See No Evil

‘Television, come go to my head. ‘
I’ve had a bit of a week health wise, first few days enveloped by a sort of flu that attacked both head and throat with equal ferocity (‘it’s the wind…’ my Cambodian colleagues assure me. The wind runs pretty close to insects and mice as the cause of all ailments round these parts), second part of the week in the vice-like grip of unrelenting and extreme back pain that led to a clinic visit of equal parts hilarity and anguish, doubled over like a rusty penknife and actually completely unable to move on several occasions (‘okay, thank you – please come down from the couch now.’ ‘I’m really sorry, I can’t…) . Hilarity when the cheerily efficient nurse who had watched sympathetically as I shuffled agonizingly into the consulting room and maneuvered myself with extreme difficulty into the chair had finished taking pulse, BP etc. then had turned to me and said ‘so what is the problem today, James?’.
However, every dark cloud has a shiny lining, and my enforced stasis has led to an enhanced level of viewing pleasure which has gone beyond the simple delights of the Cambodian karaoke channel and it’s endless variations on the theme of one man/two women, two men/one woman and a tree (or trees) to furtively lurk behind that impart a Zen-like quality to the domestic tragedies unfolding before our eyes, and into the realms of daytime TV with it’s staggeringly wonderful variations on ancient western concepts such as ‘It’s a Knockout’ , which I swear to whichever god is listening is actually hosted by the Khmer equivalents of Stuart Hall and Eddie Waring and is conducted not only on the cheap, but on the ‘gor-blimey guv, I can do that for you for five quid and still give you enough change for a night out in the Long Beach Navy Beer Garden’ cheap. Yes, sets – who needs ‘em. Throw up a scaffolding stage, a couple of banners strung along the back , and there you go… costumes? Nah… lets gaffa tape some tyre inner tubes together and there we go, costume and safety equipment in one fell swoop. This untrammeled ingenuity also spreads to the games themselves, which appear to utilize whatever resource happens to be around. I never thought I would get so excited over watching individuals attempting to lasso empty Coke bottles lying on their side and lift them into an upright position… The entertainment break is provided by a (presumably) up and coming pop star, who does not even get the dubious accolade of her own dodgy dancers (the dancers who accompany most televised popular music on TV here make Dougie Squires and the Young Generation from ‘Seaside Special’ look like the Bolshoi – ask your mum if you don’t know who I’m talking about. On second thoughts, ask your granny…), no, she has to make do with the multi-tasking crew of the show, who look bewilderingly at each other as they try to figure out should they be putting their right or left leg in/out and shaking it all about at this point or not…
Cambodian TV even has it’s very own ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’, sponsored by a paper towel manufacturer who also provide the prize, which is…. Wait for it… a double pack of kitchen roll! In a sparkly bag! Truly, the excitement engendered by this glittering prize drives the contestants into flights of feverish culinary ingenuity, which in turn cause the judges to effuse apoplectically over the gastronomic ‘coups-de-grace’ administered by the participants.
Well no, sorry. They appear to cook exactly the same very basic shrimp curry, which the judges pull faces over and make (I assume from the expressions of distaste on their faces) sarcastic comments about, before awarding the first prize to… both of them!
I’d love to see that Anthony Worrall-Thompson face them, I have to say…
The highlight of last night, which I have to confess it took me some time to figure out was actually what it was, had to be, wait for it, Miss Bridgestone 2008. I did briefly ponder that perhaps the ‘It’s a Knockout’ crews reliance on inflatable friends had prompted some kind of ongoing rubber mania in the country, as the opening credits were a cornucopia of gratuitous tyre shots and footage of immaculately coiffed feisty women burning rubber as they screeched to a halt on brand new Yamaha motorbikes, but no, it gradually became clear that we were in the presence of one of yer actual beauty contests. Obviously, I thought smugly, no one had told the organizers of this glittering TV event that beauty contests are actually illegal in Cambodia – maybe they thought that the PM would turn his blind eye to the sight of a Khmer beauty proudly wearing an inner tube sash and with a hubcap diamond star halo on her head. Of course it soon became abundantly clear that this was not actually a beauty contest, but for reasons probably as obscure as the national treasure status bestowed on Norman Wisdom in Albania, a tribute contest. And, from what I can gather, a tribute to Dick Emery. Specifically, a tribute to the ‘oooh, you-are-awful…. But-I-like-you!’ character of his that was so much a part of British Saturday evening light entertainment in the 1970’s. The contestants had obviously done their research by scouring the Russian Market for every Dick Emery DVD or videotape extant, and I have to say that they had done that research very well, as almost without exception they had the lurching high-heeled gait and exaggerated arm movements of Mr. Emery’s character off to a tee…
