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A SoCal Story: How American Is the One-Man Band?


SPECIAL FOR THE 4TH OF JULY - For better and for worse, today’s America leaves its citizens to fend for themselves. So does that mean that each of us has to be a One-Man Band?

Fortunately, there’s a Californian who has been reckoning with this fundamental question more deeply and intimately than any of us. 

He’s Arthur Nakane, he’s 76, and if you’re a Southern Californian who enjoys the region’s public spaces, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered him—maybe on Santa Monica’s pier or Third Street Promenade, maybe in the plaza in LA’s Little Tokyo. 


Sitting in a contraption of his own design, Arthur plays bass with his feet and harmonica with his mouth, shakes a tambourine attached to his mic stand, operates a drum machine (his only automatic instrument) and a tape recorder (with his right foot, so he can do a vocal duet), and bangs two cymbals, chimes, and keyboard with sticks attached to the electric guitar he carries on his shoulder. He plays thousands of songs, mostly American rock ’n’ roll standards, in English that carries the accent of his native Kyoto. He is full of jokes and always chats up children in the audience. 

For years, Arthur has told me his story in two versions. The first was a pure work-hard-and-you-can do-anything American story. “Anyone can be a one-man band,” he said. “I’m not that talented. I just work at it.” But in the second version, he recounted his American journey as a series of accidents and failures. That’s the more interesting one. 

A half century ago, Nakane was sent from Japan to Canada by his dad to attend college. But after immigration and educational troubles, he ended up in LA washing dishes in a Japanese restaurant. One night, the owner invited Nakane to sing in the dining room, and soon he was singing professionally and putting together bands. But he didn’t like depending on other people, so in the ’70s he began to form his own band. Literally. 

By the mid-’80s, he was playing wherever he could, often in parks and in festivals, and he loved meeting people from all over the world, one of the joys of being a street musician in California. “It’s like being a customs agent at the border,” says Nakane. “I also get to meet so many people that I haven’t seen in 30, 40, 50 years. They’re walking down the street, hear me, and say, ‘Oh, my God, Arthur!’” 

I’ve known Arthur since 1982, when I was 9 and he was my baseball coach in Pasadena, where he still lives. Whenever we talked about his music career, he would describe himself as a failure. 

Nevertheless, in the mid-’90s, the band Everclear had him open for them on tour. George Hamilton put him on his TV show. So did Jimmy Kimmel and the producers at America’s Got Talent. Arthur played concerts in Vegas and in Monument Valley (the latter to celebrate becoming a U.S. citizen). 

A documentary was made about him, Secret Asian Man (Arthur has been known to sing the Johnny Rivers song “Secret Agent Man” with a few lyrical alterations), which turned out to be a big crowd-pleaser at Sundance. 

But it was also tough. At the same time Arthur devoted himself to music, he gave up teaching, which had been one of his day jobs. He did translation work with Japanese speakers—first for the courts, more recently for insurance companies—to make ends meet. He had near-misses with fame, ending up on the cutting room floor of Francis Ford Coppola’s movie One From the Heart. He spent 15 years playing Sunday nights at the Shakey’s Pizza in Glendale. Arthur’s been separated from his wife for 30 years (he has six children), and the musician’s life can be lonely. 

America is supposedly a free country, but Arthur often had to fight to play his music in public spaces. He had long battles with the Santa Monica authorities over how loud he could play on the Third Street Promenade. Cities across Southern California have added regulations and headaches. 

In recent years, Arthur developed a quintessentially American form of ambivalence:  he wasn’t sure that the thing that had made him successful (being a one-man band) was what he wanted to do anymore. Wouldn’t his music be better, he asked, if he played fewer instruments? Wouldn’t performing be easier? But audiences and the people who would pay him to perform in clubs or at parties expected him to be a one-man band. “If I show up with just a guitar, it’s very disappointing, isn’t it?” he asked me, rhetorically. 

Last year, he flat-out told me, “I don’t want to be a One-Man Band anymore.” But not long after, when I visited him at his regular Friday and Saturday gig in LA’s Little Tokyo, he was there playing all his instruments. He sounded better than ever. 

I’d been looking forward to seeing Arthur at our Little League’s reunion—he had agreed to be the entertainment. But he had taken a fall while home alone and was in the hospital. He’s out now, but his family tells me it could be a long recovery. 

He may be able to make music again, but he’ll probably need others to help him. Just like we all do.


(Joe Mathews is Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It [UC Press, 2010]. This column was posted first at ZocaloPublicSquare.org … connecting people and ideas.)






Vol 11 Issue 54

Pub: July 5, 2013