Tokyo Storm Warning

An earlier piece on Recliner Notes investigates Bob Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and the different traditions from which Dylan examined and pulled, including rhyming songs, nonsense songs, Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business,” and skatting within songs. At the core of the Dylan song and these other song forms is the rhyming and unrelenting cadence that is also shared with the concept of flow within hip-hop. In addition to hip-hop, Dylan’s stylings in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” influenced many working within the rock ‘n roll idiom. One example is the Elvis Costello & The Attractions song on 1986’s Blood & Chocolate, “Tokyo Storm Warning”:

Costello wrote about the inspiration for the composition of the song:

“The events of ‘Tokyo Storm Warning’ travel from Narita to Heysel via Pompeii, Port Stanley, Paris, and London. Tokyo is just the place where these things begin and end. It is a city for which I am never prepared. Each arrival is shocking and slightly alienating — particularly if you land there in a late-summer storm when the cloud cover is below the top of the skyscrapers. It is only when you are about to leave that the rhythm of the place starts to make sense and you wish you had more time.”

The song opens with Pete Thomas pounding out a rhythm that’s not dissimilar to the opening drum sound from “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop. Though the sequences of what actual drums are being hit are different, Costello could have borrowed the idea of the drums acting as a cold opening for “Tokyo Storm Warning” from the Iggy Pop song. After the opening drum fanfare, Steve Nieve’s organ fades in, flashing and throbbing as if providing the actual storm warning called for by the song’s title. The full musical accompaniment kicks in after 12 seconds of drums and the organ warning. The sound centers around a garage band riff as the band channels their best memories of Nuggets-era psychedelica. Costello starts singing the first verse:

The sky fell over cheap Korean monster-movie scenery
And spilled into the mezzanine of the crushed capsule hotel
Between the Disney abattoir and the chemical refinery.

Notwithstanding the subtle near-rhymes of the words “Korean,” “scenery,” and “mezzanine,” the opening verse doesn’t have the determined and overt rhyme scheme of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” However, the two songs do share a relentless cadence of words presenting an overflow of images. Just as the listener is grappling with the full implication of what a “crushed capsule hotel” could mean, Costello has already moved on to a “Disney abattoir” which is located right next to a “chemical refinery.” There’s no time to stop and consider as the intention of both “Tokyo Storm Warning” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is to overpower with rhythm, both in the music and in the lyrical content, forcing the listener to stay on the roller coaster ride and never get off. 

Costello ends the verse by singing, “I knew I was in trouble but I thought I was in,” he pauses, takes a deep break, and sings the word “hell.” He extends the “ell” sound, singing the word in part wail and not a little bit of delight. The relish in Costello’s invocation of hell mirrors William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

“As I was walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their proverbs, thinking that as the sayings used in a nation mark its character, so the proverbs of Hell show the nature of infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments.”

Rather than experiencing “torment and insanity” from the “fires of Hell,” Blake takes on the pain and delights in “the enjoyments of Genius,” finding revelation in the act of creation. Costello too seems to be cherishing the nightmarish images that he is witnessing throughout “Tokyo Storm Warning” as can be seen in the chorus:

What do we care if the world is a joke
(Tokyo Storm Warning)
We’ll give it a big kiss
We’ll give it a poke
(Tokyo Storm Warning)
Death wears a big hat ’cause he’s a big bloke
(Tokyo Storm Warning)
We’re only living this instant.

There’s a storm coming over Tokyo and the rest of the world and how does Costello respond? The world is a joke, so let’s give it “a big kiss” and “a poke.” Besides, Death looks foolish as a “big bloke” wearing his “big hat.” Costello says that laughing at and flirting with the impending storm of the apocalypse is the only way to confront it with a full embrace because, “We’re only living this instant.” The nihilism in this final line of the chorus is underlined by the gusto with which Costello sings. Like Blake delighting in the fires of Hell, Costello not only accepts the apocalypse, he has an appetite for it in full hedonistic fashion.

In the second verse, Costello sings:

So you look around the tiny room and you wonder where the hell you are
While the K.K.K. convention are all stranded in the bar
They wear hoods and carry shotguns in the main streets of Montgomery
But they’re helpless here as babies ’cause they’re only here on holiday.

Confronted with the absurdism of coming face-to-face with the members of a “K.K.K. convention” in Tokyo of all places, there’s the recognition that their power has been removed by displacing them from their home. Being a tourist is a great equalizer as even the worst of domestic terrorists are impotent when no longer being domestic. They’re exposed and weak and reeling to the bar to seek artificial courage from booze.

