Yuya Uchida on music, media and Madonna

by Matthew Hernon

Special To The Japan Times

Strolling in late for our meeting, his shoulder-length white hair lightly flowing, trademark cane in hand and sunglasses on, Yuya Uchida may now be in his mid-70s, but he still carries himself with the air of a rock star.

Uchida has been a colorful and controversial figure throughout his career, which really began to take off half a century ago when he was chosen as a support act for the Beatles’s now iconic Japan debut at the Budokan in 1966. He went on to form the critically acclaimed psychedelic rock group, Yuya Uchida & The Flowers (later known as Flower Travellin’ Band), and in 1975 began producing the World Rock Festival; an event featuring international artists in various venues around the globe that’s still running today.

Apart from music, he’s appeared in a number of high profile films including Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain” (1989) and “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983) alongside David Bowie. In 1991, he ran for governor of Tokyo, garnering 54,654 votes. A man prepared to tell it like it is, it soon became clear he has little time for today’s music scene.

On Japanese music:

It’s so childish nowadays. Korean and Chinese artists are more talented — at least they can sing. No one here has that rock ‘n’ roll spirit. They don’t have dreams or want to go out into the world and they don’t speak about politics or social issues. It’s all because they need to keep their sponsors happy. They only care about money. I’m famous, but I’m not getting by with commercials. Actually that’s probably why I’m skint! (Laughs)

On the decline of modern day music:

The problem isn’t just in Japan, the current music scene in general is s—-. Michael Jackson might have been the last true artist out there. Now it’s full of people who think they’ve made it after writing one song. I remember Jeff Beck and Frank Zappa sat on the shinkansen doing finger exercises on their guitars. They were both geniuses, but what set them apart was their desire to improve. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were similar. You don’t see that kind of dedication with musicians today.

On getting to know John Lennon and Yoko Ono:

I first met them properly in Dakota in 1973, seven years after I’d opened for the Beatles. They didn’t go out in public much so I might have been the only Japanese person who properly spent time with them. John was quite shy and hardly ever drank when I was in his company. Apart from that, I felt the two of us had a lot in common. We both loved Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, were born around the same year (Uchida in 1939, Lennon in 1940) and had that tough spirit. Yoko’s crazy like me! In the end we got in a big argument about my drinking habits and haven’t spoken since. She’s still friends with my wife (Kirin Kiki). They are two very strong ladies.

On The Rolling Stones:

I tried to bring the Stones to Japan, but it was impossible because of a drug issue involving Keith Richards. I really wanted to make it happen and then one day it came to me: Guam was the solution. It was great. I got to know Mick Jagger who is a very smart guy and really nice, too. I gave him a Yohji Yamamoto T-shirt as a gift and the next time we met he was wearing it.

On Madonna’s tardiness:

I heard she made an audience wait four hours for a concert. [Madonna was four hours late for a March performance in Melbourne, Australia.] I mean 30 minutes or even an hour late is maybe OK, but that long is unacceptable. What’s she doing? Having sex? Everyone’s there, excited to see you. To be honest I’m not sure if they’re getting value for their money anyway. She’s gone downhill a lot in recent years.

On posing naked for album covers:

I always wanted to go out into the world and that’s why I formed Flower Travellin’ Band. The U.S. didn’t give us a visa so we stayed in Canada for two years. We had a top 10 record there and I think we were the first Japanese group to succeed overseas. We went nude for our CD covers because I wanted to tell everyone to throw away their prejudices and be spiritually naked.

On the mass media:

The press always lie, making things sound sensational for sales. I’m usually described as crazy, which I take as a compliment. It’s my medal. I tell the truth as I see it and I’ll never compromise on that. Michael Jackson and John Lennon were the same.

On running for the job of governor of Tokyo:

I ran in order to try and change the world. Of course I’m not always right, but as I said I am honest and that’s what people want. The current governor, Yoichi Masuzoe, is sketchy as was his predecessor Naoki Inose. That’s what money does to you. If you’re a politician, be like the former president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica: He showed that it’s possible to be a leader while also remaining humble.