I heard a news in May that Culture Club would be reorganized and have a concert in Japan. If I remember correctly, their last concert in Japan was held in 2000, when I went to the concert at NHK Hall alone. At that time, I saw several familiar faces and some girls who always came to the concert in 1983 or 1984 at the peak of the group when those girls were in the teens. Everyone must have got 10 years older fairly and impartially since then, but appearance of the fans coming to listen to their favorite band seems to get younger as if turning the clock counter-clockwise. I think people become ageless when they face something that they love from the bottom of their heart. It happened at NHK Hall. As soon as I heard the MC talk about the next number, I could easily imagine the music without waiting for the introduction by the MC. George said, “I wrote this music many years ago when I was young, and now I can understand what I could not notice when I wrote the music!” And the song he started to sing was “Victims” as I expected. I will never get bored to listen to this slow ballad. In the midst of the music, there is a break, and a drum solo comes in. It makes me wish that someday I become a drummer to play even that part only.
At the time of 2000 concert, I did not make an arrangement to visit the back stage, so I left the hall without seeing George. As I walked down the slope of Koen-Dori (Park Street) from NHK Hall to Shibuya Station, I was wondering as to when was it that I met him last. Probably it was in 1985 in London.
16 years later, there will be a concert by Culture Club in June of this year. I wanted to visit the concert to see them and to ask one question that I really wanted to ask George. I had a strange mixed feeling, partly looking forward to the concert and partly insecure, that I have never felt before. In any event, I purchased a ticket for the concert at Zepp Tokyo.
I think it was in 1979 when London was about to prepare for the winter. In London, which is located further north of Hokkaido, when summer is close to its end, winter approaches quickly as if rolling down a steep slope. It was in the third year after the punk rock became popular. Young people in the UK were already feeling for the next movement. On the streets of London, such as the Kings Road where punk rockers with Mohican haircut wearing leather jacket were walking around, young people having somewhat different atmosphere as the ones in the previous few years started to mix. Frankie, a friend of mine, took me to a club where the most advanced young people were gathering. The club was located on the way from Covent Garden to Holborn. They say that a very ordinary wine bar in day time, named Blitz, will change completely on Thursday night. I was introduced to a young man named Steve at the entrance, and I entered inside nervously. On the ground floor, there is a bar counter on a not so wide floor. As I stepped down to the basement, there was a dancing floor. There were a few small round tables and chairs. Young people were chatting, drinking and dancing. The music playing was mainly David Bowie and fancy music, different from punk. What made me surprise and evasive the most was the make-up and the fashion of the people on the floor. They were completely new to me. They looked almost alien from another planet! Their figures seen through red, green or blue light were grotesque as if looking at the bottom of dark water tank where strange deep-water fish lived. I attached a strobe light to my single lens reflex camera, and I released shutter aiming my camera at a pair of cutest girls near me with their faces painted white. It was in a disarray difficult to expect what kind of reaction they will make. “Did you get a nice picture of us?” To my big surprise, the voice was a little bit high but it was a voice of a man. The man was slightly laughing and looked happy, which made me comfortable for the first time at this place. The people I saw in this club were no aliens nor deep-water fish. They were young British people.
“I’m George!” This was the first conversation at Blitz and my first contact with George. He was just about 19 years old at that time. According to Frankie, they gather at Blitz every Thursday night under the concept of “Bowie Night”. Before, they started gathering at a club named Billy’s located closer to Soho. Even after they made it a rule to come to Blitz every Thursday night, George and others could be seen at Café de Paris or Le Kilt on nights other than Thursday. Each time I see George, I aimed my camera at him. Because he always let me take photos with a smile in his face. After that, their territory expanded to include Embassy, Great Wall and Club of Heroes.
