S’cool Days

‘Today I learned about the sea and ‘bout someone in history
well, ain’t that cool
they taught me how to square a cube and put a fly into a tube
well, ain’t that cool…’

the above lines are lifted from the very wonderful 45 ‘S’cool days’ by Stanley Frank. I can’t quite remember when it was released (late 70s? early 80s?), and I can tell you very little about Mr. Frank, but other than coming enclosed in a particularly nasty orange sleeve it was one of those great one-off new wave non-hits that proliferated around that time. I’m sorry, perhaps some of you would be puzzled by the ‘45’ reference in the opening sentence. Nowadays they would call it a 7-inch vinyl. Those exciting little slabs of plastic generally revolve around the turntable at 45rpm, hence the abbreviation, most commonly used in the 60s and 70s. It’s extremely heartening that whatever you choose to call it, the good old single record is still around.

Can you remember the first one you bought with your own pocket money? Mine was ‘Lady Madonna/The Inner light’ by The Beatles, 6/11d from the Music Shop, Thurso… I can still recall the smell of the vinyl as I removed it from its black paper sleeve and the sheer joy and anticipation of placing it over the spindle of my Aunt Catherine’s Dansette record player…

I was certainly no stranger to the wonders of the 7-inch record at that point, as my collecting habit had been kick started by my mum and dad many years before with ‘The Old Chisum Trail/Red River Valley’ by Roy Rogers, which was the first record I had bought for me. It was actually a red vinyl 78rpm with a magnificent picture of Roy and his trusty white steed Trigger adorning the front. He stuffed him, you know. Stop sniggering at the back, it’s true. When his four-legged friend passed on to the great pasture in the sky, Roy had him stuffed and placed in the Roy Rogers museum. I wonder if a similar thought flitted across the mind of Roy’s wife Dale when the singing cowboy joined the ranks of the ghost riders in the sky… doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it…

My mum and dad both loved music, so we had plenty of records around the house. My Aunt Catherine also had a great love of music, and, being single, a bit more in the way of disposable income so she had a pretty awesome collection mostly stored at my nana’s house, where the aforesaid Dansette also resided. My nana was another music lover, her tastes mainly being for ballad singers. She was particularly fond of Ken Dodd (he actually had a very ‘country’ style catch in his voice… ‘Tears’ showcases that to great effect. Bet you never thought I’d admit to being a bit of a Ken Dodd connoisseur, eh?) and Englebert Humperdinck, whose name she steadfastly pretended she could not pronounce. “J, would you please put that lovely Dinglebert record on.” she would ask, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, and D.J. J would oblige, and then pretend to do the Last Waltz with his nana around the tiny sitting room.

That selfsame tiny sitting room (we actually always called it the living room) in a remote northern Scottish town was the scene of many Saturday afternoon rave-ups, when my sisters, cousins, nana and I would enjoy the latest discs bought by my Aunt by frugging enthusiastically around the tiny space to them before inevitably collapsing in a heap when the needle hit the run-out groove. The best collapsing in a heap record was undoubtedly ‘The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’ by Georgie Fame, where we would all re-enact the bullet-riddled end of the doomed lovers in a gloriously over the top manner which William Penn’s gore fest movie could only hint at…

Writing this the memories are coming thick and fast… working in the music business for over twenty five years had somewhat dulled my visceral reaction to music, but it’s been a long time and now with the benefit of some hindsight I can clearly recall the thrill engendered by those black circles of plastic, the differing weights, smells, some in picture sleeves, some Extended Plays (the four track E.P.’s) in their heavy laminated sleeves, like mini-albums, the band names, which seemed to precisely invoke the music lurking in the spiral groove… space rock from The Tornados, psychedelic music hall from The Kinks, the jazz tinged cool of Manfred Mann… I could go on and on and on, and I will, but… later!

As I grew older, DJ’ing took precedence over dancing, and I began to really notice the elements of a record that excited me, the beat, the bass line, the sound of the voices and instruments – particularly guitar, the melody, harmony… the best 45’s were an encapsulation of feelings that could be sadness, joy, happiness, loneliness or anything else, delivered in a sonic mélange that took you on a whirlwind rollercoaster ride of emotions, a journey that lasted from the moment the needle dropped into the vinyl until the click of the tone arm moving back into place, ready for the next one… S’cool days, indeed…

