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

Archive for October, 2013

Stax Records and the Last Days of Soul

The Memphis-based Stax Records was a powerhouse of a label in the 1960s, ranking only behind the mighty Motown Records in terms of churning out hits on the R&B and Pop charts. But many fans of soul music would argue that Stax was actually miles ahead of Motown in terms of quality, boasting a roster of singers and musicians such as Otis Redding, Booker T & the MG’s, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas, The Staple Singers, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, Little Milton, and dozens of others.

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But as the decade ended and the 1970s arrived, the hits became fewer and fortunes of Stax declined. However, a compilation of songs on Stax released by the Kent label in 2012, Nobody Wins: Stax Southern Soul 1968-1975, reveals that even though the hits might have dried up, the label was still releasing plenty of great tunes. Because of their legal problems and a dispute with CBS (the label’s very important distributor), by 1975 Stax had a cashflow problem and many of their “name” artists had left the label. According to the liner notes that come with the CD, “To fill the gap in the release schedule members of the back room staff were encouraged to make records.”

Man, what a talented back room staff that must have been! Among those unheralded artists was a guy known as Sir Mack Rice. Rice may not have been a known entity as a recording artist, but he was a very respected songwriter, having penned tunes such as “Mustang Sally” (a monster hit for Wilson Pickett), “Respect Yourself” (which the Staples Singers turned into a hit), and “Cheaper to Keep Her” (one of Johnnie Taylor’s biggest hits). He ended up recording three songs for Stax in late 1974, one of which, “Nobody Wins ‘Til the Game Is Over,” is included on this CD. It’s a gritty, soul shaker with that classic sound you associate with Stax. The liner notes call the song “very much in the Hi (label) sound”, but I actually think the following tune on the CD, “Groovin’ on My Baby’s Love” by Freddie Waters, sounds more like a vintage Hi Records tune, like something in the style of Al Green as produced by Willie Mitchell. Yep, it’s that delicious.

There are plenty of other great songs on this CD, both from “no-name” artists such as Charlene & the Soul Serenaders, Inez Foxx, and Calvin Scott, to veteran acts such as Little Milton, the Soul Children, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, and Mabel John. Another one of my favorite tracks on this collection is “Make a Joyful Noise” by Bettye Crutcher, a sweet soul masterpiece that recalls some of the best “joyful” tunes of the era. Crutcher worked at Stax for many years as a songwriter (in fact, she co-wrote several of the songs on this CD) until she finally got a chance in 1974 to record her own material, resulting in a most pleasing album, Long as You Love Me.  As with all CD compilations from the Kent and Ace team, Nobody Wins: Stax Southern Soul comes with a deluxe booklet that has a history of the label and details about these recordings, along with artist bios and vintage photos. Another “must have” for fans of 60s and 70s southern soul. Meanwhile, here are the other CDs that are keeping me afloat during this rainy month in Bangkok.

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Bettye Crutcher – Long As You Love Me

Tedeschi Trucks Band – Made Up Mind

I See Hawks in L.A. – New Kind of Lonely

Grant Hart – The Argument

Kings of Leon – Mechanical Bull

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Various Artists – Diablos Del Ritmo: Colombian Melting Pot

Michael Fennelly – Love Can Change Everything

Various Artists – Late Night Tales (selected by Midlake)

Gene Clark & Carla Olson – So Rebellious a Lover

Terry Adams & Steve Ferguson – Louisville Sluggers

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Various Artists – The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons

Propaganda – Secret Wish (25th Anniversary Edition)

Booker T – Sound the Alarm

Michael Chapman – Trainsong: Guitar Compositions 1967-2010

World Famous Headliners – World Famous Headliners

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Alton Ellis – Mr. Soul of Jamaica

Lou Donaldson – Here ‘Tis

Z.Z. Hill – The Brand New Z.Z. Hill

Various Artists – Country Funk 1969-75

Menahan Street Band – Crossing

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Benny Soebardja – Lizard Years

Kenny O’Dell – Beautiful People

Bert Jansch – A Rare Conundrum

James Iha – Let it Come Down

Deerhunter – Monomania

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Dan Greer – Beale Street Soul Man

Richard X. Heyman – Actual Sighs

Skatalites – Foundation Ska

Francis Dunnery – Let’s Go Do What Happens

O.M.D. – English Electric

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Chris Difford – The Last Temptation of Chris

Samuel Purdey – Musically Adrift

Angel City – Face to Face

Pete Donnelly – When You Come Home

Woody Shaw – Stepping Stones: Live at the Village Vanguard

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Freddie Roach – Good Move!

