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…

Something In The Air

A little bit of extra craziness is in the Phnom Penh air at the moment. This Friday through Sunday the Water Festival takes place. Over 400 narrow rowing boats, the Dragon Boats, take part in races which start at the confluence of the three rivers, the Mekong, the Tonle Sap and the Tonle Bassac, and progress along the riverside of Phnom Penh finishing just opposite the Royal Palace. As the boats and contestants come from far and wide across the Kingdom, so to do the spectators – this year an estimated 2-3 million will quadruple the population of the central city and turn the streets in and around the centre into a riot of people, colour, music, food, fireworks, carnivals… that’s enough of that – that last section read like something from a bad travel guide and abjectly failed to convey the excitement of the festival, when throngs of people abandon their rural idyll to wend their colourful way… blah, blah and thrice blah. If you really want know about Water Festival, read or log on to the Lonely Planet Guide, which is MUCH better at that travel writing malarkey. However, it is true that the capital is reclaimed by the people for the week in which the festival falls, and of course we expats are issued with the usual dire warnings about the fate that will befall us if we venture out alone, so many of us head for the hills, or jet off for an expensive weekend in a high-rise luxury hotel or a weekend on the beach somewhere else in Asia. I hereby announce that my family and I (©Brenda Windsor, 2007) will forego that pleasure in order to get down in the ‘hood and hang out with our Khmer bro’s and sis’s. Or watch it on TV. This will be my third Water Festival, and I confess a time I love to mingle with the people and soak up the smells and sights of the provincial masses as they invade the relative calm of the capital (and close the roads to those blooming 4×4’s and Lexuses (Lexi?) that proliferate everywhere – hurrah!), but I will be sure to take care, as crime against foreigners seems to be on the increase in the city.

Let’s pause here for some gravity. Last week a young French woman died when she was struck by a minivan after falling from her moto taxi. Thieves on a speeding motorbike had tried to snatch her bag in the densely packed lunchtime traffic weaving down Monivong Boulevard, one of the main streets in the city. She resisted and apparently fell into the path of the oncoming traffic and was killed instantly. Even the normally measured (certainly in its choice of photo journalism) Phnom Penh Post ran a photo of her body sprawled in the street, with her handbag beside her, and of course no-one helping for fear of being implicated in her death. The perpetrators of the attempted crime, the driver of the minivan and the moto taxi driver who she was riding with had of course long departed the scene before the police arrived. And the police, ever aware of downplaying crime to keep their lives relatively easy, commented in their usual obliquely incredible fashion – ‘…it was obviously just a road traffic accident, not an attempted theft. The thieves did not even stop to grab her bag after she was killed.’ Duh?
So I shall take a bit more care when (if?) I wander out and about during the Festival, I promise.

I went on a bit of a minor DVD/CD splurge last week. I suppose that I have to recognize now that it isn’t just purely the obsessive love of music and movies that motivates me, but partly comfort. When I’m a little down, as I have been, then it’s a nice feeling to splash out a couple of dollars on something new, or something I’ve always meant to get. So, to avoid sinking this missive in more of the gloom and despondency that seems to be hanging around me and my keyboard of late, here is a print-out-and-throw-away guide to the interminably boring world of ‘things I have bought; why I have bought them, what I think of them, and why they could change your world for the better (or not) in my not-so-humble opinion.

• Rolling Stones CD ‘Through the vaults darkly’ – a great wee bootleg CD of rarities (including the very rude ‘Schoolboy Blues’ and a stonking (what a word!) version of ‘Brown Sugar’ featuring Eric Clapton on guitar. Forking out your $1.50 also gets you some bafflingly awful jams and for some inexplicable reason The Animals original single of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ amongst the Jagger/Richards treasure trove.
• ‘Bossa ’n’ Stones Vol 2’ CD – Yes! Bossa nova versions of such greats as ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, perfect for that poolside cocktail party on those balmy evenings. Absolutely bonkers concept, brilliantly executed and performed without any passion or irony whatsoever, and real contender for CD of the year so far.
• Eagles ‘Long Road Out of Eden” CD – I will freely admit to having really liked mid-period Eagles (Desperado, On the Border, One Of These Nights), but pretty much loathed ‘Hotel California’ and ‘The Long Run’. To the loathing list we can now add this vacuous waste of the pirate CD’ers art. A dreadful waste of time all round, and I do believe that Don Henley in particular knows that… ‘Boys of Summer’ indeed…! $1.50 wasted…
• Ryan Adams ‘Easy Tiger’ CD – Ryan is just so darn prolific that his quality control sometimes slips out the window and hangs by it’s fingernails on the diddley-doodley narrow ledge just above bland and boring. This is not a bad album, but not a particularly good one either. Strangely, the track I like the most (Halloweenhead) is the one that most critics disliked the most, dismissing it as ponderous heavy rock by numbers… hmmm.
• Love ‘Forever Changes Live’ – DVD – a real favourite album of my wife and I, here recorded live a few years ago at the Festival Hall. The late Arthur Lee is heartbreakingly good, the band amazing, the songs transcendental. Otis likes to bop to it also. Great extras too. Happy Happy Joy Joy all round.
• REM ‘Perfect Square’ – another great live DVD (Germany), the chaps on top form, best version of ‘Man on the Moon’ EVER, plus a quaint mini-documentary of their visit to Stirling which really does look as if they have landed smack in the middle of ‘The Sunday Post/People’s Friend’ land. ‘Gosh Mrs McGlumphy, there’s that wee Michael Stipe, he disnae look weel, does he?’ ‘Och, dinnae worry, he’s ane o’ them vegetabalarians, is he no? Michty, a wee drap o’ Sweetheart Stout wid dae him the warld o’ good…’
• ‘Easy Rider’ – DVD – ‘set your motor runnin’ – bam-bam-bam-baam-baam!’… please don’t ask why… I used to have that poster on my wall for most of my teenage years… I still have a hankering for the freedom of the speeding sickle on the open road, wind blowing through my hair transplant and the distant rumble of the heavy metal thunder of Steppenwolf…. Probably end up having my bag snatched tho’ ….

Most of the above are in the vein of ‘classic rock’, which seems to be, as my Granny used to say, a ‘phrase’ I am going through at the moment. Or, perhaps more accurately, a ‘paragraph’. Mind you, I have been veering toward the Brazilian these last couple of days (which sounds like an extract from a football commentary or something a bit rude to do with waxing – no, not surfboards), and I now have a sizeable collection of variations on the theme of ‘Girl from Ipanema’. And I am thinking that bossa nova versions of punk songs might be a bit of a crowd puller with the jaded youth of the trendy Phnom Penh nightspots… However, the wind is changing and I think I can feel a bout of free jazz approaching from the West, with maybe a smattering of Bluegrass on it’s way when the weather clears – I’m so glad that I still love all this stuff … still crazy after all these years, eh…

Goodnight, and may your dog go with you.