Nearly every time I go to Little Tokyo for a stack of imagawayaki from the Mitsuru Café, I see Arthur Nanake, the 1-Man Band. Madelaine had her camera this time, so she sat down to shoot his performance of an old Korean pop song (video embedded above) while I went to Nijiya for a few cans of UCC coffee. When I returned, Arthur urged her to sing along to the choruses. (“I’m counting on you, Madelaine!”) Then he played us a modified version of “She Loves You”, Beatles songs being a pillar of his repertoire.
As you can see, Arthur mounts all his instruments on what looks like an elaborately handcrafted rig of PVC pipes. This offers a lot to watch beyond the man’s own bold selection of hats, robes, and non-matching socks. My attention always goes straight to the feet in those non-matching socks, with which he compresses a series of almost steampunk-looking bellow-ish bars made out of the same white plastic as the frame itself. From what I can tell, those pipes control a synthesizer which puts out bass notes. This in addition to his guitar, his main keyboard, his drum machine, his harmonica, and the stick on the head of the guitar that he uses to play not just the cymbals but another, smaller keyboard.
After his set, Arthur sat down next to us to talk for about twenty minutes. He kept asking if I played an instrument myself — “You can go slow,” he exhorted, “but never stop” — which led me into this roundabout explanation about how I kind of do, but only when I sit down to record, and then usually when I make movies that need a soundtrack. Having played in Little Tokyo and elsewhere for decades and decades and seeing a lot in the process, Arthur no doubt has a story relevant to any subject, but my mentioning filmmaking rung up three:
- A film student approaches him back in the nineties and asks if he can shoot him playing for a few minutes and answering questions for a few minutes. This student ends up shadowing him for months, winding up with the short documentary Secret Asian Man, which “opens” for every screening of The Eyes of Tammy Faye at Sundance in 2000. (The festival heads see some connection between the two self-styled stars.) Arthur himself gets in on the action, playing “Secret Agent Man” live at the screenings, and, if we can believe the Kenneth Turan clipping he produced for us from one of his many jam-packed folders, knocks the audience so dead that Tammy Faye’s distributors accuse him of limelight theft. Arthur suggests he and Tammy Faye do duets instead, but nothing came of it.
- Thirty-odd years ago, a “bearded man” stands right in front of him has he plays and plays and plays. “After five or six songs, I satisfied him, and he went away,” Arthur said. “I wondered, who was that?” Months later, he gets a call from the producers of One From the Heart by Francis Ford Coppola — a bearded man! They’d like him to appear in the movie. Then more months pass in silence. Suddenly, he gets another call: they need him on the set in two hours. Arthur now maintains that his material remains on the cutting room floor but, had the film included it, it would have explained why “You Are My Sunshine” becomes such a thing at the end. He also told me about a semi-similar scenario decades later, when, only because he waited hours to play at a benefit, he got an audience with a bigtime gospel producer who also possessed a certain looseness with the $50 bills.
- One day, he notices he hasn’t gathered a crowd. In fact, he spots the crowd somewhere else, but he can’t tell what they’ve crowded around. Then a blonde, long-haired entity emerges from the mass and approaches him, but, too busy trying to figure out who’d generated all the fuss, he isn’t playing! Unamused, the creature moves on. He later learns its identity: Gwen Stefani, lead singer of No Doubt. “I thought it was a guy!” Arthur told me. I include this story because I, too, think Gwen Stefani is a guy.
These illustrated his broader point: “You can be in the right place at the right time, but you have to be doing the right thing!” Of course, Momus sang about this on his Voyager album, but it also brought to mind Brian Eno’s reworking of the old line about luck as the intersection of preparation and opportunity: “Luck is being ready.” I would have said it to Arthur, but I didn’t want to have to explain to him who Brian Eno is. Then again, part of me believes that of course this 74-year-old, six-kid-having street musician from Kyoto would know who Brian Eno is. Why? Probably because, in my brief time talking with him, Arthur made a hell of a lot more sense than I expected him to — a hell of a lot more sense than I expect from most of the people I interact with, actually.