Reflections on a one-man band

Written by
Arthur Nakane

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 L.A.’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. “I’m not that talented,” he said. “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 L.A. 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’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. Jimmy Kimmel and the producers at “America’s Got Talent” have put him on TV. 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. 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.

In recent years, Arthur developed a quintessentially American form of ambivalence:  he wasn’t sure that the thing that had made him successful was still what he wanted to do. 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 L.A.’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. 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 wrote this Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.