Saturday, January 02, 2010

But It’s by Julie Andrews / not by John Coltrane

Ok, 2009 was a shitty year financially. The whole world went bust. Or if you were sitting in Iowa or London, that’s what you’d believe if you spent much time looking at the televised media. But, that’s not true: China, India and Indonesia had a pretty good year (and it’s bemusing to look back on the American China doomsayers in late 2008..hopeful thinking indeed) and other parts of the so called third world did as well.

I get some pleasure out of that realignment, even if the Chinese government perhaps are not the most worthy beneficiaries of that, and show few signs of being so in the very near future. The Chinese people are, though, and I’m hopeful given how far they’ve come in 25 years, that the future is positive.

Obama disappointed many. But take a moment to reflect on how much worse McPalin would have been.

Half built Dubai Dubai crashed, but ten minutes in the desert state would surely have led most people with their eyes open to the conclusion that it was inevitable. It is / was absolutely vacuous. It quite glaringly has no reason to exist and I rather tend, perhaps irrationally but I think not, to believe that nations only thrive because they are derived from something else tangible that exists before the banks and speculators move in.

The only thing Dubai seems to be derived from is a growing bubble of greed. It looks like the Gold Coast on bad acid.

Being financial seers, both Brigid and I said to each other in January, as we wandered the endless overstocked malls and Porsche filled boulevards of Dubai, and looked up at the ugly, and badly built Atlantis (whilst sipping our $10 coffees), the key building in the equally shoddy Palm, that it would not have a happy ending.

Next door, also in the UAE, Abu Dhabi exists as it does because of it’s natural wealth, which bubbles out of the ground. Dubai had almost none of this and to try and create substance in a vacuum simply doesn’t work. No matter how much water and sand you ship in (yes, even the sand they build from is imported..the desert stuff is no good for construction). So, yes, it was always going to go, and I continue to wonder, after centuries of bust and boom financial crises led on by our financial wunder-wizards, why we continue to buy into their nonsense. Pure avarice, I guess. Want some shares in a Nigerian bank?

And after we buy into the greed, it seems we hungrily buy into the doom, as was obvious when we were in the US in January and the cable news channels were running nightly shows entitled Voices Of Recession, (whilst we continued to be fed mountains of unnecessary food in every diner or cafe and watch the hummers straddle the gridlocked streets of Manhattan).

However, I’m aware that it’s been a very shitty year for some and I’m thoroughly grateful that mostly I’m not one of them.

One of my high points was the survival of my best buddy Tom Sampson, who was hit by a bus at the end of 2008. Not only did he survive after a few rather bad months, but it was a renewal and he thrived.

We didn’t have the best year financially, primarily because the people we derive much of our work from simply stopped. But it was ok. We were cushioned and 2010 has picked up already.

However, on reflection, that aside, we did have a hell of a year. We had a wonderful year.

We moved towns, for the reasons I blogged a few weeks back (and I got thoroughly abused by a sad old expat whose fantasy world was collapsing into a well of denial..I deleted most of it but for the first time ever turned on comment moderation, something that upset me some. It’s a shame some folks are unable to have a rational discourse, but that’s yer webs for you, and underlines the nutter-fest I was trying to get away from by leaving Bali).

But before moving town, we travelled lots, as we did the year before and are likely to do again this year. My eyes are on Vietnam sometime soon, and we already have Hong Kong lined up again this month..wheeee…

Close friends moving from Bali to Guangzhou means that the $200 tickets there may be a go within the next few months, but I’m still drawn to travelling further inland in China. I re-read Peter Hessler’s River Town this year, yes I know it’s mostly (all?) gone, but it’s a lure I’m having troubling getting past.

Mao and Brigid

The defining trip in 2009, though, was the few weeks we spent in NYC almost a year back. I’ve been to the city a lot over the decades and love it almost without reservation, despite its huge flaws and the grime (hell, I’m in Bangkok..the grime in NYC is nothing), but this trip, with Brigid for the first time, was easily supreme. It was the best of times, for us at least. We walked, we laughed, we were upgraded to glorious suites in every hotel we stayed at - apart from the little hole in the wall in Nolita, but, damn, we were in Nolita (and only visited the room to sleep), just around the corner from Habana with it’s overflowing margaritas.