… and the judges? Well, they must have hot-footed it over from the ‘RSC’ studio and the shrimp curry, as it seemed to be exactly the same scions of sarcasm present and correct, not even bothering to hide their increasingly arching eyebrows or ‘oh-my-god, look at the size of her…’ comments from the watching millions (hundreds?).
I have to say that thankfully I cannot actually tell you who rose to the exalted position of Miss Bridgestone 2008, as common sense and little O took over. He took advantage of my restricted mobility and quickly commandeered the remote control, switching over to the vastly improved production values of the Nat Geo channel. Classy, but no fun…
Oh yes. Television. They were a good band. Actually, they were what I meant to write about back at the beginning of this particular blog, but I got a little sidetracked. Tom Verlaine had a rather unique guitar style, and that brings me back to Cambodian television again. The CCTV channel, which shows back to back DVD’s all day (bootleg commercial versions – often you have to sit bemused watching the menu or title screen as the engineer figures out which icon he should click on) went slightly more surreal than normal a day or so ago. If there is a lengthy break between full-length features they will often slot in a short excerpt from a music video, which normally is Britney Spears Live or Westlife or some such thing. The other day we were treated to, in no particular order, live sets from Arthur Lee and Love, Edgar and Johnny Winter, and It’s a Beautiful Day. Like, what is happening, man? Stranger and stranger, dudes. I have to confess to really enjoying this unexpected treat, in particular It’s a Beautiful Day and their rendition of ‘White Bird’ , which had pretty much every late 60’s, early 70’s hippy musical excess all present and correct. Long hair? You got it. Red stage lighting? Yep. Hippy chick singing flat backing vocals and ineffectually waving tambourine? Over here, dude! Cameraman fixated on aforesaid hippy chick’s cleavage? That’s awesome, man. Interminable guitar solo? Yeee-ss! Electric violin solo? Hey, like wow!
David La Flamme was the man responsible for the electric violin solo, and some parts of it really reminded me of the playing of guitarist John Cippolina, who had been in San Francisco band Quicksilver Messenger Service. He had also been a particular favourite of Bruce Murray’s back in my record shop days. Bruce was a music obsessive, a baker who perhaps drank a little too much for his own good after his late shifts, but possessor of a huge record collection and a fairly forthright commentator on all things musical. John Cippolina used to bring him very quickly to a state of yeasty frothing that would often scare other customers off, and I recall that when I was attempting to spread the gospel of Television and ‘Marquee Moon’ and I mistakenly likened Tom Verlaine to, in my view, a more disciplined Cippolina that old BM got particularly upset and dragged me across the counter to emphasise that no scruffy New York hippy could ever come close to the SF master of the guitar. Point taken.
I actually went to see Television on their debut tour of the UK in 1977. I had loved the album, with its spikily glacial guitar interplay between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, yet its sense of being real and almost intimate in its recording. Most of that was lost in the vastness of the nearly empty Glasgow Apollo, however ,and they struggled to raise any enthusiasm from what little audience there was dotted around the huge auditorium. They also, as I recall, looked terrified in a rabbits-in-the-headlights manner.
There was still that sense of not-sureness in Scotland as regards punk at the time. Were Television punk? Nobody really knew… it wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. You would have to be superhuman to be able to gob accurately onto anything on that ten-foot high stage. The support band were also from New York, but they had bags of attitude and a mouthy female fronting them who continuously cajoled and swore at us in between the short bursts of trebly bubblegum noise that comprised their set. They certainly had something, did that Blondie…
So lets get back to Television and really what this was all about was just to point anyone who liked the spidery metallic style of Verlaine’s playing in the direction of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter. Her lead guitarist, Phil Wandscher, ex of Whiskeytown (Ryan Adam’s old band), has evolved into a player of Verlaine-like complexity and ingenuity, and has rapidly become one of my favourite guitarists. Jesse Sykes writes songs that seem to exist in a twilight consciousness, sings them in a sibilant half whisper, yet connects directly with the dark and light sides of the soul in a way that reminds me of Tom Waits at his best. Have a listen, she has her own website and a My Space page.
Last week also saw the loss of Rick Wright of Pink Floyd. Rick’s playing brought an indefinable quality to the work of Pink Floyd, his textural colourings are everywhere throughout that incredible body of work and he was also a very gifted songwriter. I didn’t know him, but I will really miss him. I’ll play ‘Summer of ’68’ and remember him…
Off to take my medication now, next time something different, will ease back on the music, I promise…

