Keiji Haino – Watashi Dake? (1981 / 2017)
I rarely find myself in stark disagreement with other members of the experimental music community. I pride myself in having ears which seek beyond personal interest, comfort, and taste. I listen to everything I possibly can, pointedly without presumption, expectation, or bias. Every time sit down to listen to something new, I do my best to offer it a blank slate – to hear it on its own terms. Sometimes I respond to things more passionately than my peers, and vise versa, but as a general rule we’re almost always in agreement about what gets the nod of approval. Keiji Haino is an exception. For as long as I have been a member of this community, beginning sometime in the early to mid 1990’s, he has been one of its great darlings. He is an artist to whom I’ve been able to give nothing more than an ambivalent response. At my most cranky, I’ve been known to call him a charlatan who gives experimental music a bad name.
By way of personal admission, I’ve always had an allergy to artifice, persona, and arrogance, particularly when they are delivered on the back of overt masculinity. It is why, despite its sprawling scale, my record collection holds almost no popular Rock & Roll. It is also why, despite having listened to the vast majority, and having seen him play live close to a dozen times over the years, I don’t own a single album by Keiji Haino. At every encounter, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was faced with a brick wall of artifice – a quasi Rock & Roll persona who, down to his long standing popularity, with the fact that people were willing to take anything he did as a hallmark of quality, was lazily going through the motions, presenting an idea of, or signifier for, experimental music, rather than being that thing itself. It’s always seemed more about a construct, than sound. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’m the first to question my own opinion when it is met by resounding difference. This case is particularly resonant, given how many artists I respect and adore, respect, adore, and have worked with him. No matter how much I worked at it, or how many chances where given, his music fell flat on my ears. That is… until, roughly twenty years after first hearing it, I returned to his debut solo effort from 1981, Watashi Dake?, the reissue of which stands before us now.
You have to give Haino credit where it’s due. He’s been at this a long time, and has shown nothing but unflinching dedication to the territory he occupies. He’s brave, and an unquestionable innovator, often entirely ahead of his time. His earliest efforts almost single-handedly sculpted the field of Noise as it would come to be understood. Like his music or not, he have to respect him for that.
Haino initially emerged during the early 70’s working in Lost Aaraaf, Magical Power Mako, and eventually his own project Fushitsusha, bands working within the scene of improvised psychedelic rock which would subsequently morph into explicit gestures of experimental music and Noise. He’s an artist for whom collaboration has always played a central role, but despite this, his solo work remains the best known.
The Keiji Haino we all know, and (arguably) most threads of experimental music which extend from Rock & Roll (vs jazz, electronic, and avant-garde classical music) all begins in a single place, his solo debut from 1981 – Watashi Dake? With nearly four decades behind it, the album has a strange logic – it makes sense. It’s sounds, structures, and territories have been adopted by countless practitioners, acquiring a kind of familiarity. It’s hard (and important) to imagine, what it sounded like when it first dropped, to virgin uninitiated ears.
I can’t remember exactly when, or with whom, I first heard Watashi Dake?. It was during the second half of the 90’s, while I was living in Chicago. During those years, before the internet had begun to fully blossom, access to recorded experimental music was more constrained. The scene and the community around it felt much smaller than it does today. Consequently, Haino, being famous in relative terms, was part of the inescapable soundtrack of the era. Watashi Dake? had been reissued by P.S.F. on CD in 1993. It would have been that edition I heard. I wasn’t particularly taken by it, but admittedly, during that time I was largely preoccupied by free-jazz and Chicago’s incredible experimental, Noise, and Post-Rock scenes.
This is why, combined with years of giving Haino a resounding shoulder shrug, I was so shocked by my return to Watashi Dake?. For the first time, I heard something of what others had – the foundation of the wide reaching respect for him. After all these years, with all that has come in its wake, the record remains a writhing, punctuated, emotional gut-punch, that leaves the even the well seasoned listener struggling to catch up.
There are the easy associations. The ear might be led to believe the album is an extreme successor to the territories opened by punk, and to a certain extent it is. That said, Watashi Dake? is better understood as a sonic realization to Haino’s early obsession with the work and ideas of the French playwright and poet Antonin Artaud. In his manifestos for the Theater of Cruelty, Artaud advocated a communion between actor and audience in a magic exorcism; gestures, sounds… combine to form a language, superior to words, that can be used to subvert thought and logic and to shock the spectator into seeing the baseness of his world. There is perhaps no better way to describe what Haino set forth in Watashi Dake?.
Placing Haino’s debut at any end of the known spectrum – genius, primitive, or anything else, falls far short. It’s a tapping of human spirit to its core – beyond logic, structure, or reason. It is noise, but so much more. Across eleven tracks, the artist unfolds in a strange series of raw and emotional vocal and guitar works – each inverting expectation, sculpting an uncharted inner world. Inexplicably, despite all the years that have passed, with all those who have drawn inspiration from it – a genre unto itself, it still sound fresh and revolutionary. Most importantly, it feels profoundly honest – free of the artifice which, when approaching Haino, has been so hard to escape.
Watashi Dake? was initially issued in a tiny LP edition by the legendary imprint Pinakotheca, heard by almost no one inside Japan or without. Over the years, as the legend of Haino grew, so too did that of its works – becoming one of the rarest and most sought after artifacts of the experimental music world, commanding astounding prices on the second hand market. Their debut release, Black Editions has partnered with Pinakotheca to issue it on vinyl for the first time since its original release. Produced in close cooperation with artist, and the first ever edition to feature the originally intended metallic gold and silver artwork. This edition also presents the first ever English translation of the album’s lyrics and titles, and includes a digital download with an extended bonus live track from the era.
While this reissue is likely exciting news for devoted fans of Keiji Haino, I highly recommend it for those, like myself, who are not. It stands as a necessary window into his singular world, one I’m deeply grateful to Black Editions for offering me. Unquestionably an artifact of profound historical importance – an album which planted the seeds for an entire context of sound. You can check it out below, and pick it up from SoundOhm, Black Editions, or from your local record shop.
Keiji Haino – Watashi Dake? (1981)