We literally, and physically bumped into an old friend in Broadway we’d not scene for two decades.

The bands we saw in Brooklyn, the nights and days wandering (often without any bearings) the icy and snow filled streets and parks of Manhattan, Greenpoint, Queens and Harlem were something special and the ice just added to the thrill. And then there were the record stores…

And the family who we didn’t know beyond an internet passing, who not only took us to a restaurant, paid for the meal, but also invited us to drink wine at their Upper West Side apartment.

I bought and read Gotham.

In June I co-hosted the biggest family reunion I’ve ever been to when close to a 1,000 former habitués of a couple of smelly rooms came together in Auckland for one night, and, yes, it may have been a massive money loser (you get that when you fly bands and DJs from all over the world, add the best PA in the city, and then offer free drinks to all for the first hour or so) but the joy and the screams, the massed hugging session it became, made it rather worth it.

Take Me Back

New Years eve, this week, was a funny one for us.

Young daughter, who is about to head off to boarding school, leaving the nest (which is a huge wrench, not without pain, for me) said she’d rather sit on the internet and hang with her friends in Bali, than wander the streets with us. Ok.

We know virtually nobody in Bangkok, and those we do know were not in-country, so it was our first NYE ever without outside company of some kind. An odd feeling, but I quite like wandering streets.

Despite the fact that it was in the mid thirties, it seemed appropriate. So, yes, we decided to walk. The streets were rather quiet. Odd. We saw that the old lady down the road who lives the street with all the cats had a bottle of beer. Somebody cared, which was cool.

We found our way to a new-ish wine bar down Ekamai, filled with a huge variety of pretty well priced wine, and a very strange collection of faux medieval European art, hung next to some pretty average contemporary portraiture.

We drank a bottle of NZ Sav Blanc, ate some garlic bread, and wandered on, down Ekamai 5, across to Thong Lor. Still quiet. After strolling around the strange bar / restaurant / club complex where you can eat nouveau-Thai in a restaurant that looks down on the floodlit indoor night soccer fields, we bought gelato in a new ice-cream parlour, which Brigid opined would likely have won some design award in Auckland, but here just is.

I had strawberry and chocolate (hardly adventurous, but they had no Chili-Chocolate). They had no cones either and the owner said it was because they’d opened 6 days earlier and were waiting on them. He asked where we were from. Auckland. He said he was a recent arrival from Penang. He’d been working in KL but didn’t like the bustle and chaos of the place so he’d moved to BKK. Really??

typre_man We went looking for an Italian eatery we knew of, but turned right instead of left in Thong Lo and lost it. So I hailed a cab and asked to be taken to Soi  23. The driver laughed and headed off in the wrong direction. It was NYE so we gave him the benefit of the doubt. He roared down an almost empty Upper Sukhumvit (its never almost empty..I guess the Farang massive was Khao Sahning or had fled the city) and turned into Soi 24. Mai, mai….23.

The Japanese who frequent 24 seemed to be out in some numbers but we wanted 23. He did a couple of illegal turns then drove straight past 23. We decided to walk the difference, a coupe of dozen metres, so we stopped and headed up the soi. We walked past the neon lit opening to Soi Cowboy, the first of the ping-pong alleys, which dates to the influx of half a million sex starved, opiate riddled, GIs inthe 1960s and ‘70s. It’s seen better days and, seems filled with the very ugly remnants of those same GIs, all having their very own Deerhunter moments and an endless flood of fat European and Australian males looking for some sort of pleasure amongst the hard as nails girls, many of whom, if legend is to be believed, are daughters of that first generation of Yankee freedom fighters.

We went into the very famous, amongst those that write about these things, Le Dalat, a French-Vietnamese restaurant in an old house, which, I’m told has been there for a very long time, likely serving those refugees from Saigon, which perhaps explains it’s location.

It was their last night. They were moving. They had no wine. The owner apologised and offered us a glass of bubbly stuff, which, despite having no idea what it was, and thus what it might do to my head, we drank. We went back into Soi 23, up to Minibar Royale, an almost cool, but a little too much suffering from being situated in a hotel, albeit a boutique one, cafe.

