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

Posts tagged ‘R.E.M.’

BT in BKK!

The BT Express pulled into Bangkok this week, and it’s been a wild and most amazing reunion. Sometimes known as “The Human Jukebox” or in a previous incarnation, “The Haunted Laundromat”, my friend BT is indeed a one-band of sorts. An incredibly creative musician and artist, we grew up in the same neighborhood of Orlando, Florida, the area known as College Park, and ran in the same circles of music-minded people for several decades. I’ve known him for a long, long time.

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But I had not seen BT since I moved to Thailand, over 18 years ago! While I was in Bangkok, he moved to Atlanta for a few years, and then did a cross-country migration to Los Angeles for over a decade, but we always managed to stay in touch via e-mail. After a few months in Germany this year, he packed his bags again and headed to Southeast Asia for the first time. He spent the first couple of weeks in Malaysia, visiting Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and then arrived in Bangkok this past Monday. Welcome to the Big Mango, baby!

When you haven’t seen a friend in the better part of two decades, you’re not sure what to expect. Would he be the same? Look the same? Act the same? How we would get along? Well, we’ve all aged, but BT didn’t look that much different, and as soon as he walked into my bookshop and started chatting, it was like we were back at Murmur Records 30 years ago and hadn’t missed a beat. No awkward lulls in the conversation at all, just instantly clicking once again.

Within minutes he had me laughing and grinning, thinking about the people we knew all those years ago and the places we hung out and travelled, not only in Orlando, but also in Atlanta and Athens (that’s the place in Georgia, y’all!); Meiner’s Pit Barbeque, South Orange Blossom Trail (OBT!), Freddie and Ray at Rock & Roll Heaven, Fred Schneider, the mysterious Gunther, the various Jims and Daves, the Clermont connection, Chuck’s Jamaican restaurant, R.E.M. and the Athens scene, the religious loonies we know, Mark and Armistead from Love Tractor, Retro Records, Dubsdread, Danny Beard and Wax ‘N Facts, Wuxtry Records, the Fairvilla Diner, April the mortician, Colonial Plaza, Bobby and Adria, Jad Fair and Half Japanese, Quan and  Eddie and Mitchell, Ken and Marty and Paul from Stumble, Nadeem and Anne Marie, the folks in Pylon, Edgewater High, Record Mart, Molly Hatchett and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Northgate Shopping Center, Tom Smith and Peach of Immortality … ah, it was all so overwhelming that my head was spinning. But really good memories.

BT has a 60-day tourist visa for Thailand and he plans to make the most of it. He’ll stay in Bangkok for a few weeks and then maybe head up North to Chiang Mai. He’s already travelled up to the suburb of Pathum Thani, an area he described as a “farang-free zone,” so he’s starting to see different sides of Thailand, not just the bustling tourist zones of Silom and Sukhumvit, all peppered with 7-Eleven branches on every block — or sometimes three to a block. Honestly, sometimes you look around the concrete jungle that is Bangkok, you’d swear that you WERE back in Atlanta or some other large American city. But then the sight of a som tam stand or the waft of an approaching squid vendor shatters that illusion entirely. No, you’re not in Florida anymore. Bangkok truly is a different and magical place.

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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!

 

Baseball, Barbecue & Yo La Tengo

Growing up in New York in the 1960s, Ira Kaplan was a Mets fan. That’s baseball, for those of you who aren’t enlightened about the world’s greatest sport and its relevance to the meaning of life. In addition to being a diehard Mets fan and a baseball nut, young Ira was also a music junkie. He bought 45 singles, he bought albums, and went to countless concerts. He couldn’t get enough of music, an affliction I can certainly relate to.

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After Ira started a rock band in the early 1980s he was looking for a catchy name, something a bit different from the rock band norm, and perhaps inspired by the sport he loved. The first choice for a band name was: A Worrying Thing. Huh? Well, believe it or not, that name DID have a baseball angle, although a murky one. During an interview with a newspaper reporter many years ago, a Cleveland Indians pitcher named Stanley Covelski was quoted as saying: “Doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. That’s history. It’s tomorrow that counts. So you worry all the time. It never ends. Lord, baseball is a worrying thing.”

