My Record Collection and How I Lost It

My college friend, Andy Devos, recently published a lovely Facebook post on LPs and it got me thinking about my record collection and how I lost it.

When I was a boy, we lived across the street from the Gray family. The Grays had two boys, Richard and Jim. By the time we moved to the neighborhood, Rich, the eldest, was out of college so I never really got to know him. The younger boy, Jim, was about 10 years older than me. I was around eight when we moved into that house on Lilac Street and Jim was a junior or senior at a boarding school in the upper northeast.  Jim was tall and lanky, and he played on his school’s basketball team so when he came home on the weekends he’d often be outside shooting hoops in his driveway. I had a basketball hoop in our driveway as well and I spent an inordinate amount of my time out there so when Jim was home he’d often wave me over to his house and we’d shoot hoops together.

I was in awe of Jim Gray. He was a good basketball player, he got to go to high school away from home and he treated me like his kid brother. Jim nicknamed me “Star” and even now forty years later, I recall how proud I was when he’d saunter over to our driveway and casually say, “Hey Star, take some shots and I’ll rebound for you.”

Jim was also into rock and roll, big time, and when we weren’t talking about the 76ers and their chances of winning the NBA championship, Jim was introducing me to the depth and breadth of rock and roll music.

Jim had a pair of three-foot tall Altec Lansing stereo speakers that he nicknamed “Allison.” He’d haul the speakers into the garage from his bedroom, plug them into his parent’s hi-fi in the living room, place the speakers in the middle of the garage and then crank up the volume! With the garage doors open the sound shot outside so that it almost blew your hair back. Some of my fondest memories growing up took place out there on Jim’s basketball court shooting layups and jump shots to “My Generation,” “Born to Run” and “After the Goldrush.”

Jim’s tastes were slightly off the mainstream of 1970s FM rock and roll. His favorite band was Santana so, naturally, Santana was my favorite band as well. For my ninth birthday, Jim gave me the first rock and roll record I ever owned, Santana III, and that record, then, became a touchstone for my future musical tastes.  The deeply percussive polyrhythms, the Latin claves, the singing and chanting in another language (!), the long, ecstatic guitar solos–I had never heard anything like that before. I spent hours sitting cross-legged in front of my record player watching the record spin, reading the lyrics and the liner notes over and over again and studying every inch of the album cover.

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The inside cover of Santana III

From Santana III I steadily began to build up a collection of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll LPs. When my mom would go to the mall, I’d sidle over to the record store and look for the albums I was hearing on the radio. The Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes, The Beatles’ The White Album, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty and Graham Parsons’ Grievous Angel. If I had a bit of money in my pocket, I’d stand there in the middle of Sam Goody’s, a record in each hand, trying to decide which one I wanted to buy.

By the time I graduated from college, I had a sizable collection of LPs that included a first press of REM’s Gardening at Night, the UK pressing of The Clash’s first album, a special edition (purple vinyl!) of The Pogues’ Red Roses for Me, just about every Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan album, a collection of English folk rock bands like Fairport Convention and The Strawbs and a small collection of Philadelphia new wave bands like The A’s, Robert Hazzard and the Heroes and the Hooters.

I lived at home for two years after college so I kept my LP collection on a shelf in my bedroom. When it was time to pack up my things and move to Michigan for graduate school, I needed something to transport my albums so I made a large wooden box from white pine board. I neatly arranged the albums according to genre and artist, lifted the box into the car and drove off to Michigan.

At Michigan State I became a regular customer at the local used record store, Flat Black and Circular. This was the early 1990s so cds were a relatively new technology and everyone wanted them so they were expensive (at least relative to my graduate school stipend). Records were cheap so my LP collection grew significantly over the course of my graduate school years.  My musical tastes, happily, evolved during this period as well. My jazz collection expanded to include Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Coltrane’s Blue Trane and I spent many a late night reading nineteenth-century literature and history with Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies and Maurice Ravel’s piano concertos spinning on my turntable.

I left Michigan State in 1995 to take my first teaching position at a college in Iowa, and the wood box full of my LPs was the last thing I put in car before I optimistically slammed the trunk and drove west. CD prices fell significantly in the late 1990s and the town I lived in in Iowa was without a record store so my record collection stagnated and my turntable became a place to pile the new plastic jewel boxes. Five years later, I was packing up again. After a series of failed relationships and what seemed at the time like a failed career, I was heading back to Michigan State to pick up the pieces. The LP box came along, but as I lifted it into the trunk of the car, I felt like I was picking up a succession of losses.

I rented a crappy apartment in a crappy apartment complex and quickly realized that I was broke. I sold a couple of pieces of furniture and then one day I looked at the box LPs, loaded it into the back of the car, drove Flat, Black and Circular and sold the whole box for $150.

