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

Archive for March, 2011

Texas Tornados

One of the CDs that I picked up in Kuala Lumpur when I was there in January was Esta Bueno by the Texas Tornados. Released in 2010, this was the final album from the “ultimate Tex-Mex super group,” owing to the fact that two of the members, Doug Sahm and Freddy Fender, died several years ago. Shawn Sahm, Doug’s son, joined forces with Tornados members Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez to put the finishing touches on this recording. But rest assured that this is not some sort of lame patchwork of unreleased demos, but a solid set of typically lively Texas Tornados music. Shawn Sahm did indeed use some vocals and music that both his father and Fender recorded prior to their passing, but he and the band also recorded some new songs for this “reunion.” And damn, it all sounds really, really good.


If you haven’t heard this band before, fasten your seat belt. Or better yet, get up out of your chair and start dancing. The Texas Tornados combine rock and roll elements from Sahm’s legendary 1960s band, the Sir Douglas Quintet, along with a dash of country and a heavy dollop of Mexican Tejano and Conjunto styles to produce an invigorating musical synthesis. And for these accomplished musicians, it’s one that suits their collective styles perfectly.


Fender — he the singer of 70s hits such as “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” — sings songs in both English and Spanish, his vocals still strong and assured as he neared the end of his life. One of the most distinctive and joyous sounds in music is that of Flaco Jimenez’s accordion playing. Whether Flaco is playing on his own albums, those of the Texas Tornados, or ones by friends such as Ry Cooder, his accordion playing always meshes perfectly with the rest of the band. Another endearing facet of the Texas Tornados sound is the organ and piano playing of Augie Meyers (also a Sir Douglas member), sparking more fuel for the exuberant music.


Once in a while they slow things down for a ballad, usually sung by Fender, but overall this is raucous Tex-Mex party music. When the last song, the poignant “Girl Going Nowhere,” has finished, the listener feels a tinge of sadness, wishing the Texas Tornados could step out for just one more encore.

Cambodia Cultural Village

My four-day trip to Siem Reap earlier this month was mostly spent on outings with friends who live in the area. And I also spent a lot of time eating and playing pool at the Hawaii Restaurant. One good thing about this trip was the lazy pace. I didn’t run myself ragged constantly going places. But I did find time to visit the homes of my friends Chamrong and So Pengthai, as well as going to markets and the new night bazaar in town. Other than visiting Phnom Krom, overlooking the Tonle Sap Lake, I didn’t venture out to see any of the Angkor temples. I never get bored traipsing among those ancient ruins, but nowadays there are so many tourists at Angkor, you are more than likely to be tripping over busloads of ancient Koreans.

One day I took a group of friends to the Cambodia Cultural Village, located on Highway Six, on the way to the airport. This sprawling park has daily music and dance performances, boat rides, a haunted house, many cultural exhibits, and playgrounds for young children. The day we went it was a national holiday and the place was uncomfortably packed with locals. Not my idea of an ideal day at the park, but my friends all enjoyed it. Here are a few photos of that day, along with one of Thai at the new house he just had built.

Behind the Counter

Anyone who has ever owned or managed a music shop can tell you that the employees working behind the counter are an integral part of the business. Of course they have to take money, answer phones, keep the shop clean, stock the shelves, and handle customer requests. But their personality and the way they interact with the customers are also important factors to the success of the shop. Customers, of course, recognize the value of the “record store clerk” and will often patronize a shop based on who is working there. And shop owners also understand that these valued employees are like gold.


I’ve worked with many such golden characters over the years, some of them worthy of being inducted in the Record Store Hall of Fame … if there is such a shrine. People like Bobby Hall, Jim Leatherman, Eddie Foeller, Quan Nguyen, Beth Ann Sparks, Matt Gorney, John Asseff, and Tim Skinner. And there were also my treasured colleagues, classy shop owners and kindred spirits such as Jim Boylston, Steve and Denise Allen, Ray and Fred Ehman, Craig Michaels, Bob Ponder, Tommie Minor, and of course Roman and Hanna Skrobko. I’ve no doubt forgotten to mention other worthy souls, but if they managed to survive working with me, or for me, they certainly deserve eternal fame. I recently talked to two former East-West Records employees, ones I have known for nearly thirty years. Besides being friends of mine, they are also classic examples of valuable record store clerks, and certainly first-ballot inductees in my Hall of Fame.

Keith Chagnon

I first met Keith Chagnon when he working at the East-West branch in Winter Park back in the late 1970s. He also was a writer for Dogfood, the music fanzine that I published. After leaving Orlando in the early 80s, Keith lived in Boston for about a decade before moving to Los Angeles. In between coastal record store gigs, he found time to play in bands such as the Confidentials and the Daughters, and toured with Johnny Thunders.