During my late teens and early twenties, on visits to Edinburgh I would frequent the ‘Hot Licks’ record shop in Cockburn Street, a very ‘studenty’ cobbled wynd near the castle. In addition to having the world’s coolest carrier bags (the Stones tongue logo) they often stocked limited copies of obscure US import singles, LP’s and other cool stuff, and it was there that I bought such essential items as copies of ‘Punk’ and ‘Trouser Press’ magazines, ‘Go Girl Crazy’ by the Dictators, ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ by Television, ‘The Summer Sun EP’ by Chris Stamey and the absolutely bonkers but truly wonderful ‘Bangkok’ by Alex Chilton. I also bought ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, Bruce Springsteen, on the day of its release from Hot Licks, and I recall how sombre and low key Bruce appeared on the sleeve, a bleary eyed leather-jacketed Al Pacino look-alike, tired and bruised from the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune had sent his way since the success of ‘Born to Run’. It very quickly became my favourite Springsteen album, and has remained in that lofty position (albeit challenged by ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Nebraska’ from time to time) until now.

The surprise challenger is the new Bruce album, ‘Working on a Dream.’ It’s his best collection of pop songs in a long time, emerging from the dark post 9-11 clouds that have weighed heavy on his last few albums, choosing instead to be funny, happy, joyous, just a little bit serious, and, for Bruce, pretty experimental with the sonic palette. In feel, it touches base with the exuberant and untrammeled early works, ‘Greetings…’ and ‘The Wild, the Innocent…’ and his recent ‘Night with the Jersey Devil’ Halloween freebie whilst also letting a great deal of very Brian Wilson style light into his arrangements, which have in the past been occasionally just a little too dense for their own good. It’s also, on occasion, as pleasingly daft as a semi-psychedelic brush. Which is also good. Very good. Try the bizarre eight-minute opening epic ‘Outlaw Pete’ (‘…at six months old he’d done three months in jail…’)or ‘Queen of the Supermarket’ with its killer pay-off line for a taster of some of the new directions (whistling and backwards guitars?) followed by The Boss…

The Other Boss, little O, has also been making his musical mark lately. Daddy finally got around to buying and putting strings onto his customized mini-guitar (with retro Cowboy illustrations… yippee-ay-yeh! The influence of a John Fogerty video makes itself felt…), so the O is now happily thrashing away and experimenting with his six-string sidekick. He seems at the moment to be partial to the Syd Barrett/Blixa Bargeld school of using various implements to modify the sonic output and of course he has a somewhat maverick approach to the niceties of tuning, but, hey, he’s only two… Hopefully he’ll soon be confident enough to pop a couple of doors up and jam with our new neighbour in Villa Domino (the very Bond-like residence which has sprung up in our street recently), who adds a wonderful dream-like ambience to our hot weekend days by sitting up on his balcony as the late afternoon sun brings a fuzzy orange glow to the surrounding buildings and tootles away on what sounds like a tenor sax. His repertoire is limited but appropriate, and it often adds just the right amount of mellow to an already laid back day…

Tuesday night A and I managed to have a quiet, civilized and entirely uninterrupted evening repast in the oasis of calm that is Commé a la Maison. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, the little O was back home, safely causing havoc with his ever patient Aunt Packdey. Dear A wisely went home after our leisurely meal, leaving yours truly to venture out again with a colleague from Laos in search of LOUD ROCK MUSIC. During the course of a lengthy evening that did indeed lead to LOUD ROCK MUSIC (namely Zeppelin Rock Bar, where Jun, who never ceases to amaze me with his musical selections, played some Rick Derringer! Yay! Then on to Memphis (bar, not city) where, fortified with copious amounts of my good friend San Miguel I assaulted the sensitive ears of the hardy few with renditions of ‘classic’ rock tunes accompanied by the house band. My head and throat really hurt the next day…) we visited the Meta House gallery where we bumped into Tim Page, the iconic war (and peace) photographer. Well, to be honest, we didn’t really ‘bump’ into him, we kind of stalked him. Tim is a patron of the organisation I work for, and on guessing he might well be in town to attend the opening of an exhibition of his work we thought we could pin him down to ask him for some favours. Ever the gentleman, he duly obliged, and we spent an hour or so chatting to him. He now feels closer than ever to finally solving the riddles surrounding the disappearance of his close friends Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, and is returning to Cambodia next week to continue his quest for the truth, with, he hopes, some resolution and closure in sight. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, but he’s a remarkable man, in many ways the Keith Richards of photojournalism, yet infinitely humble though charged with an intense inner flame, whose pictures of the mayhem and destruction wreaked by war are a frozen reminder of the insanity that humans continually perpetuate seemingly without ever learning that it is really not a good thing…

