musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for February, 2011

Booming Book Business

These are rocky times in the book business. You read the alarming news reports every month: retail stores are closing in waves, people are reading less, and the few remaining readers — the ones who aren’t downloading porn or super-sizing it at the Golden Arches — are either buying their books online or switching to e-devices to feed their habit. And in this digitized modern world, people have more entertainment options than ever to take up what little free time they have. Between the Internet, DVDs, and other media distractions, people just don’t seem all that interested in reading as much as they used to do.

 

I own a secondhand bookshop, Dasa Books, in Bangkok, one that has been in business for seven years. At this point I’d like to think I know what I’m doing and am pretty good with this book stuff. This past December we had our best sales month ever. Then along came January 2011 and that was even better. Wow! So far, February has also been quite busy. How busy? I did a quick calculation of sales for the first two weeks of the month, and wango bango, we’ve done it again: the daily average thus far this month is, once again, our best ever. But I know the highs won’t last much longer. We’re still in the midst of “High Season” here in Thailand, and have lots of tourists to supplement our regular stable of customers. Plus, the annual Lunar (Chinese) New Year flow of visitors this month has also helped boast sales. It’s supposed to be a good time of year for business, but should it be this good?

 

Clearly, at least from my perspective here in Bangkok, people are still reading —and more importantly, buying — books. But my bookshop appears to be defying a worldwide trend, and thriving instead of dying. So what’s going on? I’d love to think that I possess some sort of magic touch, am a marketing genius, and have the uncanny ability to anticipate what customers want to buy. But no, that’s not it. I do make it a point to keep my shop well-stocked with a wide variety of titles in various genres, strive to create a comfortable shopping environment (we serve coffee and tea, and have tables and chairs for customers to sit and relax, and of course play great music), try to keep the shelves organized properly (apparently putting your books in alphabetical order is a rarely practiced concept here in Asia), keep our prices competitive (not dirt cheap but not expensive either), and offer a half-price back return policy on the secondhand books we sell. But the bottom line, I think, is that there are still many diehard readers who want to read real books. If you offer than a good selection of books at fair prices, they will come.

 

But over the mountains and across the sea, retailers in America are singing the blues: business sucks and many stores are going out of business or filing for bankruptcy. The impact of those shiny new electronic readers — Amazon’s Kindle, the Nook from Barnes & Noble, and the new iPad — is cited as one reason for declining sales and the closing of so many retail stores. Of course more people are buying these devices and downloading new titles instead of going to a brick and mortar retail store to buy them. But looking at it from another perspective, are these devices really taking that much of a chunk away from retail book sales? Quite possibly these convenient new devices might inspire more of the masses to pick up the regular reading habit, and in turn some of these neophyte readers might even get curious and buy a few real books with real pages to turn. Who is say you can’t have the best of both worlds?

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The Tubes and Remote Control

Wow, this one brings back memories! Remote Control was, in my opinion, the best album the Tubes ever recorded. And it was one of the best album covers of all-time too! Todd Rundgren produced Remote Control, leaving such an indelible stamp that the album even sounded at times like a classic Rundgren or Utopia record, fusing pop smarts with the Tubes flair for the theatrical. This was a definite concept album — as indicated by the title — about the control that television has on the general public … and your mind. This affliction was diagnosed when the album was recorded in 1979 and of course continues today. Perhaps it’s time for a sequel, lamenting the pervasive control that digital gadgets now have on the masses. Downloadable Control, perhaps?

 

Lead singer Fee Waybill and his band of musical misfits were in fine form for this recording, and Rundgren deftly used his famous production skills to make it all sound that much better. Before this album, the Tubes were mainly known for being a very wild and theatrical band, particularly on stage. One of the songs off their 1975 debut album, “White Punks on Dope,” along with “Don’t Touch Me There” off their second album only helped to cement their reputation as a curious rock act, but not one to be taken seriously. Remote Control, however, helped to change that opinion. These songs were keepers, the tunes sinking deep into the synapses of your mind until you couldn’t help but sing along. Remote Control indeed!

