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

Archive for September, 2012

Swimming Pool Q’s

It was back in 1978 and a new punk-looking British band, The Police, was making their first US tour. I was there on the front row at the Great Southern Music Hall in Orlando, waiting for Sting, Andy, and Stewart to take the stage, but first, we had to listen to this “other” band, the Swimming Pool Q’s, play a set. The Pool Q’s perfectly fit the new wave mold at the time; lots of short, fast songs (“Rat Bait” … “The A-Bomb Woke Me Up” … “Big Fat Tractor”) and an energetic performance that ranged from weird to exhilarating. They made a good first impression.


The Swimming Pool Q’s may have started their life as a quirky new wave act, but in the decade to follow they morphed into a polished and multi-faceted recording act, one of the better, yet woefully unsung, bands in the US during the 1980s. But, unlike some bands that disbanded after stardom didn’t come knocking, the Pool Q’s kept on a-chooglin’ and are still playing shows to this day.


The Pool Q’s have recorded many excellent songs over the years, but they particularly shined on stage, dazzling audiences with their well-crafted songs and front man Jeff Calder’s flair for the theatrical. I always loved the band’s sound; a rousing pop-rock cocktail that combined Anne Richmond Boston’s comfortably warm vocals and Jeff Calder’s crafty lyrics (which could range from witty and whacky to poetic and profound) with Bob Elsey’s blistering guitar licks, and a rock-solid rhythm section. Other critics seemed to agree. “Visionary pop eccentrics from Atlanta,” noted Melody Maker. “Some of the most compelling rock sounds in all of America … lofty architectural style distinguished by the elegant and muscular guitar duets between Jeff Calder and Bob Elsey and [Anne] Boston’s rhapsodic alto phrasings,” said The Village Voice. In Rolling Stone, Kurt Loder wrote, “Overlaid with Calder’s unusually literate songwriting sensibility, this musical mélange is one of the freshest sounds coming out of the South.”


The band released a “comeback” studio album, Royal Academy of Reality, in 2003, a collection of songs that many reviewers hailed as their best yet. All Music Guide said, “The striking scale and superb craft of this album are impressive by any standard.” David Fricke in Rolling Stone likened the album to “Abbey Road wrapped in kudzu.” Ed Ward in Wire U.K described it as “flat-out astonishing” and “overflowing with musical and intellectual ideas.” Yes folks, it really was that good. But despite the rave reviews and a devoted cult of fans, as far as most of the world is concerned, the Swimming Pool Q’s remain a “quirky band” — if they are known at all.


Over the years, I’ve seen the Pool Q’s in concert dozens of times; in and around their home base of Atlanta, and in my hometown of Orlando. In fact, I booked a few of their shows myself and became good friends with the band members. I recently got e-mails from both Anne Richmond Boston and Jeff Calder, telling me about a new project — a “Kickstarter Campaign” — that aims to fund the re-release of two of their best albums, The Swimming Pool Q’s (1984) and Blue Tomorrow (1986), as deluxe CD editions. I didn’t have a clue as to what a “Kickstarter Campaign” entails, so I’ll let the band tell you all about it:


This project realizes years of dedication—remastering, research, flights to nowhere—so we’ve taken great care assembling a variety of additional rewards, many available exclusively to Kickstarter backers:

  • A CD of demos, outtakes, alternate versions and remixes from the period, including a country version of “The Bells Ring”.
  • “Fire Makes Us Diamonds”, Jeff Calder’s historical notes examining The Swimming Pool Q’s in the years 1983–1987; accompanying the text will be many never-before-seen photos from The Q’s archive and Anne Richmond Boston’s personal collection.
  • A DVD, created by our drummer Bill Burton, which captures us in a variety of compromising situations: The 930 Club in Washington DC in early 1985; various teenbeat cable television shows; a stirring clip of The Q’s psych-folk interpretation of “Little Drummer Boy”; a promotional video created for A&M Records’ 1984 annual meeting, plus a visit by the band to the record company’s legendary Hollywood lot; and more.
  • Signed photographs from sessions surrounding both albums, plus reproductions of the luxurious 24” x 36” posters that accompanied the reissue of The Deep End (1981/2001) and the release of Royal Academy of Reality (2003).
  • A disc of new material including tracks like “System of Love” and “Science Moon”.
  • Two CDs from The Swimming Pool Q’s catalog, The Deep End and Royal Academy of Reality, along with our debut 7” single from 1979 “Rat Bait” b/w “The A-Woke Woke Me Up” on Chlorinated Records.
  • Archival flyers from many Swimming Pool Q’s performances, reproduced on original Xerox machines, when possible.
  • A full-course dinner at your nearest Olive Garden, hosted by the group.
  • A private live show at which we’ll play selections from The Swimming Pool Q’s and Blue Tomorrow plus bonus tracks

