It’s A Mystery

Toyah had it exactly right, didn’t she? ‘It’s a mystery, it’s a mystery…’ Yes, ‘it’ sure is. So, what it exactly is ‘it’? Well it’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s a mystery…

About a month ago I changed jobs. I’ve left behind the world of landmines and UXO and small arms and MANPADS and IED’s and so on and so on to return to the world of children. No, un moment s’il vous plait – I haven’t regressed to my childhood. How could I? I never left it in the first place, just ask my wife and son. However, I am now working with street children in an international context. And no, that doesn’t mean I am the Fagin-like mastermind behind an international street urchin criminal ring, robbing tourists willy-nillly and setting off hue-and-cries in the chic destinations of the world, oh no. I now sport the rather grand title of International Grants Manager for Friends-International, a rather wonderful organization based here in Phnom Penh but with projects running all over the world working with some of the most marginalized members of our societies, the street living and working children and young people. If you want the full story, please go to the Friends International website, http://www.friends-international.org where all is revealed in a much more coherent manner than your humble correspondent could possibly manage… and that little burst of Francais above was no mistake either… it’s a French organization. Allons Y!

Last Saturday evening was a bit surreal for me, even by the normally surreal standards of Phnom Penh. It was the Fete de la Musique (French again! Zut alors!), and after getting on down with the Mekong Pirates at Gasolina (and witnessing a truly bizarre performance there from a young woman and her misbehaving backing tapes) yours truly was performing with Khmer/Filipino band ‘Rock X Press’ in the sweaty confines of the funkiest joint in town, the Memphis Club. Exceptional musicians all, which made rehearsals extremely easy. Over the course of those rehearsals during the week I had gotten to know the band really well, so Saturday evening I was one of those in the inner sanctum of band friends and associates and other musicians and found myself chatting to the very amiable uncle of Suk, the drummer. He was an extremely genial chap, somewhere in his 60’s and sporting a discreetly loud (is there such a thing? Je ne sais pas…) Hawaiian shirt and jet black slicked back brilliantined hair. He looked like an extra from an Elvis Presley movie, or indeed the off-duty premier of a tiny Pacific island paradise. But my goodness, he was a guitarist of some considerable ability, and wowed the audience with his take on Les Paul and Carlos Santana songs, getting extremely animated in that eyes-closed grimace-of-pain-lead guitarist way as his set drew to a close. As he returned to his seat I congratulated him, and he pulled me conspiratorially close and whispered into my ear ‘You know, I’m not very good at shooting a gun.’ ‘Oh’ said I, not really knowing where this conversation was going to go. ‘I prefer the guitar. I know how to use that! ‘ He laughed. It turned out that our amiable guitar hero was the Chief of Security at the Ministry of the Interior…

I do know what he means. Alex Harvey once said he would rather face an oncoming army with an electric guitar and a Marshall stack instead of a gun. Rock X Press and I put that to the test as we faced the marauding hordes in the Memphis, and within two songs the mix of drunken expats and wildly enthusiastic Khmers were in thrall to the likes of ‘Born to be Wild’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’… cutting edge stuff, I know, but sometimes you just gotta go with the obvious! I ended the evening with a string of invitations to perform at other venues, jam with other bands, visit recording studios, make jingles… AND a quarter bottle of whisky from the event sponsors… what more could any living walking breathing talking singing leaping cliché of a rock singer want?

O and A are in the UK, enjoying the summer break, so the relatively empty corridors of my house have been reverberating at night to the sound of (bad) guitar playing and the echoing soundtracks of DVD’s. I use some of this ‘alone’ time to catch up on the art house and experimental movies that have passed me by in the last few months, reveling in the avant-garde abstractions of the post modern nouvelle-vague and such like.

Last night it was ‘X-Men origins – Wolverine’.

Yes, I know. But it was just a little avant-garde, as this was a pre-post-production copy, so much of the special FX magic was there in its basic form – for example, you could see wires attached to actors and bad prosthetics and basic CGI stuff which added immensely to my enjoyment of the movie. Remember what I said about regressing to childhood above? Tonight it’s Star Trek, accompanied by a can of Ginger Beer, a packet of kettle chips and an Almond Magnum. Mmmmm, now guess who’s going to have a sore tummy tomorrow…

Keep on Running

Do you recall Worzel Gummidge? He was a scarecrow, a walking, talking, living, breathing scarecrow, portrayed with admirable joie-de-vivre on Sunday afternoon children’s TV during the late 70s and early 80s in a metaphysical and sartorial about-turn by the former Dr. Who, the late Jon Pertwee. Worzel had the unique facility of being able to switch his heads around to suit his requirements, so, for example, he could change his usual ‘mischievous’ head for his ‘thinking’ head as and when the occasion demanded. As he grows older and wiser in the ways of this world, little O also seems to be developing that facility, albeit with slightly more variance than dear old Worzel managed.

