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

Archive for February, 2012

Youth of Today

I was doing some serious flip-flopping earlier today. I wanted to post something before I left for the airport early tomorrow morning (Where? You’ll have to wait for that one!). Should I write about some of the bizarre books that have passed through my shop this week? Maybe a rant about the deluded outspoken Christian athletes who are making the news lately (sorry dude, Jesus didn’t help you make that touchdown pass/three-point shot; the fact that you practiced a lot was the key!)? Or a tribute to more recently deceased musicians? Or perhaps something about the disturbing trend of the police stopping pedestrians and making random bag searches here in Bangkok? Ah, I don’t have the energy for anything that deep right now. So it’s time more photos from my last trip to Myanmar. And hey, this is the last of the bunch. At least for now. Enjoy the smiles from these delightful children. They ARE the future.

 

Soul Survivors

It’s not unusual for a veteran recording act to make a comeback after a long spell of not recording any new music, but recently several soul music vets have make stunning returns to form with impressive new albums.

Betty Wright had a monster hit with “Cleanup Woman” back in 1971. “Where is the Love” and “Shoorah! Shoorah!” were two more of several hit singles she had that same decade, and she released the enormously popular Live album in 1978. Recalling all those “oldies”, one would assume Betty Wright is now a gray-haired granny living comfortably in retirement, but she was only 17 years old when she recorded “Cleanup Woman”, and at the relatively young age of 58 she is still going strong. She continued to record albums in the 80s and 90s, many of them critically acclaimed, but due to label issues and the always turbulent changing trends in the music business, Betty Wright pretty much disappeared from the radar of most listeners. I admit to being one of those oblivious listeners — in my case, caught up in the world of “alternative music” — who didn’t realize that she was still recording albums during that period.

Until she resurfaced with a new solo album in late 2011, Betty Wright: The Movie, she had not released any new music in a full decade. But Betty Wright kept busy writing songs, contributing background vocals for other artists, and even doing some production work. With her new album, recorded with The Roots, Betty Wright has reclaimed her position as one of the most dynamic soul divas around. Not having heard any of her 80s or 90s albums, I can’t compare those recordings to this new one, but Betty Wright: The Movie is simply an outstanding album. If I were still compiling Top 10 lists, this album would have easily made my “Best Of” for 2011. Her multi-year absence from recording solo albums has obviously not eroded any of her vocal ability; she still sounds like a house on fire: raw, spunky, vivacious, and most of all … vital. Co-producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots has incorporated some contemporary hip-hop elements into the mix, but it doesn’t dilute the soulfulness and power of these very strong songs. In addition to members of the Roots, other guests popping up during this sprawling collection of songs (78 minutes of music on a single disc) include Lenny Williams, Lil Wayne, Joss Stone, and Snoop Dogg.

Booker T. Jones, the keyboard whiz of Booker T. & the MGs fame, also released a new album, The Road from Memphis, in 2011. Once again, members of the Roots can be found contributing to the musical vibe on the recording. Busy guys! This wasn’t really a comeback album for Booker, though; that distinction goes to Potato Hole, an album he released the previous year. Nominated for a Grammy award, Potato Hole was a rough and funky collection of instrumentals, featuring members of the Drive-By Truckers, and a wayward guitarist by the name of Neil Young. Not the classic Booker T. & the MGs sound, but still mighty fine listening. The Road from Memphis, however, does indeed have more of that classic 60s soul vibe, Booker’s distinctive organ playing propelling the songs to dizzying heights. It’s a scintillating album of strong material, featuring both instrumental and vocal numbers. In addition to those workaholic Roots fellows, Lou Reed, Yim Yames (from My Morning Jacket), and Sharon Jones join the party. Obviously, the musicians here are top notch, but the songs themselves are also a cut above the rest. When Booker himself sings “Down in Memphis” you can close your eyes and picture the streets of the city. It’s such a joy to listen to music this well performed, and so heartfelt.

