Tell her she wears too much neon
Tell her its hanging off her bones
Tell her that’s all she is
New ways to wear old clothes
-“Darkness On The Edge Of Gastown,” 2008
News broke across the country on October 5th that, compared to 2015’s figures, Vancouver’s seemingly ever-sky-rocketing property sales had dropped 32.6%. That night, two East Van rockers named Brian King and David Prowse played songs for the public for the first time in three years. They call themselves Japandroids.
At first glance, these two facts are completely unrelated. And, really and objectively, they are unrelated. These two events (yes, Japandroids are indeed an event) are bound only by geographical similarity. But imagine, for a few brief moments, that they were related.
Imagine that a city beaten into submission and apathy by Blundstones, designer coffee shops and $185 walking tours of the impoverished downtown east side decided to believe it had turned a corner; that Vancouver might not be able to completely dig itself out of the existential hole it was in, but it could at least throw on a good song, thrash around a bit, and have the energy left to believe it could one day get there. That its punk-rock Batmen in Japandroids came to trumpet a new day, and 220 of its inhabitants could sweat and scream and jump and drink and rejoice in a small room hugging the cool roar of Main Street.
That part actually did happen, at Vancouver’s Cobalt, itself a victim of appearances and hip rejuvenation after exchange of ownership (known not-so-affectionately as ‘The Fauxbalt’ in some circles).
Back in August, Japandroids announced that they would play a handful of dates across North America, kickstarting their return with a valedictory four-night stand in their hometown of Vancouver. Twitter exploded, predictably. Would they record new material? Were they back for good? Music journalists and fans alike pled for their return, and it seems their pleas, and ours, have been answered; at their first show back, they confirmed they had a new record in the works, blasting through a number of unheard cuts from it. Japandroids were back in town.
Much has been made of the group’s bright-eyed intensity; they don’t write nostalgic songs; they write songs with the presence and lack of self-awareness characterized by the here and now. The West coast duo owe as much to the romance and relentless dedication to the grand imagination of Bruce Springsteen as they do to the nihilism and self-immolation of The Replacements. The whole Springsteen number is immediately obvious; cities with souls, white, sleeves-rolled-up t-shirts paired with a Telecaster, and a song called “Darkness On The Edge Of Gastown,” itself an ill-fated tale set in Vancouver’s historic industrial neighbourhood. The Mats and misery, on the other hand, is implicit. There’s a desperation to the admissions and pleas that Prowse and King bellow; these are men on the brink of giving up and succumbing to their bills and overdue, overpriced rent cheques for a shitty studio apartment in East Van. Happy people with their lives in order don’t need to scream about the need for love, and the belief that things might get better. The rest of us do, so we have a scrap of hope to hold onto in a city we can’t even afford to look like we live in. And Japandroids gives us a tune to set those screams to.
So, with an utter “lack of self-consciousness” and a love of distortion, Japandroids have, whether they meant it or not, woven a narrative of love, lust, and open-road Romeos between rosy pops of fireworks, all in a place where bars host amateur stripping nights to help people make rent. What fellow Polyvinyl label-mates Beach Slang wrap up in a gorgeous sonic package, complete with overdubs and tight production (not to mention more than one guitar and more than zero bass players), Japandroids doesn’t wrap at all; hell, Celebration Rock, a gritty, anthemic, shitstorm of a record, was practically sugar-coated compared to their debut, Post-Nothing. It’s an unfortunately daring endeavour to altogether abandon aesthetics and beauty in Vancouver, even in an auditory capacity. And yet, so tied is the band’s identity to this city that were you to venture down to the boardwalk pier at Crab Park, you’d find yourself where the cover of No Singles was shot.
All that glitters is not gold, and neither the sunsets on English Bay Beach nor the mournful fog at Lynn Canyon nor the craft-beer-drunk nights in Dude Chilling Park will pay your rent or your bus pass or your phone bill or your groceries or your jam space or your prescriptions or your therapy or your date nights. But Brian and Dave have the gall to suggest we forget these woes for 40 minutes and indulge in being naïve idealists. To suggest we opt for a pair of bargain-bin sneakers instead of Blundstones, and spill beer all over them. To suggest we turn up bleary-eyed and beer-breathed for work because we went to the sweaty-as-sin rock show. To suggest that the objective experience might not be worth the price paid, but that we can will it and dream it to be worth ten times that, all in the name of getting by.
We needed Japandroids (once termed “a very untrendy band in a city with little support for live music”) to remind us that being pretty might pay your phone bills, but it won’t pay your heart’s. We needed Japandroids to give us a new survival strategy. We needed Japandroids to make us believe there was something extraterrestrial to a drunken cigarette on Granville Street in an October downpour. If we can’t believe in what we can’t see, this city will swallow us whole. If we succumb to our imagination, to the irrational, to the five-pint honey-glow at 11:30 PM Pacific time, we can stand a chance, and Japandroids will stand with us.
Vancouver needs Japandroids more than ever now, and so do we.