So it goes.

I sometimes wonder what became of all those records. I like to think that they went out into an LP diaspora, scattered and dispersed across the country and tucked up alongside other people’s records. Some of them, I’m sure, gave people the same kind of wonder and joy that they brought me. Others, like the LPs from the obscure Philadelphia bands, probably ended up in trash bins. It’s hard to make it through half a century and not have any regrets. You could shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, they were just records and what were you going to do, carry them around with you the rest of your life?” I mostly wish I had them so I could share them with the children, but, what’s to say that they’d be interested?

In his FB post, Andy writes eloquently about some of the albums that had an influence on his life. He mentions Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On? and Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (LPs all I had in my collection) and he writes movingly about listening to these records as a young man and what they have come to mean to him over time. One of his friends asked Andy if he still had the albums and if he still listened to them. Turns out he does and that his son and his friends listen to them on their turntable.

What goes around . . .

Irish Music

We’re nearly two months into our stay in Ireland and I still haven’t heard any traditional Irish music.

Thank god.

I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I just don’t like traditional Irish music. I can listen to it for about ten minutes in a pub (or through half a pint of Guinness) before my head feels like a tin can being smacked with a spoon and I have to walk outside and listen to the tire wheels passing by on the surface streets to get that sound out of my head. My friend, Andy Auge, reminded me a few weeks ago, that last time we were both over here together, we were standing in a pub somewhere in Dublin and I (allegedly) turned to him and said, “I need to hear some bass,” and promptly left the pub. I gravitate toward music that blows your hair back and that you can feel from the inside out, so, it makes sense that I’m not, for the most part, taken with treble-governed traditional Irish music

There are, of course, many varieties of traditional Irish music and song. I don’t mind the ballads and the laments so much; in fact, I love “Raglan Road,” a Patrick Kavanagh poem that’s been put to music. It’s a haunting poem set to a simple and beautiful four-chord melody and when you hear it, it kind of pulls at you in the way an old photograph from the time when you were a child might do. “She Moved Through the Fair” is another good one, as is “My Lagan Love.”

As you’d expect much of traditional Irish music includes strong political themes. The republican/nationalists historically have had the corner on this market and since about the time of Wolfe Tone’s rebellion of 1798 they’ve been writing and singing nationalist/anti-British occupation songs in the pubs and at public meetings. My favorite of this genre of Irish music are the anti-war or protest songs. In one of my favorites, “Arthur McBride,” the narrator and his cousin, Arthur McBride, are walking “down by the seaside” on Christmas morning when they are approached by a sergeant for the British army who tries to trick them into joining up with the King’s army. The sergeant offers them 10 guineas apiece and paints a picture for them of a fine and comfortable life should they sign up. Arthur basically tells the sergeant to fuck off and then he and the narrator whack the sergeant over the head and throw his sword in the ocean. Fair enough.

On the other hand, I absolutely cannot stand the rebel songs. There’s a long tradition of rebel songs in Ireland and their function has been generally to inspire the populace to support armed resistance against the British occupation of the island. I’m no fan of occupation, but I’m less of a fan of political and communal violence which has, for the most part, resulted in little more than sorrow and heartache on this island.

This, too, is kind of an unpopular opinion, although, I have to say that yesterday in my American literature class, I made an offhand and subtly critical comment about the 1916 Easter Rising and one of the students raised his hand and sang out, “Oh, well, just so you know, most of us here thing that Padric Pearse was a total gobshite.” Pearse was the ‘mastermind’ of Easter Rising and he couched much of his rationale for armed resistance in images of blood sacrifice. I’m not sure why my student took a dim view of Pearse, but I suspect it had something to do with that.

And, after 30 years of communal violence (the period known as the Troubles, 1968-1998) waged by the IRA, the island is still partitioned between the Republic and Northern Ireland. So, what did those 3,000-odd people die for?

I don’t like the Irish rebel songs because I’m basically opposed to any kind of music that attempts to raise nationalist goosebumps on my neck. So, in regards to classical music that leaves out Wagner, some Mozart and, sometimes, Copland. Nationalism in popular music is more problematic, though, than it is in classical music because whenever you put nationalistic or pro violence lyrics up against three chords and a guitar, bass and drum, watch your back. Before you know it, there are fists pumping in the air and half-crazed people yelling about making American great again. No thanks.

