In the late 80s Penn Jillette (of the magic/comedy team Penn and Teller) did two things that may have saved the rock band Half Japanese from permanent obscurity. First he rescued the master tapes to the band's landmark Charmed Life album from a label deadbeat in LA who sat on them for several frustrating years while the music languished at a pressing plant. Then he started his own label, 50 Skadillion Watts of Power, from profits earned guest-starring on an episode of Miami Vice, and proceeded to release the album himself, along with a number of the band's other albums.
That story, related by Jillette himself, is one of the highlights of Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, Jeff Feuerzeig's brisk and engaging look at one of America's most interesting margin dwellers and a scathing indictment of the music industry's corporate mentality. "Jad and David Fair start the band Half Japanese in their bedroom," goes the narration that begins the film. "Though neither can play a single note on any instrument, they go on to record one of the greatest albums of all time."
The nervous and unassuming Jad Fair dates the band's inception at around November or December of 1973. But it wasn't until four years later that the Fair brothers self-released the prophetically noisy, chaotic Calling All Girls EP. That first record's jarring sound proved the band was unconcerned with technical perfection, or even any musical training at all. As David Fair says in the film, "The little skinny [guitar] strings, they make the high sounds, and the big fat ones, they make the low sounds. That's all you've got to know. . . . If you want to be fast, play fast, and if you want to go slow, go slow."
Half Japanese went on to release a three-LP boxed set, 1980's legendary 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts (reissued on CD last year by T.E.C. Tones), as their first full-length project. They also earned credit from at least some observers for starting punk rock. "Half Japanese boiled everything down to its basics and they blew those basics up right in your face," observes music writer Byron Coley. The attribution may not have been universal, but it was enough to impress the Fairs' mother: "The home that we are in, which is almost 200 years old, has been called the birthplace of punk rock, and this is really exciting," she tells Feuerzeig.
In spite of indifferent commercial reception, Half Japanese continued to put out albums and toured both America and Europe. David Fair left the band permanently when he got married in 1986, right after the band recorded Charmed Life. Then came a lull in Half Japanese's career, until Jillette came along.
Though Half Japanese's music has undergone obvious shifts, Jad Fair suggests that his vision has remained consistent. "It's not so much a progression as that the band members have changed, which changes the music," he told me, deadpan. ("We do love songs and monster songs," his brother says on film. "That's what rock 'n' roll should be about.") What's most compelling about the music is Jad's idiosyncratic, tense, and painfully personal vocals. The lack of finesse becomes irrelevant when you see him at the microphone in the throes of emotion, face writhing with excitement and catharsis.
Feuerzeig, who financed the film with profits from TV commercials he made, combines interviews with various band members and music writers (and Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker, who's recorded with the band) with live footage that includes several rooftop performances spoofing the Beatles' Let It Be and a grainy homemade film of the band playing at a rest home, an event organized by Duplex Planet creator David Greenberger. Inserted into the film as a subtheme is the not-so-serious suggestion that the mainstream music industry and press have blown perfectly good opportunities to make millions off the band.
"Somebody like Jann Wenner would rather eat ice cream until he died than have to admit a band like Half Japanese even exists," claims Coley. "Face it, you could say, 'Jann, here it is, it's all over, I'm gonna fill you with whipped cream until you explode like the doughboy you are, or you can play this record.' And Jann would opt for the nitrous-oxide-and-sugar-laced death trip. Screw him." Former music writer and Matador Records boss Gerard Cosloy suggests that "if Rolling Stone had put Jad and David Fair on the cover of the magazine in 1980, not only would they have been way ahead of their time [but] we wouldn't have any Alternative Press or Spin magazine because Rolling Stone would have cornered the market, and they would have sold a lot more issues."
"A lot of it may seem to be exaggerated," Fair told me recently, "but I don't think it is." He could be right. Last fall Half Japanese opened an east-coast leg of Nirvana's final tour, and just a few weeks ago Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl performed for the first time since Kurt Cobain's suicide, in Olympia, Washington, with the Stinky Puffs, a band led by Jad Fair's ten-year-old son Simon Timony and featuring Fair and his wife Sheenah.
Fair will perform after the Saturday-night screening of the film. It shows Friday at 8, Saturday at 4 and 8:30, and Sunday at 4 as part of the Film Center's New Directions Documentary Festival. The Film Center is at Columbus and Jackson. Admission's $5, $10 for the second Saturday show; call 443-3737. Fair will also give a free in-store performance Sunday at 3 at Ajax Records, 2156 W. Chicago (772-4783).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Anthony Hardwick, Christopher H. Bailey.