I think it’s going to rain today

‘human kindness, it’s only blindness…and I think it’s going to rain today…’
Randy Newman

Tuesday. It has rained for most of the day. Eric Olthwaite would have been in his element in Phnom Penh today. Precipitation has precipitated pretty much from dawn to dusk and beyond. That in itself is a little uncommon. Certainly here in the city the pattern during rainy season is normally one daily tumultuous downpour that lasts at most a couple of hours, not the incessant mise and rain we are currently experiencing. Consequently, everything seemed a little grey and drab and miserable today, despite the proliferation of brightly coloured plastic raincoats favoured by the motodops. There are also many sniffles and coughs doing the rounds at work, many cases of ‘mice in the throat’ (Khmer version of frog, I suppose) and here at home young master O is still suffering from coughing fits and what mummy terms ‘candlesticks’, a frankly overly flattering term for the twin greenish streams emanating from his nasal cavities. He is still young and naïve enough to enjoy the sensation (surely not the taste?) of jutting out his lower jaw and sucking these foul rivulets into his mouth before I can sweep them away with a well-aimed paper tissue. Or indeed The Aspirator. No, not the comeback movie from Governor Schwarzenegger, but rather a fiendish Cambodian device that resembles a small turkey baster and is used to literally siphon the snot from your little ones tiny nostrils. You may well grimace at the thought, but isn’t it slightly more civilized than the approach many rural mums still take, that is, to clamp their mouth firmly over the child’s proboscis and suck hard…?

Post-election Phnom Penh is still strangely quiet, although I sense a distinct but unfathomable difference in the city I left in July to the one I returned to in August. Maybe that’s just me… on the surface things seem to meander by in much the same haphazardly disorganized way as they used to do… prices are still creeping up (22% inflation during July… ulp!), cars are still encroaching more and more upon the formerly two and three wheeled domains (a Rolls Royce was spotted the other day – Saints Alive!!), apartment blocks and estates with names like ‘Happiness City’ are springing fully-formed almost overnight from the toothless gaps in the infrastructure where once wooden houses and family businesses stood… yes, business as usual for the developers. I grumble about these changes at work, but I am politely reminded by my Khmer colleagues that this is what people want, they want a 21st century city with all that that entails. They gaze kindly at me, smile and shake their heads as I launch into yet another rant about the destruction of communities for supposed economic gain, but this is now literally a young nation with a haunting legacy that it is no surprise many want to obliterate from their consciousness.

The recent border dispute with Thailand over the temple in Preah Vihear has also stoked the fires of nationalistic pride in a manner which I must confess shocked me a little at first. However, once again I have come to realize that the failed obliteration of the historical past rings heavy in the reaction of people to what is seen as one more unwanted and unwarranted encroachment by a powerful aggressor.

