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

Posts tagged ‘Florida’

New Year Reflections

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Another New Year is here, which inevitably leads to reflection, resolutions, setting goals, and all those sorts of “start-the-year-anew” things. I’m just glad the idiotic Christmas season is finally over. Even here in Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, you can’t escape the people wishing you a “Merry Christmas.” Okay, I realize that most of them mean well, but don’t they have working brains? Why do they I assume that I’m a Christian and/or that I celebrate Christmas simply because I’m a Westerner? I can forgive the Thais, who seem to think that Christmas is nothing more than another festive Western tradition, but I have to wonder about the mentality of the Westerners who so blithely assault you with their inane Christmas cheer. Enough already!

This past year has been a difficult one for me, at least in terms of enjoying life in Thailand. I’ve lived in Bangkok for almost 21 years, but the charm and appeal of day-to-life has definitely faded. Maybe the “honeymoon” is finally over, or perhaps my tolerance for Thais and their “mai pen rai” way of living has finally been exhausted.

Having to “manage” Thai employees has been the real test, a particularly exhausting exercise in patience. Most days I feel like a glorified babysitter, having to monitor these people and dealing with their habitual tardiness, inefficiency, and immature behavior. Turn my back for a single minute and they are playing with their “smart” phone or engaged in idle chatter. I’m not sure how  much longer I can put up with it all.

Actually, I still like Thai people. They are a pleasant, fun, laidback bunch of people — it’s just that I don’t especially like working with them! But I have to remind myself that it’s not all bad — and they aren’t all bad. I see nice people doing nice things every day, and it puts a smile on my face. And I also have to remind myself that I’m living in a city where the cost of living is still relatively low, there aren’t serious safety concerns, and there are a plethora of inexpensive transportation options available. Yes, for all is faults and warts, chaos and congestion, Bangkok remains a very nice place to live. I doubt I would be saying that if I was still living in the USA.

And so I remain in the sanctuary of my bookshop, enjoying the parade of interesting and genuinely kind customers who pass through each day. Just in the past few days, I’ve had nice conversations with regulars such as Phra Ratha (the book-buying monk with a burgeoning library), Sam the Thai Neil Young fan, Jim from Nashville, the nice Canadian lady (then again, aren’t all people from Canada nice?) who will buy a dozen books at a time, Robert from South Dakota, Daniel from New Zealand, Christopher G. Moore the writer, John from Sheffield, Kenny the Walter Mosley fan, Pumas from India, and many other nice but nameless customers. Some days are stressful and it can get insanely busy, but the cool customers help to make the occasional chaos tolerable.

I’m also thankful for the mails or phone calls from old friends that I’ve received this past week: my old boss Richard (who is now in the Philippines), Richard in Dallas, Linda in California, Hach and Pov in Cambodia, Janet in Seattle, Ye Man Oo and Hein Yar Zar in Mandalay, Chiet in Nontaburi (by way of Cambodia), Khin Nwe Lwin in Japan, Keith in London (who was in Istanbul this past week, but luckily not in harm’s way), Thay in Siem Reap, Mar Mar Aye in Nyaung Shwe, and my dependable Florida friends Tony, Dave, and Stan. Suddenly the year ahead — facing the frightening prospect of Donald Trump leading the world’s most powerful nation — doesn’t seem quite so depressing. Then again, buckle up and prepare for the worst!

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to see my old friend Bay at the motorcycle taxi stand near my apartment. He’d been “missing” for the past six months — gone back to his home province, presumably — and I was getting worried, so having him back in town and working as usual was a sign that things are perhaps back to normal.

Normal? I’m not even sure what this is anymore, but here’s hoping for a year that is decidedly less cruel, violent, and heartbreaking.

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Twenty Years Gone: Finding a New Life in Thailand

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This month marks a big anniversary for me: it was exactly twenty years ago, in March of 1996, that I left my home in Orlando, Florida and moved to Bangkok, Thailand. Starting a new life in a new country, surrounded by new sights, sounds, and smells. I’d gone from the plastic environs of Disney World and neighborhoods infested by mosquitoes and churches, to a chaotic but vibrant city packed with Buddhist temples, go-go bars, mangy soi dogs, and 7-Eleven branches on every street (actually, it’s sometimes now three or four of those convenience stores per block in Bangkok). Some people might think that moving halfway around the world to a foreign country where English is not the native language, and where the culture is very different, would be intimidating or uncomfortable, but I’ve found that hasn’t been the case for me at all. I’ve adapted, I’ve learned, and I’ve thrived.