When it comes to Irish music, then, I prefer the Pogues and Bob Geldof. Geldof has been a hero of mine since I was in grade school. I loved his first band, The Boomtown Rats, and then, of course Geldof was the mastermind of the 1985 Live Aid concert to benefit people starving in Africa (“Feed the World”). He’s spent the better part of the past 30 years speaking out against genocide and encouraging western governments to provide aid to developing countries. Beyond that, Geldof (Bono followed him in this regard) had no truck with the IRA and the senseless political violence that was happening here during the Troubles and, more recently, he has spoken up of England staying in the EU. Good on you, Bob Geldof.

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Bob Geldof (photo taken from Pinterest)

The Pogues are basically two bands: there’s a rock and roll outfit made up of electric and bass guitars and a drum kit and then there’s a traditional Irish ensemble that plays instruments associated with traditional Irish music: acoustic guitars, tin whistles, accordions and banjos. The rock and roll side of the Pogues is decidedly punk–that’s the part of the band that makes you want to pogo stick across the living room. The traditional Irish side of the band sounds like a ceili band and that’s the part of the band that makes you want to tap your toes, lift a pint of Guinness to your lips and feel a bit of sentiment. So, bringing those two (quite contradictory) musical traditions together on one stage was, well, exciting.

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And early iteration of The Pogues (Pinterest)

The Pogues enjoyed their heyday in the late 80s/early 90s and even if you think you’ve never heard of them, you have. Their Christmas song, “Christmas in New York,” is played incessantly over the loudspeakers in any given mall across the world from early November to Christmas Day. Around the holidays, you can’t get away from that song anymore than you can hide from “Hotel California” if you listen still listen to FM radio.

Beyond the music, the Pogues, especially their troubled and brilliant lead singer and songwriter, Shane McGown, were fucking crazy and it was that part of the band (the excessive use of alcohol and drugs) that truncated their career. That said, I like the Pogues and I think they are still relevant because of the way they embraced and sloughed off parts of their Irishness (and it needs to be said: not all of the members were Irish, but McGowan is and he was basically the heart/heat center of the group). While McGowan has always taken pro-republican stances his songs never tip over into a kind of hard-headed, hot-blooded, pro-nationalist cauldron.

In fact, perhaps the Pogues’ most political song “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” sounds more like a cry for justice and a critique of the British legal system than it does a call to arms. It’s a brilliant song about a terrible event. In November of 1974, the Provisional IRA set off a bomb in a pub in Birmingham, England that left 21 people dead and over 180 injured. The British police went looking for the culprits and when they couldn’t find them, they did what they were wont to do: they rounded up six Irishmen, accused them of the crime and threw them in jail where all six of them sat until March of 1991 when they were released because they hadn’t actually committed the crime. The Pogues song “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” is about the six men who were falsely accused of the pub bombing and appears on their 1988 album If I Should Fall from the Grace of God. The same year the album was released, the Pogues performed the song on BBC Chanel 4 and halfway through the song, someone behind the controls shut off the audio and sent the show to commercial. Shortly after that, the song was banned in Britain because of it’s criticism of the British justice system. Three years later, the Birmingham Six were released from prison.  Here’s the song.

Give it a listen.

What Bruce Springsteen sounds like in Romania

Shortly after The Clash split up in 1986, Joe Strummer, the lead singer and driving creative force of the band, fell into an alcoholic depression and began wandering around the world and listening to all kinds of music on his peregrination. In 1999, Strummer emerged from his musical journeys with a new band–he called them The Mescaleros–that brought together and then made manifest all of the musical powers that Strummer had been coupling over a decade of global drifting.

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Joe Strummer with the Mescaleros, shortly before his death in 2002

As I’ve been wandering around the world for the past three months, I haven’t so much collected musical ideas as I’ve been finding new ways to listen to the music that is already imprinted on my heart and in my head. As I’ve written in previous posts, Miles Davis was for Tokyo, Dengue Fever was for Cambodia, Nick Cave (obviously) was for Australia. Three weeks into our stay in Romania, and its Springsteen who has emerged as the sound of streets in Bucharest and Timisoara.

During my first week in the country, I spent a few days in Bucharest, attending Fulbright meetings. I woke up early on my first morning in Bucharest and figured I’d run a mile to a local gym before the meetings began. Before I left the hotel, I flipped through my Apple Music library and landed on The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen’s second studio album and, next to Greetings from Asbury Park, my favorite in the Springsteen oeuvre. I leaned out of the hotel door, pressed “play” and stepped out into the Bucharest streets, nearly dancing as I ran to the discombobulated horns, the funky guitar and bass licks and the pulsing percussion of the title track. I arrived to the gym, listened to the whole album and when the last, quiet notes of “New York Serenade” faded away, I pressed play and listened to the whole album again. And again. And again.

So, what does all this have to do with Romania?