Time for a change of subject… let us muse briefly on tropical torpor. We are definitely moving into the hot season now, the temperature is rising and life is moving ever so slightly slower than it did before. Weddings are on the increase (we have been invited to three in the last two weeks) and so is the prevalence of that massively popular Khmer outdoor sport, spot squeezing. On every corner one can expect to see someone, more often than not a Tuk-Tuk or moto driver, bent in intense concentration in front of a wing mirror, squeezing and popping for all they are worth… ah, life’s small pleasures. Nose-picking, nit-picking, zit zapping, spitting, urination and spot squeezing are all publicly paraded on the thoroughfares of this fair city. Still, better out than in, as my dad used to say…
… and so the days crawl by here in the Kingdom of Cambodia, counting slowly down to the summer holidays in a lazy haze. I venture that Ray Davies would love it here, given how many Kinks songs mention either sitting, or the sun, or both… perhaps I ought to rechristen my current domicile the Kinkdom of Cambodia?

Now there’s a thought…

‘I’m just sittin’ in the midday sun
Just soaking up that currant bun
With no particular purpose or reason
Just sittin’ in the midday sun.’

‘Sitting in the Midday Sun’ The Kinks

ciao, bambinos

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Going to a Go-Go

Have you ever hankered after tinkling the ivories but were stymied by a complete lack of length in your fat little digits? Ever been the disappointed one turned away in the queue for hand cream models because your stubby fingers were too Shrek-like to pass the grade? Were you forced down the career path of butchery because, lets face it, those pork sausages you had sprouting from your palms were not really suited to the fine motor skills required of a brain surgeon?

Despair no more, for help is at hand (groan!)…

Just around the corner from our humble abode in Phnom Penh city is a beauty shop. Ah, but clearly not only a beauty shop, also a place where dreams come true in a magical scented haze of all-round wonderfulness, for not only will they ‘iron the hair to make it straight’ and ‘make the face to white’ (is Michael Jackson their best customer, I wonder?) but they also promise, for the princely sum of only $10.00, to, wait for it…

‘perfume the fingers to be slim…’

Yippee! A new career awaits me…
‘Oh, I just loved his Bach variations, so fluid, so emotive the way his beautiful, long fingers glided so effortlessly over the keys…’
‘Yes! Yes! And his hands smell so nice…’

I bet Rick Wakeman goes there too.

I’m pretty sure he doesn’t go to the one I spotted some months back close to BKK market, where a somewhat graphic piece of naïve art accompanies the assertion that not only can this establishment provide all the usual skin-whitening processes, but can also ‘cover all kind of bruises’ that a woman may be forced to endure in her daily routine. A sad reminder that this is still a male-dominated society, and that too often that domination is reinforced by the application of a fist…

I’m still as bemused and confused and amused by everyday life in the Cambodian capital as I was when I began writing this blog. Every day continues to bring new things to wonder at. Why is a gigantic office block being built near us opposite the site of a smaller office block that was forced to close earlier this month because… well, because no-one can afford to rent offices… ? Why do so many vehicles have no number plates, tinted glass and mini televisions showing Tom and Jerry cartoons smack in the middle of the dashboard? How many Hummers is it possible to fit on the sidewalk outside Malis’s restaurant? (Arlo Guthrie, there’s a song in there for you somewhere…) Why have Lucky Market suddenly stopped selling mayonnaise (until last week there were three shelves full of variations on the stuff, now they lie empty and forlorn – it’s either a melamine-type scare that we don’t know about yet, panic buying by foreigners (?), or it just simply has ceased to exist, like sun-dried tomatoes. We used to buy some lovely sun-dried tomatoes from the small deli counter in Lucky’s until the day they were no longer there, and the staff conspiratorially informed me that sorry sir, sun-dried tomatoes no longer existed, had vanished off the face of the earth forever, had ‘done a dodo’, etc etc. I simply haven’t had the heart to tell them about deli Le Duo’s range of sun-dried t…………….

Of course, if I get bored at being stuck in morning rush hour traffic with only the sight of two senior policemen driving at high speed in their very large SUV down what most people actually do now realise is the wrong side of Norodom Boulevard whilst simultaneously guzzling from cans of ABC beer (8.00am… isn’t that a little early, gentlemen?), then I can always drift off into a gentle reverie about little O. One morning this week, he finally completed his metamorphosis into a petulant teenager. I came into his room to give him his morning greeting at around 6.00am, and there he was, lying on his back across his bed, hands clasped behind his neck, knees up, gazing at the ceiling fan with a look of utter boredom on his face.

