From the right side of the stage at Vox Hall, I snap photos of Pat Hull as he strums the final chord to a tender melody.
When Pat speaks to the audience, his tone is somber. “This past week, my hometown burned,” he says, referring to the catastrophic fires in Malibu, California. “Many people lost everything. This next song is dedicated to them.”
While the majority of the audience doesn’t speak English, Pat’s soulful songs transcend the language barrier. We all stand transfixed as Pat performs his original, “Paradise”. As the song ends, I snap a few more photos, then retreat to the green room.
I place my camera on the counter and sit down for a much needed moment of rest. I arrived in Japan three days ago, but sleep has been brief and elusive, and I still don’t feel adjusted to the 14-hour time difference.
Scott Collins pulls up a chair and passes me a hazy, white bottle.
“Happy Thanksgiving!” he says cheerily.
I smile and accept the bottle. It’s Thanksgiving Day and I’m 10,000 miles away from home, but in good company. I only met Scott two days ago yet his easy-going demeanor makes him feel like an old friend.
I take a swig from the bottle. A light, ethereal taste tingles my taste buds and warms my insides.
“What is this?” I ask. “Sake?”
“No, it’s sochu,” Scott says. “It’s made from sweet potatoes.”
“Sweet potatoes are my favorite!” I say, passing the bottle back to him.
Scott grins. “Cheers Marley.”
Despite my exhaustion, I feel happy—it’s been a good day. This morning, our enterprising tour manager (Gus Bennett) drove us from Osaka to Kyoto, and dropped me and Pat at the infamous Nishiki Market. In the place of turkey, cranberry salad, or pumpkin pie, we feasted on shrimp tempura, sesame rice balls, and pickled plums.
Kim Collins walks in and shakes off her coat. “Oh no!” she says in mock surprise. “Y’all aren’t drinking before the show, are you?”
“Don’t worry, we’re not getting drunk,” Scott says. “Besides, it’s Thanksgiving!”
Kim flashes one of her radiant smiles. “Give me that,” she says, and takes a swig from the bottle.
I ask Scott how he and Kim met. He dives into a story that sounds like something out of a movie: sitting down at an empty bar in Nashville where Kim was working.
“As soon as I met her, I felt like I was talking to someone I knew very well, but hadn’t seen in a long time,” Scott says. “Talking to her felt like talking to an old friend. ”
We chat briefly about chance and fate. Scott tells me he knew immediately that this woman was supposed to be in his life.
“I went back to New York, quit my job, broke up with a woman, packed my shit, and moved to Nashville.”
Six months later, he married Kim.
And that was 20 years ago.
Sometimes you just know. And sometimes you have no idea what you’re getting into.
After spending two months at sea this summer, one of my colleagues from the ship told me her buddy was planning to bring a group of American musicians to Japan for the first time. She suggested I reach out to him about documenting the tour.
A couple e-mails, two phone calls, and one very long plane ride later, I find myself in Japan, meeting Gus Bennett for the first time, along with with singer-songwriter Pat Hull and folk rock duo The Smoking Flowers (Kim and Scott Collins). I have landed in a strange, foreign place, but I quickly come to find I am among friends.
“I like the song with the line about the hurricane and the beach,” I say to Kim.
Kim takes a small sip of wine and smiles. There is no other word for it—Kim Collins is gorgeous. Judging by her looks alone, she may appear like the type of individual that makes other women feel insecure. Instead, Kim radiates so much light that anyone near her feels more beautiful.
We are sitting at a high top table in the Alliance Club at the naval base in Yokosuka. Pat is on stage, tuning his guitar.
“Yeah, that’s my fuck-you-cancer song.”
She proceeds to tell me her story: breast cancer at 41 years old. In lieu of opting for chemotherapy and radiation, she underwent a treatment regimen employing only holistic medicine. After two months, her tumor had shrunk to half its original size. Now, at age 48 (and cancer-free for over six years) when Kim isn’t on tour, she works as a health coach and energy healer, offering her personal experiences and expertise in natural medicine to help other people living with cancer.
