Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Transient! The word rolls off downward-curled lips in a sneer usually reserved for such lower-castes as prostitutes, shit sweepers, backpackers, and attorneys. Some people seem to think that to live a mobile lifestyle is to be a shiftless lazy no-good bum. Maybe they’re right. Certainly the pan-handlers on the street don’t advance the cause. I’m referring to the people that you tend to smell first, like it or not, before you even realize that what they’re selling is guilt. Thank God for the sense of smell. Bio-molecular scuttlebutt is that half our genes are devoted to it, apparently to know what’s good to eat. It was probably more important in the old days when such things were not written down in cookbooks and therefore much more crucial for survival. Now it tends to have a more negative connotation, i.e. if ‘it smells,’ then it smells bad, at least in most languages, though not Thai. Thai has separate distinct verbs for ‘to smell good,’ ‘to smell bad,’ to simply have a smell at all, and of course the act of sniffing itself. The same verb for ‘to smell good’ also doubles for the act of pressing cheeks with your lover, which in Thailand takes on special importance, judging from the impression Tang’s bony skull leaves in the side of my face every morning. Thais are certainly the most olfactory people I’ve ever seen, addicted as they are to those stupid inhalants which occupy the remote corners of the shopping aisles in most countries, but pay big ad bucks in Thailand, along with multiple products to lighten female skin in six weeks. Where would we be without that? We might be fooled into thinking our spouses live healthy outdoor lifestyles, like all the Western women using products to darken their skin. Nevertheless Tang sniffed me up long before she ever kissed me, so I guess I passed the smell test. Don’t try that with the junkies in Vancouver’s Gas Town.

I can remember when there were still real hoboes, long before beatniks, hippies, or hitchhikers without a cause, hoboes who grew up with the railroad, like Chinese using it as a rite of passage into the country, getting a foot in the door and a leg up the ladder long after anyone worried about Chinese junks landing on the shores and long before anyone worried about Chinese junk landing in the stores. I saw them as a child of the 60’s wandering up the hill below my grandparents’ house in Fort Worth, but I’ve never seen them since. I guess they’ve been supplanted by ‘the homeless’ as the romance of the rails fades. You don’t see many hitch-hikers any more either, but you see plenty of homeless, and the romance is long gone. They’ve moved downtown, too, no longer relegated to the trackside or ‘under the bridge.’ I guess hitchhikers were the cultural link between the two, as I can remember some from my 70’s adventures who had actually ridden rails, though I never really did myself, nothing more than jumping on then jumping off just to prove I could. Though that was probably the heyday of mobile society, there were quickly signs that the bloom was off the rose as those same people frequently succumbed to alcohol and drug excess, replacing TV with cheap thrills at a fairly poor exchange rate I’d say. I know my own wake-up call came when I saw people drinking Sterno ‘canned heat’ to get a buzz rather than buy a six-pack of beer. For those of you who don’t know, Sterno was the jellied alcohol in a can that you simply opened and lit a match to for heat in your little portable stove. It’s worth mentioning but little compensation that the beer then wasn’t much good, either, long before micro-brews and their pubs. In those days I’d drive back from the West to Mississippi with a trunk full of Coors for the Homies, a beer that I would generously compare to piss now.

But I didn’t freak out and go sell real estate or anything. I just decided there must be some way to travel and make money, too. They said it couldn’t be done, and they were right. It can’t… any more. It’s funny that I made my living most of my life doing something that hadn’t been done before and probably won’t be done again on any large scale, dealing folk art and ethnic handicrafts. The process of tourism promoting handicrafts promoting cottage industry promoting import/exports has pretty much run its course and left native cultures more or less where they started, usually with improved local economies. That’s all they wanted after all. It’s the northern Europeans and their cousins who have the wanderlust. It’s in our Indo-Aryan speaking blood. We stayed out there on the steppes long after our southern cousins started hanging out with the Semites down on Club Med, learning how to be civilized and corrupt in towns and cities, climbing society’s ladders and jockeying for positions. They act like city people are smarter but anyone knows that’s cow poop. City people are just weaker. They’re servants and store clerks huddling together for safety against the ghosts and fears of their own pathetic imaginations, that they use to substitute for the real lives that they lost long ago, replaced by pictures on walls and silly love songs stuck in the head. The real poetry comes with the wind by the campfire; the real pictures are painted on the sky at sunset, lasting but a moment before the lights turn to darkness and souls take their rest. People of the steppes are hunters and herders, moving with the seasons and changing for their own reasons. They only need cities to prey on, to take what they need and leave the rest. A city of hunters only happens where a campsite becomes permanent and only then by convenience and circumstance, never necessity, for while a hunter may be IN the city, he is never OF the city. He’ll still have a little plot and a few animals, a view of the sky and a view of the future, ready to pack his bags at the slightest provocation, a roadmap etched in permanent memory.

