Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gram Parsons, Jim Morrison, Rick Nelson

Goofing one day, I cobbled together three poetry portraits--more in the vein of light verse than serious poems--of three notable Rock stars I'd encountered briefly. All three had died young, been lamented by their fans, been both admired and admonished by critics, and still their influence continued; and I decided to put my two (or three) cents in, too. Rick Nelson, Jim Morrison, Gram Parsons... where might they be today had they been granted rich, full, creative lives?

My encounters with each have appeared--prose I wrote back at the time--in this blog in posts offered last year (Jim, 5/16; Gram, 6/25, 6/28, 7/1, 7/4, and 7/7; and Rick, 11/26 and 12/2). The title below refers to the old superstition that one invites serious bad luck by lighting three cigarettes or fuses or whatever with a single match...

Three on a Match

1. Gram

You rode in on a submarine from the Okechobee swamps—
a neat trick for a Harvard dropout with big-money kin
in Nu’Worluns. Still, you were a breath of hickory wind
in cities rocked by Beatle-knockoff, garage-punk chumps.

You and Chris ganged up on McGuinn’s mockingByrds,
from his wired crew flew off on your own weird wings,
a mule-mix of pseudo-hillybilly and steel guitar strings
with rock drums, Nudie flash, and stories like Haggard’s.

Your buttons had a lot of brass, buddy, and they shone
when we met, with Georgia and a love of Hank in common.
But wild horses couldn’t have held you back, then, from
that high-rolling life, all drunk, drugged, and Stoned.

G.P., you nearly made it, but you cut too wide a trail
of broken notes and promises, below the old high-lonesome.
You cashed it in like the other country boys too dumb
to do it wiser. I held a private wake with mugs of ale,

then muttered some in horror and chortled more with glee
reading of the last wild ride your battered coffin took
out to the burning desert and that funeral-pyre joke.
Man, what a hickory wind shook the old Joshua Tree!

2. Jim

Just another rider on the
Storm the barricades
Break on through the doors
Of perception Diony-
Scene of maenads gonads
Lizard King of self-love
And self-loathing lost
In your horse latitudes
And bad-ass attitudi-
Nizing riding in your
Limousine stoned with
Parsons giggling up front
Call-girl wriggling on
The writer’s lap in back
You on the jump-seat
Holding forth most poet-
Ically on tape recorder--
Answering questions
With orations musing
And amusing: both our
Armed forces fathers
Disarmed and hopeless:
Thousands of limestone
Sinkholes across Florida:
Social mores of Paris:
The mares of the moon:
Listening back and erasing
Exposing your Self in car
And yourself on stage
Coaxing bacchants to attack
To seize and rend your flesh
Scatter pieces of your bawdy
Poems out across the wastes
Of dust and rock and lizards
Basilisking in the sun…
You wanted the world then
But you couldn’t take it
So you did yourself in
With the usual excesses and
Misterioso horsefeathers
And bathing salts and oils
Of elation: “Here lies
One whose lies were wit
Less in water sank
You very much aussi
Can you say by the
Doors later life that
This is not The End?”

3. Rick

“Hi, Mom; I’m home”—millions
knew you by that quick phrase,
raised like brother David
on the weekly air-waves,

and then the 12-inch screen:
Ozzie and Harriet’s
crewcut kid, little Rickie,
pride of the hometown set.

But the song you took from Fats
let you walk away
as our own rock’n’rolling
All-American boy.

Slow tunes for little fools,
but rockabilly too,
James Burton pickin’ hot
behind your “Baby” blues.

You strode from Lonesome Town
to Rio Bravo’s sand,
from top-draw to quick-draw,
a restless wind and mind.

I believed what you said
but you disappeared, free
of both hits and misses
till that Garden Party

brought you back, country-rock
for beehive hairdo fans
who came for your old songs,
dragging their husbands—

“Rick” by then, easily the nicest
musician I met in
10 years of interviewing,
but one I’d plain forgotten.

So you played on, earning raves
as a rapist on TV,
watching your long marriage end,
enduring obscurity

till the no-reason plane-crash
sent you home justified,
finally with Valens and Holly,
echoing, “Hi, Mom, I’m dead.”