In those days, I was so poor that I had to give up eating decently three meals a day. Fortunately, I got acquainted with Takeuchi-san, the sushi chef, and Hiromi-san, the lady manager of a Japanese restaurant named “SHOGUN” in London. I often visited this restaurant in the evening because they let me eat the meal they provide for their employees. It was even more difficult to pay the rent. So, I normally stayed at my friend’s room free. One of such rooms was a flat at the top floor of 36 Goodge Street. It was a floor where Gene, a leather suit maker, lived. It was a relatively old building, rooms were not well maintained, and a shabby looking place with a bare wooden floor with no carpet. It had 3 or 4 small rooms. After a while, that George moved into the same floor relying on Gene probably because of poverty. His small room was similar to mine where a mattress was laid on the floor, and cosmetic items were scattered on a small table. We started a strange life by four people together. Probably trying to be nice to Gene, George was quiet in the flat, and he stayed out very often. One night, George did not come home. So, I assumed that he would not come back that night, and I decided to sleep on his bed without telling him so. The reason was because the top cover of his bed looked thicker and warmer than mine. My thin blanket was not enough for a cold winter in London.
When I was fast asleep in midnight, the phone at my bedside rang. There was a telephone installed in the room George was staying. I immediately picked up the phone, and it was George. Because I picked up the phone so quickly, he noticed that I was in his bed. He asked me in a searching tone. “Are you in my bed?” Since he already knew it, it is no use lying. I decided to apologize honestly. “Yes, I am sorry. Your bed was warmer. Do you mind?” If he had said Yes, I thought I should go back to my own bed. There was a silence of 1~2 seconds. “No, you can use my bed!”
I regretted deeply that I did something rude to him, but at the same time, I appreciated his warm words. George on the other side of the phone said that he was in Birmingham approximately one hour North of London. He said he wanted to talk to his friend K, but as George did not have money, he wanted me to tell K that George wanted him to call Birmingham. “OK. I will immediately call K and ask him to call you back.” Then I hang up the phone. After I relayed the message from George to K, I could sleep in a warmer bed than usual that night.
My income in those days came from collecting information about London requested by some Japanese culture magazine and a small amount from a photo office named ZENON consisting of a few young photographers including myself and some British photographers. My income was too small to pay the rent. Until I got a job from a Japanese music magazine, I was depending on valuable kindnesses by some British and Japanese acquaintances.
One day, Tetsu, a Japanese friend of mine who self-describes as a contemporary artist, told me. Tetsu used to be a boyfriend of Gene. “The other day, I visited Gene’s place where Herbie lives as well. George lives there, too. Right? When I happened to be there in midnight, George came back close to tears. I asked him what happened. He said some people spat on him and cursed in town. It is understandable that his make-up and costume may cause people to do so, but he was so depressed!”
I imagined that a man with a female look will be looked strange and ill-treated for sure. In any era, people running in the forefront trying to do something new were attacked by the conservatives. Even the punk rock only a few years ago had to fight against the old forces, such as TEDS, on King’s Road very frequently. My interpretation of why George could get along with the Japanese people living in London was because he knew that Japan had a wonderful culture called KABUKI where a man wear and act like a woman. I was asked one day “In Japanese KABUKI, male actors playing female roles was accepted. Right?” Fortunately, in 1977, three years before I met George, Ennosuke Ichikawa the 3rd came to London for the first overseas performance. At that time, I was asked to take photos throughout their schedule, and as a result, I had a valuable experience of staying with Ennosuke and his team for an entire week. So, I was able to explain about KABUKI to George with confidence. If I may exaggerate a little bit, George may have found a basis in KABUKI not to yield to the people’s cold eyes.
One day, I returned to Goodge Street after staying at my friend’s place for a few days. Then I was told that George moved somewhere last week. His room used to be full of fancy dresses and cosmetic items scattered around. But now, his room was empty and quiet as if an actor has left the stage.