In his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Costello calls “Tokyo Storm Warning” a “psychedelic travelogue” as the location of the song flies from place to place at a dizzying pace. From Tokyo, the perspective shifts as Costello sings: “The black sand stuck beneath her feet in a warm Sorrento sunrise / A barefoot girl from Naples or was it a Barcelona hi-rise.” The next verse opens with: “So they flew the Super-Constellation all the way from Rimini” which is quickly followed by “Now dead Italian tourists’ bodies litter up the Broadway.” The song also includes place names such as: the Folies Bergere in Paris, the Costa del Malvinas, the Hotel Argentina, and a tango bar which could be “in Stanley or in Puerto Margarita.” Even the narrator can’t keep up with where he has found himself. These location changes allow the narrator to throw out observations and commentary on the people he briefly encounters, offering one-liners such as: “Whistles out the tuneless theme song of a hundred cheap suggestions / And a million false seductions and all those eternal questions” as well as “She’s Miss Buenos Aires in a world of lacy lingerie.” Costello even resorts to a cliché as the images and setting flash by when he sings: “Some people can’t be told you know they have to learn the hard way.” It’s a necessary cliché in this context as everything is overwhelming. As such, the narrator and the listener need the vernacular of cliché, something familiar as the song rushes onto its next offering.

In the middle of the rush is a guitar solo by Costello. Once dubbed having “little hands of concrete” by Nick Lowe for his lack of command over the guitar, Costello instead shows he has the ability to sound like a Neil Young cacophony, ripping off a biting solo that has the feel of a snarling cat. At the end of the solo, he overdubs backwards guitar providing additional psychedelic swirls to “Tokyo Storm Warning,” placing the listener in an even more confused and unmoored mood within this storm of a song. 

In the second-to-last verse, Costello sings:

Japanese God-Jesus robots telling teenage fortunes
For all we know and all we care they might as well be Martians.

He commented on these lines in the 2002 liner notes for Blood & Chocolate saying that within the confusing and nightmarish circumstances of traveling,

“It’s then that crazy little purchases like the ‘God-Jesus robot’ seem strangely comforting. What should one take home from this extraordinary place? What else but a fortune-telling sci-fi droid that is supposed to ‘answer’ the romantic questions of Japanese teenagers with a wave of a plastic cross? Two thousand years of theology reduced to a battery-operated toy.”

Stumbling along and discovering a product like this for sale underlines the hallucinatory experience of travel. Is this real? What are the implications of a Japanese God-Jesus robot before me? Does it have a deeper meaning? If the answer to that question is “no” then it invites a harsher, more cynical viewpoint. Is this product a symbol of brash commercialism, preying off of true belief in both science fiction and Jesus Christ? The utter pointlessness of it all leads to a deeper questioning of self as Costello then sings:

They say gold paint on the palace gates comes from the teeth of pensioners
They’re so tired of shooting protest singers
That they hardly mention us.

Here, Costello drops his mask and no longer pretends that there is separation between himself and the narrator of the song. He finds himself in a strange predicament, encountering a government that celebrates the beauty of the “palace gates” which are in fact public infrastructure created as the direct result of the death of its own citizens. It’s a galling and horrendous realization of the callousness of this government that doesn’t need to worry about consequences of its own actions. In the context of the cruel and cold-blooded nature of this setting, Costello finds his own place in the pecking order as this government has taken down so many “protest singers” that he doesn’t even register as a threat. There’s a mixture of relief on Costello’s part that he won’t be shot while also wondering why he and his songs aren’t threatening enough or even good enough to be considered as potentially undermining for this government. It’s a humbling moment of comprehension for Costello as he realizes the true measure of his art. At the same, these words are delivered with a wry grin as with the rest of the lines of the songs as Costello accepts the dark humor stemming from this flicker of awareness.

The last verse is filled with mystery:

We braved the cold November air and the undertaker’s curses
Saying “Take me to the Folies Bergere and please don’t spare the hearses”
For he always had a dream of that revolver in your purse
How you loved him ’til you hated him and made him cry for mercy
He said “Don’t ever mention my name there or talk of all the nights you cried
We’ve always been like worlds apart, now you’re seeing two nightmares collide.”

Immediately after a verse in which Costello provides a clue that the song is indeed autobiographical, there is another perspective shift as the pronoun used at the beginning of the verse is “we.” The setting has zoomed around the globe once again, this time to Paris as the couple asks to be taken to the Folies Bergere, an infamous cabaret music hall where the singer Josephine Baker once presented a bombshell of a performance in which she danced “in a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas and little else.” This couple seems to have been at a funeral as they have endured “the undertaker’s curses.” They call to be whisked away to the nightclub from the funeral, saying, “Please don’t spare the hearses.” They want to be away from the gloomy site immediately to someplace else that has the opposite feel of a funeral with as much haste as possible. Breaking down and trying to explain “Please don’t spare the hearses” takes a bit of the power away as it’s a gem of a line by Costello. A centerpiece line for any other songwriter, but, in this case, it’s simply another in the cavalcade of imagery in “Tokyo Storm Warning.”