4. Three on a Match

So they fell—one death
ending in fire;
another, water;
the third, air and earth—

all of them at one
with the elements.
Now their atoms dance
in diurnal sun,

foreign substances
dissolved, reasons fled,
sound systems gone dead.
Still the music plays…

Goodbye, Rick and Gram
and holy-fool Jim;
we’ll skip church flim-flam
and burial hymn.

Let the ages roll
and the heavens rock:
there’s no going back
for you... or us all.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Not on the Cover of Rolling Stone

I used to write for Rolling Stone, that now-disposable but once-upon-a-time bible of the youth culture. My limited involvement was off and on, 1969 to 1971, working as a freelancer a thousand miles from the magazine's San Francisco empire. I submitted reviews only (got no feature-story assignments), mostly of LP records--though I did also get to sound off about a terrific early history of rock and roll called Rock from the Beginning, which was then reissued later as (I kid you not) Awopbabaloobopalopbamboom (haven't checked the spelling of the title, originally a musical shout by Little Richard), by wildman critic Nick Tosches who later wrote bios of Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin, and obscure Southern white musicians, as well as petty-Mafia crime novels. (I mention this book mostly because it's one I forgot to list in my roll-call of sort-of book appearances; the trade paperback of Tosches' book quoted my review, but since I was a writer with no reputation, the publishing company omitted my name and just sourced Rolling Stone. Sigh... the profits of fame.)

For a time, I was happy to have album reviews appearing in RS, especially discussing LPs I felt a special musical connection with, and some pride in having been the writer who got to tug on the public's coat about this or that artist/album. For example, my first accepted review was a rave for Zydeco master, accordionist extraordinaire Clifton Chenier, tagged to his third album on Arhoolie, Black Snake Moan (no relation to the garish and controversial recent film). But I made a point of giving a bigger shout-out for his debut album, the masterpiece called Louisiana Blues and Zydeco. I'd been swept away by Chenier a year earlier when I bought that first LP, and for a few years I would play it for all dinner guests to test their response; only those who loved it got invited back! Black Snake was fine but not the stunner the other was, and still is, today.

The Chenier review appeared in the same issue with my (also positive) review of Otis Redding's posthumous album Love Man; he had recorded an amazing number of individual tracks in the weeks before his death in the airplane crash, tracks which label Stax got to issue posthumously and successfully. This fourth such LP still had great soul tunes like "Direct Me," "Higher and Higher," "I'm a Changed Man," and the title track which includes: "I'm six feet one, weigh two hundred and ten, Long hair and pretty fair skin... Which one o' you girls want me to hold you? Which one o' you girls want me to kiss you?" Had Otis still been alive, I guarantee you there'd have been some willing takers!

In subsequent reviews I mocked the hype surrounding the Blind Faith supergroup and album; gave grudging approval to heavy white blues bands Free and Fear Itself (ending that review "If only these were the last of them"!) and ho-hum quasi-approval to Janis Joplin's album Kozmic Blues; had back-to-back examinations of releases by the Byrds, Steve Miller band, and Elvis live in Vegas (only the Miller got a positive review, even though I've been hooked on Presley since 1955); had loads of fun with the debut albums by Leon Russell and Boz Scaggs; and so on.

Too much of this nostalgia crap gets boring, of course, but I would like to resurrect the two longer reviews I was proudest of--imagining, hoping, that I had some small part in the ascendancy of the Blues to its acknowledged permanent place in American roots music...

Appearing in issue #48 (December 13, 1969, important for its long interview with Miles Davis), was my take on the two-record set called Memphis Swamp Jam, recorded in that steamy city by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records and then leased (I guess) to label Blue Thumb for wider distribution. This release gave Rock era coverage to some of the oldtimers of the Blues--Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell, Sleepy John Estes, and others--and I was both pleased and amazed that such had occurred, even though some of the performances taped weren't really comparable to the Blues guys' earlier days. But at least they were getting Rolling Stone publicity. (And my review was printed as a full page with photos!)

