Thursday, July 13, 2006

Young ladies / my Mercedes

I think I wrote elsewhere on this blog that it was a crime, nay, offensive, that the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t have space for the New York Dolls, perhaps the most important rock group, in sheer influence that the USA has produced since the Velvet Underground

As flew into Jakarta last week I had similar thoughts about Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I saw them some 25 years ago in London and it was a personal life changing moment.

But more than that, they, and the explosion they symbolised were a life changing moment in rock’n’roll (which of course hip-hop is an integral part of, despite its belief to be something above it, its all part of the same beast) when Flash and crew released, on Bobby Robinson’s legendary Enjoy label, back in 1979, the tune that turned my head again 27 years later, Superappin’. Of course they took a large part of it some three years later and reworked it into the massive worldwide, genre defining record The Message but that tune still, to my mind stands in the shadow of its protgéner. For a start this is far more funky, complete with an unbelievable backing groove from Enjoy’s oddly named house band, Pumpkin and Friends. And it has an urgency, a rawness, that was gone three years later after it had been smoothed out by Sylvia Robinson.

Steinski did a fantastic Sugarhill mix a couple of years back, released as an album, which really twists and turns itself around the live funk elements evident in so much of the best early hip-hop. No studio bozos rhyming over Good Times here; and its peaks when it drops into Superappin’, which just propels the mix, gives it unbelievable momentum before dropping you exhausted into the next track. On the headphones anyway…..

How, in gods name can they have a (silly idea anyway) Hall of Fame without these guys? It should’ve been an instantaneous nomination once the 25 year point (since their first release) was reached.

The energy of Superappin seemed to be a perfect way to tumble through the smog into Jakarta. A prelude to the madness and intensity of this great city, beginning at the airport as you head for a taxi and the touts swamp you relentlessly.

I guess I sound like a Jakarta virgin, the way I enthuse naively about the town. So what, I am and happy to be so, revelling in it all and right now I understand the guy (an Indonesian friend who has spent years in an out of the place) who said to me you can spend your whole life there and never know it.

We go to Jakarta for a holiday. If you live in Bali, it makes perfect sense…so we do, this being our fourth trip in the past twelve months.

This city is personified by our hotel, or at least its surroundings. The Alila, exquisitely designed, but not expensive by Western, or even most other Asian standards, sits just north of Merdeka Square, the governmental nerve centre of the nation, surrounded by third world alley ways and sometimes, although not always, squalid food stalls in the street.

In the same way, turn off the wide green boulevards of the so called golden triangle that run through central Jakarta, complete with dozens of massive skyscrapers, and lush, watered gardens, and you can be anywhere in urban Indonesia in a matter of metres, with its chaos and noise.

I’m not sure how I feel about it, although I know that Jakarta, and indeed the country as a whole, needs this wealth to grow, assuming of course, and it’s a big assumption when the cops on the roundabouts on the boulevards are still, I’m reliably informed, pulling drivers over for alleged and often imaginary offences….to boost personal coffers… that there is some eventual filtering down of said wealth. One can but hope.

Ok, so with reservations aside, every time we go to the city we wander and explore more and more, and find more and more places that we want to return to. Which means we need to stay longer each time. There are the malls of course, and then there are more malls, and more and it makes Singapore look like a backwater for shopping. The five stories of the Mangga Dua electronics computer emporium make Funan IT seem sterile and overpriced, and if you are so inclined to battle through the front lines of Blok M you can find anything, including the one thing you can’t find in Singapore: cool, innovative clothing and style that isn’t from the catalogue of some multi-national, be it Gucci or Robinsons (although that’s all here too, real or fake).

So what did we do? We got stuck in traffic of course, but, despite its odious reputation the traffic snarl (macet in local slang) which is never as bad as traffic I’ve encountered in Europe and in particular the roads around dirty old London; or for that matter in LA or NYC. But it’s shocking still and I have to smirk when Aucklanders talk of traffic issues in that city; or force back a howl of derision when I hear it from Wellingtonians. Or Sydney for that matter…..

We shopped but the frustration in JK is, as always, the lack of a decent guide to the city. There is not, as far I can work out, a decent printed or online reference as there is to most cities half its size. So you rely on pointers from others and instinct. But we walked and explored and shopped. Bulés get strange looks from the locals walking the back streets but so be it. Down in South Jakarta we wandered the streets looking for the market that we were taken to a year back in the back of somebody’s car without taking much notice of where or how you get there. With the help of a slowly (very slowly) increasing vocab of pidgin Bahasa we found it, and of course finding it was more than half the fun.

There is at times, a bizarre logic in the city too, although not a profound logic. That the dozens of street stalls selling, not very discreetly, hard core porn, also sell Viagra, blatantly advertising the items (and whether they are pirated copies of not I do not know and have no intention of finding out) makes sense. Although it would make more sense not to have them all centred in the main boulevard of Glodok, one after another, perhaps a little more geographical disbursement may help expand (although such a word may not be the most appropriate when discussing Viagra) business, especially for the guy who sits in the 35th stall along the street, selling the same items as the first 34. Then again, this is Indonesia. We found the plastic paddle pool stall street too…all the same, one after another…go figure.