A couple of folks have asked for some more detail on what the fundraising is going toward. This is it in a nutshell: mastering, manufacturing, designing, printing, and assembling as many of the reissue packages as we can afford to make, plus the extra CD and DVD. Producing each of these elements is painstaking and costly, and we’ve invested much time and money already to make this project a reality – and to do it at the highest possible level of quality and creativity. It’s been nearly 30 years in the making – so we want to do it right! As we move along, we will share the details of the process with you to keep you in the loop, since you now have a vested interest.



Jack Reacher, Chipper Jones, and Margeaux Mango

I got an e-mail last week from Lee Child’s website, informing me that the new novel was coming out; another Jack Reacher spectacular. Say no more; I gotta have it. Gotta read it. Now. And luckily, my sense of urgency was satisfied. I strolled over to the Emporium, went to the tiny branch of Asia Books located there, and the new Lee Child book, A Wanted Man, was right there on the shelf. Less than 48 hours later, I had read all 400 and something pages, satisfied again by another fun, funny, and thought provoking Jack Reacher adventure. Really, I love these novels. On the surface, they might fit the mold of action-packed thrillers; lots of action and bad guys getting put in their place by Reacher. But there is a lot more going on in these novels than Jack Reacher kicking ass, drinking lots of coffee, getting the girl, and leaving town with only a toothbrush in his pocket. These stories force the reader to think, and marvel at the way that Reacher thinks through various situations, as he ends up dispensing his own style of justice. And this time around I loved the baseball references; from the Kansas City Royals and George Brett to the New York Yankees and the legendary Bill “Moose” Skowron. If Lee Child is not a baseball fan — and I wonder if he really is, having grown up in England — he’s certainly done his research.


Speaking of baseball, another thing that brought a big smile to my face this week was seeing the Sunday night walk-off homer by Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves. I don’t have a TV, and if I did I wouldn’t even have access to cable sports, but I watched a clip of Chipper’s home run on ESPN’s website. Now 40 years-old and playing a final season before retirement, Chipper is having also one of his best seasons ever. He takes a day or two off each week nowadays, needing to rest those surgically repaired knees, so his stats may not rank with his best, but when he’s in the lineup he still makes an impact. He’s virtually carried the Braves all year. So why isn’t he in the running for another MVP award this year? The Braves look like they are going to make the playoffs, probably as a wild card finalist, and there is no way they’d be in that position without Chipper. Maybe he doesn’t have enough “official” at bats to qualify for the leader boards, but I’ll say it again; when he’s playing, he delivers. Seeing the highlight reel of that home run on Sunday night was a totally feel-good moment, one of those things that remind me of why I love the sport so much. I only saw Chipper play one time before I moved to Thailand in the mid-1990s, and that was when he was playing for the Braves in 1991 … the Macon Braves, that is (At that time the Macon Braves were the Class A farm team of the major league squad). Somewhere in a dusty closet back in Florida, sitting in a neglected box of crap, are photos I took of Chipper back when he was playing for Macon. Not only has he been a Hall of Fame caliber player, Chipper Jones has always been one of the game’s class acts — a rarity in today’s world of overpaid, spoiled athletes. Here’s hoping that the Braves do in fact make the playoffs, Chipper remains healthy, and he shines during his final moment in the sun.


And speaking of shining, and to complete today’s triple play, my friend Margeaux, who goes by the nickname of Mango, flew in from Spain yesterday. She was only in Bangkok for two days, but it was enough time to get together and meet for a fine dinner, this time at Cabbages and Condoms, the touristy but tasty Thai Restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 12. Great food and great company; I was smiling like I’d just seen another Chippper Jones home run when I left the restaurant. Mango is works as an interpreter at conventions and meetings around the world, particularly in Asia. She is flying to South Korea tomorrow for a week-long event, and next month she’ll be working an even longer seminar in India. In between work, she is trying to finish writing a raw food cookbook. Busy lady! Too bad she won’t be around next month when our mutual friends Janet Brown and Ma Thanegi will also be in Bangkok.