This all sounds a bit gloomy, doesn’t it? I’m sorry to give that impression, for really things aren’t all ‘trouble at t’ mill’ , oh no. We, the Space Family Orbison, as I shall dub us for the time being, have had a pretty hard time of late, with much unrest in the ranks mainly through the actions of someone with, as Rod Stewart so succinctly paraphrased it, ‘a lot more money than sense’. However, we have come through this particular asteroid belt of challenges and are now looking to the stars again with engines set on warp factor 8, if not hyperdrive. I’m pretty sure the Dilithium crystals will also hold, Mr. Scott.

Way back when the universe began… well, ok, when I commenced this blog, I referenced the title as being lost in the virtual space of the Internet… I’m pretty sure now it was actually a more than subconscious homage to the marvellous Lost in Space TV series of the 1960’s, and its three enduring characters, Will Robinson (whom little O bears an often uncanny resemblance to), the long suffering Robot, and Dr. Zachary Smith. Dr. Smith remains something of an (anti) hero of mine to this day, played on TV with arch camp impeccability and irascibility by the wonderful Jonathan Harris. The good doctor (he is a Colonel in the earlier episodes, and considerably darker a character in those also…) is one of life’s devious shirkers, a conniving, backstabbing, all-round bad egg who somehow manages to embroil both honest but gullible Will and the hapless Robot into one of his cunningly evolved wicked plans on a weekly basis. The weekly show, brainchild of the prescient TV genius Irwin Allen (Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants), spawned many wonderful catchphrases (‘oh the pain, the pain’, ‘danger, Will Robinson, danger!’) and insults, usually directed at the Robot (‘you nickel plated nincompoop!’, ‘begone, you monstrous metallurgical meddler!’,) and a hideous movie remake in the 1990’s, but the 60’s original is by far the best, and along with Dr. Who was a staple of my formative years (so that’s what’s to blame, I hear you mumble). As I glance somewhat furtively around at the global political scene at the moment, I can only reflect that we really do seem to be Lost in Space… there are far too many Dr. Zachary Smiths out there running countries, and not enough Robots to keep a watchful eye upon all us Will Robinsons…

Wednesday/Thursday. Rained again. It were always raining in Phnom Penh. Even when it were dry it were a bit moist round t’ edges. Average precipitation were around 10mm. Must buy a shovel. Useful things, shovels.

Friday. Aye. Rained again.

But not such a boring day, one way or t’other.

O greeted us in his usual cheery manner but with the added bonus of a cotful of dried vomit this morning. Closer inspection by CSI Phnom Penh deduced that the little chap has been fridge raiding, in particular targeting red grapes which he appears to have been ingesting whole, stalks and seeds included. We presume he is doing this when nanny and mummy and daddy’s collective backs are turned, either that or he is clambering out of his cot and nipping downstairs in the night for a midnight feast. Part of me is inclined toward the latter explanation, for his development seems to be taking place in quantum leaps. He sat on the sofa beside me tonight and asked if I preferred earlier protest-era Dylan, the ‘jagged acoustic troubadour’, as he put it, to the electric and post electric phases of his career. Staggering, eh? I had absolutely no idea that he watched The Magic Roundabout, let alone had an opinion on it.