The new landscape includes the web, of course, threatening to catch anything and everything in its sticky filaments. It’s hard to believe now that a computer was ever anything other than an Internet machine. Spreadsheets and databases gave way to e-mail and spam gave way to e-bay and e-banks gave way to MySpace and FaceBook. Now Second Life looks to take up where dreams leave off, a world inside the box, complete with land and money, milk and honey. For the conspiracy-minded this conjures up visions of bio-pods attached to TV screens by wires and tubes, getting their dreams and visions spoon–fed with oatmeal to produce fart-forced bio-gas for the cars in the real world upstairs. This should be where you look for losers and hustlers, a drug-like life for those who have none, hardly the place you find real men, the hunters and horsemen recently arrived from the steppes, right? The Next Big Thing may be fun and fashionable, good for Hollywood and Bollywood, maybe, but not much else, right? Business is done in tall towers; ‘firm’ people wear suits, right? Wrong. This is exactly where you find the hunters, along the borders, the frontiers where fear and boredom stop and Nature and creativity start, a line that crawls along the outskirts of towns and through the subconscious of individuals, fluid and flowing, shifting and re-shaping, to fit circumstance and forge the future. The Way is the main thing, not the bottom line, but the process and the progress. That is the American dream, civilization without cities.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I can’t believe I just casually did a Google search on John A. Wheeler a few days ago. I mean, I like physics, but it’s not like I keep running tabs on all the main players. We never had physicists on baseball cards in my childhood. If we had, we’d’ve attached them to the spokes of our bicycles with clothes pins so that our Radio Flyers would sound like Harleys on Valium while we pummeled Einstein to shreds. So the last time I saw Wheeler was on the cover of Discover magazine about five years ago in purposeful silhouette at the age of ninety-one, fading to black. This is the guy who coined the term ‘black hole’ and did much to revive relativity (and Einstein) and restore it to respectability from the sidelines where quantum mechanics and particle physics had relegated it. He’s also the one who explained general relativity simply as, “Space-time tells matter how to move. Matter tells space-time how to curve,” which I always thought was quite helpful. He also helped invent the atomic and hydrogen bombs and supported the Vietnam War, but that’s another story; after all Chomsky supported Pol Pot way beyond reasonable deadlines.

So I Googled Wheeler only to find he’d died but a few days before. All you theoretical physicists out there already knew that, of course, but I’m not a theoretical physicist, though if I had it to do over… Physicists are like athletes; they usually give their best at an early age and then spend the rest of their lives in eclipse. Schrodinger’s anno mirabilis at age 39 in 1926 was the great exception. Einstein had his at age 26. I know people still taking classes at age 39. Wheeler, student of Bohr and teacher of Feynman, lasted until age 96, beyond many of his students, like the linguist Franz Boas outlasting both his student Sapir and Sapir’s student Whorf. Wheeler was thus the last link to the golden age of physics, Einstein, and the quantum superheroes Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, etc. So now the torch passes to a new generation of physicists and the presiding elder now is the particle superhero Murray Gell-Mann, followed closely by the black hole and big bang biggies Stephen Hawking and Alan Guth, among others patiently waiting in line. Fortunately there’s also the ubiquitously photogenic and always smiling Michio Kaku, who explains it for us homies, because the rest of these guys seem pained to string words together into a sentence, apparently more comfortable with equations, though understandable with Hawking’s Lou Gehring disease. Kaku probably has a booking agent. You can find Gell-Mann’s and Guth’s phone numbers on-line. Can you believe that? I’m thinking of calling them. Murray Gell-Mann wears a tie hand-painted by Jerry Garcia. He apparently doesn’t care to be top-dog physicist either, since he also devotes his twilight years at the Santa Fe Institute trying to organizing linguists into finding the protolanguage that was mother to them all. That’s pretty cool. A lot of people would say it’s a waste of time. I wouldn’t. It’s just the flip side to ‘theories of everything,’ and that was you-know-who’s Big Waste. How many linguists are trying to explain the Big Bang?

