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

Archive for April, 2011

Dancing in the Streets

After observing the misguided and destructive antics of both the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt political groups here in Thailand for the past two years, I often tell people that I think “no shirts” is a far better option. Apparently some revelers during the recent Songkran water festival put that idea to practice, touching off a firestorm of controversy in the process.

Yes, the biggest news event this past week was the three Thai teenage girls who were seen on Silom Road, briefly dancing topless during a spirited afternoon of Songkran celebrating. In these digital times, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that videos of the girls soon turned up online, sparkling howls of outrage, and more than a bit of admiration. Of course there was a predictable chorus of condemnation from the “respectable” sectors of Thai government and the mainstream media. The Ministry of Culture decided that a famous painting by Sompop Budtarad, depicting a group of Thai goddesses celebrating Songkran sans shirts, needed to be removed from their official website, as this work of art was obviously corrupting the youth of Thailand. Most of the columnists in the Bangkok Post weighed in on the issue, either saying that the topless performance was yet another indication of the decline of Thai society and the no-morals youth of today, or absurdly linking the girls’ stunt as an example of sexual exploitation and pedophilia. Huh? These people really do need to get out of their cubicles more often.

I’m puzzled by this bizarre reactionary attitude towards a bit of nudity. With such extreme levels of outrage, I thought I was back in the USA, the land of fundamentalist Christians — those tribes of hypocritical Jesus freaks who believe they have some sort of monopoly on morality and “family values” — rather than here in the tolerant environs of predominantly Buddhist Thailand. Of course I’m making the assumption that most of the negative reaction is coming from Buddhists, when in fact there are more than a few brain-washed Thai Christians living in the kingdom, ones who are obviously offended by bare skin. And yet these same moralists don’t seem bothered by the hordes of festival participants who were publically intoxicated, or driving vehicles under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.  

Personally, I thought the whole topless thing was a bit silly, nothing more than festival-inspired teenage kicks. Caught up in the heat — and the wetness — of the moment, these girls decided to let loose. And from talking to Thai friends, the disrobing on Silom was only one of several such incidents observed during this year’s Songkran. Local law enforcement dudes, however, decided such behavior was not to be condoned and acted swiftly, miraculously rounding up the culprits (two of them came in “voluntarily”) and parading them (with faces discretely shaded by hoods; hey, at least they know how to cover up something!) in front of the media’s cameras less than forty-eight hours later. What the girls did, claim the authorities, was an affront to traditional Thai values and culture, making it clear there would be zero tolerance on this issue. Each girl had to pay a fine.

A couple of letters to the editor in the Bangkok Post in recent days put things in perspective quite well. A gentleman named Roger Shuttleworth wrote:

“The furor over the airing of six pubescent little boobies … was laughable to say the least. Shocking? Barely. Distasteful? Perhaps. Damaging to Thailand’s image? I don’t think so! Shameful? Hardly. This was just a bit of innocent, ill-thought-out exhibitionism. Shameful is a government that can’t resolve the issues (bombings, killings, terrorism) in the South. Shameful are the politicians who are motivated by greed and graft. Shameful are the police who act randomly and extort at every opportunity. Shameful are the hi-so Thais who allow their children to race cars and ruin lives.”

Another letter writer, Richard Harvey, chimed in with:

“I wish to extend my heartfelt congratulations to the long-suffering Thai authorities. They take a lot of flak, but they have finally proven they have what it takes to get the job done. True, they cannot do anything about the terrorism in the South, or the drug trade, or the gem scams, or rich kids tearing through the streets of Bangkok like bats out of hell in their daddies’ cars, or other traffic violators, or enforcement of fire-safety laws, or the hordes of vendors encroaching on public areas. However, they lost no time in tracking down those three topless Songkran girls and teaching them the proper respect due to the law. I, for one, will sleep soundly at night knowing that I am no longer in danger of nubile young maidens exposing me to their naughty parts. Thank you, Thai authorities, for a job well done.”

Okay, that’s laying on the sarcasm a bit thick, but as noted, there are many more worrisome issues facing Thailand nowadays, yet based on the over-the-top reaction, you would think this festive bit of public exhibitionism was the most troubling issue in the country. Frankly, I would welcome MORE public nudity and dancing in the streets of Bangkok, and MORE attention paid to public safety (the hordes of speeding motorcycles on the sidewalks are my personal pet peeve) in the city, as well as the many pressing environmental, political, educational, and social problems that continue to beset the kingdom.

I’d also love to see less myopic reprimands and lectures by the Christian-funded NGOs and other delusional religious fanatics — Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims included — who have warped ideas of what is morally acceptable. Whenever incidents like this get “covered” in the media, it tends to bring the religious nuts out of the prayer group closet, babbling incessantly about the decline of morality in society.  Why is it that anything remotely pertaining to sex or nudity sends these sheltered puritans into spasms of outrage and revulsion? Sorry, but I’d much rather see youngsters dancing naked in the streets than see them racing motorcycles, shooting guns, robbing people, vandalizing buildings … or having some nut trying to convert them to a psychologically debilitating religion.

Interview with Wesley Stace aka John Wesley Harding

Prior to writing his first novel, Misfortune (published in 2006), Wesley Stace was no stranger to the entertainment world. The native of England had been a popular recording artist for the better part of two decades, releasing critically acclaimed albums as John Wesley Harding. Nowadays, he is living in the US where he juggles his two careers with the joyous abandon of his live concerts. Stace’s newest novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, was published in February of this year. Like his two other novels, this one takes the reader back in time (in this case, England in 1923), but for this book Stace also sprinkles a bit of murder, classical music, and opera into the plot’s batter. A portion of the publisher’s synopsis tells us:

This ambitiously intricate novel is set against a turbulent moment in music history, when atonal sounds first reverberated through the concert halls of Europe, just as the continent readied itself for war.