Today also brought us the unexpected, and, if truth be told, unwanted, bonus of a free fireworks display when the power cables outside our house exploded at 1.00pm, sending flames dancing into the sky and sparks showering over the vast crowd of gawping onlookers who quickly assembled below. As usual, many people stood around and did nothing but watch others do nothing. Attempts to call the electricity company were met by baffled expressions, then explanations that 1) it was still lunchtime, so no-one would be around until at least 2.00pm. 2) it was threatening more rain, so no-one would come out if that was the case 3) they shut for the weekend at 4.00pm anyway, so we might as well forget it until Monday. Resigned to a powerless (and waterless – the pumps also ceased to operate, so… ) weekend, I headed back to work. 3.00pm, Bang! The electricity ceased to flow. Not only at work, but also throughout the entire district of Chamkarmon. After about an hour of sitting around and giggling a great deal, it was clear that power was not going to return in the near future, so everyone trickled home. A is away for a few days, so I am in sole charge of little O. I have to admit to struggling more than a little to cook dinner on the gas stove under the febrile glow of tea lights whilst keeping a more than watchful eye on Fridge Raider, but mid flow I was interrupted by Chairman Mao who asked if I was willing to pay $10 to have electricity restored. Oh yes, said I, more than willing… so O and I went out in the fast fading light, and joined the crowd of watchers observing a man shinning up the electricity pole, then perching precariously at the top armed only with a pair of wire strippers and conducting a miraculous repair job under non-existent lighting conditions. He shinned back down, then had a big discussion with all our new friends in the crowd about who could speak English and who might ask me to cough up the tenner prior to the restoration of power. Eventually one woman pressed forward and shyly relayed the request, I paid the guy and a muffled cheer and lots of ‘Arkun Charans’ rose from the crowd. O and I went back in to the house and waited. And waited. And waited. Then, just as I was becoming resigned to the loss of power, water and $10, the lights came on! Then went off again. Then about five minutes later, came back on again… and so far, it’s holding up. And we also have water again. What a Friday! I can only wonder in a kind of wondrous manner what the rest of the weekend holds in store for the dynamic yet feckless duo of dad and O… lumme!!

On the stereo – Edwyn Collins and Orange Juice, Epic45, Elbow, James Blackshaw, Death Cab for Cutie and Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter. On DVD, The Outer Limits (1960’s season one – in French…Encore? Pretentious? Moi?) Looking forward to the new Calexico, and enjoying Josh Rouse Bedroom Classics podcast. Hello to Tosh, good to hear from you… and when I think about it, I’m sure you gave me my Pink Fairies album back as a birthday present a few years ago… or maybe I dreamed that?

Home Again

‘One is a lonely number…’
not, as you may be thinking, another half-baked philosophical statement from yours truly, but actually the title of the first track on the latest Edwyn Collins album ‘Home Again’. I purchased the aforesaid CD when I was back in the UK in the summer, and… no, lets save it for later. I promise we will return to Edwyn shortly, but let us first catch up on the second part of our summer holiday adventures. After the minor hell of our return journey to the UK we had a week or so more of enjoying the English summer. Prior to the U.S.A trip we had enjoyed some quintessentially English moments, visiting summer fetes, watching cricket on the green, feeding ducks in the mill pond, that sort of thing. As a Scotsman, and coming from a family who have its fair share of intensely patriotic members I do find it strange how I am inexorably drawn to a particular notion, or sense, of ‘Englishness’. I blame this on an inordinate fondness for the Kinks, early Pink Floyd, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt and many others who jumped into the spaces created by those very significant footprints. Records on the Harvest label seemed to imbue this character almost naturally. I recall many a chilly northern night spent lying with my head between the speakers (my primitive version of headphones) of my portable stereo listening to ‘Grantchester Meadows’ off ‘Ummagumma’, or ‘Fat Old Sun’ from ‘Atom Heart Mother’, or ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ and immersing myself in the hazy warmth of the sounds emanating from the straining speaker cones…

In the middle distance, the muffled murmuring of the traffic gave way to the sonorous clang of the church bells and the gentle rustling of the leaves in the honey-thick breeze. The world was revolving slowly and lazily in the sticky warmth of this sunny afternoon.
‘More tea, Vicar?’
“Oh, splendid, Miss Jones,a capital idea, I must say. My goodness, your muffins are extraordinary…’
‘Oh Vicar, you are such a card…’
Sorry. Drifting off again. Let me get back on track.

Yes, summer holiday memories. Many of them from this year involve the continually evolving wonder that is our son. Little O attempting to adapt his funky Khmer style of dance to the strains of a brass band performing Abba songs; his joy at visiting a country park …very wide open spaces where he could simply run and run and run with what must have seemed to him as no boundaries; feeding ducks and swans with O doing his ‘one for you, one for me’ routine; a miniature train journey, O and Granddad together – who was most excited by that…? I wonder…; blowing bubbles in the garden, sheer naked enjoyment, O running around and around in circles laughing gleefully; feeding times, characterised by the infinite patience of Nana, with accompaniment from Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy; a visit to Swindon Mela, with so many familiar colours, shapes, sounds, smells and tastes – and time for some more O-type dancing, this time to familiar rhythms…; having the time and space to see the wonderful bond between O and mummy growing every day…
These are just some of the memories I have of this summer, there are many, many others that will come to me in the future, to make the good times better and to help me to smile during the hard times… summers are wonderful, magical things that re-awaken the child within us all, and we should cherish each and every moment of them…

