"Who are these guys, anyway?" a photographer standing next to me asks, firing his camera like a machine gun. In front of us, assembled on a small platform, is a five-piece band, glammed-out with feathered hair, studded collars, ornate crosses and skulls, and cloaks of faux fur.
I could tell this guy that he's looking at Japan's biggest rock band. I could explain how the show they are minutes away from playing is probably the most significant show ever played by a Japanese rock band. I could mention that only three years ago, even their most diehard fans wouldn't have dreamed of this performance. There isn't time, though. It's Sunday afternoon in Chicago's Grant Park and thousands of Lollapalooza 2010 attendees are clamoring for X Japan.
We rush to the main stage and arrive just ahead of the band. Thousands of fans press against the security barricade and squeal every time they catch a glimpse of one of the members. When all five take the stage, the crowd's roar is deafening. Many of these fans know the X Japan story. They're aware that despite the band's breakup 12 years ago and suicide of its former lead guitarist, X Japan has fought back to play its first show on U.S. soil. They're aware that they're watching a watershed moment.
A harpsichord melody introduces the opener, "Rusty Nail." A crashing cymbal ends the intro, awakening twin-guitar speed metal. Then, just as quickly, the vocalist switches from screeching rock to tearful ballad and the song freefalls into a quiet piano interlude. This blend of driving metal and raw, emotional pop — often within the same song — is what earned X Japan its status as Japan's biggest rock band. It's also won an intensely devoted worldwide legion of fans — fans willing to make necessary sacrifices to witness the band's hour-long set in Chicago.
Who knows? It also might be what wins X Japan mainstream status in the States.
The band is going after America with everything it's got, following up the Lollapalooza gig with a North American tour and a new album — the band's first in 12 years — with lyrics almost entirely in English.
And it may represent the best chance a Japanese act has ever had to make it in the United States.
But will it be enough?
Breaking into the American mainstream is a battle that Japanese bands have been losing for decades. In 1980, Yellow Magic Orchestra appeared in a segment of Soul Train that ended with host Don Cornelius telling the audience that, though the band members had just introduced themselves, he couldn't repeat one of their names if you paid him "a million dollars." That was the same year Yellow Magic Orchestra's Solid State Survivor won the Japan Recording Award for best album.
Shonen Knife, a trio of pop-punk princesses who sing sugar-coated songs about banana chips and giant kitties, played Lollapalooza in 1994 and even opened for Nirvana on the Nevermind UK tour. Shonen Knife continues to tour the States and release English-language albums, but after two decades, they have little more than cult following.
Arguably the most successful Japanese band in the States is Dir en Grey, whose album Uroboros peaked at 114 on Billboard. The same record made it to number 4 on Japan's charts. Polysics? Loudness? The list goes on, each act generating smoking embers of success that never quite catch fire.
Then again, none of those bands had the hype that X Japan and the band's leader, Yoshiki, have enjoyed in the weeks leading up to and following their Lollapalooza performance.
It's the day before X Japan's U.S. debut and Yoshiki is in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton, doing phone interviews and filming segments for an ABC World News piece. A couple of hours earlier, what was intended to be a panning shot of Yoshiki talking to a TV reporter while strolling down a Chicago sidewalk erupted into a frenzy as screaming X Japan fans mobbed him with cardboard signs and autograph requests. Yoshiki also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and other outlets that fawned over the band's accomplishments, which include 30 million albums sold worldwide and 18 sold-out shows at the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome. Time Out Chicago claimed that "the only act threatening to out-spectacle Lady Gaga [at Lollapalooza] is hair-metal über-group X Japan."
Outshining the queen of American pop? Hey, who knows?
"We were going to debut in America before the breakup," Yoshiki says with a faint Japanese accent. "But I dunno if we were ready at that time."
The idea of putting their Japanese superstar status on hold to "start over" in the States did not appeal to some of the band members, he says without naming names. A growing rift between him and X Japan vocalist Toshi ultimately caused the band to split after a sold-out 1997 New Year's Eve show — called "The Last Live" — at the Tokyo Dome. Five months later, the suicide of former lead guitarist Hideto "Hide" Matsumoto seemingly destroyed any hope for a reunion.
"When we broke up, I thought everything was over. Then, especially right after we broke up, Hide died, so, I didn't even think twice that we can reunite."
Solo careers by X Japan's surviving members followed. Toshi started a band. Yoshiki furthered his musical pedigree by composing Japan's best-selling classical album, Eternal Melody, with Beatles producer George Martin and teaming up with fellow Japanese rock stars Gackt, Miyavi, and Sugizo (who would later become X Japan's new guitarist) in the super-group S.K.I.N.
But X Japan wasn't over.
"Toshi, the vocalist, and I . . . We didn't talk for seven or eight years after the breakup," Yoshiki says. "But then we started talking. The beginning was just fixing our friendship first, then Toshi said, 'You know we have fans all over the world now.'"
For years, Japanophiles and anime fans have been trading J-rock albums at conventions and online. Some fans are music pirates who stumbled upon the band on Napster. At least that's my story. More than a decade ago, I was attempting to "acquire" a soundtrack for an anime flick called X/1999 when I downloaded the song "X" — in all its speed-metal glory — by mistake. I had to have more. I battled eBay bidders for imported copies of Art of Life; I watched Region 2 DVDs of live performances on a Japanese PlayStation 2, and I plunked down more than I could afford to get to Lollapalooza.
I wasn't alone.
In January, more than 8,000 screaming, banner-waving American fans descended on Hollywood Boulevard to witness X Japan lip-synch shots for four upcoming music videos filmed on the rooftop of Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.
The mayhem was no different at Lollapalooza 2010. Countless posters were held aloft and thousands of X Japan T-shirts covered sweat-drenched American and Japanese fans who'd waited hours in the hot August sun just to get the best view of X Japan's show. From the band's first note to its last, the fans screamed the lyrics in unison.
"When I told [my friends] I was coming to Lollapalooza and X Japan was here, they shat their pants," says Paul, a fan from Seattle. Paul was with Raquel, who journeyed from Portugal, and Lisa from California, who sported an X Japan tattoo. These X acolytes had waited years to see the band play. Now that they have, they believe mainstream American success is inevitable — even if X Japan doesn't get radio play.
"Good metal never gets on the radio," Paul says. "Fuck the radio. We have the Internet. This shit is going to spread like crazy."
In the days following the Lollapalooza show, X Japan continued to receive press. On August 9, Time Out Chicago thanked Perry Farrell for including X Japan in this year's Lollapalooza. "Thank you most of all for X Japan. Engineering the first stateside import of Japan's (mostly) quadragenarian metal monsters was the coup of the festival, and as expected, faces were in fact melted," wrote Doyle Armbrust. On August 10, ABC aired the segment it shot in Chicago. Then, on August 16, X Japan announced their North American tour dates.
The story of whether or not X Japan will be able to rebuild their Japanese superstardom on American shores will play out at those shows, in those venues. All we can do is wait.