Stace’s first novel, Misfortune, was a project that had been on his mind for many years. The seed was planted when, as John Wesley Harding, he recorded a song called “Miss Fortune” on his 1997 album Awake. The resulting novel told the story of Rose, a boy raised as a girl by a wealthy — and very eccentric — British family in the 1800s. There were the inevitable comparisons to Dickens, due in part to Stace’s writing style and his cast of colorful characters, but clearly this was the work of writer with a unique new voice.

His second novel, By George, was the tale of a boy named George and his cherished companion, an old ventriloquist’s dummy also named George. Once again, Stace set the story in the past (this one bounces between the 1930s and the 1970s) and uses clever dialogue and a cast of intriguing characters, changing narrators (both the boy George and the dummy George), along with deft plotting to create yet another engagingly addictive story.  


I first met Wes back in 1990 when he was on a US tour with the Mighty Lemondrops and Ocean Blue. I had connections with the Alternative Marketing Department at Warner Brothers and they arranged for John Wesley Harding to make an in-store appearance at my record store in Orlando. He brought along his acoustic guitar and entertained the crowd with a few songs and some witty banter. The unanimous consensus was: this was a very nice guy with some very good tunes! Later that year I made a trip to Atlanta to visit friends at record labels and distributors. I arranged to meet Denise Sullivan, my Warner Brothers rep, at an Atlanta Braves game one day. She showed up with a friend in tow. “Do you remember Wes?” she asked. It took me a second or two for the mental cobwebs to clear; “Wes” was John Wesley Harding! During the game we talked music, books, and baseball. Wes said that he enjoyed baseball, but like many of his countrymen, he couldn’t avoid the inevitable comparison to cricket. He said that Steve Wynn (founder of the Dream Syndicate) had been the first person to take him to a baseball game.


Since his early albums for Sire/Warner Brothers, when he was compared to Elvis Costello, John Wesley Harding has forged his own musical course, releasing a series of consistently fine albums, all characterized by strongly melodic tunes with literate and witty lyrics. With so many different influences, it’s very hard to pigeonhole his sound. Being a singer-songwriter-guitarist with folk roots, using an obviously “inspired” recording name, it’s tempting to compare him to Bob Dylan, yet the music of John Wesley Harding doesn’t much sound like it was spawned on Highway 61. There’s still an ever-so-slight hint of Costello timbre in his vocals, along with some 60s folk and 70s pop influence in his songs, but when all is said and strummed, the music of John Wesley Harding is its own distinct creature.

I just ordered his newest album, 2009’s Who Was Changed & Who Was Dead, and have haven’t yet heard it, but from all reports it’s a typically stellar JWH effort. The CD also includes a bonus disc of live material, recorded at Union Hall in Brooklyn. Speaking of performances, another one of Wes’s current projects is The Cabinet of Wonders, a genre-bending road show that combines live music, comedy, drama, and readings from various writer and musician friends. Audiences have been treated to appearances by authors such as Colum McCann, Rick Moody, Mary Gaitskill, and Elizabeth McCracken, along with musical contributions from the likes of Roseanne Cash, Josh Ritter, Andrew Bird, Allison Moorer, and Kristen Hersh. I caught up with Wes by e-mail recently and pestered him with some questions about his new book and ongoing music career.

For those that followed your music career, the leap to writing novels seems a quite natural one for you. Did being a musician for so many years hinder your development as an author, or do you think it was helpful in the end?
Helpful, in that it taught me to trust words and let them flow from me without self-consciousness. The editing processes are very different, of course, but I think it actually put me at an advantage. Writing School would have probably made me a quite different writer. I sometimes wish I’d started writing the novels earlier, but then the first one took me seven years, and I wouldn’t have had the patience earlier on in my life.

The new novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, uses classical music as an element in the plot. As a result of doing research for that novel, has it given you a greater interest in, or appreciation for, opera  and classical music?
Absolutely. I actually went in knowing I wanted to write about music, knowing I didn’t want to write about anything approaching my musical life and not knowing a lot about classical music. Because of the milieu of the novel, and the time at which it’s set, it certainly gave me a greater appreciation of the music of the first English Folk Renaissance which is responsible for the later more rocking English Folk Renaissance of the 60s — those composers include Butterworth, Vaughan Williams, Grainger, Bax, Boughton and so on. Beautiful.
Do you listen to, or buy, much music nowadays? Are there any newer artists who have impressed you?
Josh Ritter is the best singer-songwriter nowadays in my opinion. I like The Decemberists and The Fiery Furnaces — their live album Remember blew my mind this last year. I don’t buy as much new music as I might, but I do have close friends who know my taste and tell me what they think I’d like and that’s a good way of keeping up. I don’t read rock press or reviews so I’m never very up-to-date. I recently discovered the Flaming Lips, for example. Pathetic, I know, but one comes to everything in one’s own time. I’m still trying to catch up with some of the better music of 1972.