Speaking of Booker T. & the MGs, the guitarist from that band, Steve Cropper, also released a new album last year, Dedicated. Like Booker’s The Road from Memphis, Cropper’s album is a mix of both instrumental and vocal numbers, and features an array of special guest vocalists. Croppers cast includes Steve Winwood, Lucinda Williams, Delbert McClinton, B.B. King, Bettye LaVette, Dan Penn, and Sharon Jones. What? Nobody from the Roots is on here? They must have been resting that week! If you are wondering about the album title, it is indeed a dedication of sorts; a tribute to the music of the 5 Royales, an influential Memphis band from the 1950s. Cropper was influenced by the band’s guitarist, Lowman Pauling, and the songs on Dedicated are all ones originally performed by the 5 Royales. Once again, an awesome bunch of musicians are gathered for a funky musical feast. It SOUNDS like they are all having a blast, and that’s always a big plus.

February 2012 Reading List

Joe Boyd – White Bicylces

The book, subtitled “Making Music in the 1960s,” also bleeds a bit into subsequent decades, a period when Boyd was working with some of the more interesting musicians on the planet as a manager, producer, and label owner. Boyd started off working with blues and folk artists in the US, until migrating to England, where he worked closely with the likes of Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and The Incredible String Band. Some marvelous stories and anecdotes help to make this an engrossing read. The only gripe I have is that, considering Boyd’s multi-decade career, the book is too short and doesn’t go into more depth on some of the fascinating artists he met. Perhaps he’s saving more stories for another volume?

Norman Lewis – A Voyage By Dhow

This is a collection of essays that the great travel writer penned from various locations over a multi-decade period. Lewis died at the age of 95 in 2003 and was travelling — and writing — until near the very end of his life. Back in the early days of his career as a journalist, Westerners seldom visited some of these destinations (Yemen, Paraguay, Soviet Union, etc.) that he covers in this book. His earlier books about Southeast Asia (A Dragon Apparent and Golden Earth) are especially fascinating for their observations of countries such as Burma and Cambodia. As always, Lewis has an astute eye for detail and the ability to see the big picture. In one particularly penetrating essay in this collection, Lewis comes across a dubious group of missionaries in Venezuela who are attempting to “convert” a primitive tribe to Christianity, and in the process wean them from their traditional way of life. Sadly, of course, such missionaries are still allowed to spew their poison around the world. We could use more writers like Lewis who question — and challenge — such destructive practices.

Loren Estleman – Roses are Dead

Estleman has written dozens of books over the years, most of them stellar examples of classic crime fiction (he also writes Westerns once in a while). His Amos Walker series is particularly good. This novel, however, is one in his Peter Macklin series about a Detroit hit man, published in 1985. I had never read any of the Macklin books before, so I was looking forward to this one. While it was good, I didn’t think it was nearly as well written as the Amos Walker books or his excellent Detroit historical crime fiction series (Whiskey River, Motown, King of the Corner, Edsel, Jitterbug, etc.). Still, this is a writer more mystery fans should read.

David Leavitt – The Indian Clerk

Leavitt is one of the writers who is so good that he leaves you in awe of his talent. I read two of his books many years ago (The Lost Language of Cranes was particularly good), so I figured it was time to get back on board. And I’m glad I did. Set in the early 1900s, during the First World War, this is very compelling story enriched by Leavitt’s elegant prose. Leavitt introduces the reader to a bunch of quirky, closeted British mathematicians who are contacted by a young man from India who turns out to be a mathematical genius. These were all real individuals in history (Bertrand Russell also pops up in this tale), but Leavitt has taken a few liberties with their lives to spice things up.

Michael Koryta – Sorrow’s Anthem

I’m on a roll with this Koryta guy, devouring any new book I can find by him. This is one in his Lincoln Perry series, featuring a young private investigator, ex-cop who reluctantly takes on an unusual case. Fans of crime fiction authors such as Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and John Sandford should go for Koryta’s books. Everything I’ve read thus far has been quality stuff.

Lawrence Block – A Drop of the Hard Stuff

This is the long-awaited new book in Block’s long-running Matt Scudder series, featuring a recovering alcoholic. I couldn’t wait for the paperback, so I sucked it up and bought the hardcover. That’s how much I like Lawrence Block’s book. Rather than a brand new contemporary adventure in Scudder’s life, however, this one takes the reader back to a case that Scudder was working on about thirty years previously. As usual, Block’s characters are an agreeable bunch, all of whom always seem to be on the same page, both literally and figuratively. It’s almost as if they could finish one another’s sentences. Nonetheless, this is an addictive page turner that Block fans will devour. Because the story takes us back in time, we are not treated to current Scudder characters, most notably new wife Elaine, or his funky rhyming’ sidekick T.J.