Local Natives – Hummingbird

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion – Wassaic Way

Lee Morgan – Rumproller

Jeb Loy Nichols – Days Are Mighty

 

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One Afternoon in Mandalay

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When I’m in Mandalay I usually take the kids from the neighborhood I frequent on 90th Street (near U Tin Chit’s teashop) on a field trip somewhere in the area. Earlier this year we took our first multi-day trip to Bagan, Mount Popa, and Shwe Set Daw. This time around, however, due to school being back in session and my limited finances, we confined our excursion to a one-day tour of the greater Mandalay environs, visiting pagodas, monasteries, and old wooden bridges (but no, NOT the famous U Bein Bridge this time around).

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We also found time to visit the Olympic-sized swimming pool that is located next to the zoo, just north of the moat that surrounds the old Mandalay Palace. I know that these kids love to swim, but I wasn’t sure that this would be a wise choice, coming so soon after the tragic drowning of one of their friends in the river a few months ago. But the kids made it clear that going to the pool was high on their agenda, and Maw Hsi, one of the fathers who came along to help me keep an eye on the kids, had no objections either, so, swimming it was!

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And of course the kids also found time to eat a variety of snacks at almost every place we stopped. It didn’t matter that we had a full lunch at one of the old monasteries in town (overseen by a friendly head monk who walked around with an iPad and showed me photos of his village school project), they still couldn’t resist the lure of more mangoes and weird salad concoctions.

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For the most part the kids behaved themselves, but one of the boys ended up punching another one later in the afternoon, leading to a few tears and threats of retaliation, but they eventually patched things up and it all ended well. At least I think it did. Never a dull moment with this crew!

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30 Years Ago … a Murmur

Thirty years ago R.E.M. released their first full album, a collection of alluring, jangly, mesmerizing songs titled Murmur. The band made many other fine albums during their multi-decade career, but to my ears nothing else they recorded (except perhaps their following album, the equally excellent Reckoning) boasted as much musical magic as Murmur.

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Smitten by that album, thirty years ago this week, in October 1983, I opened my first retail shop, Murmur Records, in Orlando, Florida. The location where I operated the first three years was a relatively small space, but I packed it with tons of records (most of them bought on consignment from my D.J. friend, Mike Cooper, in Atlanta) and cool posters covering the old walls, along with plenty of enthusiasm and — needless to say — lots of great music playing each day. I took risks, I listened to requests, and I worked long hours (open to close every day, no days off for the first two years), and was lucky to develop a loyal base of customers. Eventually I outgrew the first space and moved to a larger location (with working air conditioning) a few blocks away. Once I had enough money to able to hire people to work for me, I was rewarded to have quality folks like Jim Leatherman, Eddie Foeller, Tim Skinner, Beth Ann Sparks, Quan Nguyen, De De Branham, and so many others (off the top of my foggy head; hello to April, Julian, Kareem, Cory, Paul, Sovanna, Michael, Mitchell, and the other Jim) who were valuable additions to the crew. Those Sunday softball games with friends and customers were a lot of fun too.

To inaugurate the record shop when it opened in 1983, we had an in-store concert by Love Tractor, a band that I knew from Athens, Georgia. Nine years later, when I decided to change the name of the shop and add books to the mix, Love Tractor also returned for a final show in the back of the store, along with an amazing performance by opening act Billy “The Human Jukebox” Taylor. In between those dates Love Tractor also played a special Fifth Anniversary birthday party that we threw in a downtown Orlando club. As it happened, Love Tractor was in the middle of a tour with the B-52’s that month, and a couple of members of the B’s (including Fred Schneider) dropped by the club and sat in on a few songs. I wish I had a recording of that show; Fred singing versions of “Born to Be Wild” and “We Are Family” tore the roof off the sucker.