In these days of digital downloads, it’s becoming more difficult for artists to sell their music. Is there anything that can be done to reverse this downward spiral? How are you selling and promoting your own albums nowadays?
Well, I put out the last one more or less myself and that was fun but I haven’t got the time to do it with the next album, coincidentally made with members of the Decemberists (minus Colin Meloy, naturally, since I handle the singing!) and that’ll come out later this year. As many people have worked out, the way to reverse the downward spiral, is to rediscover and celebrate the beauty of the physical object. CDs were never that nice to begin with. Now people are making things beautiful again, and it makes you want to own them. Check out the expensive version of the latest Decemberists album (The King is Dead) — it’s quite literally a work of art.
During your travels around the world, which are among your favorite cities to visit, and why?
Paris, because it’s so perfect. I always wanted to go to India, but I never have. There was talk recently about a literary festival in Jaipur which excited me beyond belief. Tokyo is a fantastic city to visit as well.

As a child, you were obviously a big reader. What are some of your favorite books or authors?
So many. Hard to pick a few out, but —- Barbara Comyns, Laurence Sterne, Patrick Hamilton, Lord Berners, Charles Dickens. When I was young, I loved adventure stories. And I think that the trace is there in my novels, in a quiet way.
Do you have much time to read these days? Best book — new or old — you have read recently?
Oh, that’s easy: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe. It’s a difficult book in one way, an easy book in another, and powerfully moving overall. Extremely subtle, when it doesn’t seem to be subtle in the least. That’s beyond subtle.

How did you first get turned on to music, or what do you think gave you the incurable music bug?
My family is musical and there was always music around the house. One sister is currently singing opera in Italy, the other is singing cabaret in Vienna, and my mother is currently giving a singing lesson downstairs at the family seat in Hastings, where I currently am. I picked up the guitar relatively late, but I already knew not to be self-conscious about. I just had to wait for the urge to hit me. And it as the need to write songs that gave me the urge.

I had a look at the 100 Jukebox selections that you posted on your website recently. Some great songs there! Can you recall the first singles you bought? How old were you when you “graduated” to buying albums? And what were some of your first LP purchases?
The first three LPs I bought with a pay packet, probably when I was about 12, were: David Bowie Lodger; Roxy Music Manifesto; The Cars The Cars. That was at Rye Record and Denim, at whatever was the relevant time for those three records. That more or less changed my life. I think I bought Bob Dylan At Budokan with my next pay packet. The first single I was bought, for my 4th birthday by my mother, was “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” by Alan Price Set, which I used to hear on Junior Choice on Radio One. Amazingly, it’s by Randy Newman, which is interesting since he became such a major influence. And that single is one of the 100 on my Seeburg VL-200!
Any dream list of other musicians you would like, or would have liked, to play with?
I’ve been very lucky that way. “The Cabinet of Wonders” means I’ve been joined by amazing musicians just at the past two gigs: Andrew Bird, Josh Ritter, Kristin Hersh, Tift Merritt, Ted Leo, Carl Newman — so much fun. The trouble about so many of the people I’d like to make music with, with whom I haven’t yet made music, is that they’re “difficult” so you have to be careful what you wish for. Let’s just say Neil Young, for fun.
Which of your albums are you most proud of, and why?
Always the most recent one. But in this case, the next one.
Do you have any other goals or unfinished projects, either in music or literature, that you would like to accomplish?
I still want to write the libretto for an opera. The composer Errollyn Wallen and I almost had a commission for one, but it didn’t seem to quite pan out. So we’re still working on it. I’m optimistic it will happen. And I’m very excited about that.


New Sounds

If you peruse the music-themed posts on this blog, it’s obvious that I listen to a lot of oldies, as music that is more than a decade old is frequently labeled. I guess what’s considered “oldies” is all relative, but when I see bands like the Wallflowers categorized as Classic Rock, all I can do is shake my head, wondering not only how people determine these silly categories, but also thinking about how quickly the past couple of decades have flown by. Regardless of labels, I like listening to music from many eras. I love discovering music that was recorded before I was born, and I also try and stay on top of current sounds, buying a lot of albums from newer artists too. Here are some of my recent “new” favorites:


The Duke and the King are a band comprised of Simon Felice (yes, one of the Felice Brothers) and three other musicians. I’ve been playing their second album, Long Live the Duke and King, a lot lately. This is deliciously infectious music, combining soul and country with a dash of good old rock and roll. Felice, who co-produced the album, doesn’t disappoint, but it’s female vocalist Simi Stone who really steals the show on standout tracks like “No Easy Way Out.” There is a definite soul thread woven into many of the songs on this album, but it’s not so contrived or derivative that you think you are listening to Michael McDonald or some other blue-eyed crooner trying to sound funky. The Duke and the King are not shy about acknowledging their influences, but they have a naturally confident approach — and the chops to match —- that helps to make the songs on this album really sparkle.


The Grip Weeds had so many good songs in the bag that they decided to release a double album, Strange Change Machine. Almost every time I play this in my bookshop, a customer will ask: “What is this playing?” When I tell them it’s the Grip Weeds, that doesn’t produce any flickers of recognition, so I let them look at the CD cover and then they usually will write down the name of the band. The Grip Weeds definitely do not sound like most contemporary bands. Depending on the song playing, and the member handling vocal chores (both male and female), the Grip Weeds can sound like a dozen different bands, all of them good ones. I’ve read reviews that compare the music on this album to artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, The Who, the Byrds, and even Yes. None of those comparisons are totally far-fetched, but to my ears the Grip Weeds sound like something from a Nuggets compilation, a thrilling blend of 60s psychedelic rock covered with a 70s pop veneer. They even toss in a cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” for good measure. I had never heard of this band prior to having them pop up on my Amazon “Recommended” list, but it turns out they have been together for 16 years and have released four other albums besides this jewel. Time to start hunting for some of those other ones.


