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

Archive for February, 2012

Anthony Shadid

Amidst the shock over Whitney Houston’s premature passing last week, comes news of another tragic death, that of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid. Like Houston, Shadid also left this world much too soon; he was only 43 years old. Although he risked his life many times covering stories during war and conflict, Shadid’s death appears to have resulted from an asthma attack.

Shadid spent many years covering stories in various countries in the Middle East, such as Iraq, Syria, and Libya. He was employed by the New York Times at the time of his death, but also wrote for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Associated Press during his career. I first noticed his articles about the war in Iraq in 2003. I was living in Cambodia at the time, and his wire service reports ran in an English language newspaper published in Phnom Penh. Shadid’s reporting stood out for its honesty and objectivity. Clearly, he had a passion and empathy for the people of the country he was covering, and he didn’t gloss over the atrocities committed by the US military or the American government’s many missteps. Later, I read his excellent book, Night Draws Near, about the effect of the war on the Iraqi people.

Shadid was obviously a talented writer, but he also possessed a poet’s grace and soul. He was one of the few journalists working today who I think embodied the true spirit and integrity of the profession. Unlike so many working in journalism nowadays, Shadid was no muckraker or sensation seeker, but a true reporter who went out of his way to seek the truth. I find it immensely sad that he has passed away so soon.

A new memoir by Shadid, House of Stone, is slated to be published in the US next month. This book explores his life growing up in the US, his family’s “roots” in Lebanon, and his work around the Middle East. Even in advance of its release, the book is garnering rave reviews. It’s one I’ll definitely want to read.

 

KL Update: February

I’ll post more about my trip to Kuala Lumpur next week, but I thought I’d update you on a few things right now while I’m thinking about … and have nothing else to do on this last night in town. I have another early morning flight back to Bangkok, so I’ll attempt to get to bed early and wake up at the unnatural hour of 4:00 am.

I dropped by the Tower Records branch in the Lot 10 Shopping Center on Monday afternoon and was immediately alarmed by what I saw when I entered the shop. The store sign was gone and a few of the fixtures were bereft of CDs. Employees in some sections of the store were busy boxing up stock. “Are you open?” I asked one of the employees. The guy assured me that yes, the shop was open, but they were in the process of moving. At the end of this week they will be relocating to the ground floor of the nearby Times Square shopping center. I did a quick run-through of the shop and bought six CDs, including a rare Gatemouth Brown title that I neglected to get last trip. I’m just happy that this branch of Tower is staying in business. The US chain filed for bankruptcy and closed a few years back, and all the Bangkok branches (I used to manage two of them) morphed into CD Warehouse locations in the late 90s, but even those are now shuttered. I mentioned to the manager of the KL store that I used to work for Tower in Bangkok back in the mid to late 90s. “The good old days,” he sighed. We talked a bit about the current state of retail and he bemoaned the trend of so many music listeners to illegally download songs and albums nowadays. Needless to say, it’s done irreversible damage to retail shops and chains like Tower.

Speaking of bankrupt retail chains, Borders Books in the US, is also going the way of the dinosaur. I think they have closed most, if not all, of their US stores by now. They used to have a large branch here in KL also., in the same Times Square where Tower is moving, but they closed it and downsized to a smaller Borders Express about 2 years ago. I assumed that branch had also closed, but now I’m not sure. I went to the Curve shopping center in Petaling Jaya (a large suburb of KL) yesterday and was startled to see a very large (two floors) branch of Borders still open there. Even more startling was what I saw in their travel section; books from my friends at Things Asian Press. They had Janet Brown’s wonderful Tone Deaf in Bangkok,  the photo book Lost & Found Bangkok (which has photos of my bookshop on a few pages!), and To Vietnam with Love. I was disappointed that they didn’t have To Myanmar with Love, or Ma Thanegi’s excellent Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, but it was still cool to see of those Things Asian books in stock. And today when I was in Bangsar Village Shopping Center I saw a Borders Express shop. So, like Tower, some of the Borders are still afloat here in Malaysia.

Malaysia remains a very easy country to visit in regards to visa and immigration. Unlike Cambodia, Myanmar, or Laos, in Malaysia there is no visa fee, they don’t have any of those annoying forms to fill out (for either immigration or customs), and no photos are required either. Plus, you can stay up to 90 days on a tourist visa, as opposed to a limit of only 30 days in the other Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand. What can’t all the ASEAN countries be as easy as Malaysia?

The LRT subway/light train system here remains very convenient and inexpensive (compared to Bangkok). They now have completely automated machines that can sell one-way tickets or used to top-off your multi-trip card. It took me three times to figure out the machine, but now I feel like a seasoned pro.

 

Malaysia Shopping Spree

I’m back in Kuala Lumpur this week; just a 4-day trip to do some book buying for my shop (and, I admit, a few things for myself too), some CD hunting, and lots of eating. I always enjoy the trips here, and this time I’ve had some very interesting conversations with a variety of friendly people; hotel employees, taxi drivers, clerks at CD shops, and waiters in restaurants. I used to think this town wasn’t very friendly, but I’ve changed that opinion.

My flight from Bangkok was over an hour late in departing, solely the fault of some bimbo who left one of her bags in the terminal (it probably contained something of life-alerting significance; most likely her iPhone) and was allowed, along with 4 of her companions, to exit the plane and go look for it. After almost 90 minutes of waiting the plane finally took off without her or her posse. Urrggh!!! Actually, as annoying as that was, I didn’t let it upset me. And the rest of the passengers were also surprisingly calm during the long wait. It’s an Asian thing, don’t you know. Why worry! At least we arrived in one piece. The only person to vocally express her displeasure was a young woman who had a connection to make in KL. I hope she made it, along with her luggage.

After running around to book sales yesterday (one of which turned out to be non-existent), and stopping by the Rock Corner branch in KLCC, I had a late dinner at the always amazing Coliseum Grill. Afterward, I hoofed it back to my hotel and used the computer to check news and e-mail, and to re-charge my MP3 player. Of course the big news online was the untimely passing of singer Whitney Houston. Honestly, I was never a big fan of her singing style. Sure, she had a great voice and could belt out a song with impressive intensity, but I find such vocal gymnastics more than a bit boring after a short period of time. I don’t think she deserves to be put in the same league as truly great female singers and song stylists such as Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, or even a lesser-known wonder such as Candi Staton (more about her in a future post; her Fame label recordings are a MUST hear!). Those artists all recorded numerous songs and albums of very high quality. The doomed Whitney may have racked up a bunch of hits during her career, but I don’t think the quality of her recorded output was nearly as high as it could have been.

But Whitney’s death brought back memories of when I first heard her: on the album One Down by Material in 1982. By my calculations, that would have made her only 19 years old at the time. Material was the brainchild of musician Bill Laswell. They made several good albums during their career, Seven Souls being an absolute classic, but One Down was the funkiest and most groove-alicious thing they ever recorded. In addition to Whitney’s handling of vocals on a song called “Memories,” Nona Hendryx (formerly of LaBelle) turned up, adding propulsive fuel to tracks such as “Take a Chance” and “Bustin’ Out.” One Down is another one of those albums that should have been much better known, and praised. Look for it!


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.

 

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