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I was getting my hair cut today by a vivacious Thai woman named Pin. She wasn’t the very first person to cut my hair when I moved to Bangkok, but she was probably the second one, and for nearly the entire twenty years that I’ve lived here I’ve let nobody else cut my receding hairline. Happy Anniversary Pin … and Happy Anniversary Thailand! I have never regretted my decision to leave the relative comforts — not to mention the spiraling crime — of the USA and settle in a so-called “backwards” third world country. Hell, if Thailand is considered backwards, let it drop further! Moving to Thailand has given me a new perspective on life, new inspiration, and additional energy. If I was back in the states, I’d be edging towards retirement age and wondering how I was going to survive for the next decade or two, but over here it feels like I’m just getting started and have a lot of life to look forward to living.

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For most of these past twenty years I’ve lived in Bangkok, subtracting only the two years that I moved to Cambodia and ran a bookshop in Siem Reap. It’s not like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses. Thailand is far from a perfect place and I see things on a daily basis that drive me crazy, but when I think about the prospect of moving back to the United States I break out into a cold sweat … nd that’s not a funky James Brown sort of groove filled with positive vibes, but a most definite fear of being thrust back into an increasingly disturbing, dysfunctional, and dangerous society. I just sit back and watch the current political soap opera that is unfolding (imploding?) in the USA and thank my lucky San Miguel bottles that I don’t have to be surrounded by all that American nonsense.

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Okay, it’s not perfect over here either, and I admit that there are things that annoy me greatly about Thailand (don’t get me started about the current political situation!), but putting it all into perspective I’d still MUCH rather be living here in the kooky kingdom than back in the United States of Amnesia. Admittedly, there ARE some things that I miss about the United States and my hometown. I miss seeing some of my friends and I miss certain restaurants (oh, that amazing Cuban food in Florida!), but I don’t miss the family dramas, the high cost of living, or the cruelty ingrained in the culture. And I certainly don’t miss all the creepy Christians or the conservative rednecks who think the Civil War is still being fought and that racist jokes are funny. Uh, no thanks. And yet another thing: since I left Florida I haven’t owned or driven a car (or any motorized vehicle) for the past twenty years. I don’t miss the driving, the parking, the car maintenance, or all those insurance payments either. Honestly, it’s a relief to be free from all of that crap.

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Living in Thailand is only part of the equation. Using Bangkok as the hub, it makes for relatively quick flights (one to two hours) to neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Myanmar. I continued tt be dazzled, and comforted, by these amazing places and the kind people who live there. And I still haven’t visited other nearby countries in the regions such as Vietnam, Indonesia (and Bali), Nepal, and the Philippines. Maybe I’ll go to these places someday. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the fascinating culture and friendly hospitality of Thailand and the other countries in the region. I’m here to stay!

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Loving Life in Bangkok

This month marks 18 years since I left my comfortable life in the USA and moved to the chaotic confines of Bangkok. It was a drastic move and a new adventure, but one that I felt like I needed to make. And I haven’t regretted it a bit. Eighteen years? Damn, time does indeed fly by!

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When I first moved to Bangkok I was quite adventurous about seeing — and doing — as many things in town as I could. Of course I was already familiar with the city after visiting many times over the previous years, but living in “The Big Mango” was still a fascinating and thrilling new experience. The city isn’t for everyone, and certainly there are many people who don’t like it at all, but for me it’s a fantastic place to live and it still hasn’t lost its vibrancy and fascination. Never a dull moment is an understatement. I love living here.

I had a bit of time to reflect on living in Bangkok earlier this week when I ventured down to the notorious Patpong quarter to meet Richard, a friend from Texas, who was staying at a hotel on Suriwong Road. I hadn’t been to this part of town in ages, but walking the streets and immersing myself in the myriad sights, sounds, and smells, brought back lots of great memories. I stopped at one street vendor and bought a bunch of Thai themed key chains to give to friends in Myanmar when I go there later this month. I bought several dozen so the dealer was more than willing to give me a discount. I’m not much of a haggler, but I do enjoy talking Thai with these street sellers. Most of them are really nice folks who are always delighted to hear a foreigner speaking Thai, and that really opens up the conversation. For me, that’s part of the charm of living here.