‘Hello! How are you today, O?’ Daddy enquires.

‘Go away!’ says O.

All well and good, but he’s TWO, forgoodnessake! TWO!

And…

He can climb the stairs approximately 2.8 times faster than I can (and in all probability descend faster, but thank the good lord I have not yet witnessed that particular heart-stopping exercise – our stairs are like the Odessa steps with a bend in the middle).
He can completely (and silently) disappear, and then reappear in a completely different place less than 5 milliseconds later.
He can store an entire packet of Chocolate Buttons in one cheek, some cheese and ham in the other and still manage to chew and swallow eggy toast soldiers at the same time.
He can lower his trousers/pants/nappy and pee at will, and in any situation, providing it causes the maximum annoyance/embarrassment to his parents.
He can open locked doors in the blink of an eye, and can lock doors that have no key finally and irrevocably.
He can programme an I-Pod and change DVDs with incredible speed and dexterity, and he employs his own form of censorship upon the adults in the house by switching off any television programme that does not meet with his approval…
He covertly works for a secret organisation whose mission is to rid the world of all remote control devices, but particularly those for TVs and DVDs.
Or perhaps he covertly works for the woman in the market who sells remote controls – we are undoubtedly her best customers, and come to think of it she does seem to have some unspoken dialogue between O and her when we make our almost weekly pilgrimage to replace them…

And…

Awww…he’s truly, truly wonderful. Our lives are just so much better for him being around, and each day brings new surprises and moments to melt the hardest of hearts (mine particularly). I’ve never wanted to be one of those ‘my kid is wonderful, blah blah blah’, parents, but it’s my blog and I’ll blag if I want to… so there!

Let’s talk about music again. You have to admit that going for about seven paragraphs hardly mentioning any music is pretty good, isn’t it? I quite often ponder in an ‘out-of-the-body-experience’ manner at the stylistic leaps I take in my listening habits. Last few weeks it’s been mainly the bleak English folktronica of July Skies emanating from my trusty and battered I-Pod and speaker pillow (remind me to elucidate at a later date on that particular wonder…), this week it’s Motown. I’m actually ‘listening’ to those songs that soundtracked a great deal of my adolescence, as opposed to living with them , and I am marvelling in a frankly gobsmacked manner at just how amazing the production was on the classic Motown tracks, and how vital and alive everything sounded (and still sounds today.) Every note in the right place, every component of the mix exactly where it should be in the sonic palette. Wow. Far out. Although the early 1970s was largely the domain of progressive rock in the circles I moved in, nearly every party came to the point where the only thing to do was to haul ‘L.A. Woman’ off the turntable and replace it with the silver Motown Chartbusters Volume 3 album, which would inevitably, as Pink might say, really ‘get the party started’. There were other volumes (one, volume 6 I believe, even had a Roger Dean sleeve! How that confused the progressive fraternity!), but 3 was the tried and trusted partystarter in our remote neck of the woods. The moment ‘Í heard it through the grapevine’ kicked in, all manner of solitary dizzy hippy hopping gave way to Soul Train-esque funky choreography, or so we thought in our naïve northern Scottish way… I’m sure Rufus Thomas must have taken inspiration from the ineptness of some of us ‘funky chickens’ gyrating drunkenly in the tiny wee kitchen of a tiny wee hoose in a tiny wee toon, with elbows akimbo, emerging like a hairier and scarier Pan’s People through a fog of strangely sweet-smelling smoke, Newcastle Brown and vodka-and-orange-wi’-a-wee-drappie-o’-water fumes…

The latter drink was the closest at that point that I had come to a cocktail. I still recall the burning chemical aftertaste of the potent mix of Smirnoff and diluting orange (Oh boy, was it ORANGE. Colourings and preservatives were essential parts of the deadly mix!), with the edge just slightly dulled by the brackish warm water…such sophistication! I truly did not become a fully paid up member of the suave and urbane world of the real cocktail drinker until one memorable afternoon in Edinburgh in the early 1980s, in Refreshers Cocktail Bar, when Donald McIntosh and I decided we would drink our way through the card…. but that’s another story for another time….

Oh well, that’s enough reminiscing for now. I wonder (if I can stop A from laughing too much) if I can teach little O the moves for ‘Going to a go-go’ ….

(cue funky guitar and rolling piano lick)

‘Watch me now!!!’