If I had liked math more maybe I’d have gotten into physics before I became old and senile, but I doubt it. My high school didn’t even have a physics department, but that’s not the reason. The problem was the math, not that I wasn’t any good at it, but I just didn’t like it. I actually scored quite well on the math SAT, far higher than the verbal component, but that’s not what I wanted, was it? Or maybe it wasn’t what I needed. I needed explanations, and math didn’t do it. Still it’s strange for a Rankin County spelling bee prodigy who’s at least better than average at foreign tongues. There’s an idiot savant on TV who claims to be able to speak twenty foreign languages though he tends to not be able to find the bathroom and pisses himself regularly, but I doubt it. For one thing, on closer examination, he’s only actually fluent in three or four, so that’s no big deal, about like the average Belgian or Chinese Malay. For another thing, his Chinese tones are shit, which proves that idiot savants are still human, if nothing else. Mostly I imagine it’s just the long detour and fruitless path that foreign languages have been on since Chomsky decided that they were somehow magically ‘acquired,’ not learned, and which the Rosetta Stone language programs expect you to learn through reverse osmosis and parrot-chat. I’d like to see how much Hindi you learn by clicking merrily through the Rosetta programs with no knowledge of the Devanagari alphabet.

There’s more than one advantage to having a thousand channels on your TV screen. In addition to getting some good old-fashioned mind-candy as entertainment, a thousand movies giving you other people’s lives rather than your own, you might just learn something. I’m not talking Link TV, either. That’s good, an eye on the world, but mostly politics. I’m not sure why it comes on the religion frequencies. No, I’m more interested in Science TV, and even the NASA channel, in addition to old favorite Nat Geo and the History Channel, which seems to have moved beyond Hitler into the myths we live by, which is good, since Discovery has gone busting them as fast as they can. You can hardly read books on science anymore, since they’re out of date by the time they’re published. Internet’s good if you can trust your sources, but beware self-proclaimed intellectuals with more paper on the walls of their bathrooms than their offices. TV fills in the gap nicely. A good documentary beats YouTube or MeeVee any day, and it’s nice to see real scientists get their fifteen minutes of fame, however awkward or gawky or geeky they might just be. Some of them are a real hoot, and it’s not easy to remain unaffected by their infectious enthusiasm for their subjects, whether it be linguistics, DNA or physics, not coincidentally MY favorite three subjects. The personalities are not the important thing, of course, the information is, information that just might save our lives or our sanity or our planet or something.

Physicists just may be on to something big. They’ve diddled-off and dry-humped a long time since the last REALLY BIG THING, black holes, whose existence has only recently been confirmed (sort of) with the advent of the Hubble telescope. Sure there was a lot of hype when new particles were being discovered (sort of) every year, but that was not much different from the race to discover atomic elements a century before, and ended up asking as many new questions as it answered. Who can really keep up when they start introducing such bizarre concepts as ‘strangeness’ and ‘flavors’ in the actions of quarks, leptons, muons, gluons, etc. anyway, not to mention the elusive illusive allusive tachyon? So since then particles have been re-invented as strings with frequencies and dimensions to boot, and when strings get together of course first thing you know you’ve got membranes, whatever, anything’s better than ‘dark matter’ which starts looking more epicyclical every day, if you could only reconcile it with black holes, relativity, i.e. Quantum Gravity, the Holy Grail. In other words, why is gravity so weak in Nature and so… so… so EVERYTHING in a Black Hole? M-theory is now seriously considering parallel universe(s), which is where we come in, and everything ‘solid’, at the intersections of their planes, the dimensions of gravity, electromagnetism, and atoms, among others, mixing and matching, agreeing to disagree, and getting on with the business of reality. Next thing you know, they’ll even be suggesting that one of those dimensions is mathematically equivalent to what their metaphysical bastard cousins have always intuited as the spiritual world, the supernatural made natural, ready for a comeback as science. Let’s see a linguist do that. That’s why I like physicists; they could do that if they want. They’re smarter than me. Don’t you hate it when you read something and get the sneaking suspicion that the writer knows less than you?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Thai New Year Comes Fill Circle in LA… waterless…

As the yearly Songkran festival in Thailand draws to a close, it’s probably time to pause and reflect, which is easy for me since I’m not there. For the uninitiated Songkran is the world’s biggest water fight, celebrated around this time every year in Thailand, and especially in the north, where it seems to go on for ages. If you’ve ever been to Thailand, then you’ve certainly seen the pictures, if not actually felt the sting of ice water in your face as you ride your motorcycle down the road trying to secure provisions for you and your family in the early morning hours before the madness starts again. The word ‘Songkran’ comes from the Indian astrological calendar and refers literally to the ‘entering’ of the new month of Mesayon, equivalent to Aries in the Western astrological calendar, with the Ram and the whole shebang. Watch your back. This presumably merged with earlier fertility and renewal rites and since time immemorial has been associated with water, usually ladled over the shoulder in a symbolic act of communion, at least in Thailand. There’s more than a little sympathetic magic at work here, considering that this is the hottest driest time of year, so getting caught up in some water rituals of the splashy sort can be a fairly welcome relief, especially if you’re a child. Well, they say that everyone in Thailand is a child, so things naturally tend to get out of hand. Actually they don’t say that, but I do. The kids rule in Thailand, and there’s no better example of that than Songkran.