We ate. I like eating and Jakarta is one hell of a place to eat. The Penang Bistro on Jl. Kebon Sirih has (and god, I hate this phrase) modern-Asian Malaysian derived cuisine served next to a giant waterfall wall feature, and we’ve been there a few times now, so much so, they seemed to know us. The Roti Prata may not be as good as the places in the north of Singapore, but its not far from it, and the surroundings are somewhat more pleasant..and you don’t spend half an hour trying to get a cab back after. And then there was Sushigroove…I love the name. It’s set in one of those restaurant mini malls, of which there are many, full of exquisitely designed rumah makans…served dynamite sushi, of course, including one called a Dynamite Roll. For RP35,000 (about US$3.70) they also served the Dragon Roll, named by one magazine recently as the best dish on the city. All in dark post industrial, almost Blade Runner-ish surroundings, their feature wall being sculptured with lights. Oh and killer cocktails also for Rp35,000, which we drank of course. Well, Brigid did, as I’m a firm Bintang man these days…dull, I know.

Other restaurants obviously were doing a similar trade as, the other moment of interest as we walked outside was an incredibly drunk Japanese salary-man being dragged screaming into his car. Throwing fists and kicking violently at all near, until they propelled him in, with some violence, to the back seat of the Kijang. I wondered how he would feel about his friends the next day when he saw the bruises they’d given him as their fists impacted with his head.

Gladly some other restaurant’s diners had the pleasure of his company.

We went to Dragonfly on Jl Gatot Subroto. More, sorry, “modern asian”, more upmarket but with another amazing feature wall. Two actually, one massive one, leading up to the industrial piping high above us, and made again with lighting; and another beside our table with huge waves of, I think mache or plaster above us. A wonderful, wonderful dining experience, helped by the over-priced cocktails that even I couldn’t help but partake in.

And I couldn’t help but wonder why, in New Zealand, we are rarely treated to restaurants that both look and taste this good. Although the country has some wonderful food, mostly in the main centres, I can think of less than a half a dozen eateries that aspire visually to this standard or come close. And yet cities in Asia have them by the score. Maybe it’s the good old enzild thing about aspirations to pretentiousness, about not wanting to be seen to be too clever because you get slammed if you do. The way the rest of NZ reacts to anything that has the whiff of not-like-us in Auckland is a case point. We were also intrigued at Dragonfly by the badges that all the staff wore…we have no drugs here…that’s fine…we didn’t really want any, but it’s nice to know.

Sadly after an unbelievable meal we were forced out about 10.30 by the band who launched into the gruesome You’re Beautiful by England’s own Pat Boone revivalist, James Blunt, whose faux soul for the Idol generation, who have come to regard vocal squirming as talent, seems to be every where in Indonesia right. They followed that with something from the equally teeth gritting Coldplay, whose formless lightweight whingeing also seems follow us around. The expats on the prowl in the bar were loving it. We were thus unable to resist the urge to leave, which, considering the price of the cocktails, was a good thing.

The next day, somehow we had a reality check, as, craving a non modern Asian burger, we went into something called Chilli’s on Jl. Tharmin, and, since it was, as far as I could see, some American franchise joint of the type that fills the strip malls of that nation and makes middle America the shape so many of them are (I can’t talk), we had a big fat unhealthy grease burger and watched this enormous American couple (and I mean fucking huge) feed themselves plates of Nacho’s washed down by Coke, and their child, a large sprite. I felt like I was back in Vegas

Once again we had to leave, this time to the airport, where we found that a) because I’d misread the ticket after all those Dragonfly cocktails, and b) there was no traffic and it took 30 minutes to get to the airport instead of our allotted two hours, we were four hours early for our flight, which was then delayed for an hour. Is there much to do at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport for five hours? Even the free internet drags after a while....

I read Robert Fisk, listened to the iPod again as I did on the way in, and we finally arrived back in Bali about 1am. That strange taste was the fresh air….

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

moonshine / washing line / they suit him fine

It’s all over the web, the TV and the interesting media of course, but I have to have my little ten-peneth worth too. Of course I do, it was Syd, and like so many of my generation, at least those who listened, we felt we owed him a lot, and, and perhaps, some may say this was the problem but I think that’s a stretch, owned a little bit of his mind too.

He laid it so bare, it was hard not to feel somehow that you were in there with him, in that world of crazy zig zaging lights and sounds. Nothing he wrote and recorded was quite right, nothing was as it, by all reason should be. And that, not even with hindsight, it was apparent within the first thirty seconds of Bike or Arnold Layne, opened the doors to so much. The music we listen to today, the possibilities of that we call pop, or rock or house, or disco or whatever would not have seemed available to us it it hadn’t been for Syd.

Pink Floyd were, more or less, increasingly shite, after Syd, with perhaps the exception of parts of Meddle and Umma Gumma, where his ghost was still so overpoweringly part of the band. Oh and Shine On You Crazy Diamond, but we all know who that was about. But whether he was the muse or the simply the loon that pushed the buttons in the heads of the others that made them what they were, its an unassailable fact that they stumbled relentlessly into an increasingly MOR stadium pomp act after him, mostly by watering down what they had with him, and Piper at The Gates of Dawn, the tangled, confusing and mesmerising, and indeed, almost punk, thing that it still is after 39 odd years, remains their best, and most important album.

It was never the same after the madcap laughed. Goodbye Syd, although I guess we said goodbye a long time ago…

edit: check out the amazing live take of Interstellar Overdrive available at Dilated Choonz