Fannie Flagg – I Still Dream About You

I’ve enjoyed reading Fannie Flagg’s books for many years. Reading this latest novel, however, I was shocked at how poorly written it was. The writing was simplistic and full of so many dull clichés that it made me wince. Where were the editors? It makes me wonder who really wrote this book. Certainly not the same author who penned gems like Fried Green Tomatoes and Welcome to the World, Baby Girl. I hope this one was only a freak misstep and not the sign that Fannie Flagg has totally lost it.

Mark Kurlansky – 1968

This is an account of the many turbulent events that took place around the world in 1968. In addition to what happened in the US that year (assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, student protests, LBJ declining to run for another turn, the rise of Nixon, etc.), Kurlansky sheds the spotlight on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and incidents in Poland, France, and Spain. Most of this book were very good, but Kuransky’s account of the year didn’t grip me as much as I had hoped. Admittedly, I found the parts about Poland and other European countries of little interest, and would have liked more detail about the ramifications of what happened in the US during that tumultuous year.

Bill Granger – There Are No Spies

Two decades ago, Granger was hailed by no less than Ed McBain as “America’s best spy novelist.” A pity he is not better known nowadays. Perhaps such “spy” tales now seem dated, but this and other books in the Granger’s “November Man” series are all very entertaining reads. There Are No Spies is also part of “November Man” series, and it’s another cracker (as the Aussies would say). With its many double-crossing characters and nefarious espionage activity, it reminds me a bit of those great Ross Thomas novels. Really, I think Granger is that good a writer.

Miguel Syjuco – Ilustrado

This was a recemt winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. In awarding that prize, the judges called this novel “brilliantly conceived, and stylishly executed.” Stylishly executed? That should have been a hint right there. I tried, but I couldn’t even finish this one. Syjuco show signs of being a very good writer, but the story jumps around so much — in both location and points in time, all while offering different narratives, that I lost interest . Like many of the regular Booker Prize winners, this was yet another highly-praised book that gave me a headache and puzzled the hell out of me.

Tours & Transport

Paul Heaton, the singer best known for being “the voice” of two great bands, the Housemartins and the Beautiful South, is planning a new tour of the UK this spring — by bicycle. Dubbed the “Pedals and Pumps” tour, Heaton will include 15 pub gigs, and he plans to cycle to all of them. “I’m looking forward to pedaling around the country to promote cycling and the British pub,” Heaton was quoted in NME about the tour. “Both are very close to my heart. I’ve been cycling all my life, and the British pub has provided most of my favorite stop-off points. It saddens me to hear about so many British pubs closing on a weekly basis, so I want to do all I can to get people back to their local.”

Last year Heaton put his money where his mouth is, buying a pub in the town of Salford. Heaton said that he decided to snap up the Kings’ Arms pub after growing concerned about the “fractured” local community. Convenience appeared to be a factor in his decision; he already was using the upstairs room in the pub as a rehearsal space. Although he admitted to not having a complete business plan yet, Heaton said that he was already pondering which types of snacks he wants to sell behind the bar, as well as a more important matter: the songs that will be played on the pub’s jukebox. For a hint of what may be on that jukebox, look no further than Under the Influence, an album of “favorite” songs that Heaton compiled in 2004. Included on the CD are songs from Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Al Green, Lee Dorsey, Manu Chao, Bobbi Gentry, Tower of Power, Hues Corporation, Lavern Baker, Randy Travis, and more. Diverse to say the least!