Quoting a bit: "... the Memphis blues scene has always been special, a kind of middle-ground way-station between the Delta and the North, producing blues that were rural-strong yet urban-polished--all the way from W.C. Handy and 'the birth' back in the Teens; through the romp-and-stomp decades of Frank Stokes and the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers; to the heyday of Sun Records with its white rockabilly blues in the Fifties; and finally to the sweet soul-blues of the Stax-Volt team in the decade we're about to depart ((the Sixties, that is)).

"Blues with a difference: besides jazz, jugs, and salt-and-pepper seasoning, there've also been the popular songsters like Furry Lewis and the 'Big Mama' shouters like Memphis Minnie... ((and getting to the review proper)) Strachwitz gathered about a dozen of those unfit-for-TV black bluesmen, holed up with them in a garage or studio or something for four days, and finally emerged with enough tapes to produce this beautiful result--two records, 20 selections, in a variety of blues moods and styles ranging from Afro-rhythmic to juke-disjointed..."

And so on. Anyway, Rolling Stone got the message, and soon I was given a second plumb assignment, the full-scale review of a new Vintage Series of Chess Records albums offering rare or unissued tracks dating from the postwar period, recorded for Chess/Aristocrat/Parrot 78's. The initial six albums included reissues of two rare and classic Chess LPs (collector-market expensive, even in 1970 dollars) by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, plus four new releases devoted to sessions by Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Albert King, Otis Rush, and John Brim--a veritable feast of electrified Chicago blues.

So, from issue #50 (January 21, 1970, still remembered for the excellent, in-depth coverage of the era-killing Altamont Festival), I offer a few excerpts... "Hear Muddy, back when he was still more Mississippi than Chicago, wailing on 'Hoochie Coochie,' 'Rollin' Stone,' 'Honey Bee,' 'I Just Want to Make Love to You,' and eight other mojo workouts, while the Wolf chokes and moans through 'How Many More Years,' the 'Smokestack Lightnin' ' that every white blues group has stolen, 'Evil,' 'Forty-Four' and more..."

Harmonica giant Little Walter "was the man--the harp genius whose easy-going but pungent style became the Chicago mainstay, and from whom everybody from Junior Wells to Paul Butterfield took his chops.... two tunes that really jump, 'Oh Baby' and my favorite, 'Mellow Down Easy,' with harp and semi-African drums just naturally laying you in the groove, down and dirty..."

"For Parrot, King's singing was light and uninteresting, and the guitar sounds like somebody else was playing--one of those standard, characterless blues guitarists... Then you get to 1961, and damned if it ain't A. King after all--mellow yet forced-out vocal, his straight-arrow guitar splitting the bull's-eye every time..."

Southpaw guitarist Otis Rush "makes it all the way to the top on the basis of his vocalizing, which manages to be strangled and painful, precise and lovely all at once... The two that matter most: 'All Your Love,' a remake of his earlier Cobra hit--city blues with solid Latin rhythm--and the all-time classic, 'So Many Roads.' "

The album by Sonny Boy Williamson features his "wild, punchy-boxer singing, his wry and witty lyrics, and his spare, seemingly casual harp technique (on the road to Bob Dylanesque, as opposed to Little Walter's saxophone-complexity). Dig... the weird, sexy 'Santa Claus,' as ironic in its way as his brilliant 'Fattening Frogs for Snakes'; and the album's closing number, 'This Old Life,' mournful and moving, on the order of 'Mighty Long Time,' cut lo these many years ago for the now-defunct Trumpet label..."

Elmore James "is as justly famous as Brim is unjustly unknown. Refining Robert Johnson's bottleneck style, James perfected a sound which has long-since entered the blues tradition... a slowed-down version of the Johnson-James standard, 'Dust My Broom'; an infectiously happy jump-tune, 'Madison Blues' ('Put on your Madison blue shoes')... and the fifth number is Brim's earlier Parrot gem, 'Tough Times' (with Jimmy Reed in a rare appearance blowing back-up harp).