Dawes is a California-based quartet, but one that sounds like they cut their musical teeth in the Deep South. Think of The Band, with a touch of Wilco and Jayhawks mixed in. Their new album North Hills is a superbly crafted work; starkly gorgeous vocals transporting songs of depth and clarity. My favorite track keeps changing each time I play this CD; is it “When My Time Comes” or “If You Let Me Be Your Anchor” … or perhaps “When You Call My Name” or “Peace in the Valley”? Damn, these are all great songs, the kind that stick in your head and make frequent revolutions. Honestly, this is one of the best albums I’ve heard in the past year. Can’t wait to hear more from this band.


The Monitor by Titus Andronicus has been called a concept album about the American Civil War, along with a few references to the state of New Jersey to make you wonder what’s going on. That might all sound like a weird mix, but in the context of this album it works. Really. Even if you aren’t a musket-toting rebel, or diehard Springsteen fan, don’t let that dissuade you from giving this album a listen. From the first track to the last, Titus Andronicus (a band, not a person) passionately deliver electric guitar-propelled songs with raw, unbridled energy. Combine their sloppily energetic approach with some very clever lyrics and you have a refreshingly inventive album. The closing track, “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” climaxes in a frenzy of raging guitars — and even some bagpipes — sounding like Thin Lizzy colliding with The Outlaws out in those old cotton fields. “Green Grass and Shamrock Tides” anyone?


Phosphorescent is basically just one guy, musician and vocalist Matthew Houck. I haven’t heard his new album, Here’s To Taking it Easy, yet, but I recently purchased To Willie, Phosphorescent’s 2009 tribute to Willie Nelson. Although Willie Nelson did not write all of the songs on this album, these are all tunes that he has recorded during his long and fruitful career. An all-Willie album might strike most listeners as an odd idea for a relatively unknown indie recording artist, perhaps dooming the project to commercial oblivion, but this is a very nice listening experience. Houck has obviously culled some of the better tunes from the Willie catalogue (“Reasons to Quit,” “It’s Not Supposed to be that Way,” “Pick up the Tempo,” “I Gotta Get Drunk,” “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” and “The Party’s Over”), making sure that there is not a weak tune in the bunch. Nothing earth-shaking, weird or radical, just good songs performed with reverence and smooth vocals, not unlike Willie’s own style. Even the cover of this CD is a throwback, mimicking Willie’s 1975 tribute to Lefty Frizell; To Lefty from Willie.

Looking for a Good Book

I had just devoured the latest Robert Crais novel — another excellent Elvis Cole and Joe Pike adventure called The Sentry — and was looking for a new book to read, preferably something in the crime/mystery vein. I’ve actually been reading a lot more non-fiction lately — all the Malcolm Gladwell books, the most recent Jared Diamond, Freakonomics, Naomi Klein, and some other political stuff — but on this day I had the itch for a mystery and wanted to try a new author instead of one that I’d read before. I noticed this book called The Bricklayer by a new writer named Noah Boyd. The blurb on the cover by James Patterson was what caught my eye: “Move over Jack Reacher, here comes The Bricklayer.” Even Lee Child himself, the creator of the famous Jack Reacher character, chimed in with: “Non-stop action and non-stop authenticity make this a real winner.” I’ve enjoyed all of Child’s novels very much, but invariably I end up not liking books that he recommends. And this one was no exception. It was so lame and unexciting that I didn’t even finish the thing. The characters were shallow, the attempts at humor weak, and the plot lacked tension. Jack Reacher has nothing to worry about.


Next try was a novel by Joseph Wambaugh, famous for the true crime classic The Onion Field and novels such as The Choirboys, all set in Los Angeles … and all written about three or four decades ago. Wambaugh may once have been a very good writer, but based on Hollywood Crows, a book published in 2008, his best days appear far behind him. I hesitate to say that the cause is old age — Wambaugh turned 74 earlier this year — because mystery writers such as Ed McBain and Donald Westlake never lost a beat and remained sharp well into their seventies. Even Elmore Leonard is still going very strong in his eighties, although his last book, Djibouti, I thought was one of his weakest. For the most part, though, Hollywood Crows is pedestrian stuff that never takes off or captures the imagination, and Wambaugh’s attempts at humor fall flatter than a pole-vaulting sumo wrestler. Yeah, it was that bad.


But finally, I found a book that hooked me: A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr. This is one of the author’s Bernie Gunther novels, a series he’s been writing about a Berlin police detective, set mostly in the 1940s. In this novel, however, the story rotates from Berlin in the early 1930s to Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1950, where Gunther has relocated after the war is over. I have almost zero desire to read books about Nazis and Hitler or World War II, but Kerr’s deft writing and use of multi-faceted characters helps to make this a compelling tale. He uses real Nazi villains such as Eichmann and Mengele, along with Argentina’s famous first couple, Juan and Evita Peron, which adds more spice to the story and gives the plot added validity.   


Another pleasant new discovery was Daniel Suarez, an author I stumbled upon after reading the teaser on the back cover Suarez has written two books thus far, Daemon and Freedom, and I raced through both of them this past month. They tend to fall into what’s been dubbed the “techno-thriller” genre, but basically they don’t stray far from the typical mystery novel, leaving you hanging with anticipation until the very end. There are lots of scary “this could really happen” examples of cyber shenanigans and government eavesdropping in the plot, enough disturbing examples to either keep you off-line for a while, or cast yet more suspicion and distrust on that famous “freedom-fighting” government. If nothing else it will stop and make you think about what “Big Brother” is actually doing.