Springsteen works for me in Romania because Romania has allowed me to hear Springsteen in a new way. This is saying a lot, given that I’ve been listening to Springsteen since I was 10. One of my earliest rock and roll memories is listening to Born to Run in the bedroom of my childhood friend, Matt McCambridge. It was the summer of 1975 and the record had just been released. We’d shut the door, put the record on the turntable and study the cover, the liner notes and the printed lyrics like it was a poem that held a thousand meanings. I focused on the now iconic cover: Bruce and Clarence, back to back like two outlaws holding back the law. They clutched their respective instruments (Bruce’s Stratocaster and Clarence’s sax) like weapons and Bruce smiles at Clarence with an “I Got Your Back, Brother” kind of look on his face. Bruce’s black leather motorcycle jacket contrasts with Clarence’s white, open collar 1970s disco shirt, emphasizing the interracial and musical friendship.

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When I was 10, Bruce and Clarence stood for everything outside of my suburban, middle-class, pre-adolescent life. It’s not that I wanted to be like them and it’s not that I was trying to escape my childhood. But the life they represented–outside the boundaries of the class and race classifications that I was obliged to live by–was so radically different from the boy I was. And, in that way, Bruce (and Clarence) were casting a light onto a path that I didn’t even know existed at the time.

It makes sense, then, that I’d be thinking of Springsteen here in Romania because the life we are living here is far removed from the kind of life I expected when I was a boy. We were walking to the park earlier today and Sujata asked me if I ever thought I’d visit Romania. “No, absolutely not,” I told her. But, here we are and here I am: talking about American literature with Romanian students, drinking a beer in a pub with new friends, watching fireworks from the window of our 10th-story flat, buying eggs and milk from vending machines, meandering through seventeenth-century alleys and byways.

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Sujata striking her best Springsteen pose on the backstreets of Timisoara

 

The Life and Death and Rebirth of Cambodian Rock and Roll

In 1932, in a remote province of Cambodia, a boy named Sinn Sisamouth was a born. Sinn was musical and bookish–he’d sing traditional Khmer songs to the people in his community, he learned to play the guitar and, like many good Cambodia boys at that time, he was interested in sacred Buddhist texts. In 1951, Sinn left his province to study medicine in Phnom Penh. He kept singing, though, and he started writing some of his own songs as well. Sinn finished medical school, became a nurse, married a girl, had four children and, along the way, Sinn Sisamouth became the most famous and prolific singer-songwriter that Cambodia has produced.

By 1975, Sinn was a central figure of the Cambodian rock and roll and pop music scene–think of him as a kind of poet laureate of Cambodian music at the time.  He sang traditional Khmer songs, ballads, straight-up rock and roll, covers of American pop songs (sung in Khmer and English), A-go-go songs and Latin and jazz-inspired songs. He sang duets with many other Cambodian singers and he fronted a four-piece rock and roll band. It’s believed that over the course of his short life Sinn wrote over 1,000 songs. From what I can tell he was loved by a wide range of people that included King Sihanouk and the Cambodian royal family as well as ordinary people on the streets of Phnom Penh, Battambang and rural villages throughout the country.

When the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April of 1975, they were looking for the likes of Sinn Sisamouth–he and his cadre of rock and rollers represented everything that the Khmer Rouge wished to destroy. Sinn escaped to the country for a time, but the Khmer Rouge asked him to come back to Phnom Penh where they (falsely) promised him safety. All we know after that is that Sinn Sisamouth was executed in the Killing Fields. His bones are most likely mixed in with the tens of thousands of other Cambodians in the mass graves at Choeng Ek.

Sinn Sisamouth was at the center of a vibrant rock and roll scene in Phnom Penh from the early 1960s until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge began systematically killing musicians and destroying their recordings. From what I can tell we have access to only about 500 of the 1,000 or so songs that Sinn Sisamouth wrote. The rest were destroyed in the purges. In fact, if you listen to a Sinn Sisamouth song on ITunes or Spotify, what you are actually hearing are recordings that have been transferred from the few cassette tapes and LPs that survived the Khymer Rouge.

That’s a haunting, sad fact.

I’ve been listening to Sinn Sisamouth songs pretty much non-stop for the past week and I find them comparable to the finely-wrought songs of Elvis Costello, Burt Bachrach, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchel. Imagine losing one, or all of them, in a violent purge of artists and intellectuals.

The tragedy of Sinn Sisamouth’s life was repeated in the lives of many other Cambodian rock and roll musicians.

Ros Sereysothea was just an ordinary girl from a remote Cambodian village, but she sang beautifully and in 1967, when she was 17, Ros made her way to Phnom Penh where she quickly established herself as a cornerstone of the Cambodian rock scene and sang many wonderful duets with Sinn Sisamouth.  After the 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh, Ros fled to the countryside where she hid until she was discovered by a regime member in 1977. Like Sinn, the details of her death are unknown and her remains have never been found.

