At 1:00 pm last Sunday, I was driving my family to see Ella Jenkins in concert. At 1:00 am that night, I was in a crowd of leather-clad kids moshing to Guitar Wolf in concert at the Abbey Pub in Chicago, while Bass Wolf was shouting to someone in the crowd: "Hey, F***face, give me pot!!!" The life of an aging Asian Cinema fanatic is strange indeed...
I was first exposed to Guitar Wolf four years ago when I picked up a bootleg copy of their movie WILD ZERO, featuring the rock and rollers facing off against a horde of evil zombies while still managing to stay cool. The movie is an energetic mess, starring Masashi Endo as Ace, a fan of the band who follows them from concert to concert. When Ace runs into trouble of the shambling undead kind, he blows a dogwhistle given to him by Guitar Wolf (the name of the band leader as well as the name of the band), and he comes to Ace's rescue, along with fellow band members Bass Wolf and Drum wolf. Certain moments of the film linger long in the mind. It's a romance, though Guitar Wolf must remind Ace that "Rock and Roll has no boundaries!" (Guitar Wolf dispenses all of his advice while shouting). Bass and Drum basically stand around looking cool, and there is never a scene in the movie where one of the band is dispatching Zombies that another bandmember is not in the background, casually combing his hair or looking bored. WILD ZERO is something of a cult classic, or it should be, and happily one no longer needs to search for it on the bootleg tables at conventions, its available in a spiffy and inexpensive R1 DVD.
Since then I have picked up a CD ( Planet of the Wolves), which is greatly enjoyable, but difficult to listen to around the house where I could rarely crank it up to its proper decibel level (LOUD). After that, seeing the masters of rock carnage live, then, seemed a natural thing to do.
I arrived at the Abbey Pub extremely early. A somewhat foolish thing to do, I understand now, because there were three opening acts that were going to play first, one of which was horrifically bad, another only marginally listenable. But on the other hand, it was a good thing to do, because upon arrival, I sat down at a table right next to Guitar Wolf, who were just finishing off their dinner. Later, when everyone had moved from the bar/restaurant area into the concert area, Guitar Wolf himself disappeared (and did not come out again until showtime), but Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf came out and hung out with the crowd before the opening acts got underway, signing the occasional autograph and taking the occasional picture with fans (Naturally, I brought neither something to sign nor something to take a picture with). Bass Wolf (aka Billy) and I, sad to say, had very little in common. Mostly he was looking for something to drink, something to smoke, and someone to party with. Drum Wolf was more reserved, but I noticed did check out, in great detail, every punk chick that came near. I know this because, well, I was doing the same thing, and we noticed each other doing so, prompting a quick embarrassed chuckle between us. Yes, bonding over the objectification of women. No doubt he was wishing he was still wearing his cool dark glasses. They too finally left the floor when the opening acts started. Apparently they were tipped off in advance not to stick around for the lame opening acts.
I should say I almost didn't bother going to the show, since I couldn't find anyone to come with. It is not an easy sell to convince any of my friends to go to a punk rock concert that starts at 9:00 PM on a Sunday night. The usual excuse was having to work the next morning. I of course had to work the next morning too. But the difference was, when I came in the next morning, I would be all bleary eyed and tired and say, "I saw Guitar Wolf last night." Whereas everyone else would think about how they just sat at home Sunday night and wonder why their lives aren't more interesting.
I almost gave up in despair, resigning myself to another evening at home in front of the TV, when I decided to call up my mostly unemployed, much younger brother, to see what he was doing. "Have you heard of Guitar Wolf?" I asked him. He replied, "Yes, I'm going to see them in concert tonight." Bless his heart (must be in the genes). And so I tagged along.
The show started at 9:00, but Guitar Wolf didn't start playing until around 11:30. I idled away the time drinking and chatting (screaming over the music when necessary) near the back of the pub. But when Guitar Wolf was about to come on, my youthful companions decided the best way to see him was from the front of the stage, and so, after much effort, I joined them, only a handful of people between where we stood and where Guitar Wolf would play. Thankfully, I brought earplugs, which I put in before they started, saving what remains of my hearing from further loss. When the band came out, the crowd surged, and when they played, I found myself right in the middle of the mosh pit. Happily the most zealous dancers seemed to be on the left side of the stage, so I was able to stand to the right without collapsing under a pile of bodies.
When I say "stand", it was of course impossible to merely stand still. People were jumping up and down and pushing into each other on all sides. No one was exactly dancing so much as bouncing, and perhaps taking out their angry frustrations about not being able to dance on each other. Standing still would require much more effort than simply going with the flow. Bodies were packed tightly. Being rubbed up against by so many strangers, it was like being a Japanese schoolgirl on the Yamanote line. Eventually by a process of Natural Selection I was slowly pushed back from my original position to one perhaps about eight feet from the stage, still extremely close but no longer in the front lines. Which I have to say was something of a relief.