The staff told us to go away. It was full of very young, many far too young, Thai kids, and the thought of a couple of aging foreigners crashing their gig didn’t work.

I might write them a letter.

We walked off, it was 10pm. Tempus fugit. Still no food (garlic bread and gelato aside) and nowhere to drink in the NY. We walked a little. We argued a bit. We hugged. We got in a cab and asked to go back to Thong Lo, far away from the SEA war hangovers and the Thai adolescents on dad’s amex.

So we were back where we started from, two taxi rides (but only 100B [$3], I love the price of public transport here) and there was another wine bar. Three people inside, but hundreds of bottles and inviting wine, a menu and Italian-American gangster movie tunes, but not the obvious ones.


We sat in big comfortable chairs and ordered a glass or two of an Italian white, the grape I know not, but it was dry and quite lovely. We ordered Grilled Chicken with Peanut Sauce salad, Pork Chips with Sticky Rice, and a Soft Shelled Crab with Wasabi dressing.

And then two more wines.

hny_bkkAcross the room, four women sat down and ordered something with bubbles. At midnight, or just before to be accurate, the staff, who outnumbered the guests (and were sitting outside with a guitar singing Beatles songs) handed out those exploding things with a string and we pulled them. The women grabbed us and we formed a circle as they sang what seemed to be an endless loop of the first four lines of Auld Lang Syne.

It sounds odd, but it was rather neat.

We sat with them. They were sisters, four of nine, from Hong Kong. Three live in Bangkok, where one is, so the others said, a famous pianist.

One lives in Rome, and, they said, one lives in New Zealand. Oh? Where? Auckland in a place called St Heliers. Cliff Road.

My parents live, and my family home was 100 metres from this sister. Heh. So we talked of Auckland’s waterfront, of beers and mussels in Mission Bay and Vulcan Lane, of Takapuna Beach, of Piha and it was rather groovy.

And then the piano teacher’s son arrived. He too talked of Auckland, having been staying in Albany and studying at the school of Audio Engineering in Parnell, tutored by people I know rather well.

One sister said, if you need any help at immigration, I know people and we smiled but demurred.

We shared numbers but I guess we may never see them again.

The older Vietnamese woman who owned Le Dadat, had also taken our number, to invite us to the opening of her new restaurant. On it goes..

I enjoy the connections we make on this journey.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

At 17 got my first Volkswagon / And mastered the life-long art of dragging

A quick diversion:

And with your hair combed right / and your pants fit tight

Yeah, its via Bob Lefsetz, who mostly loves the sound of his own voice (remind me..what has he actually done apart from type?), but this, if you wanna be a pop star or just make music professionally, is very, very good:

record labels. they can help or they can drag you down. here's the scoop. if they expect you to be the primary distributor of the product, don't sign the deal. the typical deal is a 90/10 split, you get the ten minus every expense related to the project. thus you are paying for everything and giving the label 90 percent of the gross. read that sentence again.

if they aren't really really offering you something good in terms of promotion, or something....some tangible quantitized tie-in to something bigger, skip it. you can hire that stuff yourself easier. talk to other artists on the roster and ask them what they think. any more, if you are an emerging artist, it's going to be hard to find a label home. they are losing so much dough they only want for sure money makers or somewhat less money losers on the roster, and they are dropping folks right and left. this is all good for you. take heart. it's a 90/10 deal and you get the 10 and they want you to be the primary distributor of the product plus pay for the whole deal, those are not very good terms.

Lots & lots more at the link.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

See how they're dancing / to the Superfly

Our paranoia is often worth revisiting decades later. Here is, in several parts, Orson Welles (who knows a bit about paranoia after all) and a fascinating, for mostly the wrong reasons, documentary version of Alvin Toffler’s massive ‘70s seller, Future Shock, now largely forgotten:

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I'm wise enough to know that life doesn't give us the dreams we dream

I saw Nina live once and it wasn’t a happy night, as she wasn’t in a good state. Sometimes I wish I’d been born twenty years earlier.

A fascinating documentary from 1969, from Peter Rodis.