In a nutshell, what was it like working at East-West? 

It was, without a doubt, the most exciting time in my life. I worked at the coolest record shop in town for two of the coolest people in town-Roman and Hannah. Loved it!


How long did you work at East-West?

I think it was about 3 years.


Can you share any memorable moments or particularly memorable customers that you remember from those retail days?

There were many bright, shiny folks running around back then. Orlando was still a bit of a sleepy town; no NBA franchise, no boy bands from hell. Sherry and Larry Carpenter (just heard that Larry passed last week) had just bought the Great Southern Music Hall. In the store there was this one gal, her name was Roxy, and she was close friends with Laurie Brown from The Kinks. She always had amazing stories. Then there were the numerous pimp daddies that would come in each week, real street pimps, looking to buy certain “ingredients” (all the stores were able to sell head shop goods back then).


When you think about East-West, which favorite albums come to mind from your time there?

Boy, that’s a good one. I was listening to A LOT of funk music back then … all the bands. I listened to Bruce (Springsteen) and Patti (Smith) every day … was getting into all the NYC punk bands (a mere few years before I would move to Boston and tour/record with Johnny Thunders) … The Clash mattered … Cheap Trick … all the AOR bands Boston-blah-blah-ooh … Pat Travers, he was just getting traction. I remember the Carpenters at Great Southern calling to ask if they should book multiple dates for him to record for a possible live record … that version of “Boom Boom” on his live record was recorded at TGSMH … years later I met Pat and told him that the whistle you hear on the record is me and my buddy Parker Delaney. Pat says: “Yeah I’ve heard that same story from about 1,000 people.”  Oh well.


What were some of your other jobs after you left East-West?

In Boston I worked at the coolest collectibles shop on the planet; Nugget Records. The wall was signed by Lenny Kaye on opening day. This was also the same time that I was touring and recording with Johnny Thunders … that in itself is a discussion and life lesson on all the things NOT to do as a young budding rock star in training. I did not even drink at the time so it was a very strange experience. People were doing heroin and I am trying to find some orange juice that was supposed to be on the club rider. Johnny stares at me one day and says: “You are too straight to be in a rock band.”  I look at him and fire back: “You are too fucked up to be alive.”  Aaaah … the good old days! Upon arriving on the shores of Southern California, I spent about eight years paying my Hollywood dues working at Hits magazine, learning how it all “worked.” That was a great experience, and I will be forever grateful for my boss for taking me under her wing. From there I moved on and worked at a record label, a boutique marketing company, the Virgin mega-store (built their first e-commerce offering in North America), Sr. VP of Marketing for a merchandising company, a tech start-up, another tech start-up, another merch company, teaching tech classes, and now consulting and working on yet another tech start-up. It’s been a long strange trip for sure!


What are your feelings about the way that music retail has changed over the past several decades?

It is the fault of — wait for it — the labels. They did what they always do; react about as quick to changes as a dinosaur moving through the La Brea Tar Pits. If they had listened to consumers 15 years ago — “Hey we can’t afford 18 dollars for a CD” … if they had embraced that concept (lower CDs to $10 across the board) … got next to technology when it started (Hi Shawn Fanning, come with us and let’s work together!”). They are greedy, arrogant, greedy, slow moving, greedy (did I mention Greedy?) … they deserve all the chaos that they created. Now, the saddest part is that almost all the record stores have disappeared. I live in L.A…, and even living here you have to be strategic about venturing out to buy music. Most times you end up going online.


Where are you living, and what are you doing now?

Still in L.A. I’ve been consulting with various entities in the music and technology sector. Working on my third start up, enjoying my life. I have learned a lot in the last 20 years being here, but it truly all began working at East-West. I will forever be grateful to Hannah and Roman.


Brian Martin

Brian Martin also worked at the East-West branch in Winter Park, although a full decade after Keith had been there. Prior to East-West, Brian cut his retail teeth at Record Mart, another chain of record stores in the Orlando area. I was managing their store on South Orange Blossom Trail (oh, that crazy trail!) when Brian came aboard. If there was a concert anywhere in town, you could rest assured that Brian was in attendance! Brian also eventually left Central Florida and landed in Southern California.

In a nutshell, what was it like working at East-West?

It was a genuinely great experience. There were ups and downs, and good days as well as bad, but in all sincerity the good days exponentially outnumbered the bad. And it was an experience unique to that store, completely and totally unlike a corporate store like Camelot, and comfortably dissimilar from a chain store like Peaches. From my current perspective it was like allowing your garden to overgrow and go deliberately wild. I often thought the whole story would make a great sitcom, a gene-spliced combo of WKRP in Cincinnati, Cheers, Green Acres, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But if you tried to tell the honest-to-goodness truth, nobody would ever believe it.


How long did you work at East-West?