Guitar Wolf puts on a phenomenal show. Their set, which lasted approximately an hour, is non-stop. In the Midnight Eye review of WILD ZERO Tom Mes writes that Guitar Wolf is "known for their inability to play their instruments." It is time (well past time) to correct that malassumption, these guys are a tight band that play with great skill. Who knew? What is interesting is the way the three band members inhabit their own areas on the stage, and rarely communicate with one another, nor do they have to. Tying the band together is their Roadie, a young Japanese guy who followed them to many concerts ("Like Ace!" a fellow WILD ZERO enthusiast chimed in when he was describing this, he nodded agreement) and finally ended up touring with them, selling their discs, setting up, and taking down, for each show. During the show he would glide on stage and re-set fallen microphones, untangle chords, and disentangle overeager fans from Guitar Wolf's outstretched hand.
Drum Wolf, for all he interacts with the crowd or with his bandmates, might as well be in another room. He is all business. Since the band doesn't stop for more than a few seconds, he maintains driving rhythms for the entire hour, and does so flawlessly. He is without a doubt the bedrock on which the rest of the band can play, he guarantees the song will rock no matter what is going on in front of him. Bass Wolf, for his part, opens up a full service convenience store on his side of the stage, bartering pics in exchange for beer handed to him from the audience, cigarettes, or cigars. During one song, he leaned forward and someone stuck a cig in his mouth, he swayed down again a moment later, and someone lit it. He tossed a pic and gave an appreciative thumbs up. By the end of the night, he is guzzling beer and spit spraying it over the audience (again, happily, I had been pushed back by the point), and demanding pot in broken English, all while pursing his lips, keeping his hair combed, and rocking out with driving bass lines that fill in the drum beat.
And finally, there is Guitar Wolf. He pulls the audience in with his outward coolness, then wins you over with his energy and dedication. He plays drenched from head to toe in his own sweat (and beer), and by the end of the show, is staggering about in sheer exhaustion. He is the Christ figure of the band, suffering, giving of himself to the audience so that we might find redemption. It's a funny point, but there is something about seeing him do it that makes it ring true. His microphone keeps falling into the crowd, helpful moshers set it back up before the next verse. He reaches out to the crowd, finally pulling one up to play with him for a moment before flinging him back into the audience as an assisted Stage Dive (the guy he pulled up, hopelessly drunk, appears to be living the best moment of his life up until that point). Finally Guitar Wolf leaves the stage and makes for a wobbly round table filled with beer bottles. He sweeps them all onto the floor, climbs up, and stands on the table. This happened to be right next to where I ended up, so I was now face to face with the man himself.
He touched me, or I touched him, as he went by; it was a different feeling from the meet and greet we had a few hours earlier in the restaurant, now he seemed entirely transformed by the music, staggering along, not a soul in the house would not be willing to reach out and help him carry his burden. A spot hits him as he stands crookedly on the table, trembling to maintain his balance, hands against the pillar behind him. He looked as though caught in headlights, or like a wolf, about to be shot. Instead, he continues to play, then jumps down and jams in the middle of the crowd, striking me I might add several times in the chest with his guitar while he did so (but oh so gently). But even this wasn't his most extreme audience participatory moment. Toward the end of their second encore, he walks out on top of the crowd, standing like Jet Li in FONG SAI YUK on shoulders, hands, and heads, and continues to play. Having already had my own personal moment with the man, I kept my distance and let others have their moments with the man.
In the end, though Guitar Wolf could barely walk, and was drenched from head to toe in sweat, he came out for a third encore, all by himself, to play a song solo. The crowd, not expecting it, had already mostly dissipated. He plays to a near empty room, maybe thirty people at most, perversely willing to outlast the audience.
The one thing that was missing from the concert were the Zombies from WILD ZERO, shambling, shuffling masses for our heroes to do battle with. Or then again, perhaps we were they, reaching forward, reaching for Guitar Wolf, trying to get a piece of him -- not of his flesh, but of his magic -- while the kids bounce up and down in the mosh pit, smashing into each other recklessly, trying through the music to reach an altered state of consciousness, like Christians who feel the spirit move them at a gospel concert, or the Muslim ecstasy experienced through qawwali singing of the likes of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Guitar Wolf connects with the audience. When he speaks, it is as if it is to you alone. I don't think anyone in the audience that night thought they were zombies. No, Guitar Wolf made us feel like we were all Ace. We aren't the superhero, we aren't the super cool guy, but you know, the movie is really all about us, anyway, as long as we remain true to Rock'n'Roll.
Wild Zero available at amazon.com