Anyway somehow somewhere the simple rites of baptism got transformed into a massive weeklong water fight of the most childish sort, city streets choked with flatbeds and pickups armed with 55-gallon water drums and men at the turrets, dishing out punishment to the not-so-casual observers. All things equal height has the advantage of course, so more powerful weapons come into play. Apparently this is what God invented PVC pipe for. Given a hack saw, the glue left over from the average sniff session, and a basic knowledge of hydraulics, the average street urchin can put together in a few minutes a water cannon capable of destroying the reproductive capabilities of a full-grown man at a distance of thirty feet. The truly creative put the ass end of the weapon right down into the central moat of Chiang Mai mere yards away to ensure an endless supply of, in this case, the brown stuff, water that seems to date back to the era when the moat was really used as a moat. Taking cues from the evolutionary lethality of a Komodo dragon’s saliva, this ensures that each simple squirt of the rubberized weapon is simultaneously an instrument of percussive shock and germ warfare. If it doesn’t kill you now, it’ll kill you later. Obviously such shenanigans are bound to engender some controversy, and Songkran is no exception. ‘Farang’ Westerners are divided on the issue and tend to either get the Hell out of Slidell or instigate their own version of the warfare, using battle tactics taken from American football and ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu. Most leave. After all, what may be good clean fun for a day or even two is absurd after three, downright dangerous after four, and borders on psychosis at five. The casualty figures are outrageous, also, particularly in reference to motorcycle deaths. Does it seem surprising that throwing water at passing motorcyclists might be hazardous? Bodies should be stacked like cordwood for the bonfire by right about now. Who needs a tsunami when you’ve got Songkran?

So the majority of us Farangs hole up in our hovels with our Heinekens and watch cable TV with our stolen Filipino signals and our borrowed Thai connections (something blue, anyone?). Anything else is hardly worth the effort. Not all Thais appreciate the Farang presence on the street anyway. That’s not the case at Khaosan road in Bangkok, however, where foreigners have actually spread the madness southward. Khaosan road is the center of Farang activities in Bangkok and a major hub of backpacker travel in SE Asia. Other than that Bangkok is fairly sedate during the holiday. Many if not most people in Bangkok come from elsewhere, after all, so most everyone goes home for the holidays. The bus stations are jam packed and the northern streets are filled with entire families feasting and celebrating late into the night every night. But Khaosan is where many of the Bangkok locals left behind now go, especially the younger set. A few years ago the big controversy was the type of blouses appropriate for girls to wear while manning the water cannons. Keep in mind that most Thais enter the ocean fully clothed, and as you well know wet T-shirts do have a certain currency in the thinly veiled subconscious. Speaking of thin veils, Muslim Thais down south don’t typically celebrate the holiday, something ‘normal’ Thais just can’t comprehend. Whether or not they ever settled the T-shirt controversy, I’m not sure.

Songkran in LA is refreshingly low-key. It almost seems like the sane Thais left the country to the bozos back home. As they say, sal si puedes, ‘leave if you can’. Actually they don’t say that, but Hispanics do, and they’re usually better at subtle nuances of meaning. Thais are more digital, off or on, all or nothing, which may be good for faithful reproduction of a photographic image, but not much else. So they tend to overcompensate, throwing out babies with bath water, throwing out their culture in their rush to assimilate. Admittedly many are only second-generation Thais anxious to become second-generation Americans, speaking the language of Fukien and money, Thai by circumstance and convenience, dialectical materialist by birth. Still they count, on both fingers and toes, though Americanized Thais seem to acknowledge a Chinese-Thai category more than the homies back home. What is it to be Chinese anyway, but a certain look in the eyes? You won’t find any Thais glomming on to Chinatowns like the Vietnamese, though. These Chinese went south. At least in Thai Town the Thai culture is maintained and nourished, in all its wackiness. It even comes full circle when the ‘Thai’ country music stars Jonas and Christie, both full-blood Farangs, show up in LA for the Thai New Year festival. You can’t get any more Thai than that. But a Songkran without water? That’s hard to believe. I’ll give it a year, maybe two, three at the most, then somebody will show up with a bucket of water, just like clockwork, then someone else, then someone else. Before you know it, it’ll be a full scale war zone, mark my word. You heard it here first.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Thai Girl Inna Hollywood