My goodness, that was a bit Sunday Post-ish, wasn’t it? What has happened to my tireless cynicism? I confess I really don’t know, I’m sure it was here a minute ago… I must have temporarily mislaid it…

The other night, performing the increasingly difficult wrestling match that is getting O into his ‘jammies’ at bedtime I got to thinking about how much the vintage cowboy print thereon reminded me of the old Postcard Records label design. Ah, ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’… memories swept into my synapses, of those mysterious cardboard boxes from Fast Distribution that would arrive in Thurso Music Shop on a Saturday afternoon or Monday morning and be eagerly ripped upon to reveal their contents… would the eagerly awaited ‘1 only cat no PC-80-6 Orange Juice ‘Simply Thrilled, Honey’ 7” single’ in its cowboy bedecked sleeve be in there? Yes!! In stock! Mine! Those were exciting times, and many of us (hello Messrs Gavin Duncan and Ian Begg – where are you now?) felt such musical affinity with Orange Juice in particular, as their melodic gifts were really, really strong but tempered with some willfully unkempt, ragged yet glorious performances. I only knew (and if truth be told, still do) three chords, and hadn’t really mastered any of that barré chord stuff, so it was a joy to have it reinforced that traditional skill wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite of making exciting, clamorous, glamorous music. The Fire Engines were another band who shared that rowdy charabanc to pop success, music that sounded all over the place, spiky and fuzzy, but absolutely imbued with a total sense of fun. ‘Candyskin’ comes on like a Scottish Salvation Army playgroup that has had just a wee drop too much acid in their Irn Bru… wonderful stuff which even now brings a smile to my face as I type this.

‘Englishness’, ‘Scottishness’… I’m not sure how I got here, but the moving fingers type, and having typed, move on… or rather back, back to Edwyn Collins. He’s grown up now, has Edwyn. Life has dealt him some pretty bad cards in the last couple of years – he’s suffered two strokes, but has fought back and has been on tour, performing again this summer in a few festivals. I finally got round to listening to ‘Home Again’ a few nights ago, and I am so happy to tell you that it is an absolutely magnificent album, his best since ‘Gorgeous George’. He’s still wry, still sonically adventurous, still making records that sound like ‘records’, but his recent brushes with the fragility of existence seem to permeate his music (although amazingly, given some of the lyrics, most of this was written before he suffered his successive strokes) and give it a strikingly unusual cast, that of the man-child facing the enormity of life and the natural and un-natural challenges it throws against us all. The title track is quite simply awesome, a meditation on the redemptive and healing power of music that is almost overwhelmingly emotional in its evocation of that feeling of being truly at ‘home’ that music can bring. The Bearsden Blues, no less. As the late, great, Stuart Henry would have said, ‘I can’t recommend this album highly enough, my friends.’

Oh well, I’m off now to slip into my sandals and fringed buckskin jacket and nip round to Roddy’s house to see if he can show me how to play that augmented 7th chord… you coming? No? OK, catch you later, man…

Next episode – the return to a post-election Phnom Penh and all that entailed.
This episode was brought to you borne on the angel wings of Edwyn Collins ‘Home Again’ on Heavenly Records, remembrances of Postcard Records – the Sound of Young Scotland, ‘ Long Way Down’ on BBC DVD (Ben, it’s the same two guys, McGregor and Boorman, biking from John ‘o’ Groats in Scotland to Capetown, South Africa. Let me know if you want me to get you a copy my friend), and is dedicated to all those who hung around on a Friday, Saturday or Monday in the Music Shop, Thurso, waiting for the boxes of new releases…’there’s only one copy… and it’s mine!!’