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Turning Japanese

Right at that loud, sweaty moment when the crowd's ready to crawl on the stage from too much anxious waiting and too much beer, the lights go dark and the house music switches over to some blaring, swaggering tune fit for a movie about 1950s delinquents. Everyone cheers and hoists...
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Right at that loud, sweaty moment when the crowd's ready to crawl on the stage from too much anxious waiting and too much beer, the lights go dark and the house music switches over to some blaring, swaggering tune fit for a movie about 1950s delinquents.

Everyone cheers and hoists their drinks when a couple of tattooed greasers in wife-beaters and black leather saunter onstage, conspicuously posing in the spotlight as they comb their hair and light cigarettes. This goes on for a bit, and then a third guy appears -- clad in leather and dark sunglasses like the others -- and guzzles a huge beer. The audience starts screaming and doesn't let up until he finishes it off and picks up his guitar, finally blasting into a raw, fast, punk rock riff.

This is Guitar Wolf. And this night could've been eight months ago in Austin, Texas, or 10 years ago in San Francisco. I've probably seen the Japanese garage-punk trio 20 times, and it's safe to say that no matter where they play -- familiar rock clubs in Tokyo, foreign turf in places like Argentina and Australia -- every show starts with a frenzy like this, and the excitement continues until well past the last beer-drenched encore.

Back in March, Guitar Wolf played a classic set at South by Southwest at a bar called Beerland in Austin: fuzzed-out guitar, gut-rattling bass, stomping surf drums, and harsh, half-screamed vocals. Totally obnoxious and fun. In spite of the Japanese lyrics, fans sang along to some choice English words, especially "jet," "rock 'n' roll," and "baby!" I've known Seiji (pronounced say-jee), Billy, and Toru for years, but hadn't seen them in a long time, so we had a happy reunion amid the post-show commotion.

Only a couple of weeks after we saw each other, I got the awful news that Billy died of a heart attack. He had just gotten home from tour three days earlier. He was only 38.

The news was a shocker in Japan, and fans from elsewhere had to get details from the Internet. There was an outpouring of appreciation from heartbroken fans around the world. After releasing eight albums in the States, starring with his bandmates in the B-movies Sore Losers and Wild Zero, and years of constant touring, Billy had too many friends and admirers to count.

Even before he was gone, this guy was a legend.

Hence the timing of Narnack Records' brand-new anthology of Guitar Wolf's greatest hits, Golden Black. Fans picked all 26 tracks through online voting. There's some unreleased and out-of-print stuff here, and everything's been remastered (although a few songs, like "Wild Zero" and "Mars Twist," still sound gloriously lo-fi, almost as much as the band's first album, Wolf Rock, which sounded trashy even on pristine vinyl). I think it's a fitting tribute to Billy, a way to keep his sound alive even as Seiji and Toru continue on with a new bass player, UG.

For me, Guitar Wolf stands for all those cool, it's-a-small-world experiences you start having in the music scene, when your casual acquaintances and chance encounters start adding up to a sense of community that goes past city lines and even national borders. I can think of no better proof that rock 'n' roll is a universal language.

And speaking of languages, you need to know that I've been a Japanophile since childhood, going as far as majoring in East Asian studies in college. Once I started learning Japanese, I'd be the lone dork talking to touring bands from Tokyo, hanging out after shows to test my grammar skills. (That's still the case, actually . . . )

In the mid-'90s, when I was in college in New York, after a show one night somebody introduced me to Billy (known to many as Bass Wolf), a friendly, funny smart-ass. Not long after that, when I was living for a while in Tokyo, a friend took me bowling with a bunch of her pals, including Toru (a.k.a. Drum Wolf). He was shy and charming, and looked tough in spite of the neon-green Velcro bowling shoes we were all wearing. When I finally met the elusive front man, Seiji (Guitar Wolf himself), we already felt like we knew each other from having so many friends in common. He liked to rough up my Japanese with all the slang words I never learned in school.

A few years later, I tagged along when my boyfriend's band toured Japan with Guitar Wolf. Turned out my college education was good for selling tee shirts to giddy Japanese kids. Every day for almost two weeks, nine of us crammed into a tiny van and hit the highway. Every night, we sang along to the Ramones before the Guitar Wolf set; we watched some lucky soul get pulled onstage and handed Seiji's guitar for an impromptu lesson on the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams"; and we wound up at some restaurant for an after-party with newfound friends and plenty of booze.

You'd think I'd get sick of the routine, but no -- it actually had the opposite effect. I loved it all and couldn't wait to do it again. It was a genuine rock 'n' roll lifestyle, and I got to be a part of it. These guys were putting on show after show, but they were never putting on an act, and the leather jackets weren't costumes. They lived and breathed Link Wray and the Heartbreakers and the Damned.

I'd go on tour with them again tomorrow, if they called.

It doesn't matter if you've seen Guitar Wolf many times, or you've never even heard of them -- there's only one way to listen to Golden Black. Turn it up super-loud, imagine yourself in a rowdy crush of people, and crack open a cold one.

Billy wouldn't have it any other way.

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