After several months, or a year later, I learned that George was going to have a concert. That night, I went to the live house in the basement of Charing Cross station. “From today, I am Boy George!” he said proudly, and introduced me to Jon, the drummer, Mikey and Roy. When the concert started, full audiences started to dance because of the rhythmical music, and his unique bitter talk with humor was welcomed. He had a courage on the stage. This was the day when Culture Club was born. Their popularity quickly grew. At clubs and discos, their music were frequently played.
In 1983 or so, when Culture Club came to Japan for the first time, and when they toured next in Japan, I accompanied them throughout their schedule. I took them to KABUKI, too. I asked Fukuda-san, a KABUKI photographer whom I got acquainted at the time of London performance by Ennosuke team, to take George to the back stage of KABUKI. That friendly George was sat square and frozen. I told him “Why don’t you get closer to the actors!” but he would move only 1 cm. It was the first time for me to see George in such a humble manner. Probably it was during his second visit to Japan. In the bus from Keio Plaza Hotel to Budokan, where the concert was held, he suddenly said that he wanted to sing part of his new song in Japanese. I taught him to sing “SENSO HANTAI!” On the stage that night, however, he sang “SENSO HENTAI!”
I do not remember clearly whether it was in Japan or during European tour, George was sitting in the back seat of a bus and he demonstrated imitation of his favorite musicians. At that time, Jon and only a few back musicians were surrounding George. He sang songs of David Bowie, David Sylvian of Japan, and one more which I do not remember well. They were all so good. We were all pulled into his world of music. Then I was so excited that I felt like imitating only one bar of David Sylvian. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for Herbie to sing!” George said immediately and clearly. His judgment was correct. I love to listen to music, but my ability to play instrument and to sing is zero.
When did I see George last? It could be the press interview or something in London in 1985. About two years ago, I found his Twitter, and I sent him a short message. “George, long time no see. This is Herbie. Do you remember me? I live in Japan now. I hope to see you again!” Then I received his response right away unexpectedly. “Wow! Herbie! Haven’t seen you for many years. How have you been? Are you happy in Japan?” The last sentence of “Are you happy in Japan?” stayed in my heart for a long time. Because, unless you really care about someone else, you would not ask whether that person was happy or not. I wanted to have a conversation with George someday “I am happy. How about you?” The possibility to have such a conversation may be realized after 31 years due to the visit of Culture Club to Japan after 16 years from the previous one.
I informed him “I will come to your concert on the 21st with my family.” by Twitter.
If I could see him, I thought of giving him some of his photos. The photos I selected were all from the old days. George dancing in a club when he was still unknown, George sleeping in his bed in his room on Gucci Street, and George after he moved to Alma Street immediately after his debut. Another one was taken in Shin-kan-sen during Japan tour. The one I took on Alma Street was printed from a negative this year for the first time. As for the other photos, I have showed him or given him. In any event, those photos showed the origin of George. For example, in the photo taken on Gucci Street, George was sleeping on a mattress placed on the floor. And on the right hand side of the photo, Gene was shouting in strong tone to George “Wake up quickly!” George was waken up, but staring vacantly into space. Was he vaguely dreaming of his future while accepting his current weak position as a freeloader? When the shutter sound was heard in the room, he murmured “Oh my gosh!” probably being embarrassed because a photo was taken in his unusual situation. This photo is titled “Wake Up!” and included in my photo album from London. I showed this photo to him when he came to Japan in 1983 or 1984 at Keio Plaza Hotel where he was staying. As it was a photo of his moment of humiliation, I was ready to hear him say “I don’t want to see such a photo!” To the contrary, his reaction was completely different. As soon as he saw the photo, he shouted to express his joy. “Hey! This is the real photo of myself years ago. I told you I was living very poorly before. The worst time of my life. Nobody believed me, but this photo taken by Herbie is the proof. And on a cold winter night, she kicked me out when I had no place to go.” He showed the photo to each of the group members and the manager around him.