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In addition to Love Tractor, I booked a few other bands to play in local clubs and halls, including the Swimming Pool Q’s, Replacements (that show at a VFW Hall ended up getting raided by the local police!), and True West. We were also lucky to have in-store appearances from The Ramones, John Wesley Harding (also a novelist known by his real name, Wesley Stace), The Ocean Blue, the Silos and many other national and regional bands.

I operated the record shop (more of a CD shop after the first three years) until 1992 when I had the “brilliant” idea of revamping the entire concept. I added new and used books to the mix, stopped stocking louder and more “abrasive” music, and changed the name of the shop to Alobar Books & Music, convinced that the growing number of grunge rockers was ruining the atmosphere of the shop, or at least making it much less fun than it had been. Unfortunately, the more “mature” mix of music and books that I stocked didn’t attract as many customers as the old “alternative” blend of music that I specialized in. Plus, the advent of deep-discount chains like Best Buy was putting a hit on the CD business. But that didn’t matter so much in the grand scheme of things; I was still having fun and enjoying the camaraderie of cool customers and employees. The “end” came in 1996 when I moved to Thailand. But the store still didn’t die. I sold the shop to Quan, one of my longtime employees, and he brought back the Murmur name one more time.

Nowadays, I live in Thailand and sell used books instead of used records. Instead of returning to visit the Sunshine State I’m more likely to be found wandering around monasteries in Myanmar’s Shan State. But I remain an incorrigible music addict and still try to keep up with any noteworthy music that’s being released, and digging deeper in the archives of stuff that’s been released in previous decades. I continue to be amazed, and pleased, with the music I’m discovering this late in life. I’m also one of the declining numbers of people who still purchase real CDs. A downloader I’m not.

But this week I’ll be breaking out the beer and toasting all those amazing employees, customers, relatives, and musicians who helped make Murmur Records such a success, and played such an important part in my life. I think I’ll also be play R.E.M.’s Murmur a few more times too!

 

Tomato Salad Party at the Monastery

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It was another one of those magical, unplanned events that ended up being one of the highlights of my recent trip to Myanmar. I was just standing around, taking some photos at the monastery in Tat Ein village when duty called. Or rather, one of the senior monks called, having got the bright idea that I would be the perfect “volunteer” to serve tomato salad to the novice monks in residence at the monastery. Actually, it sounded like a fun task, so I agreed to do it.

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One of the monks brought out a big silver bowl, packed with copious amounts of freshly-made tomato salad, and set it down on a ledge by one of the pagodas. The U-Zin (senior monk) handed me a silver soup spoon and instructed me to give three heaping spoonfuls to each monk. I eagerly commenced to do as instructed, but after the first dozen or so monks the novelty wore off and I was starting to feel tired. But with several more dozen waiting in line (they have over 50 monks at the monastery) I couldn’t face the shame of quitting, so I kept spooning out the salad.

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After everyone had been through the line once, the U-Zin took over the task and dished out the remaining amount of tomato salad to the hungry young monks. That was fine with me; it gave my tired arm a break and I was able to take more photos of the action. The U-Zin was obviously more experienced at doing this than I was; the size of his spoonfuls put mine to shame.

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The strangest aspect to this whole tomato salad fest, though, was the timing. Buddhist monks are not supposed to have any meals after 12:00 noon, and this feeding was occurring about five in the afternoon. So why were they eating so late in the day? I asked a friend in town about the post-noon feeding, and they shrugged it off, saying that tomato salad was considered more of a light snack, as opposed to a full meal, thus it was allowed. My only regret is that I didn’t get to sample any of the salad. Judging from the reaction of the novice monks— including Htun Lay, who took a few of the photos of me “in action” — it was a very tasty treat indeed. Some of the kids even drained their bowls of the leftover juice. Good to the last drop!

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Hospital Scare

My mobile phone rang on Monday afternoon, a call coming in from one of my friends, whom I will call “H”. Only it wasn’t “H” on the line, but a Thai woman. She asked if I was a friend of “H” and I answered in the affirmative. She told me that she was calling from Paolo Memorial Hospital in Bangkok. “Your friend had an accident,” she said. “Can you come to the hospital?”