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And don’t forget Yol Alarung.

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The first time I heard a Yol Alarung song I thought, “Oh, he sounds like Neil Young and Howlin’ Wolf (an interesting combination). And then I found the image above and thought he looked like a mash up of Keith Richards and Johnny Rotten, but I have to emphasize here that one of the things that makes pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian rock and roll so good is that it’s not just mimicking American rock and roll. There are clearly influences, but what the Cambodians were doing was nodding to American rock and then extending it and making it their own. They sing in Khmer and English, they play clean, creative guitar riffs,  push out funky, psychedelic keyboard lines and all that’s backed by solid, interesting rhythm sections. I had to resist that temptation to compare what the Cambodians were doing to the Americans and now that I’ve listened to Cambodian rock pretty much non-stop for the past week I can make a pretty fair assessment that they were, by and large, really operating on their own and creating their own brand of rock and roll. This was certainly the case with Yol Alarung. His tune, “Jeas Cyclo” is probably my favorite Cambodian rock and roll song. You can hear some American rock and roll influences, if you listen closely you can hear Yol looking forward to late 1970s and punk as well incorporating elements of psychedelic rock of his time. Plus, I just love anyone who can write lyrics like this:

 

Riding a cyclo
To central Market
Checking out girls
Wearing maternity blouses
Those maternity blouses
Thought she was knocked up
But she’s not
It’s just a popular new style

Riding a cyclo
To the old market
There’s plenty of girls
They’re all powdered up
Wearing pig tails
They crouch to sit
While buying rambutans
They’re wearing maternity blouses again oh!
Every day I ride a cyclo and check out girls
If this makes me poor, that’s all right

After reading those lyrics–and maybe you have listened to the song as well–it’s not hard to figure out that someone like Yol probably had no truck with the Khmer Rouge, so Yol, like Sinn Sisamouth and Res Sereysothea was taken by the Khmer Rouge and disappeared never seen or heard from again.

Imagine an entire generation of musicians just . . . gone.

If there’s any good news here it can be heard in the likes of bands like Dengue Fever–an LA-based band that combines Cambodian and psychedelic rock.

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Tiger Phone Card” is a good place to start if you haven’t heard them before. Dengue Fever is led by the Chhom Nimol, a talented singer who was born in Cambodia and lived in refugee camps with her family before immigrating to the US, and brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman. Like their Cambodian predecessors, they sing in Khmer and English and seamlessly combine the best elements of American and Cambodian pop.

One of the few regrets I have about our time in Cambodian is that I didn’t really get a chance to hear any live Cambodian rock and roll. There were opportunities, but it’s kind of hard to prowl around rock and roll clubs with kids in tow–one of the few drawbacks of family travel.

Next time.

Cambodia Countryside

It’s 9 pm and I still can’t get the smell of the fish market we visited this morning out of my nose. This country gets into inside of you and you can’t shake it out.

We pedaled out of Siem Reap this morning shortly after the sun came up and then returned in the dark.

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Eleanor expertly riding through the city streets

Our van lurched down the uneven dirt road and as the lights of Siem Reap came into view I felt like I was returning to the twenty-first century.

Over the course of the day we cycled down country roads that took us through remote country villages, into the grounds of Buddhist monasteries and through local markets teeming with live fish jumping out of their pails, bales of basil, morning glory vegetables and dragon fruit.

Through all this, I’m learning that there are at three Cambodias–two I’ve seen and one I’ve heard about.

There’s the Cambodia that we interact with in the central business district and the near-city neighborhoods. These are spaces given over to commerce and tourism and they are here for people like us to experience a sort of branded version of Cambodia. It’s made for us to feel comfortable, but no so comfortable that we feel like we are in the US. It’s a landscape of tuk tuks, street vendors and outdoor markets and cafes. It’s bustling, energetic and exciting, full of t-shirts, bracelets, faux Ikat and Batik material, straw hats and cheap watches.

It’s also a far cry from the Cambodia that we saw as we cycled and paddled through the countryside today.

We didn’t have to get that far outside of Siem Reap to see this other Cambodia. From our hotel in the central business district we pedaled up the river road and across major thoroughfares for about 5 km.  A few turns down side streets and the asphalt turned to a pock-marked red clay road.