Heaton’s bike tour caused me to think about the possibilities of a Thai musician doing a similar series of shows. But lacking in “traditional” British style pubs, perhaps a tour of Pleng Puea Cheewit (“Songs for Life”, a genre of Thai folk music) venues might be more appropriate. As for cycling here in the wild environs of Bangkok, I don’t think I’m brave enough for that challenge yet. When I am travelling around Myanmar, I cycle constantly in places like Mandalay, Bagan, and Nyaunghswe. But attempting a similar cycling routine in Bangkok would be another story altogether. The biggest obstacle to cycling in Bangkok — besides the steamy temperatures and poor air quality — is the perpetually thick traffic. The main streets and side sois are almost always congested; bumper-to-bumper traffic jams at all hours of the day that can test the patience of even the most experienced motorists. Motorcycles dart and weave around the immobilized four-wheelers, making the idea of cycling amongst this disorganized throng a formidable task. I’m convinced that if I rode a bike around the city that I would take a spill the first hour.

 

I was a car owner and driver for many years when I lived in Florida, but since I moved to Bangkok 16 years ago I have yet to get behind the wheel again. And you know what? I don’t miss it a bit. I don’t miss the driving, I don’t miss owning a car, I don’t miss the parking hassles, and I don’t miss the insurance payments. Frankly, it feels liberating not having to worry about any of that crap. And I feel better that I’m not contributing to the polluted air. If I need to go somewhere, I let my feet do the walking more often than not. And when I have longer distances to traverse, I can take a water taxi, a motorcycle taxi, a regular taxi, the Skytrain, the Subway, or even a bus.

With so many transport options, it amazes me — no, it completely baffles me — why so many locals feel the need to own and drive their own vehicle around Bangkok. Even some foreign residents succumb to vehicle addition and drive in the city. I suppose if you have a big family and need to shuttle the kids to school — or pole dancing lessons — then owning a vehicle makes some degree of sense. But otherwise, why bother? Why would a single resident have the slightest need to own and operate a car in this traffic plagued metropolis? I truly think that many people ARE addicted to having their very own vehicle, considering it a convenience if not a necessity, and wouldn’t think of giving it up. But when I see these people sitting behind the wheel of their SUV or Mercedes Benz, stuck in traffic again — sometimes not moving more than a few feet in the span of twenty minutes — all I can do is laugh.

 

Soul Train Connection

The music world lost another great one this week with the death of Don Cornelius, the originator of the TV show Soul Train. Although he was not a recording artist, as a DJ and later as host of Soul Train, Cornelius was hugely influential in exposing Black recording artists to the masses in the United States.

As noted in many of the tributes to Don Cornelius, Soul Train was a groundbreaking TV show in the 1970s, giving Black America a coveted spot in the TV limelight alongside similar “dance and music” shows like American Bandstand that appealed more to white audiences. But Soul Train was also important for young white kids like me, serving as a musical bridge to a different style of music and culture. Watching those Saturday morning Soul Train programs was both an eye and ear-opening experience for me and other suburban white youth. Great music and great dancing, and oh those outfits! They certainly didn’t dress like that on the more mainstream American Bandstand!

By the time I became a regular Soul Train viewer in 1974, I was already a big fan of soul artists such as Al Green, Spinners, the O’Jays, Barry White, and Billy Preston. But Soul Train also turned me on to the less mainstream, funkier acts in the business such as the Ohio Players, Mandrill, and James Brown. Musically, this was a revelation, exposing me to exciting new music, but the show also opened my mind to the fact that “minorities” were not people to be scared of …  or to look down upon. I grew up in a typical white American neighborhood, and during my first five years of elementary school the students were also white. I was living in a comfortable white cocoon, but that certainly was representative of the real world. It wasn’t until I entered junior high school that I was finally exposed to black students. There was a natural curiosity, if not fear, of what “those people” would be like. But I quickly realized that they weren’t much different than me, except of course for the color of their skin. And that music; oh, that amazing music! By the time I entered high school I was much more comfortable around Black people and actually had something in common with many of them because of my music interests.

I remember one guy in particular: Raymond Butler. Raymond was a senior, and a star of the school’s football team. Cool guy on campus, very tall with a huge afro and an even bigger smile. I was a lowly sophomore, a skinny white kid who wore eyeglasses and ugly bellbottoms. Raymond and I seemingly had nothing in common, but we both had a Speech class together, with a great teacher named Miss Romigh, and we ended up sitting next to one another. I’m not sure how the subject came up, but we eventually started talking about music and made a connection. You like the Ohio Players? Yeah, man! Skin Tight! Jive Turkey! Fire! Love Rollercoaster! And on and on it went.