Saturday last he had his ‘Roger Bannister’ head firmly in place. The International School of Phnom Penh were holding their annual sponsored Landmines Fun Run (sounds ever so slightly wrong, doesn’t it?), to raise awareness of the continuing blight caused to this country by unexploded ordnance (UXO) and landmines, and to raise funds to support the Cambodian volleyball team whose members include many survivors of these deadly legacies of conflict. We had put little O’s name down for the elementary fun run, assuming that he could be escorted by yours truly at a sedate pace around the dusty pebble-strewn track for the duration of one quarter kilometer lap. The big day dawned, and with it a gnawing sense of unease churning in the stomachs of all participants. Not caused by the worry of impending physical exercise, or indeed a dodgy roadside snack from the night before, but the real foreboding generated by the revelation, for the first time in public in Cambodia outwith a swimming pool, of your humble correspondents stick-like, white and hairy lower appendages… yes, I too had dressed for the occasion, baggy t-shirt, shorts and trendy black converse hi-tops in place…well, brothers, sisters, we don’t need this fasttrack groove thang…, oh no. Once the murmurs of distaste and ripples of barely suppressed laughter had subsided, all were called to order and lined up at the start line. A barely noticed countdown and we were off, in clouds of billowing dust, jogging along to the strains of Alice Cooper ‘School’s Out’ (Mostly ‘good’ music all morning, I have to say. Congrats to the compiler!). Little O, who was the youngest participant, waved to all around him and seemed really into this idea of trotting around trying to keep up with the big kids. The cheering and encouraging announcements must have spurred him on, for as eventually the end of lap one loomed with mummy cheerfully and excitedly waving him into the pits, the O decided that he wasn’t going to stop. ‘One more’ he said, and carried on trotting…
This was repeated FIVE times, until we put a stop to it after six laps and dragged him protesting into the sidelines, along with yours truly who was by now completely hot, dust-covered, sweaty and exhausted from keeping up with the little chap…

The mischievous head was firmly in place at a colleagues wedding this week. We had endured almost an hour stuck in a tuk-tuk in horrendous traffic to get to the venue, arriving there to marvel once more at the feats of cosmetic engineering conducted upon hapless Khmer brides by the beauticians of this fair country. I have sat beside my colleague for nearly two years now, but I completely failed to recognise her when we entered the reception, wondering to myself who was this glittering vision, who looked like a tiny alabaster version of one of the Roman Goddesses, hair piled in Medusan coils and eyes framed by the darkest thickest lashes, mascara’ed beyond even the wildest imaginings of Dusty Springfield. She seems to know me… who is it? Then realization dawned, this was indeed her, trapped like a frightened bird under the layers of the beauticians craft. It does look wonderful in the photoshopped marvels that pass for wedding albums round these parts, though…

My other female colleagues from work had also gone into unrecognizably glamorous overload, and from the make-up, hair and clothes you would have thought that we were actually attending an Oscar ceremony from the 1960s where all females present had entered into an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike contest. Comfortingly, the men mostly resembled extras from a black and white 1960s British kitchen sink drama, Cambodian Tom Courtenay’s all, looking as if they had just come in from the allotment, wiped their faces on their sleeves, splashed themselves very briefly with ‘The Great Smell of Brut ©’, then got stuck straight into the minced pig entrails and greasy scrawny chicken on offer with considerable gusto accompanied by copious amounts of liquid lubrication (‘Cold Guinness… Number One!’ as our waiter rather enthusiastically informed me). I felt very much the barang exception in my white Ambre suit and black shirt, but I imagined that most of the Khmer guests thought I was a very important foreign gangster, so nobody really commented for fear of going for a concrete-booted paddle in the Mekong.

O was the very modicum of stoic calmness during the first hour that we waited for our table to fill up and food to be served, he even ventured with me on a couple of occasions to view the band, who boasted a completely electronic drum kit, a jazz-thrash noodling lead guitarist, a PA system adequate for a small stadium and a baffling number of lead vocalists, including one man who was absolutely from the oh-so-smooth Andy Williams white loafer school which fitted in wonderfully with the whole Elizabeth Taylor imagined scenario going on in my brain…

Although the arrival of other guests (including some foreign women who were clearly and scarily misinformed that this was a Tammy Wynette look-alike event – thank the lord for A and her beautiful, simple little polka dot dress!) en masse to our table meant that the food had also arrived, O was by now well bored, and despite the tasty distractions of whole deep fried fish, mischievous head kicked in. He smashed some cutlery and stole the chopsticks off the woman sitting next to him, so we decanted him hastily from the premises, pausing briefly so he could have his picture snapped on the red carpet with my colleagues three year old cousin (who had obviously done this sort of thing before – she posed furiously for all she was worth as O remained clutched in her grasp with an expression of abject terror etched on his face) and then back into the tuk-tuk for a considerably faster trundle home. Once home, little O put his (and our) favourite head on, that of the wonderful, funny, sweet little chap that he is, and went off to bed with the story of The Gruffalo’s Child lulling him into the land of Nod from his stereo…

