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


welcome to the jungle

8.53 on Sunday evening, and outside the Sutherland-Mathur residence the traffic sounds are finally beginning to fade, signifying the end of the water festival for another year. For the last two hours it has felt like the M25 has been relocated to the street outside our house, as streams of two-wheeled traffic has hurtled past oblivious to even the slightest notion of road safety, simply fixated on heading home from three days of water, water and more water. Well, what do you expect from a water festival? I jest. It’s the three-day Big Day Out for Cambodia, and now the rural population (3 million or so) are returning en masse to the provinces, mainly by motorbike which (hurrah!) have far outnumbered the 4×4’s over these last three days, so, a veritable welter of horn honking and tyre screeching going on, but in our neck of the woods, no accidents. Amazing. There doesn’t even seem to have been any injuries from the flurry (is that the correct word?) of gunfire we heard from the street outside last night. Life sure is exciting in these parts. As a late-middle-aged-grumpy-as-hell-unfit-fat-bald white man, the water festival has little to offer me, mainly being focused around physical exertion and FUN, which I am now legally unable to have due to encroaching senility (I have the papers to prove that around here somewhere, but I can’t remember where I left them…).

However, we decided to go out earlier today and catch some of the buzz around the final day, so we exited the lofty portals of 18A to search for our trusty Tuk-Tuk driver, ‘Chairman’ Mao. The Chairman confessed in a slightly blurry manner that he had been, and was continuing to do, something called ‘partying’, although to be honest he seemed to be considerably more cogent and sober than on a normal weekday. After his usual (failed) attempt to terrify Otis by getting him to stroke his wispy beard, he entrusted our transportation to his trusty Lieutenant, a lovely and smiley chap who unfortunately is to Tuk-Tuk driving what Apollo 13 was to American confidence in NASA… and off we went! I wore my straw sunhat (Wrinkly Michael Stipe look-a-like time! In your dreams, sunshine!) and Otis wore the foam plastic Chinese mandarin hat that we bought for him on our Saturday trawl of the waterfest market stalls (we also bought him two windmills, one foam General’s peaked cap, one wind-up Vietnamese aeroplane and a ‘Tom’ cat mask – $5 well spent, we thought…). Sartorially splendiferous within our own heads if not in actuality, we headed off into the hazy heat of the afternoon, in search of….

We arrived a short Tuk-Tuk ride later at… well, not quite where we should have been, for despite the lengthy drunken instructions from the Chairman lovely Lt. Smiley-Driver overshot our turnoff so we had to go round the block one more time before arriving at our destination, Le Duo. Formerly located in a villa in the expat quarter, this little gem of a restaurant has now relocated to… to be honest, I don’t really know, but it is just around the corner from a regular haunt of ours, the SOS clinic. Great name for a clinic, eh. Save Our Souls. Thankfully they don’t take the title too literally, and apart from a considerable pile of well-thumbed copies of The Watchtower in the reception area, there ain’t much preachin’ goin’ on round these parts. We’re like family to the folks in the SOS. Coughs, colds, inoculations, fevers… whenever we feel the wind changing or when we need to have Otis coo-ed at, weighed, measured etc etc then we truck on over to the SOS and the efficient though bemusingly confusing staff therein. For example, they have largely decided to call Otis by his second name, Joseph. That’s fine by me, as long as we know who we are talking about. They have also managed to verify that his height (or in truth length, as they lie him down to take the measurement) fluctuates up and down from visit to visit. Don’t they realize that Otis has Yogic control of his musculature and skeletal framework which enables him to contract and expand his length at will, a bit like a baby version of Mr. Fantastic? … or maybe it is just that the vinyl measuring mat contracts and expands with the heat in the room … I’m sure that one day science will have an explanation – probably something quite simple – I recall we attempted to measure him when he was much younger and spent several days worrying that we had spawned a giant, when in fact the tape measure had been folded over a bit…

So, around the corner from SOS lies Italian restaurant Le Duo. Yes, that’s correct. An Italian restaurant with a French name. Only in Phnom Penh, eh. The décor is magnificently, well, magnificent. It transcends taste, being I’m sure the only pseudo-Greco-Roman villa with swimming pool, scale models of the Coliseum, Leaning Tower of Pisa and Juliet’s balcony built inside a former Kiln house in town. No competition. Service is a little slow, even by the laid back ‘hey, no worries, tomorrow will do’ standards that we are all used to here, but my goodness, the food is worth the wait, it is truly mouth-wateringly delicious, concocted from the finest fresh ingredients. Ani went for a medley of grilled and barbecued fish with tagliatelle in a duo of sauces, I had penne with asparagus and pancetta in a cream sauce, and lucky little Otis had the best of both worlds. We then allowed him to crawl to the chiller cabinet (he would most definitely have crawled into the chiller cabinet, if the lip-smacking noises he was making were any indication) to choose dessert. He made the perfect choice, bless him, a chocolate mousse trio that was simply perfect in every way and a fitting end to a magnificent meal. We washed the young master’s grubby little tootsies in the swimming pool (common will out, you know), said our goodbyes to the amiable host and went for a quick spin around Wat Phnom (or as we refer to it, ‘the estate’) before returning home. A grand way to spend a Sunday…