Music connects people. It always has and always will. And because of Don Cornelius and Soul Train I think the world is a more racially harmonic place than it used to be. Cornelius’ famous closing line was: “Love, Peace, and Soul” — still an appropriate and beautiful message.

Crack the Sky

In one of the early chapters in Anne Tyler’s delightful novel Noah’s Compass, the main character, a man in his 60s named Liam, is in the hospital, recuperating from a concussion, when his ex-wife drops by to visit. Sitting in bed, Liam thinks back to the days when they were a young couple. Although his wife had a “stodgy school-librarian job,” Liam recalls that she had a fondness for rock music and “used to dance like a woman possessed, pumping the air with her soft white fists and sending her bobby pins flying in every direction.”

“Do you still like Crack the Sky?” Liam asked her.

“What?” she said. “Oh, mercy, I haven’t listened to Crack the Sky in ages! I’m sixty-two years old. Put your clothes on, will you?

Now hold that thought. Why do people make inane comments like that; as if getting older, or “growing up,” somehow disqualifies a person from listening to music, especially the music of their youth? Why should getting older stop you from listening to music of any kind? Many people still watch football and baseball games when they are “senior citizens”, and that’s not considered odd, so what’s the big deal about continuing to be a fan of rock music as you age? Is it immature to like the Rolling Stones or Cheap Trick just because you are over forty? That’s an absurd notion!

That diatribe aside, I got a kick out of seeing Crack the Sky mentioned in Anne Tyler’s novel. It makes me wonder if Anne Tyler herself was/is a Crack the Sky fan. I’m almost certain she at least listened to the band back in the 1970s. Thanks to massive airplay on local radio stations, Crack the Sky was immensely popular in the Baltimore area, which is where Tyler lives and where most of her novels are set, so it wouldn’t be a complete shock if that was the case.

I was lucky to have been exposed to the music of Crack the Sky back when their excellent debut album, Crack the Sky, was released in 1975, thanks to airplay it received on WORJ, the great progressive FM radio station in my hometown of Orlando. Crack the Sky followed that first album with one that was arguably even better, the weird and wonderful Animal Notes. Man, I loved those first two albums, and the ones that followed weren’t too shabby either. The quirky songs were full of intricate guitar parts, Beatles-like harmonies, and delightfully witty lyrics. Crack the Sky’s synthesis of lush keyboards and sizzling electric guitars appealed to progressive rock fans, but they weren’t so far out in left field that their appeal escaped the ears of more mainstream listeners.

Crack the Sky had all the ingredients to be a monster band, but for the usual reasons (lack of airplay and most notably, a label that couldn’t get their albums distributed properly) that success never came calling. Shortly after Animal Notes was released in 1977, lead singer John Palumbo left the band to start a solo career. He was replaced by Gary Lee Chappell, who seamlessly handled lead vocals on the next album, Safety in Numbers, another very strong batch of songs. Citing difficulties with their label, the group broke up — for the first time — in 1979. In the meantime Palumbo’s solo album tanked and he ended up rejoining the “reformed” band the following year to record the edgy White Music.

Last year, I bought a copy of Crack the Sky’s Alive and Kickin’ Ass album. Despite the lame title, this is an outstanding concert recording from tour dates in 1978 that finally saw release in 2006. This was during the period when Palumbo had left the band to pursue a solo career, but Chappell more than holds his own on vocals and the rest of the band indeed kicks ass, playing with the energy and imagination that were always hallmarks of their live shows. I saw them in concert the same year when they played at a small club called Friar Tuck’s in Casselberry, an Orlando suburb. It was like seeing a show in your living room; up close and intimate, not a bad seat in the house. And the band didn’t disappoint, delivering a scorching set of songs, not unlike what I heard on Alive and Kickin’ Ass, complete with an encore of the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus.”

Since their 70s prime, Crack the Sky has continued to break up and reform, and thankfully record more albums and play more concerts. In 2009 they released a new collection of songs, Machine. Judging from the positive reviews I’ve read, it’s yet another album I will need to purchase in the near future.

http://www.crackthesky.com/

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