Not fade away


On stage, Takashi Ugawa, 47, feels lighter than air. One reason is that the young and pretty tarento (showbiz personality) Eiko Koike has just flashed his band a smile. Another is that for a whole month now, he’s avoided food and beer after 9 p.m.

“A rocker’s career is finished when his stomach sticks out,” Ugawa says. “You also need to watch out for baldness.”

As a result, Ugawa’s endured a decade of dieting and haircare products — not to mention more than three decades of contempt from other amateur rock groups. At first, he explained, that was because he had too little experience; later, because he had too much.

All that . . . just to hang on to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Dream of making it big, getting the girls — and maybe owning a private jet.

It’s finally paying off: Ugawa’s band, the Creepers, now stands before its biggest-ever audience at the inaugural Oyaji Rock Contest (Old Guy Rock Contest) at Tokyo’s ANA Hotel in Minato Ward. But the person who matters most is unimpressed.

“He’s still an oyaji,” says daughter Makoto, 15, eyeing the cheering audience of some 420 people. “He’s flabby. He sweats. He’s always wandering aimlessly around the house in his underpants.”

Stage poses in a mirror

The Creepers, however, are proud. They see themselves as the true inheritors of 62-year-old Mick Jagger’s mantle. And though these days they may need to sit down after every song, their love for rock is stronger than ever.

By day, Ugawa heads a small ad-printing company in Minato Ward, where he turns up before anyone else to clean the toilets. He lectures his six staff on the Kyoto Protocol, and how much energy they will save if they keep the air conditioning at 27 degrees in summer instead of 25. The other Creepers, who are also in their 40s, are mid-level managers at companies in the fields of graphic design, IT and catalogue sales of household goods.

On weekends, though, they leave all that behind as they meet to compose, practice and seek out gigs at clubs around Tokyo.

“I knew I was an oyaji when I started smelling funny,” bass player Masanori Suzuki, 40, said the day before the contest as he studied his reflection in a mirror while practicing stage poses.

“But I want to be a true oyaji, a kakkoii oyaji [cool old guy] and propagate ‘oyaji-ism’ to the youth of Japan, so that they may follow in my footsteps.”

Not wishing to be rude, but feeling it my journalistic duty, I wondered aloud whether clinging to the band scene at this age might seem, well, a little sad?

My temerity was rewarded by vocalist Okura Saito. “Sometimes we get looks from the younger bands that say, ‘Man, oyaji-dude, like, grow up,’ ” said 44-year-old Saito. “They don’t know: you can write songs when you’re 40 that you just can’t when you’re 17.”

Later, as they practice, the Creepers belt out his “Go to Heaven,” a song of lust and loss. “Take me by your right hand, take me to heaven,” Saito implores.

Pirouettes, leaps, kicks and splits

Then the day of the Oyaji Rock Contest dawned. At the ANA hotel in Tamaike-Sanno, competition is stiff. Ten oyaji outfits, whittled down from 61 entries, are battling it out on stage. The evening sees 12-turn pirouettes, leaps, kicks and splits by Masamitsu Kikugawa of the Heat, who’ve come all the way from Kikuchi, Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu in their quest for glory. His bassist Takayuki Ichihara, 41, leaps from the stage into the audience and breaks his leg.

Not to be outdone, an Elvis then appears draped in the Stars and Stripes, while Beatles numbers are 10 a Penny Lane. Then there’s a group of U.S. Embassy workers roarin’ through “Mustang Sally” — while toddlers shout “Daddy!” and wave.

Oh, and there are plenty of bad puns — oyaji gyagu — throughout.

Finally, the top prize goes to Deep Purplin from Ichikawa in Chiba Prefecture. Sporting torn jeans, wigs and bandanas, their victory may have owed something to their note-perfect replica of heavy metal group Deep Purple’s “Highway Step.” Their prize included a chance to record at Toshiba EMI’s Studio No. 3, to use the mike Jagger wailed into, and to perform on TBS radio.

After the concert, Ugawa forces a smile, saying “the night’s been a blast, really.”

Throughout their performance, the Creepers couldn’t help exchanging gleeful grins each time their eyes met. Their own dressing room! Hotel staff on beck and call! The lights behind them so bright — and the crowd! But, well, winning . . .

It’s obvious that if they could have made that recording at EMI, it would have felt like a validation. It would have shown they were right to continue, that they weren’t desperate, or stupid — or sad. It would have been a put-down to those who put down their band as a “hobby.”

“Maybe they were too cool,” says Hideki Nakayama, 49, a friend. “Maybe they should have played up the oyaji-thing — dressed up as oyaji, and imitated a U.S. band or something. . . . Rock fans tend to be conservative,” he adds.

But these oyaji weren’t willing to compromise. “What’s the fun in being a cover band?” they ask. Besides, the Creepers are already working on a new song. The lines go: “Please give me a machine gun / If this goes on, I know I’m gonna collapse / Gimme a machine gun before I burst and turn into someone else.”

And now? Ugawa says he’s going to take a couple days off for O-bon. Two days later, he’ll walk into work, check that the lights had been turned off the night before, then start to clean the bathrooms.

He turns to the other members,”You guys wanna play golf tomorrow?”