Legendary rocker offers hope for Japan

March 29, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Japan ‘embraced The Ventures like no other’

The walls almost groan beneath a Fort Knox of framed gold records.

Inside a house on the Sammamish Plateau, amid a museum-quality collection of rock ‘n’ roll history, Don Wilson offered encouragement to people in catastrophe-stricken Japan.

Wilson, a cofounder of the seminal band The Ventures and a Sammamish resident, reached out March 23 to people impacted by the earthquake, tsunami and still-unfolding nuclear crisis in the island nation.

Don Wilson, of The Ventures (left), prepares to deliver a message of sympathy to be broadcast in Japan as videographers Holland Hume and Justin Peterson prepare to record several takes. By Greg Farrar

The Ventures, unlike perhaps any foreign musicians before, enraptured Japan in the early 1960s and have remained popular in the decades since.

Because the band is revered in Japan, NHK, the largest public-TV network on the island nation, reached out to Wilson to offer a message of encouragement to millions of viewers.

So, a crew set up cameras and lights amid the rock ‘n’ roll history, to capture a brief message from the unofficial ambassador to Japan.

“After all these years, I’ve really learned to love the Japanese and made so many friends,” Wilson said from behind rock star sunglasses before the filming.

The memorabilia surrounding Wilson and the film crew included a sculpture of a triumphant figure holding aloft a record — the statuette bestowed upon Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. The band joined the hall in March 2008.

The rarest honor earned during a lifetime in rock ‘n’ roll is nestled inside a case not much larger than a deck of cards.

The medal inside the case — called the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, a decoration conferred on only a handful of foreigners — comes from Japanese Emperor Akihito.

The band behind the “Hawaii Five-O” theme and surf-rock anthems “Pipeline” and “Walk, Don’t Run” received the honor last June for the “contribution to the development and enrichment of music culture in Japan” and for fostering “cordial relations” between Japan and the United States. Wilson and other band members accepted the medal at the Japanese consulate in Seattle.

The Ventures earned success in the United States, but on the other side of the Pacific, the instrumental rock band reshaped the popular-music scene.

The band scored 20 No. 1 hits in Japan and, for a time, outsold The Beatles in the electric-guitar-crazed nation.

‘Hang in there’

The Ventures’ sound is as much a part of California as the Hollywood sign, but the band formed in the Evergreen State — Tacoma, in fact.

The instrumental music appealed in part because no language barrier existed.

In Japan in the early days, the band encountered reserved audiences unaccustomed to no-holds-barred rock ‘n’ roll concerts.

“You could drop a pin and you could hear it — while we’re playing,” Wilson recalled. “After we played, it was an eruption of applause.”

Japanese fans “embraced The Ventures like no other,” Wilson’s son and Issaquah resident Tim Wilson said.

The band continues to tour in Japan each year, and usually sells out a 3,000-person venue in devastated Sendai. The magnitude-9 earthquake struck about 80 miles from the coastal city, and the subsequent tsunami ruined seaside areas.

“Sendai is a beautiful city,” Don Wilson said.

The band played in the city almost every year for the past half-century. In the aftermath, Don Wilson remains uncertain about friends and business contacts in Sendai.

“It was surreal to me,” he said. “This can’t be happening. The more I saw on TV, the worse it got.”

The Ventures scheduled summer tour dates in Japan, although the catastrophe put the plans on hold. The band toured in Japan last summer.

Don Wilson rode out temblors in earthquake-prone Japan before the March 11 disaster.

“I’m thinking, ‘Thank God he wasn’t there,’” Tim Wilson said.

In the meantime, the band is planning a benefit concert in the United States to assist disaster-relief efforts.

“I’ve been doing a lot of praying for those people,” Don Wilson said. “But, actually, those people are pretty resilient, amazingly so. They’re very compassionate to each other. You know how organized they were after the disaster, lining up for food and water and things like that.”

Before recording the message for THK, as the film crew transformed a downstairs rec room into a makeshift studio, Don Wilson said Japan could overcome the challenges.

“It’s such a cliché to say, ‘Hang in there. You just have to get through it.’ And I’m sure they will,” he said. “I’ve never seen harder-working people in my life.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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