Lately I’ve been listening to Jack Johnson’s new album In Between Dreams and finding the simplicity of the instrumentation and focus on lyrics bringing back my old love for singing along with the music that I love. The album reminds me of a statement made to travel writer Brian Schwartz in his book World of Villages by an Efe friend (incorrectly known as a Pygmy) who asked why Schwartz didn’t know how to play an instrument and, after Schwartz replied that back home he had professional musicians who did the playing for him, stared at him in surprise. “Where’s the fun in that?” the Efe asked. “Music ought to be sung and played and danced to by everyone involved.”
I used to spend hours every day strumming my guitar and singing and writing songs. It came naturally to me, especially the lyrics; somehow the melodies bloomed in my head and the words, unlike with poetry, popped out seemingly as if by the touch of God. I could lose myself in the creation of the songs and emerge at the end of the day, surprised that darkness had fallen and that I had forgotten to eat. Sometimes some of my college friends and I would sit on the roof of my apartment in Eugene, Oregon. U.S.A., improvising as we laid down chords and combinations, playing and laughing, and making up words till well into the evenings. I even played in an Irish pub here in Tokyo for a while, crooning about life and the laughter and joy I saw around me.
The music has died since then, in great part because so much of life in Japan revolves around ready-made packages, including music. No one my age plays their instruments any more. When I even suggest to those who admit to still fiddling with their guitars and pianos that we try playing a gig on a street corner somewhere they look at me in horror. “What if the police come?” they ask. That, of course, kills the joy in singing for the love of singing. And that is what Japan is like, the regulation like some metallic killjoy terrified of spontaneity and unbridled elation.
Jack Johnson even dresses the way I do, the way I love most: t-shirt, shorts, sandals, hair buzz cut. Sitting with friends in the backyard enjoying one anothers’ company, the words in the songs about living simply and focusing on the little things in life and appreciating them. When a friend handed me the album to borrow and I popped it into my computer at home, it was like rediscovering my old Oregon friends. I especially like his song “Breakdown” about wishing the train he was on would break down so he could take the time to look around him. So poignant the truth of slowing down, at times painfully reminding me of how far I’ve ventured from my own determination to live without rushing.
One song caught me by surprise, “Good People”. I had just returned from a particularly rough passage on the evening train, packed to the gills with late night commuters. Perhaps it was the electricity in the air from the storm outside, but a nasty mood seemed to infiltrate the crowd. I had been standing near the door. At my station I was about to step out of the train when behind me some sweating businessman who couldn’t wait for those ahead of him to negotiate the human bodies attempted to muscle me out of the way. When I resisted he placed his hand on my face and shoved me to the side, making me trip and fall onto the platform. I was so incensed that I raised my fist to punch him, but caught myself just in time. Fuming I shuffled home, mumbling obscenities about Japanese men (who have an obnoxious tendency to flaunt bravado and what they call male “puraido”… “pride”) and feeling my emotions suffocate me. I clicked the “play” button in iTunes on my Mac and let Jack Johnson’s music wipe the slate clean.
When “Good People” came on, I got to wondering. Just why is it that so much of the popular culture around the world seems to focus on being “bad” and sullen and miserly and fast and rebellious, with brows beetled and shouting and bad-mouthing everything and everyone? You watch television, as Jack Johnson alludes to, and there is nothing nice there. So much of it is selfish and hysterical and indifferent. This week there was “Ally McBeal”, “Outer Limits”, “Angel”, “Andromeda”, “The Simpsons”, CNN News, and even an Animal Planet documentary in which the announcer described a male lion as “sexist” and a cow elephant as “the fairer sex”, and, though I like some of the shows, all of them full of facetious and self-absorbed people whom I would never want to get to know in real life. The only recent program I’ve seen lately that I enjoy has been “Oz”, with its honest language and willingness to look at uncomfortable and unconventional views of men.
Music seems to be much the same. If you switch on MTV so much there is of young men and women emulating the wealthy lifestyle, with little deeper thought on anything. Some of it is pure fun, of course, but the focus is still on going it fast and often advocating anger as the solution to injustice and pain. A lot of this grows naturally out of the rebellion of the 60’s, but surely there ought to be a counterbalance with going slow and taking the road of quiet, reflection, and placation?
I love the quiet and gentle view of songs such as Jack Johnson’s. With such a view each day can roll on in and the peculiarities and hold ups absorbed in stride. I just like nice, laughing people. I like a merry soul and people who are generous with their time and belongings. I like singing for singing’s sake. Songs that celebrate the value of moments.
Pardon me now as I tune out, close my eyes, bob my head, and sing along to “Never Know”…