 

While the album’s them was clearly television domination — “T.V. Is King” … “Turn Me On” … “Prime Time” … “Telicide” — when all was said and sung, this was just a very fun and enjoyable album packed with catchy songs. Pure pop for wowed people. The band followed Remote Control with a few more popular albums, The Completion Backwards Principle  and Outside Inside, (which yielded the big hit “She’s a Beauty”) before finishing their major label career with the woefully overlooked Love Bomb (also produced by Rundgren) in 1985. The Tubes continued touring and recording for the rest of the decade, but due to a revolving door of departing band members and record label changes, they virtually disappeared from the music radar. The Tubes have persevered, however, and are still touring today!

Billy Preston

Billy Preston was a keyboard player of great renown. He was dubbed “The Fifth Beatle” due to his musical contributions on classic Beatle albums such as Abbey Road, Let it Be, and The Beatles (The White Album). He also recorded and toured with the Rolling Stones, and played on Sam Cooke’s legendary Night Beat album. In addition to his studio work with many other artists, Preston recorded several solo albums and had huge hits with “Will it Go Round in Circles”, “Nothing from Nothing”, “Outa-Space”, and “Space Race.” His duet with Syreeta, “With You I’m Born Again,” was also a big seller, though by that time he drifting more toward the middle of the pop road and full-on religious fervor.

 

While Preston is most famous for his association with the Beatles and the Stones, and his run of hits in the 1970s, he also recorded some wonderful instrumental albums in the 1960s. I bought one collection last year, Retrospective, that features seventeen fabulously funky tracks, highlighted by Preston’s lively organ playing. The songs on Retrospective were culled from two albums that Preston recorded for the Vee-Jay label in 1965 and 1966 (The Most Exciting Organ Ever and Hymns From the Organ). Among the album’s highlights are covers of “My Girl”, “Shotgun”, “Stop in the Name of Love”, “Downtown”, “Eight Days a Week” and “King of the Road.” And his version of “How Great Thou Art” is transformed into an extended funktified masterpiece. One odd thing about this album, however, is the cover photo that the label chose: its shows Preston sporting his famously full-on afro from the mid-70s, as opposed to the shorter 60s haircut he sported when these songs were actually recorded. By contrast, The Complete Vee-Jay Recordings shows Preston delightfully banging away on his organ at the time of these recordings, when he only 19 years old! Preston, in fact, was quite the child prodigy. In 1962, when he was 16, Preston was hired by Little Richard to be in his touring band. By then Preston had already honed his keyboard skills playing for famous gospel acts such as Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland. And even before he started recording, at the age of twelve, he played the part of the young W.C. Handy in the film St. Louis Blues, which also starred Nat King Cole.

 

Among the many classic Apple Records recordings that were remastered and re-released last year(including albums by the Beatles and Badfinger) was Preston’s Encouraging Words. Produced by his Beatle-buddy George Harrison, the album was originally released in 1970. Preston wrote most of the songs on the album, but he also performed covers of Harrison songs such as “My Sweet Lord” and “All Things Must Past.” Unlike his previous all-instrumental albums, this one has Preston singing on all the songs. One review I read called this “one of the best soul albums of all time.” That’s pretty high praise, and while this album is very good, I’m not sure if it ranks quite that high on the list of soul classics.

 

One of the last albums that Preston recorded before he died in 2006 was I Believe in My Soul, an ambitious multi-artist project produced by Joe Henry in 2005. I was amazed to find a copy of this CD when I was in Kuala Lumpur last month. Needless to say, I snatched it out of the bin quickly. Preston shared billing on this album with four other veteran soul acts: Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, and Ann Peebles. Even with five different artists, the result was a surprisingly strong and cohesive album, highlighted by gems such as Toussaint’s steaming instrumental version of “Turvalon,” a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here with You,” by Ann Peebles, a cover of the Tom Jans gem “Loving Arms” by Irma Thomas, and Mavis Staples doing the Curtis Mayfield’s classic “Keep on Pushing”. Definitely an album worth looking for.