From April 1985 through March 1997. At the time of my departure, that was one third of my life.


Can you share any memorable moments or particularly memorable customers that you remember from those retail days?

Memorable moments would include, but would not be limited to the air conditioner constantly breaking down, the power going out, the store being broken into by smashing a window with a brick after hours, Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick walking in one day, Chip Z’Nuff of E’Nuff Z’Nuff walking in on another, and the in-store with Nickelbag (NOT that shit band Nickelback) in 1996. Memorable customers would include, but would not be limited to Harrison “Butch” Slaughter and his lovely wife and two beautiful daughters. Butch was a three-piece suit type of corporate business man who was bat-shit crazy about the Rolling Stones. A truly wonderful guy. And there was Chris, nicknamed “the Quiet Guy” because he would never, under any circumstances speak over a whisper. In a record store? Really? I lost count of the number of times we had to turn the music down just to hear him.


When you think about East-West, which favorite albums come to mind from your time there?

Once again, way too many to itemize here, however the titles that made a difference while I was there would be Tom Petty’s Southern Accents, Into The Great White Open, Full Moon Fever and Wild Flowers. Also the Rolling Stones’ two “comeback” albums; Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge, and Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and Unchained. There were also a number of game changers that were huge hits. Those were the records that would change the store, the customers, and the commercial mainstream music industry from that point forward. To name just a few: Guns N’ Roses Appetite For Destruction, Nirvana Nevermind, Metallica The Black Album, Paul Simon Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, Peter Gabriel So, the Red Hot Chili Peppers Blood Sugar Sex Magik, U2 The Joshua Tree and Achtung, Baby.  I have a personal fondness for Green Jello Cereal Killer soundtrack, the Dead Milkmen Bucky Fellini and Beelzebubba, and Mojo Nixon Horny Holidays.


What were some of your other jobs after you left East-West?

Apart from going hungry then and now, in Los Angeles over the past 12 years I’ve worked briefly at the Virgin Mega-Store, appeared a couple of times as a maze performer at Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights, worked as the field marketing director at Image Marketing Consultants, worked for Prana Entertainment, appeared as an extra in Erin Brockovich and Almost Famous, appeared on the game show “Rock N’ Roll Jeopardy”, and have sold books at Brentano’s and Borders in Century City and Hollywood.


What are your feelings about the way that music retail has changed over the past several decades?

Music retail has changed in that it barely exists any longer. Try and find a record store in your neighborhood. With the decline of music retail and its ever shrinking sales stats year after year, it tells you that illegal downloads and file sharing have irrevocably eradicated the retail business. By comparison, what Best Buy did to music retail doesn’t seem like as bitter a pill. I can remember the heady days when CDs overtook LPs as the prominent format. We all bemoaned the loss of the cover art, but even ancient catalog was considered a new release on the new format. If we only knew the Pandora’s Box that had just flown open, everybody would have behaved differently. It was drowned out by the continuous ring of the cash registers.


Where are you living, and what are you doing now?

I am currently living in Los Angeles. I am working part-time selling books in Hollywood. I’m starving full-time the rest of the time. The upside of going hungry is I can still fit into all my old clothes from when I worked at East-West in the 80s and 90s.

40 Years of East-West Records

In this age of digital downloads and bootleg discs, finding a shop that sells real CDs, or even good old vinyl records, is becoming an increasingly difficult task. Luckily, for music addicts like me who are living in Southeast Asia, and who prefer the “real thing,” there are still some independent shops operating in cities such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur where you can find such product. Over on the other side of this warped planet, in my hometown of Orlando, Florida, East-West Records celebrates their 40th Anniversary this year! Owners Roman and Hanna Skrobko are still holed up in their shop on South Orange Avenue, battling armed robbers and the digital demons that have devoured retail over the past decade.  It’s certainly not easy operating a shop in the USA nowadays, but Hanna and Roman have the spirit and personal touch that enable them to persevere.

I have fond memories of shopping at the East-West branch in Winter Park when I was a teenager back in the 1970s. I remember walking into that cozy little shop, packed solid with well-stocked racks of record albums, the smell of incense in the air, colorful album posters on the walls. For a kid like me who lived and breathed music, this store was sheer heaven. East-West stocked a variety of records in genres such as Rock, Blues, Soul, Jazz, Reggae, and Country. It’s where I bought my first Neil Young album, Harvest. It’s also the shop where I discovered artists as diverse as Nils Lofgren, Heartsfield, Nektar, Pousette-Dart Band, Tim Moore, Bob Marley, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Crack the Sky, and Guy Clark. Needless to say, this was not a Top 40 megamall shop, but a wonderfully quirky place that reflected its owners’ broad range of musical tastes.