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After meeting Richard at his hotel we strolled down the sidewalk obstacle course on Suriwong. It was about 6:30 in the evening and the street was already packed with vendors, touts, and the usual parade of badly-dressed tourists. We ate the Roadhouse Grill on the corner of Suriwong and Rama IV Road. I’ve eaten there many times in the past decade but hadn’t been there in about two years. I was very impressed by the service and the food was excellent (the savory black bean soup brought back memories of great Cuban restaurants in Florida), although it was muchmore expensive that it used to be — or at least more than I remembered. The waiter was so diligent and personable that I added an extra tip on top of the service charge already on the bill.

Earlier this week I had to go to my bank to transfer money to an account I have in the US. I’ve done this several times before, but the process, and the paperwork involved, is always fraught with tricky details. One wrong piece of information is liable to screw up the whole transfer. But the young woman I dealt with at the bank was very sweet and very patient, and when I made a mistake putting the correct name under one of the beneficiary accounts she caught it and helped make the correction. When the transaction was finally complete she gave me a little bank bag as a gift.

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And then my friend Toh showed up one night and met me for a late dinner of noodles at a nearby street vendor. Those cheap eats are some of my favorite meals. Toh just returned from visiting his mother in Kalasin and brought me a gift, another unexpected but nice surprise. After dinner we went back to my place and listened to music (he had brought a live CD by Retrospect, a Thai band that he likes a lot) and had a really nice conversation. I hadn’t realized that he was such a history buff; he particularly loves watching movies and documentaries about various world wars. He’s such a cheerful and easygoing guy, and I feel lucky to count him as a friend.

Feeling lucky sort of sums up my life here in Bangkok. I’ve worked some great jobs and meet some great people, both Thais and other foreigners. It’s been an incredible adventure, and I hope it continues for another 18 years … or longer!

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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!

 

Andy Williams in a Winnebago

Many of you probably heard the news that legendary singer Andy Williams passed away this week at the age of 84. Most people would associate Williams with his huge hit 1960s “Moon River,” but when I think about Andy Williams the image of a dusty Winnebago motor home springs to mind.

 

To the best of my knowledge Andy Williams never sung about driving a Winnebago or recorded any odes to motor home romance, so I should probably explain such a seemingly bizarre association. During the early 1970s my parents owned a Winnebago and every summer they would pile me and my sisters into the vehicle for long distance trips around the Southeastern US (from our home in Florida), or further west to Colorado. During those road trips we had 8-track tapes constantly playing music from the likes of Jim Croce, the Carpenters, Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell, the Platters, and a few glorious K-Tel collections of recent Top 40 hits. And there was also a healthy amount of Andy Williams on board too. No trip would have been complete without Andy crooning the theme songs from “Love Story” or “The Godfather,” or his renditions of “Your Song” or “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Something about that voice of his was just very, very soothing.

 

“Moon River,” of course, was his most famous song, and you got to admit, his version was a classic. In addition to that chestnut, he recorded a considerable amount of standards and middle of the road ballads such as “Danny Boy” and “Dear Heart”, so his recording output was not all exhilarating stuff. But he (or his producers) also had the knack for picking out cool contemporary cover songs to record, 70s gems like Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” and many more.  And Andy Williams did those songs justice.

 

A few years ago, I saw a compilation of his “groovier” 60s and 70s material, In the Lounge With … Andy Williams on sale at a Bangkok CD shop. I just couldn’t resist buying that one. This album contained some percolating tunes like “Music to Watch Girls By” … “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” … “Windy” … “Up, Up and Away” … and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Schmaltz never sounded so good. I later supplemented that CD with a more extensive collection of hits, The Essential Andy Williams. But that was enough for me: I bypassed getting any of his many Christmas music collections. I’m not that much of a masochist!

 

In 2009 Andy Williams published an autobiography, Moon River and Me. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve got a secondhand hardcover edition sitting on the shelf at my bookshop, and if nobody buys it in the next week or so (I’ve got it displayed in the window right now, between Fifty Shades of Grey and an old Alfred Hitchcock paperback), I just may have a go at that one. Hell, if nothing else, I need some more non-fiction to break up my heavy diet of mystery novels.