Bagan Sunsets

I’ve been thinking about Bagan this week. I don’t have any plans to go there in the near future, but two friends of mine are making journeys to Myanmar this month. One ex-pat I know in Bangkok, an American named John, is going with his father on a one-week trip to visit Yangon and Bagan. Another friend, Pascale from Paris, will undertake a more comprehensive schedule, going to Yangon, Bagan, Yenangyaung, Mandalay, and Nyaungshwe. She’s been to Myanmar many times before and has an extensive network of friends to keep her busy. She will also be contributing to various NGO projects in the country.

 

Like other tourists, when in Bagan, John and his father will have the option of touring the vast conglomeration of ancient pagodas by bike, horse cart, or car. Keeping in mind his father’s age (he just turned 80), I suggested to John that a car might be the most comfortable option, but John boasted that his father is in remarkably good shape for his age, so they may end up cycling around the ruins every day. Neither one has been to Bagan before, so there are definitely in for a treat: thousands of awesome old pagodas and temples await them … and a few new ones too. Purists may wince, but new pagodas are still being built in and around Bagan. Luckily, the new pagodas aren’t so obviously garish that they clash with the old architecture. But anyway, what can you do? When these rich folks need to make merit, nothing is going to stop them from continuing their construction plans … except, perhaps an earthquake. But it’s been a few centuries since the last quake, so let’s hope any more such calamities are not going to occur anytime soon.

 

One of the more popular activities for tourists in Bagan is going to a “sunset pagoda” in the early evening to — as you would assume — watch the sun set. This usually means a somewhat precarious hike up narrow stairways or stone steps to the highest terrace of the pagoda. The sunset itself can be a hit or miss experience depending on the weather, but if everything is working in your favor you’ll be treated to a glorious view with a panoramic set of majestic pagodas silhouetted in the background. Besides unpredictable weather, the other negative factor at the sunset pagodas is the number of other tourists in attendance. At the more popular sites you will have to share viewing space with dozens or even hundreds (in those cases when a bus full of Koreans has dropped by) of other tourists.

 

But you don’t always have to be part of a crowd at sunset. There are many smaller pagodas in Bagan that are high enough (and also allow access to the top; some pagodas are so old and decrepit that climbing to the top is prohibited) to provide you with a sufficiently impressive view. And if you choose carefully, and get off the main tourist trail, you might even have the entire pagoda all to yourself; no other tourists or even local vendors milling around to bother you. It’s a perfect time — and place — to watch a glorious sunset and contemplate life.

Atlanta Rhythm Section

 

In the much neglected genre often dubbed “Southern Rock,” there were many fine bands that came to prominence in the 1970s. Some had a definite country edge or exuded a bit of soul, while others were folk influenced or had definite blues roots. Just because they came from the South didn’t mean these bands were all tobacco-spitting cowboys or hayseed rednecks. Thus, the term “southern rock” was not always a desirable label to be stuck with, and it certainly unfairly pigeonholed many an artist.

Artists such as the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Poco enjoyed their fair share of commercial success and critical acclaim, but many other good bands like the Marshall Tucker Band, the Outlaws, Blackfoot, Henry Paul Band, and Heartsfield never experienced much more than regional popularity despite consistently producing memorable music.

A few other excellent bands from the South were lucky enough to have hit singles: “Keep on Smiling” by Wet Willie, “Jackie Blue” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, “Amie” by Pure Prairie League, “Third Rate Romance” by the Amazing Rhythm Aces, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band, and “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” by the Elvin Bishop Band, but these songs were not necessarily representative of the band’s overall sound. And having a bit hit, as many have noted, can be both a blessing and a curse. Such sudden fame only ended up burdening the band with expectations of producing bigger hits, caused their old fans to accuse them of “selling out,” or saddled them with the dreaded tag of “one-hit wonder” when they never charted again. Sometimes you just can’t win.

