Willie and the Poor Boys

The late August rains are lashing the streets of Phnom Penh with daily downpours, the deluge ensuring that the streets still flood with almost reassuring regularity as the jagged teeth of the concrete skyline continue to push ever upwards, Gold Tower 42 now almost scraping the low grey clouds that scud across the precipitating skies. There are times it almost feels like I am back in (an admittedly much warmer) UK. More specifically in the dreich northern parts from whence I sprang more than fifty four summers ago…

That was pretty poetic, wasn’t it? Yes, it was a tad Sunday Post-ish, but no bad, eh? I’ve been thinking a great deal about my place of birth recently. I returned there in July, and it was still there, Thurso in all its glory, nestling under slate-coloured skies, drizzled with intermittent squalls of rain interspersed with sudden bursts of watery sunshine. In a word, summer! I had travelled north from Edinburgh on the early Sunday morning bus, briefly attempting to while the hours away by doing some work without reckoning on the cramped conditions and the parlous state of the battery on my Macbook rendering this ambition almost completely useless. I briefly felt one of those passing tingles of ‘Scottishness’ I experience from time to time as I mused that it was very appropriate to be using a Macbook here in Scotland, home of the ‘Mac(intosh – useful for rain (see ‘Scotland’))’. I pondered would it ever achieve and hold the same cultural significance as say a ‘See you Jimmy’ tam ‘o’ shanter and fiery red wig do in delineating outwardly that elusive quality that defines the Scot. Hmmm. I took another large bite out of my Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer and a swig of Irn Bru and thought, maybe not. Giant leaps of intellectual cogitation over, the remainder of the journey to Inverness was spent in a semi-conscious reverie gazing at the scenery whizzing past the coach and marvelling at the number of pictures of hills, braes, hillocks, scree and occasionally sheep that the couple seated in front of me were taking. This reverie was only interrupted by falling asleep and completely missing Aviemore. Damn. Since watching Aviemore hosting ‘It’s a Knockout’ in glorious monochrome on my Nana’s tiny TV set back in the heady early 70’s (I think…or may have been late 60’s??) the place has always held an allure to me comparable to say, oh I don’t know, let’s say Las Vegas. Or maybe Blackpool. But this time I missed it completely, waking just as we entered Inverness. I do like Inverness. Technically I suppose I still actually live there. But I literally had only two minutes on this occasion to elbow my way through a gaggle of American cruisers (that is, from a cruise ship, not predatory nighthawks in search of illicit thrills… although a few did look 1970’s type big moustache and baseball jacket threatening…) and catch the bus north, to the land beyond the split stane, to the craggy cliffs of Dunnet Head, scorries wheeling in a big sky over peat bog and ancient cairn, to the enchanted realm of Top Joe’s and the Commercial Hotel….

What I really did not anticipate on the trip north were the waves of nostalgia I experienced as we passed through my old stomping ground from my days as a semi-pro musician, and even further back to recall trips undertaken with my dad and mum, sisters and brother… incidents, memories, events from the past sprang unbidden into my mind, forgotten friends suddenly remembered, hours of travel in various forms of transport and in varying states of comfort suddenly remembered, fond thoughts of places and people flooding through me and suffusing me with a warm glow… a bit like Scott’s Porridge Oats actually…