June 21 was a special day for me that I was happy from the morning, at the same time, nervous and exciting. Special feeling that I have never experienced before. In late afternoon, I headed for Zepp Tokyo. The concert started. I watched them perform from a corner separated in the back as the VIP seats. I was surprised that the sound they created came directly to my heart. Probably it was the one of the best concert I have ever been to. Popular numbers surrounded the audiences with persuasive power and power of music, and they sounded as if they were different music. “What is this song?” I first questioned, but soon realized that it was that hit number.
His motion on the stage and high tone he sang were slightly different from his young days, but certainly it was George himself. His singing was soulful, warm and gentle, deep, and something strong was outpouring from him. I thought that real Culture Club that we could not notice during the last decades was there. It was after he sang the famous “Victims”. Probably because he saw the Japanese fans right in front of him looking at him straight with shining eyes, fully opening their heart, and seriously listening trying to accept all of George, he said “Japan is the best country. After many years, we can communicate through music in spite of the barrier between English and Japanese languages.” Then he added in Japanese “I am almost crying!” His talk from the stage is bitter, humorous, and friendly from his early days after debut. Above all, his words are honest.
During the show, when he found a familiar face, “Hey, there is my old friend. You are XX, aren’t you?” followed by “Tonight, my best friend Herbie must be here. Where is Herbie?” He even called my name. As I was among the VIP’s in the dark corner in the back, I waved my hand, but he could not see me.”
After the concert, a Japanese staff came to take me to George. When I went to the second floor, many people were waiting to go to the back stage. There I met Kurosawa-san, a writer, whom I worked with in London many years ago. Probably I met her 20 years or so ago. Kurosawa-san is appearing in the PV (promotion video?) of Culture Club in Geisha costume. In those days, there were several young female good writers focusing on music in London. Miko Kurosawa, Kim Yamakado and Yuko Takano. As far as my music related work is concerned, they gave me photo shooting work one after another. Thanks to their special favor, I was able to get out of poverty. And I started receiving offers from record companies in the UK and Japan or bands directly. They were so to speak my goddesses saving me out of poverty.
Myself, Kurosawa-san and about ten more people headed to the back stage guided by a Japanese staff. The hall way of the back stage was crowded with many people, and it was filled with a unique sense of exaltation after the concert. Then I found George beyond the crowd with an especially bright face. He created a sensation because of fatness and drug. But I could not see any sign of those nature this time. George I knew in London and in Japan years ago was standing there. He was hugging a blond woman, when I approached him with a camera in my hand. Then he noticed me, and his eyes stared at me, and his pointing finger of his right hand which was on the back of a woman he was hugging pointed at me. It was a gesture as if saying “Hey, is that you, Herbie?” We hugged each other after 31 years. His big and thick arms were around my back. “How have you been?” And I showed him and gave him the photo prints I brought for him one by one. To my surprise, as soon as he saw the print of Alma Street that I showed him for the first time, he looked at the photo saying “I’ve never seen this picture before.” And he called Kurosawa-san who was on the other side of the hall way. “Oh! Miko!” he hugged her even more nostalgically. Long conversation in such a place is not recommended as it will take away the chance for other people. I asked him a question briefly which I wanted to ask him for a long time. “Are you happy in your life?” He immediately responded cheerfully “Yes, of course I’m happy!” Hearing his answer, myself, Kurosawa-san and George equally felt comfortable.
As an encore for the concert, George sang “Starman” of David Bowie whom George respects. As I imagine, George, in his mid-teens, was exposed to the music, fashion and figure of David Bowie, and changed his philosophy of life.
In most cases, the conservative public will attack the new comer if it is extraordinary. Even around 1980, people spat at George. When David Bowie started wearing extraordinary fashion, especially before the time he was properly recognized by the society, he might have been attacked even more severely from the society. When they sing in their high tone, we hear a sad cry from their heart. Is it not because they stuck to their belief and they fought for it? If they look back on their past, at what ratio are happiness and sadness mixed in their lives? As for George, at least on this day, he looked completely happy surrounded by Japan overcoming whatever level of difficulties he had to go through.