I was never lucky enough to land a job at East-West, but eventually I opened my own record shop on the other side of town in 1983. I was definitely inspired by the indie spirit of East-West, hoping that my own place would some day be as cool as Hanna and Roman’s store. Even though we were technically “competitors” at that point, it was a very friendly rivalry. In fact, most of us in Central Florida’s pool of indie music shops were kindred spirits, often having worked together at other chain stores in the area over the years. If we didn’t have something in stock at our shop we would happily refer customers to one of our competitor pals.

Even though I’m living halfway around the world these days, I’ve stayed in touch with Hanna. Whenever we have disasters (natural ones, or catastrophes caused by people wearing colored shirts) in Thailand, Hanna will always send me a note of concern. And when I heard that she had been robbed at gunpoint in her shop earlier this year I sent her my own worried note. Us retail lifers got to stick together, you know? With their big anniversary coming up soon, I e-mailed Hanna a list of questions about East-West Records and her life in music retail. Here are her replies:


When did you and your husband open East-West Records? What inspired you to open a retail record store?

July 1, 1971. We were planning to open a clothing store (Roman was a very young manager of the very tony Fred Segal store in West Hollywood), but when we saw how nobody really cared about fashion in Orlando, we switched to music. Luckily for me, that was MY field, literally having grown up inside record shops since I was old enough to walk or take a bus ride. I spent HOURS inside record stores reading liner notes, and listening ti anything I could get my hands on. This is how I got my geek on!

What were the biggest challenges during those early years?

Because we were so young (I was 18, roman was 23), we didn’t see anything as particularly challenging… just a new skill set to be learned (ah, YOUTH!). We were told by EVERYONE this would never work. Labels, distributors (in their infancy, back then), all told us this could not be done.  We started with a couple of thousand dollars, and a whole lot of L.A. attitude … kinda bluffed our way into Orlando’s landscape. Timing was definitely on our side. 

How did you choose the name?

We named ourselves after one of our favorite records at the time … East-West by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. We were from the west, now in the east … it just kinda worked. By the way, we argued about the name for at least a couple of months before this happened. 

Where are you from originally?

Both Roman and I “grew up” in Southern California. West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice … that was our background.  We graduated from the same high school (Fairfax High in West Hollywood) five years apart.  We had every intention of returning to California, and to go to college, but the business here took off, and we realized we could maybe pull this off. 

When you were a teenager, what was your career dream?

Roman would’ve been some kind of entrepreneur to be sure … I was going to be an actress. And a singer. And a songwriter. I was going for Joni Mitchell on my hazy days, and Julie Andrews or Barbra Streisand on my “practical” days.   

You were also a popular DJ at WORJ-FM in the 1970s. How did you get started in radio?  

When we opened our record shop, we decided to advertise on our only cool radio station … WORJ-FM… I was offered a gig from 2 am to 10 am … did that for a couple of months, and then started doing mid-days. It was an amazing time, and some of the happiest memories I have.

You were also a voice on many radio and TV commercials in Central Florida. Do you still do any voice work?

Not as much as I used to, but that’s because I’m now bogged down with keeping my last surviving shop going. Roman and I are down to our last little shop, and now, we’re working for health insurance. It costs a FORTUNE to insure two middle-aged self-employed people in America today. I’m not kidding.  

How difficult was the transition from record albums to CDs?  

Just retro-fitting our tired old bins, and a whole lotta money. I proposed initially … no I BEGGED record companies to keep LP packaging intact, and just fit CDs into the already existing LP packages, but no one listened. And now, LPs constitute 20% of our stock (new & used) again. 

 Were cassettes and (shudder) 8-track tapes ever a big part of your product mix? If so, how did you phase those out?

Tape product was a large part of our stock. But we do what we must. The smaller a shop or a company is, the easier it is to adjust, don’t you think? The only purpose for tape product was transportability.  Now, it’s MP3s, making us, within a decade, antique dealers. I will, however, always be a Hardcopy Girl. The first thing I do after purchasing a CD, record or book is open it, and SNIIIIFFFF.  I love the smell and physicality of that act.  It says; “I’m In!”

At one time you had several stores open in the Orlando area. What happened to expansion plans?

The economy, chronic technological “advancements”, Box stores (which are closing all around us!), etc.  We had four stores and a small distribution business in our heyday.  Now, we consider ourselves lucky to have this one little shop… and the only reason we’re able to have this one is because we own the property that we’re on. We did THAT right. Just surviving will be our last hat-trick.   

What are some of the strangest requests — or strangest customers — you have had at the shop?

Anymore, anyone buying hardcopy music is a bit of a weirdo, a dinosaur, and therefore KINDRED to me. My regulars are some of the most colorful people you could imagine. Mostly older (40-90) … music-lovers, all. No request seems strange anymore… 

What is your product mix nowadays? Do you sell any secondhand titles?