The truth is that I actually enjoyed the trip very much, smiling like a mad chiel at all the memories pouring out, most joyous, some tinged with sadness, but all part and parcel of my experience of life. These places, the Golspie’s, Brora’s, Dunbeath’s, Helmsdale’s, they were all part of me…goodness, even Portgower, where I swear I have never ever seen a living soul during five decades of travelling through it… HP Lovecraft would have absolutely adored it. I even felt some minor feelings of something (possibly sympathy?) when I passed through Wick. Please don’t tell anyone that. This general feeling of warmth and well-being continued when I eventually got to Thurso… walking to my eldest son’s house that night I stopped in my tracks in the small alleyway beside a somewhat nondescript harled bungalow and its detached garage lurking on the cusp of the forebodingly stonily-monikered Granville Crescent. In the annals of my personal history this seemingly undistinguished abode was of a similar stature to the KaiserKellar in Hamburg, or the Wardour Street Marquee in London…. for this was Michael Houston’s old house, and in that very garage I had taken some of the first faltering steps in my life long obsession with punishing the human race through the power of song. I entered Michael’s garage as a 15 year-old speccy geek, and emerged from its nurturing chrysalis mere weeks afterward as a 15 year-old speccy geek who thought he was a hybrid of all the best bits of Marc Bolan, John Fogerty and Ray Davies…

As I stood there on that warm(ish) July evening, the years fell away, and I remembered a myriad of things that I hadn’t thought of in many, many moons…. The ‘Eagle’ DIY kit amplifiers from a mail order catalogue that powered our first forays into electrified rock, the sheer size and gut rumbling power of Steven Beaton’s bass rig (a 15 watt WEM…wow!), Michaels mum’s impressive shortwave radio doubling as our first PA system and their standard lamp as an impromptu microphone stand, Perce’s groovy poster adorning his bass drum skin (Stonehenge, I think…? We were Spinal Tap before they were Spinal Tap!)… the songbooks that provided our first repertoire (Best of The Kinks was one…probably worth a small fortune now on e-bay, my Marc Bolan book with the amazing George Underwood illustrations and all the impossible dots and boxes and swirls crawling across the pages that would translate into mystical music, if only I knew the code)… initial rehearsals in the front room in the house, and then as it dawned on Norma and Sinclair (Michael’s parents) that perhaps this wasn’t simply a passing fad, promotion to the rock ‘n’ roll nirvana of the garage.

My memory is not brilliant, so I can’t exactly verify the sequence of events following – perhaps some kind chap (Michael?) with less frazzled brain cells can provide a more accurate picture of events, but as I recall the core of the ‘band’ initially was myself on vocals (as no one else wanted the job), Michael on guitar and Steven on bass. Once he had established that we were indeed serious, one of our other friends, James Simpson, joined as second guitarist, spending his paper round money on a red Stratocaster copy and performing the extremely impressive feat of proving that Bert Weedon’s ‘Play in A Day’ guitar tutor did actually work… in fact, James proved it could be done in an evening…. oldest member (by a couple of years) Perce and his drum kit toddled along slightly later, but his influence on the band was infinitely greater than his rudimentary drumming – he introduced us to the wonders of John C Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival. CCR stuff was insanely catchy, pretty cool and, crucially, mostly fairly easy to play, in our estimation. The bulk of the first set we worked up were mainly ‘three chord wonders’, CCR, Kinks, T.Rex and I believe Black Sabbath and Chuck Berry were in there also. Michael also owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I seem to recall some early rehearsals being taped, and also vaguely recall hearing them some years later and wincing at how awful I actually sounded… in my head I may have been Bolan, Fogerty and Davies, but Larry the Lamb crossed with a strangulated Bryan Ferry better described the diminutive bleat that was my trademark at that time. At this juncture I have to point out the very real dangers inherent in being a T.Rex fan in Thurso at that time. Young heterosexual men in small town Scotland in the early 70’s were mostly cheerfully misogynist, racist and homophobic, truly ignorant of the importance of addressing these issues in forging tolerance and understanding for all. You can imagine then the reaction to a diminutive cross-dressing corkscrew haired pouting and glitter-enhanced pop star.

Yes.

Exactly.