Ever wonder what lies just beneath the glitz and glitter of Hollywood’s ‘walk of fame’? Broken dreams, maybe? Novels in progress, perhaps, buried beneath a million un-produced screenplays? There just might be a heart. Keep in mind though that Hollywood is not that glitzy and glittery in the first place. It long ago lost its title as capital of the glamorous life to somewhere else, maybe New York or even Las Vegas, where pretentiousness is the currency, handy to have when you’ve lost all your money gambling. I’ve never seen Hollywood in anything but its faded glory mode, blissfully degenerate and totally unselfconscious and unconcerned about its own saddened state. A true art would be concerned, but Hollywood has rarely pretended to that, nor pretended to much of anything but image. Hollywood is an industry town, bare knuckles and dirty hands. At its best Hollywood pretends to the art of compromise, the essence of mass entertainment, particularly feature film-making. The city itself is no different. It has a carnival atmosphere on a good day, transplanted New Yorkers hawking pizza and corn dogs to over-excited tourists from ‘Braska who think that’s exotic ethnic food. They get the so-called ‘Walk of Fame’, the Chinese Theater, a big sign, and a few scraggly prostitutes, wild stuff, all stretched out like Times Square getting horizontal with itself, a failed theme park trying to imitate Las Vegas. But, like another dimension surrounding us unbeknownst, there’s another Hollywood that begins just blocks away.

LA is home to many ethnic groups, not least of which is the Mexican group who actually founded ‘the pueblo’. But that’s only the half of it. LA is home to so many transplanted East Asians that there are few who haven’t had a neighborhood named after them, complete with shops and restaurants specializing in their creations: Japantown, Koreatown, and Chinatown, to name a few. Unlike the Spanish-language Central Americans concentrated on Alvarado St., they are scattered all over the city, divided by language and custom, not even counting the Vietnamese in Orange County’s ‘Little Saigon’ or the Cambodians in Long Beach. By some quirk of fate or sympathetic magic ‘Thai Town’ is attached to Hollywood, the greatest concentration around Hollywood and Western boulevards, taking up where ‘Little Armenia’ leaves off, and intermixing and mingling with it. There would seem to be little connection between them, from opposite ends of the Asian continent, except perhaps common Aramaic alphabetic origins, but that’s evolution for you, a series of brilliant mistakes. Armenian food seems to be well represented in stores and bakeries bearing Armenian names, but I have yet to see any restaurants. There are plenty of Thai restaurants, however, and five years ago you would be excused for dismissing the so-called ‘Thai Town’ as nothing more than a conglomeration of such eateries. Since then, clothing stores, CD stores, bookstores, fortune tellers, and others have set up shop, and while you probably wouldn’t confuse it with Chiang Mai there is the critical mass to make a Thai feel somewhat at home, what with all the trappings. That includes Thai massage, not to be confused with Asian ‘hotties’ or 24/7 ‘outcall’. True Thai therapeutic massage, like Chinese acupuncture, is all about lines and points, and in its popular form is like having Yoga done to you.

Enter my wife Tang, a Thai massage practitioner ever since I got tired of her whiny housewife crap and told her to get a job or get lost. Check. She responded by deciding to study Thai massage. Queen takes pawn. I responded by telling her that that would be fine as long as confined to clinical situations. Check. Be careful of what you ask for; you might just get it. I knew from personal experience that typical Thai massage parlors are only about two steps removed from a typical Thai bar as a place where East meets West, but that’s the price you pay to play. On the other hand, many massage practitioners take the practice very seriously and study many hours up into the high levels of accomplishment and Thais of all levels of society appreciate the soothing effects of a good massage. It’s more than a simple rub after all, putting you through multiple positions with more than a little awkwardness, benefits only accruing with time. Unfortunately many Thai women see it as one of their few work options, along with cooking cleaning washing ironing or whoring, so the ranks are thick, even in LA. As recently as five years ago, there were no Thai massage parlors in Thai Town. Now there are at least ten. You can’t get any more Thai than that. It seems that there is an economic law of Thai massage which states that given no artificial restraints there will be as many massage parlors and masseuses as can survive at the minimum sustenance wage for all concerned. LA seems to be no exception. Add the US love of regulation and licensing and you’ve got a situation where not only is the market glutted but hard to break in to. All those certificates we scanned over from Thailand are worthless here. Apparently to give a good Thai massage you need to know Swedish, shiatsu, and deep tissue stuff. Fortunately there is some wiggle room in interpretation of the laws, so Tang was able to find work.