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Atticus at ease on his bike on a country road

The middle-class looking, concrete houses we passed soon gave way to homes made of wooden lattice and corrugated metal. Children, some naked, some fully clothed played outside, ran in and out of homes and rode their bikes up alongside as they passed us by. The further we got from the city, the more people waved and cried out, “Hello! How are you?” and they laughed when we sang back “Sousday!” which means “Hello” in Khmer. We ate noodles from a street vendor and we sampled all manner of sweets–fried bananas and sweet potatoes and sticky rice in bamboo sticks–prepared by people on the side of the roads. We saw rice farmers gathering up their harvest. We passed a pond of lotus flowers and we watched as old men and women sped by us on scooters, some chewing on what looked like betle plants. We passed by homes that were blasting funky Cambodian pop songs from their speaker systems (I could hear it 400 meters down the road!).

After lunch, we boarded a wooden ‘fast boat’ that took us to lake Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Tonle Sap is sourced by snow melt from the Himalayas–all that water gathers here and creates floodplains that allow the Cambodians to grow rice and wetland areas that are so important that UNESCO designated it a bioreserve in 1997. From Tonle Sap, the water feeds into the great Mekong River and then finds its way back to the ocean, in the South China Sea.

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Map of Tonle Sap–Siem Reap is just north of the lake

Tonle Sap is also home to Cambodia’s ‘floating villages,’ our afternoon destination.

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Atticus guiding his kayak through the floating villages

Sujata writes in great detail about our experience at the floating village, but here, let me just note that, aside from the villagers’ use of motor boats, what we saw there was people living a life very similar to the kind of lives their ancestors probably lived two or three hundred years ago.

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The boat that took us to the floating villages
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Eleanor and I on the boat

That brings me back to the three Cambodias. At a certain point, one can experience this country, or any given developing country for that matter, and think something like this: “Well they are poor, but they seem so happy and they are so nice to us! There’s naked babies frolicking in front yards, families hanging out together on a weekday morning and women pumping water from wells. How quaint!” You have to resist this temptation, though, and simply ask, “Why doesn’t the Cambodian government provide these people with, what to us are basic necessities–asphalt roads to move their goods to market, catches for the torrential rains that fall nearly every day, public water and a kind of health care system where old folks don’t have to ride on the back of scooters with IVs hooked into their arms?

Because it turns out that the babies are naked because the parents are poor, the dad is home on a weekday because there’s no work and the water that’s pumped from the well still needs to be boiled so the children don’t get dysentery. One in eight children in Cambodia dies before their fifth birthday–this is the second highest infant mortality rate in the whole world. If a Cambodian makes it past five they can expect to live to about 68.

This evening, back in Siem Reap, we got caught in a massive downpour that lasted for at least an hour. Sujata asked me if I had ever seen rain like that. I hadn’t. When it ended we went outside and found the streets completely flooded. The drainage ditches that line the major thoroughfares of the city had overflowed and cast up to three feet of water onto the city streets. (During the day, the water there is slightly fetid, so I’m assuming it’s a kind of a sewer.

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Eleanor and Atticus enjoying the rain

 

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A little rain never stops Siem Reap folk from getting where they need to go

Part of the reason people don’t complain about the lack of government services is the government, the Cambodian People’s Party–run by a gentleman named Hun Sen who has been the leader of this country since the Vietnamese ‘liberation’ in 1979–rules with a benevolently iron fist. I talked with enough people and read enough to decide not to publish this post, for instance, until we were out of Cambodia.  For the first week I was here, I was felt slightly paranoid for thinking this, but then I found myself drinking with two Colombians who have lived here for two years and confirmed my suspicions–people who speak out sometimes disappear. I wasn’t worried about that happening to me, but I wasn’t taking chances. Cambodia’s twentieth century, in other words, has taught the Cambodians to be quiet, not ask question and toe the line.

During our bike ride through the countryside we stopped at a village, some 15 km from Siem Reap. (I’m not going to give the name of the village). Had our guide not taken us off the dirt road and onto the narrow footpath that led past a grove of trees and into the village, we never would have even know that people lived there.

We met up with the co-founder of an NGO (I won’t give the NGO’s name, either) who introduced us to the people who lived there and showed us some of the water filtration systems that the NGO had installed for some of the people in the village.

The highlight of this stop was when our guide took us to a small wooden workshop where six women from their late twenties to late fifties were assembling animal ‘stuffies’ to be sold in the markets of Siem Reap and beyond. The women greeted us with warm and loving enthusiasm–how weird I must look to them. One of the women came up to Sujata, put their arms together and pointed out that their skin was the same color. They asked our kids how old they were, wondered to our guide if Atticus is a boy or girl (he gets a lot of that here) and looked into our eyes for a longer time than most westerns are comfortable gazing into the eyes of strangers. I met and held their gaze, and I left there hoping to god they’d make it, because if it were not for the NGOs that worked in the village, these good people would lead exponentially more difficult lives.