New & used CDs and DVDs … new and used vinyl. Lots of Blues, Jazz, and classic R&B and Rock. People are going back to their ear-ball comforts. Whatever your age, nostalgia is the new NEW.

 Are you as pessimistic about the future of music retail as everyone else seems to be these days? Can anything be done to save indie shops?

I’m no prophet … I’m struggling to survive, like everyone else. All I can say is: TENACIOUSNESS.   

What should the big record companies have done to halt the steep decline in music sales this past decade? Or is it just a question of evolving technology and not being able to stop people from downloading music for free?

Big record companies did this to themselves by re-acting instead of acting. Sadly, they’re taking me and mine down with them. You can’t make a new generation of folks love the visceral connection. It just can’t be done. 

You were recently robbed at gunpoint, and physically assaulted in your store. How has that experience affected the way you go about doing your daily business now?  

Oh, yeah … I’m packin’ heat now. But really, I’m still more than a little PTSD from that experience.

Times are tough in music retail. Why do you still do it?

Who’s gonna hire us now? One does what one must to survive. I’m just lucky that it’s an arena I LOVE and am comfortable in. 

Who are some of the more memorable celebrities to visit your shop?

Radiohead, Raekwon, Jonathan Richman, Terence Blanchard, Randy Newman … these entities were memorable and are still respected by me. But we’re not “star-magnets” like some cool records shops are. The names above happened very organically.

Which musicians would you most like to meet and why? 

Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Jack White, David Byrne, Joni Mitchell … because they represent authenticity to me.  it I would have REALLY liked to have met John Lennon, Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, and Miles Davis for the same reasons.

Do you play any instruments yourself?   

I play a little guitar and piano, but sing and can harmonize to ANYTHING. I’ve always wanted to learn to play the cello, as I love the tone of this sublime instrument. However, I’d probably be a bass player, if I could start over. I’d be Mi’chelle n’dege’o’cello!

What genres of music do you enjoy listening to? Is there anything you really dislike or just aren’t moved by?

Rock, Jazz, R&B, Electronica, Country, Blues, Classical, International … Anything genuine or authentic. It has to ring true. But it’s like mining for gold in a muddy river, as there is a preponderance of fake, ugly, remanufactured, and totally fake stuff out there. Sadly, it’s a time when any asshole (with the right software) can YOUTUBE or MYSPACE him or herself into their allotted 15 minutes of fame.

What are some recent favorite albums, or new artists who have impressed you?

Lykke Li, Middle Brothers, Decemberists, Twilight Singers, Drive-By Truckers, Old 97’s, Imelda May, Beady Eye (Liam Gallagher), Exene Cervenka, Afro-Soultet, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings are currently in the player. Love ‘em all!

Okay, time for a really tough one: name your Top Ten Desert Island Discs!

1) any Clash/Joe Strummer/Big Audio Dynamite  

2) Talking Heads – More Songs about Buildings and Food  

3) Beatles – White Album

4) Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street/Beggars Banquet

5) Marvin Gaye – Any of his 70s albums

6) Serge Gainesbourg  – Any

7) Johnny Cash – 60s & 90s-00s

8) Bob Dylan – Any

9) Radiohead – Any

10) Bob Marley – 70s-80s


Best concerts you ever saw?

Large Venue: Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads, U2, Frank Zappa, the Cars, R.E.M., Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, Springsteen, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Led Zeppelin, Police.

Small Venue: Tim Buckley, Jeff Buckley, Sharon Jones, Elliot Smith, Marc Ribot, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Oingo Boingo, Emmylou Harris, Pretenders, Tori Amos, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Police (again!), Pat Metheny.

Which living artists would you like to see perform but haven’t yet?

Radiohead, Todd Rundgren, any Jack White joint, Muse, Gogol Bordello, Pixies, Elbow, Gorillaz, Budos Band, Raphael Saadiq, Brad Mehldau.

You are also a book reader. Who are your favorite authors?

Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, John Irving, Tom Robbins, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, any Bronte sisters

When you want to get out of town and relax, where is your favorite vacation spot?

HAWAII!!! I wanna live there, one day.   

When you retire — if you ever get around to it — which countries would you most like to visit?

Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, China, Spain, Portugal, Greece, UK. 

Next week I’ll include some comments from employees that used to work for East-West Records … and survived their retail experience!

Khmer Traffic Chaos

You think traffic in Bangkok is bad? Compared to the total insanity on any street in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, I’ll take Bangkok’s gridlock any day of the week. The thing that drives me most crazy about Cambodia drivers is their lack of predictability. You never know when they are going to turn, where they are going to turn, or more shockingly, which side of the road on which they are going to drive. It’s common to see cars and motorcycles veer to the opposite side of the road a full block before they even have to make a turn. Cutting corners indeed! I have yet to canvass the planet, but Cambodians rank as the scariest drivers I have even seen.