LA is the loneliest place in the world. I’ve been to over fifty countries and I don’t get lonely anywhere, except LA. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the lofty expectations or the vapid social climbing, whatever. It’s probably the poor urban planning, which by creating a center-less city, has actually engendered a lack of ‘centeredness’ in its populace. So now my wife in her first week in LA has more friends than I ever had in several previous attempts, simply because of her Thai birthright. Whether any of those benefits will accrue to me remains to be seen. So while Tang tries to whip old flabby butts into shape, or at least into feeling better about themselves, I sit over here a block off Hollywood and Vine listening to the clinks and clangs of business and industry by day, and the grunts and groans of not-quite-unrequited desire by night, all under the gloss and guise of Hollywood, so anything and everything goes, absolutely everything. The really weird shit goes on in places cheaper than this. Actually this place has got the best TV I’ve ever had in my life, not just IFC and Sundance, but LINK TV (aka the Chomsky Channel but they’ve also got world music), so I’m content for a while at least, attached by cable to the real world above like some Matrix Mugwump on bio-feedback, receiving images from the mother ship. This is Hollywood’s Golden Age after all, the best filmmakers from all over the world right here working. Ever wonder what happened to all those independent and ‘foreign’ filmmakers like Spike Lee, John Singleton, Peter Weir, Wolfgang Petersen, Steven Soderbergh, Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez? They’re all in Hollywood making ‘commercial’ films like Man Inside, 2Fast2Furious, Truman Show, Ocean’s Eleven, Hell Boy, and Spy Kids. In my spare time I continue plotting my future using the latest algorithms from al-Khwarizmi himself, and ejaculating my little messages in bottles for the easily amused. ‘Simple blogger’ indeed! The massage parlor owner even said Tang could crash at the shop if she wanted, just like they do in Thailand, so I guess I could take off and come back if I really wanted, just like I’m prone to do ‘over there.’ It’s still a big world ‘out there.’ Tang works ten to twelve hour days, seven days a week, and gets paid in cash. Hey, wait a minute! What country is this, anyway? It’s Thai Town, Jake. It’s Thai Town.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


I’m sorry for the delay in this blog, but that’s what happens after a profoundly moving experience. I usually reserve such superlatives for Great Moments in Thought, Religion, or Love, but there are exceptions. That’s why I got into the music business after all, or why it got into me. I always knew it had the capability for profound effects on the region of the upper chest area, and Dengue Fever did not disappoint. I first saw this group on TV somewhere, either in Thailand, US, or UK, sometime either 2004 or 2005, long before they started climbing world music charts. The blurb was about a Cambodian group making waves in LA. They didn’t look all that Cambodian to me, but they were certainly memorable, a petite Asian with a monster voice singing in Khmer while a band of renegade Angelenos backed her up, playing a type of music I’d never heard before, 60’s Cambodian pop/rock. I planned to see them at SXSW in 2006, but that was before I’d ever been to SXSW and knew what a traffic jam it was. They got lost in the shuffle. So I started following their web site looking for a place to catch them in the flesh, all the while catching snatches of their songs. It wasn’t just that I liked them, but with our mutual connection to Asia, it was something I needed to be on top of. That opportunity came in September of the same year at Bumbershoot in Seattle on my way back from Alaska. If SXSW was a traffic jam, Bumbershoot was a certifiable cluster-fuck. Fortunately Dengue Fever came on early, and they were great, but nothing like last Tuesday’s show in Flagstaff. That was transcendent. Or maybe it was just because it was MY show. I guess I’ll have to catch them again soon, just to know for sure.