Road tripping is an uncommon experience for most Americans visiting Japan. The logistics, traffic, and costs (not to mention driving on the other side of the road) make the high-speed trains a much more attractive option for foreigners traveling around Japan.
But Gus Bennett, with his uncanny ability to jump logistical hurdles and speak Japanese, is driving us all over the country. Nagoya. Osaka. Kyoto. Yokosuka. Osaka again.
“We’ve driven past Mt. Fuji five different times,” Scott points out. “How many Americans can say that?”
It feels a bit like a clown car—the five of us and all of our gear crammed into a Toyota hatchback—but nobody complains. The hours we spend on the road roll by in a blur, alternating between long periods of silence, animated conversation, and bursts of laughter. We exchange stories of world travels, former loves, recurring dreams, and rock and roll.
It doesn’t take long for us to start calling our little group a family, and we lovingly refer to Gus as Papa G. We talk again and again about how we all ended up in Japan together. Kim and Scott have known Pat for 10 years, and Pat has known Gus for five years.
“You were the only wildcard, Marley,” Scott says.
“I know, it’s so random,” I say, thinking back to the email I sent Gus a few months earlier. I had no idea what to expect. Would I get stuck traveling across a foreign country (my first time venturing anywhere in Asia) with a group of assholes? Or would I find my tribe?
Pat grins. “It only seems random.”
We pull off at a typical Japanese rest stop which includes zen gardens and walking paths, spotless restroom facilities boasting gleaming chrome sinks and heated toilet seats, and a bustling market full of fresh, traditional Japanese food. I purchase a fresh roll then walk back out to the car to take photos of Mt. Fuji.
Scott and Pat return to the car a few minutes later, hands full of seaweed crackers, tofu rice balls, and decadent Japanese chocolate. We stare at Mt. Fuji together and talk about returning to Japan.
“This is a good crew,” Scott says. “We should all come back next summer.”
“Works for me,” Pat says. “I’ve got summers free.”
“Summers are typically pretty busy for me, but I could make it work,” I say, falling into an immediate day-dream of what my next trip to Japan might look like: climbing Mt. Fuji will be at the top of the list.
Like all bands on the road, the majority of our days are devoted to driving, loading equipment in and out of the car, talking with venue managers, and doing sound checks. But we still squeeze in a few tourist attractions and cultural experiences: the Daibutsuden in Nara, 10,000 Gates in Kyoto, and a few drinks at the infamous “honch” in Yokosuka.
After a week of road tripping, we arrive in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo. Pat has to fly home (he is also a professor and has to get back to teaching) but Scott and Kim have five more shows. We’re all worn out, but the contagious energy of Tokyo revives us.
While Kim and Scott have made music their full-time gig for the better part of a decade, Gus is still relatively new to this world—especially the intricacies involved in navigating the music scene in Japan. Despite numerous challenges, Gus maintains a seemingly invincible positive attitude. With each long day, his tireless work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit inspire me more and more.
When we sit down to record an interview, I ask about his mentality. “You’re working your ass off. You’re not making any money. Why do it? What makes it worth it for you?”
“First off, I know I’m not the only person doing this,” Gus says. “Other people and organizations bring musicians to Japan—but I’m not working for them. I’m doing this entirely on my own.
You’re going to be criticized for everything you do or try to do. Why don’t you do something different? Why don’t you do something that makes money? As you try to work on something like I’ve worked on this, you know going into it that there are going to be failures, and you just make the decision beforehand to endure that.”
He quotes a few lines from the legendary speech by Theodore Roosevelt, The Man in the Arena.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Two days later, we haul suitcases, guitars, my camera equipment, and Kim’s accordion onto the subway for one final ride—we’re heading to the airport. Scott, Kim, and I chat wistfully about returning to our own beds and healthy vegetarian meals and a few days of rest.
Gus, however, has just picked up three more American musicians. The tour continues.