I have to learn to hold their bravery and their graciousness in the same mind that I hold the rotten hand they’ve been dealt by their leaders.

Beyond this village there’s a third Cambodia. It’s not a part of Cambodia that I have seen or probably ever will see. I only know about it from our guide who mentioned, in passing, that the villages 50 to 100 km beyond the larger cities like Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Battambang are even more isolated and that the people who live out there are even more vulnerable than the village we visited.

I’m finishing this post in the Siem Reap airport. We will soon board a flight to Ho Chi Minh City and then we’ll spend a week in Vietnam. I still have a few more posts on Cambodia that I’ll publish in Vietnam.

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Our tuk tuk ride to the airport–Goodbye Cambodia!

Flaming Lips, Red Rocks, 26 May 2016

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It began in the usual way: some commotion on stage, murmurs in the crowd, a shaggy-haired man in a shimmering suit advancing from stage left. He’s fiddling with things on the ground and on his suit, and when he emerges to center stage, he looks up, smiles at the gathering crowd, raises his fist and then goes back to his fiddling. His bandmates, shadows, take their places behind guitars and keyboards and drum kits.

Back stage right, figures in black, toting violins, violas, brass and wood instruments file in seats behind the band set up. Afterwards, a choir begins to occupy risers behind the orchestra and the lineup is complete: The Flaming Lips, the Colorado Symphony and the Colorado Choir, some 75 players in all, jammed onto the stage at Red Rocks, ready to play through the Flaming Lips’ 1999 release, The Soft Bulletin.

The man in the shimmering suit climbs to the top of tall and narrow pedestal at center stage where he is helped into a suit that casts waves of light over and across the entire stage. A crown of white light rests on his shoulders. He looks like a sixteenth-century  emperor, standing before his minions.

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The Soft Bulletin, arguably the best Flaming Lips album, is both a profoundly sad and joyful album.

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Both emotions sit so tightly together throughout the course of the album that it’s oftentimes difficult to distinguish one from the other. The album loosely chronicles the death of the father of Flaming Lips front man, Wayne Coyne. Along the way, it celebrates scientific research, friendship and bugs, contemplates the end of the world, wonders about unseen powers and mixes the quotidian with the transcendent. Throughout, the album ponders some of the deepest questions we can ask ourselves: Why are we here? How do we make meaning in our lives? What do we do with sadness and despair? How do we find joy in the midst of sorrow?

Over the top of the thematic concerns are musical moments that range from a solitary voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar to mesmerizing, sonic detonations that sound like an organized musical earthquake.

If that all sounds to you like questions associated with sacred spaces or places of learning rather than a rock and roll album, then you have hit on the the curiosity and the power of The Soft Bulletin. It’s a secular humanist’s guide to living that matches the beauty and wisdom of Thoreau, Joyce, Stevens and Hemingway.

My sister-in-law flew in from NYC to see the show. This was her first Flaming Lips concert. Toward the end, Wayne Coyne, accompanied by a detail of security guards marched up through the center of the crowd–he walked right by us–and got inside his signature ‘space ball’ where he proceeded to sing “Space Oddity.” Here’s a photo of Sapana with the ‘space ball directly behind her:

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There were a few moments during the show last night when there was nothing I could do except close my eyes and it felt like was was feeling the music first and listening to it second. This was especially the case as the band/orchestra/choir moved toward the end of the album and made its way through “Gash” and “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.” The combination of the weighty, monophonic synthesizers against the polyphonic choir, the pedaling bass, the strings moving from dissonance to melodic lines, the crashing timpani, the booming bass drums and the screeching brass instruments . . . ah, you had to be there, and I hope you were.

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Prince and the Blues

Just a little before noon today, I was standing in the locker room at the Wheat Ridge Rec Center. I had just finished a swim, so I was dripping wet and I still had my suit, cap and goggles on when I opened my locker to pick up my towel and noticed that I had a text message from my wife. “Prince!” was all it said. This is the time when the Colorado concert schedule is being revealed so my first thought was, “Oh, is Prince coming to Red Rocks? That would be great to see him.”

Unhappily, I soon found out, Prince is not coming to Red Rocks, or anywhere else.

Like most of the rest of the known world, I was shocked and saddened when I learned the truth: Prince, 57, was dead. I kept checking my phone for hours, thinking I’d get a New York Times feed telling me it was all a hoax. Sadly, it’s not.

This all got me thinking, though, about that other great American artist, Ralph Ellison and, in particular, his late essay, “What Would American Be Like Without Blacks” (1970).