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But that name, along with several other attempts, didn’t stick, so Ira Kaplan kept searching, finally settling on: Yo La Tengo. Another big “huh”, right? Well, once again, there is perfectly justifiable baseball origin to the name, although one as equally obscure as “A Worrying Thing.” The new name came from a book about baseball that Kaplan had read, Jimmy Breslin’s Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, an account of Ira’s beloved New York Mets during their first year in existence as an expansion team in 1962. It seems that there was a communication problem between the veteran center fielder, Richie Ashburn, and Elio Chacon, the Spanish-speaking infielder (he played both shortstop and second base). This problem was acerbated when fly balls hovered between the two players, resulting in a few too many collisions. Another teammate advised Ashburn to yell “Yo La Tengo! — Spanish for “I’ve Got It” — when fly balls came into the danger zone. Ashburn did as advised and the problem was solved. Except, that is, for another befuddled outfielder, Frank Howard, who thought his teammates were yelling “Yello Tango,” and ended up bowling over Chacon anyway. Brilliant stuff!

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While Ira Kaplan is indeed a huge fan of baseball you won’t find any baseball themed songs in the Yo La Tengo discography (unlike, for example, The Baseball Project, the band formed by Steve Wynn and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck). But throughout Yo La Tengo’s albums you will note an incredibly diverse arsenal of music, ranging from acoustic folk songs to melodic rockers and feedback-spiced electric guitar jams. Apart from their lovely Fakebook album, which remains my personal favorite, their albums don’t always follow a safe and cohesive pattern, but that’s part of the charm, making them all rewarding listens.

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I just finished reading Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock by Jesse Jarnow, a book that was published in June last year. As expected, there are a lot of baseball references, plus details on the band’s fascination with barbecue, and their long and winding search for the perfect bass player, which happily resulted in a most successful fit. I found the book to be a fascinating read, not only because I’ve been a fan of the band since their very first album, 1986’s Ride the Tiger, but also because I was involved in the same indie music circles (as a record store owner, concert promoter, music journalist) during the 1980s and 90s. Obviously, the baseball and music references struck a chord with me, but I was also impressed with just how well written the book was. It’s one that I think will appeal to readers who don’t know much about Yo La Tengo and could care less about baseball. Jarnow’s writing style is so polished and assured that it could easily lend itself to other biographical subjects. He’s that good, and his tale of Yo La Tengo and the peripheral music scene makes for very engrossing reading.

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Jarnow’s book brought back tons of great memories as I stumbled across references to favorite albums and recording artists of the era, plus mentions of various people in the music business whom I had met during those years. I once sat next to a guy at an Orlando Twins minor league baseball game, who turned out to be Bill Million from the Feelies, one of the truly great bands of the era and one that crossed many musical paths with Yo La Tengo. In Bangkok, when I was working for Tower Records in the mid 1990s, I bumped into Steve Fallon, the owner of the legendary Maxwell’s club in Hoboken, where Yo La Tengo and many other bands (such as The Feelies) cut their musical teeth. Ira Kaplan’s brother Adam was my sales rep at Dutch East for a spell. And so on. The Hoboken scene and ones in Athens, Austin, and Minneapolis, musicians, managers, and label reps; it was all one big supportive community. And reading this book reminded me of what an amazing musical web we all weaved in those heady days before the advent of that thing called the Internet.

I also once had a short chat with Ira before Yo La Tengo took the stage for a set at a club in Orlando. The subject? Baseball, of course! More specifically, we talked about a Minnesota Twins pitching prospect named Willie Banks, a player whom Ira had seen pitch in high school. At the time of the Yo La Tengo show, Banks was pitching for the Orlando Twins, the AA minor league affiliate of the big league club. He ended up pitching in the majors for a few years but never became the top-flight pitcher he was projected to be. But unlike Willie Banks, Yo La Tengo did fulfill their promise. No, they never reached the heady heights of a band like Nirvana or R.E.M., but they did sell a lot of albums over the past two decades, consistently played packed shows in front of adoring fans, and received overwhelmingly favorable critical acclaim from the media.

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In addition to the book, Yo La Tengo just released their new studio album, Fade, earlier this month. I haven’t heard it yet, but my copy has already been ordered and hopefully making its way to me very soon. Please, Mr. Postman, make it on time! Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to listening to this latest installment in the magical story of Yo La Tengo.

 

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