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Tokyo’s ‘song and dance man’

He looks and plays the parts so well, that Tokyo Bob could almost be the Bard of Hibbing himself

by David Hickey

Three-dozen sozzled office types, teachers and the like are cradling their drinks in one hand and punching the air with the other, bawling, “Everybody must get STONED!”

They’re here watching a song and dance man who’s wearing vintage Ray-Bans and a shock of a curly black wig that makes him look like pistol-whipping pop producer Phil Spector on the morning of the night before.

His name is Tokyo Bob, and he sure as hell is funky.

“Don’t expect the new songs,” he warns, early in his set. He’s not talking about his own compositions — though he has written plenty, a long time ago — but those on “Together Through Life,” the 33rd studio album, released the day before, by the artist he has been looking like and sounding like for the past 15 years: Bob Dylan.

Instead of the new material, Tokyo Bob launches, bravely, into the epic “Sad- Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” one of the first-ever pop tunes to occupy an entire side of an LP, which it did on Dylan’s 1966 double-album “Blonde on Blonde.”

Until his five-piece band join him later on, it’s just Tokyo Bob, his acoustic guitar, his harmonica, voice — and that wig. Vast swaths of the polar ice caps have melted before he finishes “Sad-Eyed Lady,” by which time the audience — mainly baby boomers, some not even Dylan fans — has had plenty of time to ponder the surreal sight of a 40-something fella from Fukuoka, who by his own admission speaks barely any English, deliver dead-on lines such as, “Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes / My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums / Should I leave them by your gate / Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”

His performance is cooking yet low-key and nuanced. It’s in the hunch of his shoulders, the tilt of his head.

Then there’s his voice. Or rather voices. Tonight, in between swigs of Aquarius, Tokyo Bob inhabits reedy, angry young street-poet Dylan (“It Ain’t me Babe”), bittersweet mid-30s Dylan (“Tangled Up in Blue”) and latter-day croaking Dylan (“When the Deal Goes Down”).

How does he do it?

We meet in Polka Dots, the subterranean bar in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district that Tokyo Bob opened in 2006, and where a few days earlier he had played that rollicking set. Also in the basement — mixing up the medicine — is Kensuke Horie, who, when not tossing spaghetti, doubles as Tokyo Bob’s drummer. Shakespeare may or may not be in the alley.

Stripped of his wig, shades and custom-made suit, Tokyo Bob looks like the kind of guy who could get lost in a crowd. While he won’t reveal his real name or age, he will say that his epiphany came when, as a junior high school student in the Fukuoka port town of Hakata, he stumbled upon a 7-inch Japan-only reissue of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone” in a record shop. It was the mid-1970s, and putting on the single at home opened up an entirely new musical universe.

Unsurprisingly, His Bobness sounded pretty alien to a 12-year-old growing up in Kyushu, even one reared on Dylan-aping Japanese folk by such as Takuro Yoshida.

“Dylan felt different,” he says. “I knew this wasn’t just background music; this was something you had to listen to.” He purrs as he recalls listening to the rifle-crack of the snare drum at the beginning of “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time. “I just thought, ‘What is that!’ I became hooked.” He soon taught himself how to play “Blowin’ in the Wind” on a classical guitar.

Aged 18 and with guitar in hand, Tokyo Bob made the journey east to the capital to enroll in a management and law degree. After graduating, he played the Tokyo circuit in a couple of minor folk-rock bands for a while, performing Dylan songs occasionally, before becoming the manager of a music studio.

It took several years before he crossed the borderline from being a Dylan fan who once in a while jammed his hero’s songs, to becoming a fully fledged tribute act. He did so simply because: “No one else was doing it at the time. This was in 1993. I just thought, ‘I’ll do it myself,’ otherwise I’ll be waiting forever.”

That said, it can’t be easy being a Japanese Dylan tribute act. There are no royalties from record sales, you’ve got to know your Hattie Carroll from your Roy Carroll, and you’ve got the chords and lyrics of some 600 songs to learn.

“I can remember about half the words,” says Tokyo Bob. “The rest I have to have written down.”

How much of the lyrics does he understand?

“I get them to some degree. I’ve gone over them with a dictionary. I understand them in my own way.” And with a half-shrug Tokyo Bob reaches across the bar, brushes Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” box set out of the way and gets out a well-thumbed tome of the Bard of Hibbing’s complete lyrics.

He turns to “Sad-Eyed Lady” and ponders for a moment the opening couplet: “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times / And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.”

“It’s a bit like Rimbaud, isn’t it? It’s mysterious, literary. He’s playing with words. I don’t think it’s something you really need to probe that deeply, but you can take something from it. It’s fun to sing, actually.”

There has never been a better time to be a Bob Dylan tribute act. There is a bona-fide boom in copycat bands at the moment, with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin tributes filling venues in Japan in recent months. As well, Dylan’s albums are being greeted by critics and record buyers with almost the same glee that met his 1960s output. In fact, “Together Through Life,” released here on import on April 28 (and officially May 27), went straight to No. 1 in 10 countries, including the United States and Britain.

Not that Tokyo Bob, who has released two live albums and contributed a cover of “Million Dollar Bash” to a Dylan tribute album (“May Your Song Always Be Sung”; BMG), is about to cash in with a hurricane blitz of live dates. He’s got a bar to run and a family at home. (No, he doesn’t read his year-old daughter Dylan’s druggy stream- of-consciousness novel “Tarantula” in bed.) He says he has some shows planned for this summer in Hiroshima and Osaka, but adds that he usually only plays about 10 gigs a year — and that’s fine with him. By contrast, Dylan himself — the self-styled “song and dance man” who turns 68 on May 24 — has averaged around 100 dates a year for the last 20 years since starting his so-called Never Ending Tour.

Though Japan shows are rumored for later this year, the real Bob Dylan hasn’t hit these shores since 2001, which may well explain why some serious fans were in such fine voice for Tokyo Bob’s recent live show at Polka Dots — Bobcats such as Kaoru Iseki, a 50-something office worker who says he has spent around ¥1 million amassing about 300 different versions of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” from Japanese, German and Korean cuts to bluegrass, gospel and hard-rock versions; or Seiichiro Takahashi, 55, another office worker and self-described “music scholar,” who describes seeing “Mr. Dylan” six times in 1978 — all at the Budokan — and asks a Westerner in the audience for an analysis of the first verse of “Desolation Row.”

“Dylan’s my English teacher,” he says. “And he’s my life teacher.”

So what has listening to Dylan every day for the last 20 years taught Tokyo Bob?

“That you should do what you can do,” he says. “Whether I’ve been able to live my life according to that, I’m not sure. But that’s what I’m trying to do. I know I can be a Dylan tribute act.” There’s a pause. “Y’know, I didn’t think I’d be at this for so long.”

Tokyo Bob’s Web site is at www.polkadots.jp/to_bob/; Polka Dots is located at Umemoto Biru B1, 3-29-2 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo ([03] 666-2122). *** Until the end of May, Tokyo Bob will give a free drink to anyone arriving at Polka Dots with this page. If Polka Dots ignites your Dylan cravings, check out the following Bob bars, too: My Back Pages, Riyo Bunkasha B1F, 1-36-9 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo ([03] 5358 3539); or Dylan’s Bar, Daiichi Sato Biru 2F, 1-5-3 Honda Kokubunji-shi, Tokyo ([042] 327-0017). And don’t forget about Dylan’s rumored Japan tour later this year . . .