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There, Ellison argues that the tragic vision of American letters and thought can be directly traced to the story of American slavery and the story of black America. So, in that regard, we wouldn’t have Melville, Twain and Hemingway without the story and the history of black America. And, as Ellison goes on to explain, white America’s anxiety over it’s own identity, its way of creative expression and its political history was influenced and shaped by the black experience.

The same holds true for American music. Think for a moment—and this should send a shiver down your spine—what would our music be like (except a wasteland) with out the likes of Robert Johnson, Hudie Ledbetter, Ma Rainey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and, yes, Prince.

I grew up in a solidly white, upper/middle class, conservative small city in eastern Pennsylvania and, for me, listening to Prince was a kind of guilty pleasure. I felt comfortable expressing my deep, and abiding, love for the Kinks, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, XTC and the Clash, but I was much more circumspect about my feelings for Prince. When Prince came on the radio though, and if I was solo driving in my 1982 Audi Fox, I would crank up the stereo as loud as it would go and sing along.

In the late 70’s and early 80s, white kids like me were listening to mostly Woodstock-era classic rock (Jimi, The Dead, Credence), British Invasion stuff (The Who, The Stones) and melodic post-punk (The Clash, Elvis Costello).

Much of that music was heavily influenced by African Americans, in fact, you could say that it was stolen from earlier black musicians. There would be, for instance, no Led Zeppelin, no Rolling Stones and god knows, no Elvis Presley, without American blues. Despite that, though, most kids like me really didn’t listen to black music. Jazz (pretty much all I listen to now) was outside my realm of understanding. Motown was what our parents’ listened to, and Michael Jackson was for girls. I’m not proud of this, and I’m glad I came around to a deep appreciation and love for African American contributions to American music, thanks mostly to public radio and the great, vibrant, wacky college radio stations on the east coast in the 80s.

FM radio stations at that time, the golden age of classic rock, did virtually nothing to help listeners make those connections from a Keith Richards guitar lick to Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy.

I used to listen to WMMR and WYSP out of Philadelphia and I don’t think they ever played any classic blues. They certainly played “Stairway to Heaven” over and over and, Prince, well, he was cast to the dance/pop/disco stations. That’s a shame, I think, and it took me quite some time to figure all that out. But, basically, what I had to learn was that when I was listening to “Sweet Virginia,” “Ventilator Blues,” or “Sweet Black Angel” from Exile in Main Street, I was really hearing Broonzy or Howlin’ Wolf behind it all. It’s cultural appropriation, of course, and Richards has been much better about acknowledging his sources than, say, Page, I think.

The genius of Prince, though, is that he took that all back–he turned rock and roll back on itself and instead of hearing or watching white guys ripping off black culture, in Prince, we got to see a smooth, sexy, black man who also played all his own instruments and owned his guitar solos. Prince, in other words, brought us the joy, the sexiness and the urgency of American blues. So, yeah, what I am saying here is that at his very core, Prince was a blues musician, and one of the best, too.

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Because the first thing you realize about Prince is that he rocked. Michael Jackson did that a little bit, but he had great studio musicians and, to me, the rockin’ part of Michael always felt like more of a come on and a tease. When Prince laid into a guitar solo, he meant it and behind all that, I hear the urgency and the beauty of the great American blues guitarists.

And, even the most popular tunes in his catalog call up those older, largely forgotten traditions of American blues. Take “Little Red Corvette,” for instance. Released in 1983, the year I graduated from high school, that song remains one of my favorite Prince songs. When I first heard that song, I didn’t catch the classic blues signifyin’ that Prince was doing—the corvette becomes another, more poetic and sly, way of talking about sex—and in that way, “Little Red Corvette,” picks up on sexual themes in the songs of Bessie Smith, Big Bill Broonzy, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolfor any number of blues tunes that talk about one thing, but mean something else (sex, joy, being a human). Beyond all that, the tune has a great guitar solo that’s often overlooked.

And, lastly, place matters here. As a transplanted Midwesterner, I appreciate where Prince came from, Minnesota, the state of the headwaters of the Mississippi, Nick Carraway’s “middle west”—that old fashioned and, to me, preferred way of speaking of the middle of our country. It’s not the middle east or the middle of the east and the west, it’s the middle west. And Minnesota, one of the states at the heart of the middle west, is home to some of our best writers and musicians. This is Fitzgerald territory, and it’s the home of Sinclair Lewis, Robert Bly and Louise Erdrich as well as the Talking Heads, The Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, Low, Husker Du, the Replacements and, yes, that foremost of American tricksters, Bob Dylan.

Happily, Prince was not under appreciated as an artist, musician and performer. Today, his life and his contributions to American music and culture are being celebrated, as they should be for a long time to come.