One of the more underrated Southern bands was the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Although they also enjoyed moderate success with hit singles such as “Doraville,” “So Into You,” “Imaginary Lover,” and “Spooky,” they never really gained the critical acclaim that they deserved, or were dismissed as “lightweight” by critics. But for the better part of a decade ARS had a run of consistently excellent albums: Third Annual Pipe Dream, Dog Days, Red Tape, Champagne Jam, and Rock and Roll Alternative. I own all those albums on CD and when I saw that the band’s first two albums —- Atlanta Rhythm Section and Back Up Against the Wall — had finally been re-released as a single disc, I eagerly ordered a copy.

Like many Southern acts, ARS were tough to categorize. Their musical palette consisted of southern boogie, more jazz influenced numbers (a cover of Grant Green’s “Blues in Maude’s Flat”), some blustery blues (“Outside Woman Blues”), soothing pop (“All Night Rain”), and even a western swing country piece (“Jukin’/San Antonio Rose”) or two. They were indeed a top-notch rhythm section, and Ronnie Hammond’s whiskey-smooth vocals only helped to make them sound that much better.  

Those first two albums had been extremely hard to find, even on vinyl, so I was delighted to find this reissue. The first album, released in 1971, featured Rodney Justo as lead vocalist. By the time the second album came out in 1973, he had been replaced by Ronnie Hammond, who handled vocals for the rest of the band’s run. Listening to these songs four decades after they were recorded, I was surprised at how strong the material still sounds. They could perform long guitar jams or short pop masterpieces with equal dexterity. Most of the band’s classic albums have been reissued by BGO as two-for-one packages, similar to this album. All are worthy purchases.

Charles Earland

I’m a big fan of the funky organ sound of jazz musicians such as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Reuben Wilson, and Jimmy McGriff. I recently discovered another jazz organist that I like a lot; Charles Earland. I found a copy of his 1970 album, Black Talk!, in the bins at the Gram store in Bangkok’s Siam Paragon. It was reissued by Prestige Records in 2006, in a distribution agreement with the Concord Music Group, and remastered by the original engineer on the recordings, Rudy Van Gelder.

 

Earland isn’t as well known as most of the Blue Note and Verve organists who came to prominence in the 1960s and early 70s, but I think he should be. Based on Black Talk!, this guy is top shelf stuff. His versions of “Aquarius” and the eleven-minute workout on “More Today than Yesterday” are positively oozing with funky energy and dynamics. Earland first gained notice playing with Lou Donaldson in the late 60s, before he signed to Prestige and began recording his own albums. He continued to record for various labels in the following decades, before passing away in 1999 at the age of 58. His nickname was “The Mighty Burner,” which is also one of the tracks on Black Talk! I was so happy with Black Talk! that I recently ordered a copy of Anthology, a two-CD compilation that has 22 tracks from his 70s and 80s “jazz funk” period. My next mission is to find a copy of Intensity, an acclaimed album he recorded with Lee Morgan and Billy Cobham. Gotta be hot stuff.

 

My first introduction into the world of funky jazz Hammond B-3 organ players came in the early-80s when I first heard Jack McDuff’s Down Home Style album. And yes, that was back in the pre-digital days of vinyl records. Take a look at the cover and you’ll know why it caught my eye: a plateful of barbecued ribs, collard greens, beans, and corn on the cob. And the funky grooves on the album were just as greasy and tasty. I almost felt like licking my fingers when the record finished playing! McDuff (sometimes the credits listed him as “Brother Jack” and other times just “Jack McDuff”) recorded dozens of other fine albums, including some that featured other prominent musicians such as George Benson, Kenny Burrell, and Gene Harris.