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Well, sure I could come. I asked what room he was in, but she said that he was still in the emergency room. That didn’t sound good at all. I finished doing a few things at my bookshop, including getting the contact information for both the hospital and the school where H teaches, which is in Mandalay. I hopped on the Skytrain and took that to the Saphan Kwai station, only a block from the hospital.  I asked for the woman who had called me, and after a short wait she took me to the emergency room, where they had H in something called the Resuscitation Room. At this point, I was expecting really bad news. My friend was laying there on a table, nobody else around him. I walked closer, hoping to see some signs of life, and was relieved to see a slight rise and fall of breathing from his chest. I spoke to him, but there was no answer. Both of his eyes were swollen shut, bruising around each one as if he had been in a fight or had hit his head on something.

I waited for a good five minutes until a nurse came over to ask some questions. I gave her the contact information for the school in Mandalay and she handed me a plastic bag with my friend’s passport, his cell phone, and an envelope with some documents and bank receipts. I didn’t see his watch or wallet anywhere. She couldn’t give me any further details, other than “he had an accident.” One of the receipts showed that he had gone to another Bangkok hospital on Thursday, the day he was scheduled to arrive from Mandalay. But where had he been between Thursday and Monday? Had he been robbed? Was he sleeping in the street for three days?

H has no relatives in Thailand or Myanmar. Back in the US, he only has one cousin in Alabama. The hospital’s biggest concern, other than contacting relatives, was if H had medical insurance. I knew that he did, but I didn’t have that information and he had other documents or cards with him. I suggested that the hospital contact the school and see if they had anything on file. Eventually, we got things sorted out and I signed a form that admitted H to the hospital. They took him to ICU immediately.

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Eventually, part of the mystery was solved. I contacted the apartment where H usually stays and found out that he checked in on Thursday, as scheduled, and was seen on Friday, coming and going, but no other activity over the weekend. He was scheduled to check out on Monday morning, but when he didn’t come downstairs the apartment manager sent a maid to see if he was still in the room. He managed to answer the door and let the maid inside, but obviously something was wrong, so the apartment called an ambulance to take him to the hospital.

I had to work long shifts on Tuesday and Wednesday, but checked back with the hospital for updates on H’s condition. The first two days he was still unconscious, but a later report from one of the nurses said he had “woken up” and trying to speak but not making any sense. One of the teachers from Mandalay was in town on a visa run and he visited the hospital on Wednesday and called me with a similar report. The US Embassy also called me, asking if I had any information on H’s relatives, but I couldn’t tell them anything, other than suggesting that they contact the school in Mandalay.

I was able to get away from my shop on Thursday afternoon and visit the hospital again. I didn’t know what would await me when I arrived. H was still in ICU, but this time his eyes were open and he greeted me by name. I talked to him and asked him a few questions, all of which he understood. He sounded a bit groggy, but other than that, he was his usual grumpy, sarcastic self. What a relief! His memory also seemed fine, although he appeared a bit disoriented and I had to tell him which hospital he was in and what of the week it was. He told me that upon arrival at the airport in Bangkok on Thursday he had fainted and fallen, hitting his head on a chair. That prompted a visit to another area hospital where he got some stitches above his right eyebrow. But his memory of what happened the rest of the weekend is much hazier. The oddest thing is that he had his phone with him, but he never called me. And that’s not like him. Whenever he’s in Bangkok he calls me every day and we usually meet for dinner once or twice. But this time … nothing.

I visited the hospital again on Saturday, but this H looked much worse and could barely speak above a whisper. A nurse said something about an infection in his lungs and said he had been sleeping most of the day. I still haven’t gotten a clear answer as to what caused the fainting or when he’ll be able to get out of ICU and into a regular room or ward.  Had he suffered a minor stroke or some sort of head injury? Right now, I’m just pulling for him to make it through this ordeal, hoping he can return to a normal routine in relatively quick order. Sickness sucks.

 

Photos from Htun Lay, Shan State Novice Monk

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My guest photographer today is Htun Lay, a novice monk at the monastery in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. Except for the photo that I took of him above, all of the other shots are ones that he took, including the “self portrait” below!