Siem Reap used to a relatively sedate and sleepy little town, but in the past decade tourism to Angkor has boomed and the town has grown quickly —I’d say TOO quickly. What passes for “progress” and growth is not necessarily a good thing. Look around and you still see lots of abject poverty amidst the shiny new hotels and billboards advertising cell phone companies. It’s not a cliche to say the rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer. Another result of all this new “development” is a surge in traffic. Venture down any street in Siem Reap and you’ll see vivid examples of driving incompetence. Predictably, intersections are the worst scenes of vehicular madness, as the stew of motorcycles, Toyotas, bicycles, trucks, carts, and SUVs (those obnoxiously large boxes are invariably driven by disgustingly rich Khmers wearing gaudy gold jewelry, or disgustingly pampered NGO workers who apparently can’t function without air conditioning) converge simultaneously amidst clouds of dust, jockeying for position on the asphalt. If that’s not bad enough, roughly half the drivers are chatting on their cell phones and not paying much attention to the obstacles around them. It’s sheer bedlam and it’s damn scary. Welcome to Cambodia!

Donald Westlake

Donald E. Westlake was the master of what’s been dubbed the “comic crime” genre of fiction. Most especially, his Dortmunder series of novels are classic examples of fun and funny blood-free crime stories, more comical capers than whodunit mysteries or violent thrillers. Westlake started penning novels way back in 1960 and didn’t stop until his untimely passing in late 2008. By that time he had written over one hundred novels, under a variety of pseudonyms. Several of his books were made into films, including The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, and What’s the Worst That Could Happen?


I was very happy to find a copy of Westlake’s latest Dortmunder adventure, Get Real, at a branch of Kinokuniya in Bangkok last week. Sadly, due to Westlake’s death, this is probably the last we’ll see of Dortmunder and gang. Unless Westlake had an unpublished tale or two stowed away in some filing cabinet (even in recent years he reportedly used a typewriter, not a computer, to write his books), Get Real will be the last of a long, hilarious line of books. One review posted on Amazon had a telling take on the conflicting emotions that many of Westlake’s fans had about the publication of Get Real:


“For some time after I heard of Westlake’s death I couldn’t bring myself to buy this book. It is akin to that last gift under the tree — you so want to see what lies inside yet know it’s over after that.”

Thankfully, Get Real turned out to be one keeper of a gift, a solid addition to the Dortmunder catalog. Some reviewers complained about the lack of “bang” at the ending, surmising that the novel was actually finished by someone other than Westlake. I have to admit that I too was expecting a little more in the way of a surprise, or yet another plot twist, by the ingenious author, before the story finally climaxed. But I really can’t nitpick too much. Get Real was a delightful read, packed with great scenes and the usual sharp dialogue from Westlake’s motley crew of loveable criminal misfits. Gonna miss that crew.


Westlake also wrote many books under the name of Richard Stark. Most of the Stark books featured the “Parker” character, and are much darker in tone than the Dortmunder ones. But like the Dortmunder books, the protagonist is a genuine criminal. No cute cops or clever private detectives to muddy the waters. In Parker’s world, real blood is shed, and bodies pile up, but the violence is not over-the-top or too gory, just enough to create the tone that Stark/Westlake wants. Many of the Richard Stark books have been reissued in recent years, so start digging, there are over twenty of them out there.

Kimberley Rew

You probably have never heard of Kimberley Rew before, but the veteran singer and guitarist wrote one of the most popular songs of the 1980s, “Walking on Sunshine,” which became a big hit for his band at the time, Katrina and the Waves. Before joining the Waves, Kimberley Rew was also a member of the legendary Soft Boys, the British band that included songwriting genius Robyn Hitchcock (the maker of many fine solo albums himself).


In between stints with the Soft Boys and Katrina and the Waves, Rew recorded a short but tasty little album called The Bible of Bop in 1981. Members of the dBs and the Soft Boys backed up Rew on the album, clearly leaving their musical stamp on many of the songs. The songs on The Bible of Bop incorporate the lively guitar sonics of the Soft Boys, along with an astute pop sensibility that reminds me a bit of Wreckless Eric. It’s an exhilarating concoction that sticks in your head. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself shouting “Hey War Pig” at the top of your lungs while the song of the same name is playing.


The Bible of Bop is one of those lost classics that music addicts talk about with reverence and appreciation. And like so many neglected gems, it evaded the attention of all but the most tuned-in music fans at the time it was released. The CD reissue, which was finally released just last year, has three bonus tracks that were not on the original album. It’s a shame that Rew didn’t make any more solo albums after this one — at least not for another two decades — but at least he found some level of fame and fortune with Katrina and the Waves.