Mandalay, Monywa & Monkeys

It happened, as these things often do, while riding my bike. I was in Mandalay, exploring the south side of town, when I left a busy main street and turned into a narrow dirt lane. It was a lively neighborhood; children running around, dogs running around, chickens running around, people laughing (hopefully not at me, wearing my longyi), monks strolling, women selling snacks at roadside stands. A few blocks down the street I passed a little open-air teashop. The men sitting out inside waved and motioned for me to come over and join them. Why not? I turned around — making sure no speeding motorcycles were approaching — and parked my bike next to a big wooden post.


I sat down on one of the tiny stools and ordered a cup of hot tea. I tried use my limited Burmese — consulting my phrasebook frequently — to chat with the fellows. At one point I took out a packet of travel photos that I had in my backpack, and passed those around; an act that always ensures extra questions and helps the flow of conversation. When it was time to leave, I asked for the check, but the owner waved it off with a smile. No charge. This was a dinky little place and surely business was not booming, and yet they wouldn’t let me pay anything. I was touched. Since that time, about three years ago, I drop by the teashop every time I’m in Mandalay, usually taking some small presents for the owner, Ko Tin Chit, and his crew. This teashop is open 24 hours a day (I was amazed too; they never close!) and is also a hangout for neighborhood families. Whenever I show up with my camera, the kids especially want their photo taken. Hams they are indeed!


About two years ago I invited some of the kids on a boat trip to Mingun, about an hour upriver from Mandalay. That turned out to be a great day and the kids were so polite and appreciative that I invited them on another trip that same week, to see the famous U Bein’s teakwood bridge in nearby Amarapura. All these places are so close to Mandalay, yet many of the kids have never seen them before. Since those first trips, in addition to stopping by the teashop when I’m in town, I also make it a point to take the kids on a short excursion somewhere in the area. I the past year we’ve been to Pyin U Lwin, Paleik, and Inwa. When I visited in December we went Monywa, which is about a 3-hour drive from Mandalay. Among the highlights in and around Monywa is Bodhi Tataung, a collection of standing and reclining Buddha images — revered by the locals — that are situated on a big hill. Another “must visit” is Thanboddhay, a wildly colorful temple that is packed with glittering Buddha images of all shapes and sizes.


Instead of stopping in Monywa first, we drove across the Chindwin River for a few miles, down a very bumpy road, to get to Hpo Win Daung, a series of “cave temples” that is a popular spot for domestic tourists, local families … and monkeys. The little caves are carved from the cliffs of Hpo Win Daung Mountain, and many of them are packed with Buddha images and shrines. This site is also home to a tribe of monkeys, each critter hoping that you will give them a treat of some sort. And rest assured that there are strolling vendors who will be quite happy to sell you a packet — or three — of monkey food. But unlike the overly frisky monkeys at Mt. Popa, near Bagan, the ones at Hpo Win Daung are fairly well behaved and won’t bite you or try to snatch the hat off your head. But don’t be surprised if they do jump on your head (two of the kids were “treated” to such a surprise) or try to snatch a bag of food out of your hand — or pocket. When you are a hungry monkey, all eyes are on the prize!

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron is one of those artists who is extremely difficult to classify. Is he blues or jazz or soul or just what exactly? To further confuse the issue, there are all the spoken word pieces that populate his albums. Clearly, he has a poet’s soul, a man with profound things to say about politics and society, but musically he’s all over the map. Which is isn’t such a bad thing. Most people associate Gil Scott-Heron with the classic song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” but that’s only the very tip of the Gil Scott-Heron iceberg of potent pieces. Songs like “We Almost Lost Detroit” and “Shut ‘Em Down” warned of the dangers of nuclear power; “The Bottle” dealt with alcoholism; “Johannesburg” was about apartheid in South Africa; “H2OGate Blues” was of course about the Watergate scandal; “B Movie” was his dig at Ronald Reagan; and “Home is Where the Hatred Is” touched on alienation and drug abuse. In addition to his considerable musical output, Gil Scott-Heron has written two novels, The Vulture and The Nigger Factory.


Despite recording so many outstanding pieces of music that are beloved by legions of devoted fans, and have inspired (and been sampled by) countless other recording artists, Gil Scott-Heron’s career has been sidetracked for much of the past two decades due to various personal problems, not least of which were separate stints in prison for drug possession. Obviously, the guy is mortal like the rest of us, and has made his share of mistakes (listen to Gil’s brief but succinct acknowledgement of these failings during one of the interludes on his new album), but this dark period of inactivity was difficult for his fans to endure as well. It’s hard to keep a good man down, they say — or at least a stubborn one — and last year Gil Scott-Heron proved it by resurrecting his career with his first album in 16 years, I’m New Here. It was a very short album, with only 28 minutes of music, but the strong and potent material more than made up for the brevity. As always, there was “that voice,” penetrating your skull and whispering sage words of wisdom … and caution. The tone of I’m New Here was much darker and more atmospheric than previous Gil Scott-Heron albums, mixing hip-hop beats and sound loops along with Gil’s ageing but still powerful voice. Gil has been to the dark side and back, and he’s not reticent about telling you all about it. One of the songs, “Me and the Devil,” perfectly illustrates that point.