 

Clarence Clemons

One of many — too many — great musicians who passed away this year was Clarence Clemons, the saxophone playing dynamo from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Clarence wasn’t just another musician in the band, he was a vital cog in the wheel; perhaps the most indispensible single member. Physically, he was a huge man, capable of  commanding your attention at any time, but when he was onstage and playing his sax he become an even more imposing force of nature.

 

On songs like “Jungleland,” Clarence’s sax playing was as crucial — or more so — to the composition as Springsteen’s lyrics or guitar playing. Clarence’s sax added extra layers of atmosphere to each song; depending on the mood of the song, it could sound mournful, soulful, funky, or raucous. And when Clarence got hold of a song like “Kitty’s Back,” he would blow the roof off the tune, creating a joyous feeling of wild abandon. The man is irreplaceable.

 

Shortly after Clemons passed away in June, Springsteen issued this eloquent statement about his friend and bandmate:

“Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”

I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band six times in concert during their “glory years” from the mid-70s through the mid-80s. Those shows were, without a doubt, the best concerts I saw during that period. The energy that Springsteen, Clemons, and the other members of the band exuded each night was breathtaking, and sometimes exhausting. Shows that lasted three hours or longer. They gave all they had, and it showed. Clearly, this was a band having fun onstage, and their enthusiasm inevitably infected the audience.

 

During one the band’s early 80s tours, the night before a show in Lakeland, Florida, some friends and I went to the hotel where the band was staying and managed to find out which floor they were on. This was in the days of little to no security, so we had no problems roaming the corridors of the hotel. At one point during the night, “the Big Man,” as Clemons was fondly called, came wandering out into the hallway wearing only his underwear. He smiled and nodded at us — I think he might have even murmured “Howya doin’” or something like that — and then shuffled off in search of more ice. Ah, those brushes with greatness!

 

I was thinking about Clarence again this week as I listened to Springsteen’s amazing Hammersmith Odeon London ’75 live album. That double CD has some great early-period Springsteen songs, all of them punctuated by Clarence’s vibrant sax playing. These live recordings really embody what was so wonderful, and vital, about Springsteen’s music. But listening to this album also shows that it wasn’t just Bruce’s songs and charisma that thrilled audiences; it was a band effort. Listen to these songs, smile and remember the greatness of Bruce, Clarence, and the band. I’ve decided that their version of “Quarter to Three,” the old Gary U.S. Bonds hit that’s one of the encores on Hammersmith Odeon, will be a great way to ring in the New Year this weekend. Play it loud!

Skaggs & Hornsby … and Anderson

A friend of mine in Bangkok let me borrow the CD that Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby released in 2007, simply titled Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby. It’s a fabulous, lively set of bluegrass originals and “reworked” versions of Hornsby songs like “Mandolin Rain” and “A Night on the Town.” The last track on the album, however, is the real head-turner; a hoedown cover version of Rick James’ “Superfreak.” But who was the vocalist? His delightful country drawl sounded very familiar, but I knew it wasn’t Skaggs or Hornsby. Okay, check out the booklet inside the CD, dummy. And that of course revealed the answer: the singer was John Anderson. If that name doesn’t ring a bell right away, remember that huge 80s country hit “Swingin’”? Yes, THAT John Anderson, as opposed to the senator from Illinois who once ran for US President or the Jon Anderson from the band Yes. This John Anderson was a good old country boy with a great singing voice, the pride of Apopka, Florida, which is right now the road from my old hometown of Orlando. In fact, one of my friends from university went to high school in Apopka with John. Just a regular guy, from all accounts, but one with talent.

“Swingin’” might have seemed like a novelty hit to some listeners, but Anderson had plenty of other great songs and recorded several very good albums in the 80s and early 90s. Songs like “1959” and “Seminole Wind” are classics in any genre. He was quite successful for a few years, enjoying a run of number one hits on the country charts, but he changed labels several times and I’d lost track of him in recent years. Was he still recording? A quick online checked revealed that, yes indeed he is. Just two years ago he released a new album, Bigger Hands, on the Country Crossing label. Good reviews on that one indicate that it may be one to hunt down. In any case, it’s good to see an artist with such a distinctive voice still out there making music. And kudos to Ricky and Bruce for recruiting John to sing “Superfreak” on their album. You gotta hear this one. If it doesn’t make you smile, it’s time for lethal injection.

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