The music business is pretty flakey, and ‘World Music’ is even flakier, probably because no one really even knows what it is, or what it should be. For an English-speaker, it tends to be “none of the above” in the ‘multiple choice’ of listings, and considering the English-speaking world’s dominance of the music and entertainment industries, that’s probably the way it should be. Tell that to the people who book world music festivals. Whether because of their legendary quirkiness or more likely to provide backfill logic to the fact that world music is going nowhere fast, there’s always someone who’s going to book a bluegrass group or a blues band or something, explaining dryly, “America’s still part of the world, isn’t it?” This does not help promote the genre, though it might help promote an otherwise struggling bluegrass band, of which there are many in the US. Ditto for Mexico where groups who are nowhere near the top of the charts in their own country find themselves written up in encyclopedias as representatives of their respective genres, all because at least one member of the group fearlessly promotes them in the English language, while an all-Spanish group like Mana’, who hit number 4 in the US charts overall with millions of sales, gets no mention whatsoever. So world music execs toss out big words like ‘indigenous’ while simultaneously falling right into the hands of those with the best marketing department. Dengue Fever certainly is second to no one in the category of ‘mixed origins’- they hired her after all- but then they mix metaphors in time as well as space and offer no apologies, nor should they. This is psychedelic surfer sixties Asian pop, remember. If some critics sniffed “wayward eccentricity” after their GlobalFest showcase in New York in 2007, tell that to the hundreds of Cambodians who flock to their shows when ever and where ever they play. I wish we’d had them in Flagstaff, for while the show was a huge critical and sensory success, the Tuesday night crowd was not enough to turn a profit. But that’s my problem.

Ch’hom Nimol is a wonder to behold. While not the group’s founder, she is its pretty face, and the direct link to the group’s spiritual origins in Kampuchea. Nimol is a cross between Cinderella and an Asian Janis Joplin, the fragile soul in the glass slippers boozily belting out Asian pop hooks in a voice much larger than her own small frame should logically accommodate. It’s not an act. For a girl from Battambang raised in refugee camps (she speaks good Thai btw) to now be touring the world at the head of a LA rock group is truly the stuff of fantasy and legend. Maybe they’ll let me write the book some day. If the Khmer lyrics leave you wondering what she’s really singing about, then have another drink. Isn’t that Asia’s biggest attraction anyway, tradition and family and folk wisdom packaged in a shroud of mystery for sale to the highest bidder? If it all seems chaotic and frenetic and frenzied under the harsh glare of sunlight busily cracking through urban skies, it’ll get better when the sun goes down and the little multicolored twinkling lights come on and you listen to sweet melodies reminiscent of Chinese brush paintings in misty country sides. Or maybe you’d rather pretend that the lyrics are about Zen enlightenment or Triad treachery. The Khmer lyrics let them be whatever you want. So what if they’re mostly silly love songs adapted and modified to many different beats, similar but different? That only proves what I’ve known for a long time: it’s about the music, not the lyrics. Only a very few artists depend on lyrical content, if you can even understand all the words anyway. Dengue Fever can do well on that count, too, what with lines like, “you called me up because I’m sober and you wanted me to drive.” But however much Nimol may want to ‘connect with her audience,’ the bottom line is, mysteries sell well. Most Asian girls have Teddy bears back home on the bed, not whips nor opium pipes, but you don’t need to know that. Mysteries sell. These guys play infectious entertaining, and downright addictive indie pop with an Asian flavor, and that’s the bottom line. Think tom yam rock and roll.

I don’t usually include pictures in this blog, simply because there are too many of them out there and their content is too easy to slosh around the mouth and then ultimately spit out, while the US populace becomes increasingly illiterate by the day. But this time is an exception. For one thing I want it to be clear the headlines refer to the music, not the disease. For another thing I want to show the band backstage, rather than their usual publicity photos, which you can find anywhere. These are a bunch of really nice people after all, driving their own van cross-country and then playing their hearts out like it all has meaning. It’ll be a sad day when I book them or see them and it’s ‘just business,’ playing the set lifelessly and then going on or going home. It’s probably inevitable, though. I don’t see how they can maintain such an energy level forever. Actually I’d probably include some concert pics here also, but my wife Tang cut off Nimol’s head in the photo, so that’s that. I’m sure that was no Freudian slip, though I confess to enjoying my quick hug. They enjoyed Tang’s massages, too. Stay tuned for the further adventures of Jack Free and Thai girl in America.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Thai Girl inna Hopiland

My life is one long crescendo, eventually leading to what, I don’t really know. I just know it’s accelerating at the same time that my body succumbs to gravity, in inverse relation to the square of the distance from the source. By some quirk of fate I find myself attached at the hip to a Thai girl in America, my name on her visa and now on our marriage license. I used to wake up in Thailand and ask myself rhetorically, “What am I doing here?” Now I wake up in America and ask, “What is she doing here?” It’s not just that these are the vagaries of marriage and togetherness, though they are, it’s just that this face has never been a part of this landscape. Marriage is a life sentence, a life chapter, a life story. They’re there when you need them; they’re there when you don’t. So now we find ourselves in the country of her dreams, the legendary America, much discussed but little known. There are Thais in Thailand who make their living doing nothing but being experts on America. That doesn’t even count the far greater number that make their living being English language go-betweens between the local Thai culture and the big world outside. Has anything really changed that much since Suzy Wong charmed the socks off viewers and the drawers off dressers, or the sailors in ‘Sand Pebbles’ waxed existential about ‘shacking up with a Chinese girl and opening up a bar’? Apparently not much. GI bars line the streets of Bangkok and Pattaya long after the war’s over, and well-heeled refugees from modern western countries find themselves washed up on the beach there in some version of its immoral equivalent. I can’t denounce it since I’ve done it, though I couldn’t denounce it unless I’d done it, either, so let’s just split the difference. Do what you have to do to make it through the night, but don’t sign any contracts under the influence or under duress. Loneliness deserves a remedy, but if you want a wife, then find a good girl. That’s what I did. Marriage is not subject to negotiation, and compromises should be with your partner, not your God.