Another memorable Gil Scott-Heron moment came last year with the much anticipated release of his acclaimed Secrets album on CD. Originally released in 1978, Secrets had never appeared before as a digital CD version. Songs such as “Angel Dust,” “Madison Avenue,” “3 Miles Down,” and “A Prayer for Everybody to be Free” were classic GSH pieces, spiced by his perceptive lyrics. Hearing them again brought back great memories of hearing this album for the first time at the record store I worked at back in Florida. Thanks to my manager at the time, Jimmy Bryant, for turning me on to this classic album.


Just last month, another version of I’m New Here, titled We’re New Here, was released. This album contains radical remixes — virtual reconstructions in some cases — of songs from Gil’s original album by Jamie xx of the UK band xx. I was amazed to find an import copy at the Gram shop in Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping center last week. Needless to say, I bought it on the spot and took it home to play later that night. First impression: this is some really weird shit. But a half-dozen plays later, the mixes are becoming less harsh to my ears and I’m starting to like this “reconstructed” version of Gil Scott-Heron’s album. The last track, “I’ll Take Care of U” is particularly effective, with its mesmerizing synthesizers and samples. Older fans may be turned off it what could be considered as “tampering” with the original music, but I think this a bold and effective undertaking. And I can almost assure you that it will earn Gil Scott-Heron a whole new generation of fans. And that ain’t a bad thing either.


Boylston’s book on Crockett

Jim Boylston is a travelling man, but nowadays the veteran musician and songwriter is leaving his guitar at home. The Central Florida native is now working as an audio engineer, work that takes him to locales such as South Florida, California, Brazil, and Copenhagen — and that’s just the next two months! But when I first met Jim back in the late 1970s, he (like me) was living in Orlando, working at various retail record stores. Since that time, Jim has opened his own businesses (both record and book shops), played in rock bands, worked as a songwriter, gone on the road to handle audio at corporate events, and even found time to raise a family. And, oh yeah, he just wrote this amazing book about the legendary Davey Crockett. That book, David Crockett in Congress, was published in late 2009 by Bright Sky Press, and was the winner of the 2010 Independent Publisher’s Award for Regional Non-Fiction.

The book takes a look at a side of the Alamo hero that most people are not familiar with, that of Crockett’s years in politics and his advocacy for the poor. In between Jim’s recent travels, I asked him about the Crockett book and other things he has been doing.  


You recently co-authored a book, David Crockett in Congress. How did the idea for writing that book originate?

Crockett is best remembered as a frontiersman and martyr at the Alamo, but he thought of himself as a public servant and spent the better part of his adult life in government. That area of his life is often misunderstood, and there was a lot of misinformation about his political motivations in the available Crockett biographies. I’ve been interested in David Crockett for years, and after reading a number of these biographies that quoted some of Crockett’s correspondence in part, I started looking for a collection of his letters, thinking that Crockett could be best understood through a careful study of his own writings. When I found that his correspondence had never been collected and published, I tried to convince some of my history buddies to tackle the project. Instead, they convinced me to take it on. I began to contact repositories and collectors, requesting copies of the Crockett letters they held in their collections. I hoped to find and annotate all the extant letters and then search for a publisher. The final project, though, as published, is much more extensive. Crockett in Congress includes not only all the extant correspondence, his political circulars, selected speeches, and all his portraits painted from life, but also features a comprehensive history of Crockett’s tenure in the state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s been called the definitive book on David Crockett’s political career, which is very gratifying.

When did your fascination with Crockett start? And what about Crockett and the Alamo do you find so compelling?

My earliest memory is of seeing Fess Parker as Davy Crockett in the theatrical release of Disney’s “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.” I was immediately smitten, and it’s never worn off. My first Crockett book was a children’s biography, a large picture book by Hazel Davis, and I had it read to me thousands of times. My original copy is still in my library, and I read it to my kids and now my grandchildren. I’m hoping the fanaticism will be multi-generational but, so far, it’s not looking good. When I was younger, I was attracted to the action and adventure of the story, but when I started researching the historical Crockett as an adult I found much more to admire. As a politician, Crockett was unfailingly an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised members of society. As an individual, his life was filled with hardship and, often, failure, but he always picked himself up, and looked for the next opportunity despite setbacks. I find that inspirational. My attraction to the Alamo story is harder to explain. At this point, I think it’s largely because there are so many unsolved mysteries surrounding the battle.

You’re quite the Crockett and Alamo expert, and a good writer, so why did you ask Allen Wiener to collaborate on writing the book with you?

After working on the project for a couple of years it became obvious to me that, because of my work schedule, the research element was going to take forever if I didn’t bring on some help. Allen and I met through an Alamo history group and hit it off. We shared the interest in Crockett, and Allen had previously published, The Beatles: The Ultimate Recording Guide, as well as contributing articles on Alamo related subjects to various journals, so we had plenty to talk about. I asked him if he’d be interested in collaborating on the Crockett project and he agreed. He’d read and enjoyed some of my published work on Crockett and the Alamo and, of course, I’d read his work. It turned out to be a great partnership. 

How long did it take to write this book? And how did you and Allen divide the writing chores?

From start to finish the project took about five years. The actual writing took about a year and a half. We took geography into consideration with regards to our initial research. Allen lives in the Washington, DC area, so the National Archives and the Library of Congress were easily accessible to him and we needed to scour both those repositories for data. I traveled to Tennessee and spent a lot of time perusing the state archives. We shared research duties in various Texas archives. Once the primary research was completed, Allen and I determined the main issues of Crockett’s political career on which we planned to focus and, somewhat arbitrarily, divided the subjects between us. We e-mailed chapters back and forth dozens of times before a final draft was agreed upon. Then we’d send the draft to our editor, wait for his input, and repeat the process. It was time consuming, but we were meticulous and I think we did the subject justice.