In the past decade, Kimberley Rew finally got around to resurrecting his solo career, releasing three other solo albums, all of them fairly difficult to find. Reviews that I’ve read online indicate they are all worthy of purchase, so once again my intended listening list is likely to expand. Underwater Moonlight, the classic 1980 Soft Boys album that Kimberley Rew played on, was also reissued last year. There is a two-disc version called Underwater Moonlight … and How it Got There that looks very tempting. In addition to the original wonderful album, it includes unreleased rehearsal recordings from 1979.


The Myanmar town of Yenangyaung doesn’t get many foreign tourists, but that’s not a big surprise. There really is no magnetic draw in the area that would motivate bus loads of camera clickers to pay a visit. But nestled amongst the rusty old oil derricks and craggy hills, is a community of friendly, caring people who will leave a lasting impression on you. The only reason I ended up visiting the town was because a friend of a friend of a friend had recommended the experience.  


Located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, Yenangyaung used to be a major oil well and refinery center in the country. In fact, during World War II, Yenangyaung’s location was considered to be of such strategic importance that it became the scene of a battle between Allied forces and Japanese troops. In recent years, oil activity has picked up again, including one major company that has “successfully re-entered and recompleted several shut-in wells as oil producers.” Most people in the area, however, continue to eek out a meager living as farmers, or raise goats, pigs, and chickens.


One of the people I met in Yenangyang was Eric Trutwein, a native of the town who heads an NGO that builds cisterns — resembling small reservoirs — in area villages that have no water supply. In the past, villagers had to walk several miles to obtain water, and even then it might by muddy or unsuitable for drinking. Eric’s “cistern solution” gives them a safe and sturdy source of water all year round. They don’t get much rainfall in this part of the country, so having a source of water in the “dry zone” is very important for these people.


In addition to the cistern building, Eric and his family support many poor families in the Yenangyaung area via several agricultural projects. They have also launched a service to help care for elderly residents and orphans in the area, and have built new classrooms for schools. During one trip I helped launch an English teaching program at one of the schools. I wasn’t sure what to expect in the way of language abilities before I arrived. But I was quite impressed by the students and their English skills. Except for some of the very young children who had not been exposed much to English, most of the children I talked to were quite confident and eager to speak.


To help raise money for his charitable efforts, Eric opened up a small guesthouse called Lei Thai Gone (“The Gentle Breeze Inn”). It’s perched on a hill overlooking the Ayeyarwady River, an absolutely gorgeous spot with a serene, idyllic vibe. Honestly, it’s one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever stayed. If you just want to get away from it all for a while, and aren’t picky about deluxe amenities, this is the perfect place.


Besides visiting schools and cistern projects, I enjoyed taking walks around town and along the riverside, basking in the aura of everyday life in this charming rural town. Talking to monks and chatting with vendors, it was all fun. It certainly made for a refreshing change from the more touristy spots around the rest of the country.


Because Yenangyaung does not normally host foreigner tourists, he must get permission from local authorities prior to each visit. If you are thinking of a visit (it’s only 3 hours from Bagan), you can contact Eric at: egsimco (at)

Jackie Leven

When Jackie Leven sings, the world is a better place. Well, at least everything sounds much nicer. Leven is one of those singers who is capable of lifting anything they sing to a higher plateau, while moving the listener to an almost euphoric state of consciousness. For the past thirty years, Leven has labored in relative obscurity, while consistently releasing majestic albums that are full of well-crafted and poetic songs. And then there is that comforting voice, tenderly caressing each song like a surgeon’s skillful hands.


Leven has been described as everything from “a great musical maverick” and “Britain’s lost rock star” to a “Celtic troubadour” and a “politically aware Scottish folkster.” While there is indeed a subtle Celtic thread running through some of the Scotland native’s songs — particularly his early solo material — it doesn’t overwhelm his compositions, or inspire visions of lush green meadows and long-skirted maidens traipsing about with jugs of milk. Leven’s songs are both poetic and mystical, and there is no doubting their emotional impact, but he can rant and roll like a rowdy rocker at times too. Just why this man is not much better known in the music world remains one of life’s more frustrating mysteries.


Prior to embarking on a solo career Jackie Leven was the lead singer of the rock band Doll By Doll in the late 70s and early 80s. They made superlative albums such as Gypsy Blood, Remember, and Doll By Doll, but never garnered enough radio play or retail sales to achieve any level of fame. After the band broke up in 1982, Leven went through a difficult period, to put it mildly. In 1983, as he was in the process of recording his first solo album, he was the victim of a mugging and was nearly strangled to death in the process. Lingering physical injuries from that attack left him unable to sing for many months, and during the ensuing “period of psychic disorder” he lost his recording contract — as well as many friends — and starting using heroin. After a successful period of rehab, he “rejoined the world” (in his words) in 1985, helping to start the Core Trust, a program that uses a holistic approach to treat addiction. 


