From Marlon Brando’s role as an outlaw biker in The Wild One to the Ramones’ brick-wall shot for the cover of their first album, the black-leather motorcycle jacket has been a reliable symbol of rebellion. But the sinister item has become ubiquitous in contemporary American culture. In 2011, it’s not unusual to see the unthreatening sight of a 14-year-old walking around in moderate weather wearing a leather coat that is at least two sizes too big. While leather jackets may not instill the fear they did in the ’50s, attendees of a recent performance by the Japanese power-trio Guitar Wolf know that there is still some danger to be found in the confines of a biker coat.
Guitar Wolf plays a furious version of punk rock that fuses Ramones-style bass melodies with drastically overdriven guitars. The band has released 10 studio albums since their formation in 1987, and at a recent performance at the Knitting Factory they played an array of songs from this extensive discography. Bassist U.G. and drummer Toru started the show with some preamble bass-and-drum playing, and singer-guitarist Seiji joined in a few seconds later. It was clear that the leather-clad rockers understand the value of a big lead-in as they stared menacingly into the audience during a long segment of feedback, machine-gunned chords at the crowd, then took a short break as the lights went down and some intro music kicked in. The audience was so wound up when the band finally exploded with their opening song that the room went crazy within seconds. Beer cans flew into and out of the crowd as people leaped up and down with abandon. Sweat poured off Seiji onto the front two rows, and despite the heat the band’s black-leather biker jackets remained on as song after song was introduced with little more that a Dee Dee Ramone–style “1,2,3,4!”
With nary a pause between songs, the band was able to communicate their profound love of rock ’n’ roll through their wild stage antics. While wrapping yourselves in leather, leaning on the crowd, and encouraging the audience to snap along to songs might seem like rockist clichés, the band showed no signs of this being anything but natural conduct. There is nothing affected in Guitar Wolf’s actions. Twenty-four years of playing together have made them pros, but a love of rock ’n’ roll has made them performers. Signature tunes like “Jet Generation,” a song that illuminates their self-defined lifestyle, were recognizable in the melee that was their set, but lesser-known songs from the most recent album Space Battleship Love were met with equal enthusiasm. The crowd showed no signs of slowing down. Other songs from the past blew by: “Wild Zero,” “Missile Me.”
I was already sold on the show when a bizarre thing happened. Seiji began waving his hands over the crowd. Thinking he was about to stage-dive, I put my hand out to do my part to steady him. Suddenly I had the sensation of being pulled forward. Seiji had my hand and was dragging me unrelentingly toward the stage. I got up on the stage with him and was so astonished that I was barely aware of him putting his guitar around my neck. He stared at me and began doing some small Johnny Thunders–style jumps in the air. I began mimicking him, not sure what he was getting at. In retrospect, I guess I should have figured it out, but at the time, I could not imagine he wanted me to befoul his nice Gibson SG by playing it. Finally, he leaned into my ear as if he was going to say something instructive, and yelled, “Rock ’n’ roll!” I got wise and played one of the few things I know about the guitar: an A major bar chord. I rode the chord for a while with Seiji championing me in front of a crowd, willing to endure my amateur playing and pretend that I was good for the sake of my short-lived stardom. He seemed to be embracing the fact that he could share his love of rock ’n’ roll through a random fan like myself. Okay, I’m biased, but for the few minutes I was under his tutelage he seemed like the greatest guy in the world. After I returned his guitar, he slapped me on the shoulder and smiled. Who knows what he really thought of me, but for a moment he got me out of my anonymous, nodding-along-to-the-band cocoon. For a brief and delusional moment, I felt like a member of Guitar Wolf. My Warholian flash of fame was compacted into two outrageous minutes on stage with a punk band that does not get the recognition it deserves: certainly preferable to sending my child adrift in a weather balloon or being the Octo-Dad. So with my official disclosure on record, you are free to take the following statement with a grain of salt: Guitar Wolf kicked ass.