Neil Barclay’s parents house bore witness to this upsurge of anger the night after Bolan and T.Rex performed ‘Hot Love’ on Top of the Pops, the bopping elf cementing his androgynous appearance with glitter smeared on his cheeks and under his eyes by his managers wife, Chelita Secunda, seconds before they rocked into millions of homes in the UK. Next night, Neil’s parents were away, so cue teenage party mayhem in the Barclay household. A certain local musician got so angry during a discussion on the merits of glam rock, and in particular on Mr Bolan’s make-up, that he punched a hole clean through the stairwell wall… I didn’t say much for the remainder of that night, I was rather keen on keeping all my teeth and my face intact…

So, let us pause at this point, dear reader, so you can catch your breath. Memories from those who were there in those heady times are more than welcome, real or imagined… part two, in which our heroes venture forth from the garage, blinking and wide-eyed into the cruel world of entertainment, will be along shortly…


Thought for the day

“… the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately, preferably with the engine running”

(Charles Shaar Murray, writing of The Clash live experience, 1977)

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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

Watchin’ the river flow…

…so we are in a Land Rover Discovery, weaving like quicksilver surfers through the dense and frankly unpredictable early afternoon traffic of northern Phnom Penh toward a meeting at the office of the national landmine authority when suddenly the drugs take hold… no, what really happens is that my boss slips the best of AC/DC into the stereo. At the traffic lights the waiting motodops and tuk-tuk drivers are suddenly startled by the crunching metallic chords of ‘Highway to Hell’ blasting bass-heavy from our skull-and-crossbone emblazoned vehicle. I’m sure the panic that flared briefly in their eyes was partly due to the fleeting thought that perhaps Keith Richards had finally decided to visit PP…The day is becoming more and more surreal – this morning, a long conversation (in a meeting) about one of our field operatives who was hospitalized with broken ankles after hitting a car with his motorbike. “So lucky, to escape with such minor injuries” say we foreigners, nodding sagely. A little later we discover that it was actually a cow that he hit… earlier, shaking his head in profound disbelief one of my colleagues emerged from his office “those bloody termites have eaten my in-tray” he said as he forlornly poured himself a cup of coffee.

So when we arrive at the venue and find a spread of chocolate chip cookies, brownies and miniature pate rolls laid on for us, who is surprised? When one of the presenters repeatedly pulls the plug of the projector out mid-presentation, causing an eager Australian lady (who appears to be the only person who can work the thing) to vault over the table each time it happens, who raises an eyebrow? The strange becomes the commonplace in this fantastic city.

I was people watching at the river yesterday, awaiting Mr. R whom I was going to buy dinner for to thank him for his help with the little O’s party. The elephant strolled by, as it does most days at about 4.45 and swarms of foreigners raced alongside it, snapping photographs frantically to remind themselves… of what? Ray Davies was probably right, that “people take pictures of each other, just to prove that they really existed…”
I was too busy with one of my favourite sports, which is observing the passing streams of traffic and counting the number of passengers on one moto. My record sighting to date is seven, which was on the airport road one night last year. Of the seven, two were seated on the front mudflap facing the driver. Two and three are most common, but you can spot the occasional four and five, and the much rarer six. There is also the game ‘most unusual object being carried on a moto.’ My winner so far is a palm tree (admittedly only about five metres tall), ‘though the lavatory pan with cistern and piping attached runs it a close second.

Mr. R arrived and we repaired to the Pop Café, where the most delicious Italian food (the penne with meatballs is out of this world!) is served to you by the Cambodian Stevie Nicks and her be-frilled sisters, and then on to Hurley’s Cantina to observe the bad behaviour of foreign journalists covering the Khmer Rouge trials in all their technicolour (yawning) glory, whilst an old ex-soldier bearing a remarkable resemblance to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry does a peculiar shuffling dance dressed in what appears to be a 1940’s pinstripe demob suit decorated with braid and medals…

If the tourist office is looking for a slogan to sell the city to potential visitors, might I suggest this –

‘Phnom Penh – never knowingly boring.’

Listening to – ‘Bitches Brew’ Miles Davis
‘Give me back my man’ B-52’s

Really missing – my beautiful wife and baby boy XXX