Between CD shops in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, I’ve managed to find a lot of Jackie Leven’s solo recordings (there are now about 20) over the past decade. One of the CDs I found at Rock Corner in KL recently was a double live disc called Haunted Year: Winter. Each disc highlights a separate concert, in this case Men in Prison (recorded at a men’s prison in Norway) and Munich Blues (recorded live in Germany). This album was part of a limited edition Haunted Year series he released in 2008 that, appropriately enough, includes Spring, Summer, and Autumn volumes. The sound quality on Winter is excellent and Leven’s performances are flawless. In addition to the music, what I found most intriguing was Leven’s between songs spiel. At the prison in Norway he talked about his own time in prison, as well as his heroin addiction. Compared to his loose and jokey onstage patter in Munich, he’s more reserved and sounds a bit uncomfortable speaking to the prisoners in Norway. But even in that setting, when he’s singing his songs, the honesty, compassion, and sincerity come pouring out of his soul.


Jackie Leven’s latest album, Gothic Road, was released in 2010 and continues his impressive, if neglected, musical run. You know you are in for an unusual listening experience as soon as the first song, the title track, opens with vocals from a group billed as the “Ghost Voices of the Kursk.” In fact, they are the real brothers of some of the Russian men who died in the Kursk submarine tragedy. Other than that unconventional prelude, there isn’t anything particularly strange about the album: it’s just another consistently good offering from Jackie Leven. Another song, “Cornelius Whalen”, features the legendary Ralph McTell (who wrote the much-covered “Streets of London’) on vocals. The only weak link on the album is a silly ditty called “Hotel Mini Bar.” But considering the strength of the rest of the album, we can forgive Jackie Leven for that slight indulgence. The songs on Gothic Road run the gamut from soothing to inspiring, summing up what Jackie Leven’s music is all about.


Leven is also a friend of author Ian Rankin (in fact, he has been name-dropped in a few of Rankin’s Rebus novels), and the two recorded an album together in 2005 called Jackie Leven Said. But this was no ordinary Jackie Leven album. Instead, it’s described as “a short story narrated by Ian Rankin with musical interludes and songs written and performed by Jackie Leven.” Those pieces were performed in front of an audience in Edinburgh. The two-CD set also includes three new Leven studio songs and a selection of Leven and Rankin’s favorite songs from the singer’s previous albums.

Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley has been a prolific writer for the past three decades, best known for his popular Easy Rawlins series of color-inspired mysteries (Devil in a Blue Dress, White Butterfly, A Red Death, Little Scarlet, Black Betty, etc.), some of which were turned into films. Mosley has also written several other mystery novels (multiple books featured a character named Fearless Jones) and dabbled in non-crime genres of fiction and non-fiction. This guy certainly isn’t rusting away from idleness.


I just enjoyed reading one of his most recent novels, Known to Evil, the second book in a new mystery series he started that features a detective named Leonid McGill. This ain’t no cheap throwaway thriller. Like the first book in the series, The Long Fall, this one incorporates spare, tough dialogue, reminiscent of the old noir era of mystery writers such as Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler. Unlike the Easy Rawlins novels, which weaved an historical path through several decades of criminal life in urban Los Angeles, the Leonid McGill books take place in modern day New York City.


McGill is one of Mosley’s more interesting creations, a chubby middle-aged black man who was given a Russian name by his Communist-loving father. McGill may be an old school guy, but he’s got an iPod and does online research so he’s not totally living in the dark ages. He’s also an ex-boxer who still gets in the ring to “work out” once in a while. His wife cheats on him, and he cheats on his wife. His youngest son is a great kid with a bubbly personality but McGill worries about the boy’s illegal extracurricular activities. His oldest son is a moody sort who doesn’t speak to him. Like the Easy Rawlins books, the McGill novels are packed with an eclectic cast of characters, both criminals and ordinary folks. McGill has lived a violent life that requires both street smarts and cerebral intellect. After being on the wrong side of the law for many years, he is now trying to walk a straighter path as a private detective. But problematic investigations keep preventing him from doing things the traditional — or legal — way. The third book in the Leonid McGill series, When the Thrill is Gone, will be published in March. Hey, that’s this month! I’ll be eagerly waiting for that one.


My favorite Mosley books are the ones that feature a wise and intriguing character named Socrates Fortlow. The first of those was the outstanding short story collection Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. These are vital, life-affirming stories that leave you thinking about life and love, justice and redemption. The most recent of the Socrates Fortlow novels, The Right Mistake, is another great, ambitious effort. Like the short stories, the plot in this novel veers more towards social commentary and philosophy than mystery. One review called it, “a gripping inner drama,” and that’s a very succinct way of describing it. Gripping indeed.

Tag Cloud