After these lines, there’s a curious shift in what is being depicted in the song. Up to this point, everything has been external, cataloging the bizarre, uncanny, and absurd within the couple’s travels. In the final lines of the song, the perspective shifts now to the couple themselves. The narrator has a recurring “dream of that revolver in your purse.” It doesn’t take a lifetime of study of Freud’s writing to recognize this as a threatening image, a mixture of sex and violence. How does the woman in the couple characterize her feelings for him? It’s also quite conflicted: “How you loved him ’til you hated him and made him cry for mercy.” Their relationship is fraught with drama as he reminds her: “Don’t ever mention my name there or talk of all the nights you cried.” The verse ends with him telling her: “We’ve always been like worlds apart, now you’re seeing two nightmares collide.” With these lines, the song tells us that no matter what sort of doom is expected all over the world, the worst sort of ​​cataclysm is found inside a relationship. Indeed, the entire song is an account of witnessing “two nightmares collide.” It should be emphasized that “Tokyo Storm Warning” was co-written by Cait O’Riordan, musician and former bass player for The Pogues. She is also the ex-wife of Costello. Their marriage began in 1986, the same year that “Tokyo Storm Warning” was written, performed, and included on Blood & Chocolate. The song is not only a depiction of the start of their fraught union, but the song is itself a description of their honeymoon. 

After this revealing final verse, Costello sings the chorus yet again. At the conclusion of the chorus, he screams loudly and it shakes the walls as the scream echoes. The scream could be one of delight or terror or both at the same time. Costello plays another guitar solo that has the sound of music heard in a foreign marketplace. Costello sings “ba ba ba” as the song fades out. Though it’s a long song, there’s a sense that Costello and The Attractions could keep playing and playing as if to say, “If we’re all going to die, we might as well have a big party.”

At the beginning of this piece, it was noted that “Tokyo Storming Warning” shared a genetic structure with “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Another song that has a similar DNA to the Dylan tune is R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” from 1987’s Document released a year after Blood & Chocolate:

R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck was quoted as saying that the song is “in the tradition of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Like the Dylan song, it’s a deluge of imagery rattled off by lead singer Michael Stipe at rocket speed. Similar to “Tokyo Storming Warning,” R.E.M. includes a chorus in their song that emphasizes the apocalyptic consequences of considering the flash after flash of people, places, and concepts delineated within the song. It depicts death by images. Both the R.E.M. and Costello songs have similar origins. Stipe provided this explanation in 1992:

“The words come from everywhere. I’m extremely aware of everything around me, whether I am in a sleeping state, awake, dream-state or just in day to day life. There’s a part in ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’ that came from a dream where I was at Lester Bangs‘ birthday party and I was the only person there whose initials weren’t L.B. So there was Lenny Bruce, Leonid Brezhnev, Leonard Bernstein… So that ended up in the song along with a lot of stuff I’d seen when I was flipping TV channels. It’s a collection of streams of consciousness.”

Likewise, Costello wrote the following about “Tokyo Storm Warning” for the Girls Girls Girls liner notes:

“Fatigue can play cruel tricks upon your perceptions, but arriving early one violent morning, among the frenzied commuters, with the storm clouds down beneath the tops of the tallest building, Tokyo DID seem like the setting for a particularly brutal science-fiction story (perhaps something by Philip K. Dick).”

Fatigue or a dream-state allows both Costello and Stipe to enter into a zone in which they can summon the details required to create a kaleidoscopic portrayal of the end of the world. Both songs are nightmares, but, as with William Blake, they delight in the fires of hell since, from these horrific visions, art can be created. For Costello, his song is a depiction of outward catastrophes, but there’s an internal representation as well. It’s a portrayal of the cataclysm that can happen at the beginning of a relationship; the entering into a union with someone else that can portend a loss of self, hinting at a future upheaval. “Tokyo Storm Warning” is an illustration of an apocalypse, both public and personal. 

7 thoughts on “Tokyo Storm Warning

  1. Wonderful as usual, Scott, thanks. Renewing my old Costello-love. On listening with new ears I now do recognise the Subterranean-traces – but first & foremost in the music, not so much in the way Costello delivers the lyrics.
    In Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink he does acknowledge the song’s influence, though not re Tokyo Storm Warning. I suppose you read it, but just in case:

    “Pump It Up” obviously took more than a little bit from “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
    One night, many years later, Bob Dylan said to me:
    “U2! How could they do that to you? How could they take your song like that?”
    It took me a moment to know what he was talking about, and a moment more to realize that he was putting me on. But then, U2’s “Get On Your Boots” was probably to “Pump It Up” what “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is to Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.”

    It was a sort of an underground hit here in Holland, back in ’78. And if memory serves, he started the concert with the song, back then (one of my very first rock concerts, so I should remember, actually. But it’s fuzzy).

    Anyway,hope I could tell you something new,
    Keep on keepin’on,
    Groeten uit Utrecht,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article, great song, thank you.

    with the subterranean homesick blues comparisons, the talk of japanese God-Jesus robots made me think of dylan’s ‘flesh-coloured christs that glow in the dark’ from ‘it’s alright ma (I’m only bleeding) which is on the same album

    Liked by 1 person

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