Kuala Lumpur

I spent three full days in Kuala Lumpur last month and the time passed quickly thanks to non-stop shopping and nearly non-stop eating. KL has a wealth of good street food and excellent restaurants. Ignoring the western fast food franchises and upscale eateries, there are still plenty of choices, everything from Malay and Indian to Thai and Burmese. And lots of good kopitiam (coffee shops) too.

 

Normally, I hate anything to do with shopping and malls. If I need to buy something, I want to go into a store and get in and buy it, and then get out quickly without wasting time browsing and comparing prices. But when it comes to books and CDs, my aversion to shopping disappears and I can spend hours perusing the shelves and racks in search of treasures.

 

And in Kuala Lumpur, as I discovered on previous trips to the city, there are many shops with a good selection of both books (new and secondhand) and CDs. For music, there remains one branch of Tower Records in the Lot Ten shopping center. The selection isn’t what it used to be, but I still found a surprising number of good titles there; CDs from artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Al Kooper, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, LCD Soundsystem, Buena Vista Social Club, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Cracker, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, J.J. Johnson, and Bobby Hutcherson. There is also a chain store called Rock Corner with an excellent stock of domestic and imported titles. I visited the branches in KLCC and Mid Valley Mall, but in addition to those two, they have another four branches in the KL and Petaling Jaya area. During three visits to Rock Corner I came away with goodies from Jackie Leven, Neil Young, Randy Newman, Dylan LeBlanc, Florence & the Machine, the Duke and the King, Quincy Jones, the Brothers Johnson, the Spinners, Green on Red, Sigur Ros, Ben Kweller, Jakob Dylan, the XX, Deerhunter, the Apples in Stereo, Lindsey Buckingham, and about a dozen more, Now I just have to find time to listen to all this stuff!

 

On the book side of the ledger, KL has a large Kinokuniya branch in KLCC that is fun to browse (and I even bought one book there), but the big Borders store in Times Square has been downsized to a Borders Express outlet. Predictably, their selection has suffered and they no longer sell CDs. But a few stops down the subway line, at the Amcorp Mall, there is a spacious store called Book Xcess that sells inexpensive remainder titles. I found some great stuff there, some books selling for as little as 3 ringgit (about 30 baht, or US$1). There is also a small store in Amcorp Mall that sells used books, but that shop is so dirty and disorganized that it’s painful trying to browse. Boxes in the aisles, a listless clerk slouching behind the counter, books haphazardly thrown on shelves; it’s a mess. But if you are patient look hard enough you may find something interesting, and as usual, I did. A much better selection can be found at the Junk Book Store on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, but their method of organization is also baffling, and the prices a bit steep. Yet another good outlet for used books is the RC shop, a thrift store run by the local Red Crescent Society. Once again, a bit of digging and patience will reward you with a few nice surprises.

 

KL is very easy to navigate thanks to the extensive network of trains; several subway lines and also a monorail link. The only time I had to take a taxi was my last morning in town when I had to get to the airport early and the trains weren’t running yet. But even for that trip it wasn’t necessary to take a taxi all the way to the airport; I took one as far as KL Sentral, at which point I boarded a very cheap (8 ringgit) bus that went directly to the airport. I also did a lot of walking this time in KL, making the trek from the Bukit Bintang area to Little India and Masji Jamek on foot, or wandering a bit further to Dang Wangi to grab a bite to eat at the fabulous Kut Yee. But I’ll save more of the food stuff for another post this week. 

 

The annual Lunar (Chinese) New Year celebrations were still a few weeks away, but many shops, restaurants, and malls around KL were already decorated for the holidays. I always find it fascinating to walk around the various neighborhoods in KL and Petaling Jaya, marveling at the multi-ethnic quilt of citizens and the modern architecture. Although I feel very safe there, I don’t get as friendly a vibe as I do in other Southeast Asian cities. Of course, my impressions are based solely on being in the country’s biggest city. Like in most other countries, you are likely to find the friendliest locals in smaller towns and more rural areas.

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