In the late 1970s, you worked at record stores and then ran a wholesale music operation. Later, you opened your own shop. Can you give a brief synopsis of the various jobs you had.

I started out as part of the second generation of Record Mart employees.  I was a regular customer, and they offered me a job at the Colonial Plaza store in 1975 because I already knew their inventory. From there I worked as an assistant manager at Wide World of Music until they were bought by Musicland, when I split. The day Musicland took over I went to work as a rack jobber at Sunshine Music, a record wholesaler. I worked there for years, in many different capacities, and when the owner decided to get out of the business he offered to sell me the wholesale operation and one of his retail stores. That evolved into Flipside Records, which my wife, Sandy, and I owned and operated for about 15 years. 

What made you decide to finally get out of the music business? And what inspired you to open up a bookshop in Orlando?

We saw the writing on the wall. The record industry was putting a gun to its own head by raising prices until they were out of the reach of most consumers. The major labels were fixated on the idea of charging $20 retail for compact discs. Had they kept price points at around $10, I don’t think the industry would have collapsed. Of course, they were also myopic when digital downloading became an issue, and they backed the wrong horse by throwing their support behind big box and chain stores and alienating most independents. None of this is surprising when one considers that the industry had been handed over to accountants, none of whom were interested in music. We started looking for a way out. A bookstore seemed a good idea at the time. Other than music, books were my main obsession. We opened Words & Music in downtown Orlando and ran it for about 3 years. 

Is there anything that you miss about working in a retail shop?

Flipside and Words & Music didn’t have a lot of employee turnover. The same core crew worked together for years and I miss those guys. A few of us had a little reunion last year and it was great seeing everyone again.  I hope we can make it a tradition.

You pursued songwriting for a few years. How was that experience and what did you learn from it?

I found songwriting very fulfilling. I don’t have a lucrative catalog, but I have some cuts out there working. The best part of songwriting was the opportunity to co-write. I worked with some incredibly talented people and I’ll always be grateful for the experience. I wrote a lot of songs with Fred Koller in Nashville and I can’t begin to describe how much I owe him. He opened a lot of doors for me and was the catalyst for many positive things in my life, not all of them music related, some of which are ongoing. He’s an immensely talented man and has been unbelievably generous. A good person. I wrote a lot with my old band-mate Mark Michel too, and we remain close friends. I still crash at his place when I’m in Nashville for research trips. 

Who are some of the artists who have recorded your songs?

Mainly blues artists. Lucky Peterson and Kenny Neal each cut a couple, Melvin Taylor covered one, the Groove Injectors cut one or two, Hugh Taylor (James’ brother) covered a song that appeared on the Two Far Gone album. I’m also represented on one of those Alligator Records Anniversary collections and a Rhino Best Blues of the Nineties compilation. Those immediately come to mind.

You were also a member of several Central Florida bands “back in the day.” Do you still play, or have the musical itch?

I still try to keep my chops up, but I haven’t played out in a while. I did some solo gigs and played in a blues duo a few years ago but my work schedule keeps me on the road most of the time. But yeah, the itch remains.

When you were in the band Whamarama back in the early 80s, you recorded an album at Mitch Easter’s studio in North Carolina. Tell us something about that experience.

I enjoyed working with Mitch but, in retrospect, I should have waited until I was a better songwriter before making a record. I made an album with Mark (Michel) called Two Far Gone, a few years after the Whamarama record that I think was a lot stronger. On the whole, I don’t have fond memories of the Whamarama period. I was self-absorbed and was often unkind. I know a lot of people look back on the past with no regrets, but I’m not one of them. 

You also approached the legendary Memphis producer Willie Mitchell (Al Green, Hi Records) about doing your album. What was he like?

I set up the Mitch Easter deal but Mark Michel made the Willie Mitchell contact. We were discussing a few different producers for the second, unreleased, Whamarama album. Willie Mitchell was one and I think, at one point, we were close to working with Will Birch (guitarist with The Records and Kursaal Flyers). Working with either of them would have been great, but the band imploded before we got there. We had some good songs on deck though, and had cut demos for a lot of them. A couple of the tunes ended up on Two Far Gone, and the old demos are collecting dust on a shelf in my home studio.

Who are your musical influences?

I like a lot of music, but my most recent songwriting has been compared with that of John Hiatt, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Nick Lowe, and some others. It’s flattering to be associated with that group of writers. I’d claim all of them as influences, but I’m certainly not on equal footing with any of them. Those guys are giants.

Which musicians do you particularly admire, would like to play with, or would like to write a song for?

My tastes are fairly diverse. This morning John Scofield’s, Piety Street, and Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn were in the CD player. There are a handful of musicians that I find transcendent. John Coltrane, Van Morrison, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, Son House; I can put their records on and I’m just transported. I’m an unapologetic Paul McCartney fan and I think he’s been on a great run for the last 10 years. I think his last Fireman album, Electric Arguments, is brilliant. I still love Eric Clapton.  I’ll buy anything Bruce Cockburn releases. I’d love to play with Ringo Starr because he always makes anyone he’s playing with sound better.

Do any of your children play instruments or do any writing?