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Htun Lay is also a student in Grade 4 at the village’s primary school. And let me tell you: he’s not one of the slackers, but a very diligent student. I’m worried, however, that he’ll do a disappearing act. It seems like every time I assign one of these novice monks the task of being a photography assistant, the following time I return to the village they aren’t around, having been transferred to another monastery in the region. But such is the life of many novice monks in Myanmar. Some are monks for only a few months, or perhaps a year or two, but for the ones that are in it for the long haul it often entails bouncing from one monastery to another.

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I’m not sure what Htun Lay has planned for his future, or how long he plans to study at the monastery, but he sure had a lot of fun with the camera this time. Enjoy these photos, taken by a very personable novice monk.

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When Good Writers Go Bad: The Mystery of John Sandford

I popped into the Emporium shopping center in Bangkok last week, looking to kill some time before meeting a friend for dinner. Browsing the increasing limited bookshelves at the Asia Books branch there (unless you’re looking for the latest bestsellers, forget about finding anything remotely old), I was pleased to see the new John Sandford novel, Storm Front. Or was this the new one? The title looked quite familiar. I checked the publication date, which was 2013, so it appeared to be a new book, but I’ve been burned before, so I scanned the other titles listed under Sandford’s name. Ah, there it was: the similarly titled Storm Prey. It was confusing enough when all the books in the Lucas Davenport series had “Prey” in the title, but now Sandford seems to be borrowing words from past titles for his new books too!

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I’m a big fan of John Sandford’s novels. I’ve read the entire “Prey” series, all the Kidd books (the artist turned computer hacker), the handful of one-off titles that he’s written, and everything in the recent Virgil Flowers series. This new novel is also part of the Virgil Flowers series, but fair warning to longtime fans; this one’s a stinker. By the third chapter it was obvious that something was more than a bit “off” about this novel. Not only was the dialogue flat and sophomoric, but the characters themselves were shallow and their actions inconsistent. Not at all like previous Sandford novels. All of which leaves the reader to wonder: Did John Sandford even write this novel?

For those who have read the other books in the Virgil Flowers series, you will have noticed an “Acknowledgement” — one could even call it a disclaimer — preceding the first chapter in each novel, telling the reader that the book was “written with” or “in cooperation with” some old friend or fishing buddy of Sandford’s. In the case of this new novel, Sandford says in the acknowledgement: “I wrote this novel with help from my partner, Michele Cook, journalist and screenwriter, and now a novelist.”

But to me, it’s still not clear: Has Cook written another novel, or is this one her first effort? And if so, why is her name not on the cover along with Sandford’s? In past episodes of the Virgil Flowers series, the influence of any outside collaborator was subtle at best. The books were consistent enough in quality that it seemed like the same person was writing them all. But this time around the collaborative effect is jarring. This novel doesn’t flow or have the same feel as other novels he’s written. Sandford says that he wrote this book “with help” from Cook, but to me the novel reads like something else entirely, as if Cook wrote the book with only a slight bit of input from Sandford.

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The Virgil Flowers character has always been an engaging protagonist in Sandford’s novels, delighting readers with his wit, zest for life, shameless flirting, and dedication to the task at hand. Virgil may act like a goofball, but he’s pretty bright guy and always catches the bad guy. In this novel, however, Virgil comes off as more of an inept buffoon. The story itself is also not up to the quality of previous novels, lacking Sandford’s skillful plotting and deft use of dialogue. At times, the events in this novel are so absurd that they venture into Carl Hiaasen territory, yet it’s never as funny as something that Hiaasen would write. Instead it’s just weak. But I kept plowing through the book, intent on finishing it. Instead of enjoying the experience, like I normally do, I was just hoping it would end soon, willing it to end. But the story kept going on and on and on, any sort of climax remaining frustratingly elusive, much of the dialogue descending into stupidity.

Having co-authors seems to be in vogue nowadays. James Patterson is notorious for doing this; thanks to frequent co-author billing, he was credited with writing 13 novels last year. He’ll probably have as many this year too. The word “ridiculous” springs to mind. Clive Cussler is another veteran author who now almost always shares co-billing with another writer —although good old Clive’s name always jumps out in a much bigger font!

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If John Sandord is going to keep writing this series “with help” from others, or allowing someone else to write most of the book, then he and the publisher needs to acknowledge that on the COVER of the book, not in small print buried inside the book where a potential buyer won’t see it … until it’s too late.

 

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