They’re smiling in your face / the backstabbers…

Technorati Tags: ,

So the Chinese have executed a Briton for perhaps smuggling opiates into China. I think it’s thoroughly appalling, but without wanting to get into the pros and cons of the death penalty (which, as I’m sure any reader of this blog would likely be aware of, I’m, without reservation, opposed to), one can’t but wince at the British hypocrisy.

It’s hard not to recall that much of the wealth of The British Empire in the 19th and first half of the 20th Century came from stepping over the bodies of countless Chinese with who they fought several wars to ensure were addicted to opium supplied and controlled by Great Britain. The armies, the great banks of the empire, the homes and finery of upper-class Britain and much more, were funded in a large part by the imperial importation of noxious drugs into China:

The first Opium War was followed by a second in 1856-60. The British were joined by the French as junior partners, the French having appointed themselves the ``protectors'' of China's Catholics. The combined British and French forces looted and destroyed the Emperor's Summer Palace.

In the treaty ending the second Opium War, the Chinese were forced to accept the legalization of opium. With Chinese resistance broken, large scale opium production in China was begun, supposedly to stop the drain on silver caused by opium imports. Both imports and domestic production soared, with imports reaching 105,508 chests by 1880. It is conservatively estimated, that China's opium-addicts numbered between 30 and 40 million, at that time.

Parallel to this, the British gained a stranglehold on the Chinese economy and government finances. In 1853, the British were able to grab control of Chinese Customs in Shanghai, because of the Taiping revolt. Twenty years later, all Chinese customs were managed by the British, with all Customs Houses of China within reach of British shells. For 40 years after 1860, Britain dominated China's commerce. By 1895, China's trade with Britain's represented two-thirds of all China trade, which then totalled 53.2 million pounds sterling.

Opium remained at the head of the list, averaging 10 million pounds sterling a year during the 1880's. By 1900, a great part of government revenues went to pay indemnities, imposed on China by various ``peace'' treaties.

Opium went hand-in-hand with foreign conquest and revolution. China was rapidly broken apart by the centrifugal forces introduced by the effects of British looting.

And, yes, ancient history and all, but the roots of the scourge that still afflicts China (and much of the world) lies in the trade.

Indeed, when the Communists came to power in China, 10% of the population were said to be opium addicts, and similar figures existed in Hong Kong, Singapore and much of the global Chinese community much, much later.

I’m old enough to remember the opium dens infamous in Auckland’s Grey’s Ave and Hobson Street which lived into the ‘70s, and sat and listened to the notorious old Herne Bay madam, Flora, telling us horrific stories of death and pain in the immigrant Chinese community in the later part of that decade.

None of which excuses the Chinese, or justifies what they’ve just done, but it perhaps needs to be said.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ain't been round since you know when / Christmas time is here again

Christmas In Ekamai

A million or more words must've been put to screen about Avatar since Dec 17th. I'm about to add to them. Sorry.

Christmas Day in Bangkok seemed to be the obvious time to see this. It's a Buddhist town, and a working day, so, we figured, we could celebrate in our own unhurried way. We'd do the family thing, the Skyping and the gifts, the big breakfast and then, having dispensed with all that, wander onto the Skytrain and rattle down to the cinemas at the Paragon, where the IMAX is reputedly the most advanced anywhere, with a gobsmacking sound system, and often sparsely filled on a weekday afternoon. I booked a bunch of the best seats in the place online just to be sure. Row F, 19 to 21, smack in the middle one row in front of the deluxe ($12) seats.

On arrival the queue went halfway across the 5th floor dome and the PA was loudly announcing that there were only 2 seats left. We'd lucked in by being prepared, and reflected that it wou'd've put a shitty cloud over our observance of some ancient deity's son's make believe birthday if we'd not been able to get a seat. There were lots of very moody looking people wandering away.

IMAX BKK style

After a family scrap over the amount of popcorn we'd bought (there was no point in rejoining the line to get more, as it too seemed to grow by the minute), we were seated. Best seats in the house, aside from the big loungy things with waitress / waiter service up the back, but they feel like a waste of money and you just know he / she's gonna return with the beer when just you're trying to get your head around some complex love triangle. No, we had a coke (it wasn't even zero, being Xmas and all).