Yes, everyone in my family is musically inclined. My wife has a music degree and plays bass and piano, my daughter was a talented flautist, but she’s put that on hold since having kids of her own. My oldest son is a fine blues guitarist who also writes songs, and my youngest son is a bass player who plays in the school jazz band. The Crockett gene didn’t stick, but it seems the music gene took hold.

What types of books do you like to read? Any favorite authors?

I read a lot of history, most often 19th century American history or biography but I also enjoy the ancient period. My interests run from Thermopylae to Custer and the Indian Wars. I also read a lot of contemporary political commentary. As for fiction, my favorite authors are Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Frederick Buechner. When I’m on the road I enjoy lighter fare and usually gravitate toward John Sandford, Lee Child, and James Lee Burke. You can’t go wrong with any of them, and they have huge back lists!

Kampee for Chai

Feeling a bit physically and emotionally drained after work last Sunday night, rather than walking most of the way home as I have been doing lately, I opted for the comfort of a taxi ride. Once I was seated inside, I told the driver where I wanted to go, speaking in Thai. I couldn’t help but notice the familiar music the driver was playing. “Is that Pongsit Kampee?” I asked, knowing the answer already, but wondering what sort of reaction that my recognition of the music would get from the driver.

He flashed a big smile. “Yes, that’s Kampee.”

I offered a grin of my own. “I like his music very much,” I said.

The driver turned up the volume, the grin still on his face. We were rolling.

Pongsit Kampee is one of the more popular practitioners of a Thai music style known as Pleng Puea Cheewit, or “Songs for Life,” and it’s pretty common to hear his music played, especially in taxis, here in Thailand. Pleng Puea Cheewit is a type of folk music, sometimes acoustic and sometimes electric, but almost always with political or socially conscious lyrical content. I love all of Pongsit Kampee’s albums, but my absolute favorite — and one of my most treasured in any genre — is Plug Loot (literally “Unplugged”), an acoustic set of songs that he recorded with Lek Carabao (yes, from the band of the same name, but don’t get him confused with band leader Ad Carabao) back in the early 1990s. That album was a masterpiece of acoustic perfection, the two guitarists performing some of their strongest songs, all garnished with Pongsit’s sweet vocals. Even if you can’t understand everything — or anything — that Pongsit is singing in Thai, you can’t help but fall under the spell of that beautiful, soothing voice. And if you ARE able to understand the lyrics, you will agree with my friend Chai, who once told me: “His songs have very good meaning.”

And that brings me around to the topic of Chai, who is one of the reasons for my recent fatigue. For the past three weeks I have been visiting Chai in the hospital ward where he is currently bedridden. He’s been there for over a month now, the result of head injuries he suffered in a motorcycle accident. For the first week he was in a coma in ICU, and things were touch and go. He is now awake but doesn’t appear to recognize anyone. Because of a lung infection he still has to use a breathing tube and is being fed intravenously.

I’ve been going to the hospital twice a week. I leave work each Monday and Thursday afternoon, taking the Skytrain to the Saphan Taksin station and then walking the rest of the way to the public hospital on Silom Road. I take the elevator up the 15th floor, say hello to the cleaning lady (she seems to be the friendliest and most attentive person on the whole floor) and walk over to Chai’s bed, situated in a huge ward along with dozens of other patients. His mother is there at his bedside every day during visiting hours, from noon till nine at night, massaging Chai’s legs and arms, and speaking to him encouragingly. To see Chai in such a condition must be agonizing for her, but it’s clear she loves her oldest son and will do anything she can to help his recovery. I make my own unskilled attempts at massage and speak to Chai, telling him how much that I and his other friends have missed him, and urging him to get better soon. I tease him not to be lazy, not to give the nurses a hard time, and to obey his mother. But I have no idea if he understands any of my babbling or not. Chai stares at me with his one undamaged eye, but there are no obvious signs of recognition, and he doesn’t speak.

You always hear that listening to music can be productive therapy for people with head injuries, so I went out and bought an MP4 player for Chai, and then loaded it up with lots of tunes that I know that he likes; music from Thai artists such as Pongsit Kampee, Carabao, and Body Slam, along with some upcountry Morlam and Luk Thung songs. In addition to that, I added a bunch of instrumental music, ranging from Ennio Morricone and Jean Michel Jarre, to Grant Green and Love Tractor. Now, whenever I drop by to visit, unless he is sleeping or has just woken, the ear buds are in place and Chai is listening to music. Or at least the device is playing. I’m not sure if his mother is humoring me or if she believes in the power of song too. I asked her the other day what Chai was listening to, and she replied with a smile: “Kampee.”

Even if this music does nothing to assist in Chai’s rehabilitation, at least it may help to relieve any boredom he feels from being confined to bed all day. Hell, maybe he’ll end up becoming a big fan of Morricone’s film scores. At this point, though, I’ll just settle for a normal conversation with him. But that day is still a long way off, or I fear, may never happen again. I have to be realistic. We’re not talking about broken bones and bruises. Head injuries are very serious, unpredictable things, and one can’t make accurate predictions about the prognosis for a person who has suffered such severe trauma. In most cases like this, there is no such thing as a complete recovery. But can we at least hope for some slight return to normal? Will Chai be able to walk again? Will he talk again? Will he laugh and sing songs again? Will he even be able to feed himself or use the toilet unassisted? His mother tells me that he’s getting better, that he understands what’s going on, but honestly, except for the swelling around eyes dissipating, I don’t see much improvement yet.

All I can do for now is to wait patiently for any incremental signs of progress, visit him often, keep chatting and smiling, and hope he’ll get better. And let the music play.

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