Thais love to travel, but I’m not sure they ever really go anywhere, since they usually take all their friends and family with them. For Thais traveling in Thailand it’s not a question so much as to how many people will travel as to how many vehicles. Then when the caravan starts off people start piling in so that you don’t usually even know how many you’ve got until you get there. Houses or rooms get rented and people flop just about anywhere, thirty people going to one famous site after the other, sitting down to eat all together and flopping in piles at the end of the day. So to travel in America is a totally different affair for my wife. It’s as much about the other as it is about each other. For me that means culture, history, art, science, and religion. For Tang that means the bus driver, the maid, the guy with the tattoo, or the girl with the pierced something or other. For her the world is comprised of people and everything else is an intervening and seldom entertaining vacuum. Usually that means her family and friends Taen, Jiap, Tik, Nuay, and countless others with whom she’ll frolic like a puppy till the sun goes down (or comes up), funds permitting. However much my friends and family mean to me, my life simply is not about them. It’s about experience, both internal and referential, or external and infinite. Fortunately that world of people extends to strangers, so they become the other for my wife and many typical Thais. This is where we find common interest, so I find myself chatting up the maid about her Navajo origins and so forth, all to be translated to the delight and amusement of my wife. She’s still trying to learn the difference between Native Americans and Mexicans, why the one speaks good English while the other doesn’t, or may or may not speak one of several different native languages. They want to know about her, too, because truth be told she could pass for one of them and they both know it. They just need to know the details. Fortunately Tang’s openness and lack of pretentiousness takes over where her command of English leaves off and she manages to communicate with smile and innuendo what she lacks in perfect grammatical inflection, where others of greater skill might clam up in self-consciousness at their imperfection.

So it is against this psychological landscape that we toured the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Fortunately the physical landscape is a bit calmer and more inspiring, for it is nothing if not vast, and that’s much of its appeal. So we start off on I-40 to Winslow, and then go north from there up to Second Mesa, I giving speeches on the similarities and differences between Navajo and Hopi, both historical and cultural, while she dozes unceremoniously. Fortunately there were ceremonies at Moenkopi, so that saved the trip from being no more than a tour through a past of John Ford westerns and missed opportunities. Moenkopi is the Hopi part of Tuba City, an otherwise Navajo town and far from the Hopi ‘rez’. They may have more ceremonies just to remind themselves of their ‘Hopi-ness. This is a situation not unlike that of Hano on First Mesa, a Tewa village on the Hopi rez. The famous village of Old Oraibi was interesting, a 1000-year-old village still intact and inhabited, but the dances and ceremonies are the main event, and unless you’re a tribal member, these are hard to schedule. Fortunately we got to Moenkopi right on time, right as they were finishing one ‘set’, so got to see the next one in its entirety. This was an eye opener for Tang, for although they’ve all heard the legends of ‘Red Indians’, they never realized that those people might look very much like themselves. They certainly dressed differently, though, at least for the ceremonies, costumes not unlike those used a century ago. Many in the audience were dressed in their Sunday finest, too, and standing on rooftops for a better view. This was just like I saw in the same place some eight years ago, as if nothing had changed in the intervening time except that I’m older, hopefully wiser. After some time of dancing, soon they’re giving away food and provisions, presumably to emphasize the unity of community and the religious obligation to donate of one self’s time and possessions. I scored some yeasty bread in the shape of a flower blossom.

America holds many treasures within its boundaries, often overwhelmed by the predominant consumer culture and overlooked by its own inhabitants. Much of this is in the form of Nature, with such phenomena as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone rarely matched and never excelled anywhere else in the world. But America has ethnic wealth, too, in the Native culture still extant and the African culture transplanted, among others. Though often reviled and frequently mistreated, these people are Americans too, and more often than not proud of it. The dominant white culture should be proud of them too.

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