In Rock and the Pop Narcotic, SST records' Joe Carducci defined rock music as a sound made by people playing guitar, bass, and drums. He got very formal and inflexible about this guitar+bass+drums = RAWK equation in that polemical screed, but he had a point. When it comes down to it, rock is just G/B/D and not much more. A strong case for this position would be Guitar Wolf, the rockin' three-piece from Tokyo, which will be returning to town this week for an appearance at Young Avenue Deli.
The band has been around since the early '90s and has played Memphis numerous times. They've got some Bluff City ties from touring with the Oblivians in Japan in the mid-'90s (former Oblivian Eric Friedl put out their first LP on his Goner Records label, their first "real release" in the States, by the way), and they always namecheck Memphis as one of their favorite places to play. And this week they prove it: With no American label at present, they're back in the States for only four shows and Memphis is a stop. So why shouldn't you return their respects and check them out?
First, Seiji, Billy, and Toru (guitar, bass, and drums, respectively) have a touching affection for American rock music or, should I say, what they believe constitutes American rock. Their holy trinity is the Ramones, Link Wray, and Joan Jett (no kidding; they love her for real) with some space in their pantheon reserved for the MC5, the Stones, Chuck Berry, and Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers. Yeah, they love le rock almost as much as some French obsessives do. For Guitar Wolf, it is worth living and dying for (well, worth touring this country over and over again without selling a ton of records or attracting mainstream music fans).
Second, they take great, um, ritualistic pride in their carefully cultivated out-of-control stage shows. As the Germans used to say of the Beatles when they played a residency at Hamburg's infamous Star Club in the early '60s, the boys from Liverpool knew how to "mak [sic] show." So do the guys in Guitar Wolf. Seiji and his band will try anything to entertain. They'll booze it up onstage. They'll leap off speaker columns or amps. They'll take their shirts off and sweat profusely. Seiji will jump into the crowd whether the crowd is ready for him or not. They'll do an encore when nobody asks for one, and they'll refuse to do one if the audience is howling to have them back. Seiji will mention the words "rock" or "rock-and-roll" from the stage at least 100 times both during and between songs. And they will always bring someone up from the audience to play guitar on the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams."
Third, they rarely tune their instruments once they start playing. And sometimes it doesn't help if they do check their tuners just before mounting the stage. Tav Falco, in his struggles to maintain guitar tuning in the '80s, used to refer to tuning as a "decadent European concept" when he was unable to make those pesky pegs stay put during live sets. Guitar Wolf doesn't even try to stay in tune. Hell, Seiji won't stop playing his guitar when he starts breaking strings. Nothing stops his rock train once it gets started. Noise of the rockin' variety is what matters to him. You can talk about your avant guitar tunings à la Sonic Youth or Glenn Branca, but those Manhattan loft-dwellers would probably shudder at the sheer tonnage of ugly noise that Guitar Wolf puts out in the course of a live show. There will be nightmarish tones the likes of which you can't even imagine, and none of it will be in the service of some lofty art aesthetic.
A word of warning here for those of you who may have a few hearing-loss issues (like this former ear-abusing writer/performer/fan): You might want to consider bringing some earplugs along, cuz you will definitely experience some ringing in your ears afterward if you don't. (Another word of warning, this time to the soundman at the Deli: Bud, these fellas from Tokyo are loud and distorted so watch out for your PA system.)
Fourth, Guitar Wolf is a table-pounding hoot onstage. I'm not sure if there is any irony or distance in their collective soul when it comes to performing, but if it takes numbing sincerity to be this funny onstage, then I say keep on taking yourselves seriously, guys. They are as much fun to watch as the Cramps or the Gories in their prime and they don't even mean to be, I think. They maintain their earnest rock scowls and poses from start to finish, taking their visuals to cartoonish levels and beyond. It's a joy to watch someone mugging so shamelessly and so seriously, seemingly without a clue. Or maybe they've got us dumb Yanks fooled, and they are laughing at us behind stone faces while we guffaw at their goofy antics. Doesn't matter. Guitar Wolf will make you laugh whether you want to or not. Stoopid rock in its purest form here.
Finally, Guitar Wolf will most likely perform their version of "Summertime Blues," and it is definitive, better than Eddie Cochran's original and Blue Cheer's 1968 redux. They recorded it on their last U.S. release, Jet Generation, on Matador in 1999 (that whole record was mastered in the red from start to finish, nothing but crumbling guitar tones, painful-sounding cymbal crashes, and howling vocals), and it's been a staple of their live act for years.
The band's charming Japanese accents and tenuous grasp of English come into play with devastating results on this tune. You haven't heard "Summertime Blues" 'til you hear them shout out "you gotta work-ah rate" with maximum volume and expressiveness.
G/B/D forever and ever. Amen.