the one who suggested it? That's why I'm confused about the 2 tracks Steve was awarded, nothing Steve had played, or any of us on any of the tracks, had ever been suggested or created by anyone other than the individual playing their respective instrument.
AR) How long had you been thinking of writing this book, what were
its aims and when and why did you finally decide to write it?
MK) Probably for over 10 years. 2006 when I was last in Japan, touring as a sideman for a Japanese rock band, It became apparent to me just how far away my life had moved away from theirs, and how wrong their interpretation of my status was. That's when I began writing in my hotel room with the aim to break the myths that surround the music business and, in particular Japan's past.
AR) Did you continue to compose music during the writing of the
MK) No the book had to take second place when the urge to compose took over.
AR) Have you had any reactions from friends or those who appear in
MK) As far as I'm aware most of the people mentioned in the book have yet to read it. I'm looking forward to receiving some feedback from them. I did. however, have an email from David Torn recently who congratulated me on its painful honesty.