Road Trip to Pindaya Caves

In November last year I took a group of students and novice monks from Tat Ein village to the annual balloon festival in Taunggyi. Here’s the link for photos from that excursion:

That trip went so well, and was so much fun — for me as well as the kids — that I wanted to take them somewhere else in the area when I returned this time. I asked the teachers and U Sandi Mar (the head monk in the village) for suggestions on where the children wanted to go this time. The verdict was unanimous: the Pindaya Caves.


These sacred caves are tucked away high in the hills, overlooking a lake in the small town of Pindaya. It’s a two-hour-plus drive from Nyaungshwe. Unlike some “caves” at sites around Myanmar, these are actually real caves (as opposed to some alcove carved into a cement wall) — and huge ones — located inside craggy limestone hills, full of stalactites and stalagmites … and thousands upon thousands of Buddha images of all shapes and sizes. Last count, there were something like 9,000 of the holy images inside the caves, perched and balanced and stacked everywhere. It’s either totally awe inspiring, or sort of gaudy, depending upon your point of view. Actually, I find the caves quite impressive; Buddha images surrounding you at every level and at every twist and turn. There are no bats flying around inside the caves (at least none that I saw or heard), but the ground is damp in many parts, and the paths are rough and narrow, so you really need to watch your step.


One of the greatest things about this trip, at least for me, was watching the children’s reactions to so many of the new sights and experiences. Two things come to mind; being with them as they took their first elevator ride (there is a glass observatory elevator that takes people “up the hill” at the caves); and being in the truck as they witnessed an airplane taking off for the first time (as we passed the airport in Heho). Seeing the wonder in their eyes and the excitement in their voices … I’m telling you, I feel really lucky that I was there for those “first” moments. That was special. I also had to remember; this was the farthest that most of them had been from their village before.


This time around I took nearly 70 people on the trip. Mostly students from the primary school in Tat Ein, novice monks from the monastery, plus some older kids from the village who go to middle school or high school in Nyaungshwe (the village has only the one small primary school at this point). In addition to the kids, a senior monk, a nun, three teachers, and a couple of parents came along. Htein Linn from Golden Bowl Travel also joined us, as did two of my friends visiting from Bagan. This throng couldn’t all fit in the big truck that I rented, so we also hired a second, smaller vehicle to handle the overflow.


We stopped at a monastery outside of Pindaya and had an early lunch at about eleven in the morning. I’m not sure if this stop had been planned or was a spontaneous one, but the monks in residence definitely had enough food to feed us all. That’s just the way things always seem to work out in Myanmar. Afterwards we headed to the caves, stopping for LOTS of photos outside the entrance, where a gigantic spider is one of the highlights. But due to all the photo-taking outside, I wasn’t able to get inside the caves with the first few groups of arrivals (the elevator that takes you up to the entrance can only handle 10-12 people at once) and we spent the first ten minutes trying to round up everyone. It was a bit disorganized, but thankfully we didn’t lose anyone and I didn’t notice anyone falling on the slippery paths inside the caves.


On the way back to Nyaungshwe we stopped at another temple, one that hosts the mummified body of a respected monk, and at the railway bridge between Heho and Shwe Nyaung — where some of the monks engaged in a rock throwing contest, trying to hit a metal crossbar down the hill. Once again, lots of photo requests, plus the children bought snacks at each and every stop. Even the monks were magically pulling money out of their robes and buying all sorts of junk food to eat. Hey, what you can say; it’s a special trip for them and they’re just kids!


As was expected, some of the kids got car sick during the trip. Htein Linn and I both brought little plastic barf bags, plus we stopped at a pharmacy and bought some medicine to help calm the stomachs of the ones who were susceptible to car sickness. Another problem was all the dust on the “shortcut” route that took in the morning. Indeed, it was faster, and we bypassed more hills this way, but the dust got all over everything. I was amazed at a couple of the young monks in the group; they stood in the back of the truck during the entire journey to the caves AND back again, not once sitting down or getting sick. Now that’s stamina!



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