There is a lot that could be said about the movie: the plot is very hackneyed and a little offensive (and we expect more from James Cameron? On what past evidence?); it has more stereotypes than the average Fox News Hour; the attacks on every facet of the American sense of entitlement and the way they go about grabbing that entitlement reflected on their history from Pocahontas & John Smith to Manifest Destiny to the winning of the west to Vietnam to Iraq and beyond, was however both predicable and a little bit fodder-simplistic. I'd argue that it likely largely went over the heads of much of the US audience who simply wouldn't get the link (and one has to question the usual assumption that the American Empire is still dominant in 2154); the white man as the saviour of the noble savages had an awful arrogance about it and the implied racism really made me struggle at times; then there were the scenes that felt like The Lion King in 3D, most specifically when the tribe was sitting around the magic tree singing...It felt like a wimoweh moment was a comin' did the African accents (as in Oprah goes to Africa styles) of the 'people'.

But, for that I loved it. I felt like I was there, if a few days late (sorry I'm not as culturally immediate as many others out there), witnessing a pivotal moment in cinematic history. The technology now means that nothing will be the same again. Draw a line out from 1900, the history of the cinema, and you can point your finger at maybe ten-fifteen moments when a film completely changed the the way movies were made and the possibilities of the cinema as both entertainment and an artform. In my life I've seen about 4 and I'd argue that Star Wars, and maybe the realism of the opening salvo of Private Ryan (forget the rest of the movie) were others..and of course, the early Pixars. Of course, this is not a brilliant movie in the way that, say, Raging Bull or The Godfather was, but it's, as is being almost universally said, a game changer and one that you feel yourself drifting into, so much so that I periodically snapped out of what felt like complete involuntary absorption. And I'd realise that, yes, I was just watching a movie, albeit one with a very average story (and for that reason why, oh why would you ever bother to see it in 2D or on DVD, although the thought occurred to me later as I passed the pirate DVDs near the Skytrain station, that if they had been filmed in theatre, 3D that is, would the effects kinda work if you had the shades?).

The two and three quarter hours passed in a flash, and almost had to slap myself at the end. At one stage a guy a few seats down from me returned from the loo, and I watched as he emerged from behind parts of the movie to take his seat. I'd not realised that he wasn't in the film until he sat.

Paragon Dept Store

As we left, the lack of conversation was notable..I've only left a cinema surrounded by such silence twice before..Once Were Warriors in Auckland circa 94, and Apocalypse Now in Sydney in '79. Of course this was not the cinematic mind fuck either those were once you strip away the technology. Maybe (or maybe not) it was because the audience was 99% Thai and the sub-titles were slapped in badly in 2D and appeared only faintly at the back of the screen image, often being overshadowed by things that moved past them..still, as said, if you went for the story...

But what struck me more than anything was not the film itself but the fact that in studios and in minds all over the cinematic universe, and indeed in bedrooms and teen minds, ideas are forming to take this to the next level, to take the possibilities to the next strata, to exceed the achievements of what was very ordinary, and largely ignorable Hollywood cliched fodder, dressed up as a show case for mind boggling technology.

And that big parts of it were made in NZ.

Oh, and the hongi was well cool.

Afterwards, unable to face a heavy and inappropriate Christmas dinner in Bangkok, and having battled through what felt like a milion people in the malls (it took 15 minutes to walk 200m on the skywalk) we retired to what may be my favourite restaurant on the planet right now, Pla Dib, in Ari, for some Thai-Japanese fusion (Salmon Sushimi Larb..yum) with Belgian seemed like the right thing to do.

People turn on in Otaki / I wish you were there....

Utter briliance from Space Waltz:

Phil Warren gets it (although he notoriously missed Spilt Ends on the same show) and the rest don't...but one could hardly expect Howard Morrison to. I just think having the balls to go up against the horror that was the NZBC light entertainment machine in the 1970s (and beyond) is something.

I remember watching this at the time..the next day the whole nation was talking about it. Three years later when I borrowed a microphone from Alastair Riddell, I was still in awe.