… and along with The Gruffalo’s Child, Robert Fripp now enters the picture. Not such a leap of the imagination as it may at first seem (what’s he talking about now? Robert Fripp? Isn’t he that Dorset guy who plays guitar, made a weird record with Eno and married Toyah? Yes, that’s the one.). I’ve recently been recording bedtime stories for the little chap using Garageband software on our Macbook, which has been enormous fun for yours truly and, it seems to date, enormously enjoyed by our little O. Whilst searching for suitable snippets of soundtrack music, I have rediscovered King Crimson. This has been a real joy to me, as regular readers will know that in addition to my love of rock, jazz, indie, punk, soul, latin, pyschedelia, country, folk, ambient, electronica, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, blah, blah, blah, I have an abiding and unwholesome fondness for Progressive Rock, or ‘Prog’ as it now seems to be known to the subterranean denizens of the vast and bewildering world of music. I think I’ve mentioned in these blogs before of balmy and not-so-balmy evenings spent appreciating each others record collections in the homes of Eric Law, Colin Morrison, Steven Beaton, Michael Houston, John Farquhar, Donald McIntosh and many others from that particular hall of infamy. Thurso High School record club and the redoubtable Leon ‘do you think I look like Ian Anderson? Great!’ Volwerk must also figure hugely in these formative years of my musical appreciation. Mr. Volwerk, Eric and Colin were big on Prog, as indeed I was, and one of my all-time favourites from that era when dinosaurs still roamed the earth with impunity was (and still is) ‘Lizard’ by King Crimson. It’s funny that listening to it now with the benefit of hindsight (or should that be hindhearing?) it’s actually pretty much jazz-rock fusion with a soupcon of classical influences thrown in. There’s even a guest vocal from helium lunged Accrington born astral elf Jon Anderson of Yes and the atonal piano dribbling of Keith Tippett burbling all over the place. It is however, in the grand tradition of all things Prog, majestic, moving, bafflingly dexterous in both scope and execution and, of course, supremely, wonderfully silly. It’s also full of Mellotron, that amazing Heath Robinson-esque instrument that added the mystery to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and the menace to ‘We Love You’… ah, the Beatles and the Stones, they sucked the marrow out of bones…(’House of Love’… remember them?). Mellotron gives a gloriously wonky orchestral feel to many of the tracks, and adds to the slightly creepy sensibility which pervades the album. The Beatles link continues with the track ‘Happy Families’ where Pete Sinfield’s occasionally obscure lyrics on the album clarify into a surreal discursion on the breakup of the Fab Four (‘Nasty Jonah grew a wife, Judas drew his pruning knife…’).

Colin Morrison used to particularly despair of my attitude towards much of the music he enjoyed, but as I recall ‘Lizard’ seemed to be a common ground between us. Colin and I used to get into some fairly heated arguments, particularly about jazz-rock, and sometimes his taste seemed to me to be bafflingly obtuse – sorry to bring this up again Colin, but Jukka Tolonen…? – but I really miss the overall over-intellectualised and frequently smarmy silliness that used to pass between us during our ‘appreciation’ evenings… these might, for example, include lengthy discussions about the stunning left-handed bass technique of another Colin, Mr. Hodgkinson of Back Door. I’ve mentioned them before in a blog, but just to recap they were an early 70s Yorkshire bred jazz-rock trio of sax, bass and drums with a punk attitude and by ‘eck bloomin’ good they were, too. I bet you really wish now that you had been part of those music appreciation evenings, don’t you, eh? I hope that you’re still out there in the land of the musical avant-garde, Colin (Morrison that is – Mr. H is still a very active musician and has recently put together a new combo based on the Back Door sound), baffling your neighbours with Jukka and the rest. If you should happen to stumble upon this, please do get in touch… the same goes for you, Robert Fripp… I’m sure your well developed sense of the absurd will be tickled by the thought that snippets of your meisterwork ‘Lizard’ are now adorning my renditions of ‘The Selfish Crocodile’ and ‘The Gruffalo’s Child’.

I wonder too if my dear little tousle-haired O will grow up to mumble incoherently from behind a curtain of shoulder length hair, wear an ex-Navy greatcoat, 26-inch loon pants and desert boots and waste many evenings of his teenage years earnestly debating with his long-suffering friends something earth-shattering such as the nuances of style that differentiate Steve Howe’s picking technique from that of Robert Fripp …

… or perhaps maybe, just maybe, unlike his father, he will actually get a life!