If you want a food-related laugh, and particularly if you have small children, please allow me to recommend the movie ‘Ratatouille’, which we all chuckled heartily at last weekend. It really is very beautifully animated and very wittily scripted, with a most unusual premise and is well worth investing in (though having paid only $1.50 for it I would say that, wouldn’t I). On a similar theme (watch the movie and you will understand), my colleague Rivann was gazing out of the office window last week when she suddenly commented on a cute mouse that was sitting on the windowsill. The Khmer are masters of understatement, for this was most definitely no mouse, rather a very, very large and maybe slightly cute rat. Later that day I was outside making a cellphone call when three of them ran past in front of me into the long grass of the garden. I mentioned this to one of my colleagues and his deadly serious response has put me into serious Daktari mode, searching for my pith helmet and jodhpurs.
‘ Maybe we should get a snake’ he said….

Mousse, mouse, rats and snakes…

It’s a jungle out there….

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

Memory of a Free Festival

‘…the sun machine is comin’ down, and we’re gonna have a party…

Elsewhere, Phnom Penh
Friday night in Phnom Penh, a city where the live music scene has yet to show the massive blossoming that the fine arts has over the last few months. But tonight we are in ‘ waiting for a bus’ syndrome land (is this a peculiarly British way of putting this? – please ask if you don’t understand). In a city where one or two gigs a week is the norm, tonight there are at least a dozen going on. It’s the ‘fete de la musique’ , organised by the French Cultural Centre, so around many venues in town the sound of (live ) music will bring the hills alive with songs they have sung for a thousand years.
Mr R and I are intending to sample some of these audio delights, and number one highlight will of course be the punk-indie-mash-up-with-the-ramones-live at Rubies wine bar… but first… to Gasolina…

Gasolina is heaving with a crowd of beautiful people (mainly French) and their beautiful children who are behaving rather like a cross between the Lord of the Flies and the Lost Boys when we arrive. Mr R admonishes one young chap who is attempting to burn the place down by waving leaves through the flames of one of the many decorative torches burning in the grounds – he smiles at us and moves his mayhem elsewhere…
A large-ish PA is set up, and the process of sound-checking is going on. I have to say that my experience of hiring sound systems and engineers in PP has not been good, certainly in the live music arena. Generally the equipment is pretty good, but the ‘engineer’ sent along with it is simply the guy who drives the gear around from venue to venue… and so it is tonight, as we are treated to howls and squeals from the PA as the engineer continues to break so many of the cardinal rules of sound mixing that I begin to think that no, this is actually pretty good, and we are witnessing the early development of Industrial music in Cambodia (eat your hearts out, Throbbing Gristle).
Then the performance starts, and the first act are really pretty amazing. A small group of guys from Mondulkiri who have moved to PP and are camped out opposite the National Assembly to protest at their land being torn from them to make way for apparently government sanctioned ‘commercial development’. They are singing about this injustice accompanying themselves on small gongs, a hypnotic, ancient sound… then they unleash their secret weapon, the youngest member. I don’t quite know how to describe this… his voice was like a cross between a kazoo and a buzzsaw, but delivered with the pitch and tone of a castrati – simply unbelieveable. Mr R commented that Andy Kershaw would have been blown away, as we were.

After that, some Japanese drummers,powerful, physical stuff,who then conducted an impromptu workshop for the kids (saving us from immolation in the process)and also jammed with a French musical collective whose name escapes me but were also pretty good. They carried on playing on their own, bringing to mind Les Negresses Verte. We had listened, drunk and eaten, so now onto elsewhere.
‘Elsewhere’, to be precise, which was deeply surreal. A cocktail lounge jazz/soft rock trio on a huge stage with lights performing ‘no woman no cry’ to a crowd of expats and wealthy Khmer kids loungingaround an illuminated swimming pool… no, I am not making this up. We had arrived near the end of their set, so it was a quick ‘fly me to the moon’ and a ‘your love is king’ where a young woman from the crowd who really, truly, believed she was Sade locked in the body of a much larger person was hauled onstage to deliver her impersonation, just too, too surreal…so off we went in our trusty tuk-tuk to Rubies – Punk rock here we come!
Well, no. Man in pork pie hat programming random tracks from a computer over the sound system here we come. Some very good music, granted, but no thrill, no threat, no Ramones live, no punk, no style… major dissapointment of the night. Sorry.
Tuk-tuk again to the final destination for us, Talkin’ to a Sranger, where we encounter the Blue Geckos. Despite the fact that I was quite beered up by now and had christened them the Grateful Undead I really enjoyed their down-homey backporch take on things and their eclectic musical choice and delivery – anyone who plays ‘tequila’ is alright by me… thumbs up for Blue Geckos.
…and so Mr R and I said our goodbyes and staggered off in opposite directions, with the memories of a pretty good evening of music behind us (no Glastonbury, granted – but warmer, drier, at least as eclectic, and pretty funny in parts), and the promise of a good night’s sleep and a Saturday spent with the hangover from hell in front of us.. just like the old days…

listening to – Tom Petty ‘Wildflowers’ (very quietly)
missing – my wife and baby, very much.