" 'Tough Times is here once more...' That's the way Brim sang it in 1953. Since then, the blues have fallen on even harder times--but you'd never suspect it from Chess' memorable Vintage Series... a rare chance to hear the real Chicago blues."

(Dazzle 'em with your footwork, says I! Well, the real dazzle was the photo-rich layout presenting my Chess review.)

But I stopped writing for RS a year or so later, moving on to Fusion (East Coast, with Boston attitude) and then other West Coast magazines, where I could regularly do interviews and longer pieces. Still, I quit the rock-crit game altogether in the later Seventies; I'd had a fun ride, got thousands of free records (those were the days!) and some concert tickets, and a certain writer's cachet. But I also very belatedly realized I didn't actually feel comfortable issuing my non-professional edicts; who was I to tell someone else what to listen to?

I'm older and grumpier these days, happy to gripe and state my opinion on almost anything, at the drop of a hat. But too cynical and jaded, even so, to write for today's puffery-oriented Rock mags. I-Pods? Down-loading? Phooey. Give me the glory days of Long Play records, and the rediscovery of the Blues.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Shilling for Hollywood

A new collector-oriented CD appeared recently, an Intrada re-release of two film soundtracks from 1978 and 1980 offering the music from An Unmarried Woman and The Stunt Man, respectively. Usually such collector-demand items reappear with extra music, alternate cues, remixed tracks, etc., but this one simply reissues the three-decades-old LPs on a single CD. There's a small but very vocal coterie of film soundtrack fans (maybe 3000 to 5000 worldwide) who watch for these specialized items and scoop them up; recent sold-out mini-"blockbusters" have been a two-CD set devoted to Jerry Goldsmith's music for Alien and an eight-CD box set reprising the music from all four original Superman movies (much of it appearing on CD for the first time), by John Williams, Ken Thorne, and others.

Thinking about that Stunt Man movie, starring Peter O'Toole, sexy Barbara Hershey, and a very paranoid Steve Railsback, reminded me of the two or three years I spent slightly involved in marketing a handful of films from Hollywood and elsewhere. For a couple of decades, Sixties to Eighties, about, the major Seattle-area personage in art-house cinemas and some specialized distribution was an exhibitor entrepreneur named Randy Finlay who at one time owned the Guild 45th, the Neptune, the Varsity, and the Seven Gables theaters plus what eventually became the Metro Cinemas. Back then, the Emerald City was known as a moviegoers' town, with a liberal-minded audience supportive of so-called art-house movies; this was, of course, before the multiplexes took over. Finlay and I met somewhere, and after a time he asked me to help him launch a few movies in Seattle and other Northwest markets.

My memories are a bit hazy on some titles, but I do remember three in particular. The first one was then-newcomer-director John Sayles' first feature, the small independent film titled Return of the Secaucus Seven, which had a fine group of basically unknown young actors and actresses portraying leftish/hippy friends enjoying a reunion picnic, revisiting some of their past political exploits (I think; haven't viewed it since the Seventies). Anyway, Finlay asked me to help create the local advertising/marketing for the unknown film.

I loved it, thought it was so much truer to the spirit of the Sixties than Hollywood's harebrained attempts at youth exploitation. I suggested some straighforward copy for print ads and persuaded Randy that the radio spots should just be a sound montage, snippets of film dialogue edited together, presented with a minimum of hype (like the movie itself). Working at one of the sound studios we used for Rainier's radio ads, I oversaw the editing and came up with 30- and 60-second versions. These met Finlay's approval, and were then used to entice film fans in Seattle and Portland areas into the theaters, with resulting positive word-of-mouth doing the rest.

Sayles' debut film was well-launched up in this corner of the U.S., then a success elsewhere, and so his own directing career was given a small boost. (Some people claim that Lawrence Kashdan stole much of The Big Chill's plot and characters from Sayles' movie. Let's be kind and just say it was "influenced.") Sayles' working mode at the time, and often since, was to script movies for other producers and then use his writer fees to finance his own independent productions like Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, City of Hope, Lone Star, Sunshine State, and many more. I actually got to meet Sayles at the Seattle premiere of Brother and told him about my efforts of behalf of Secaucus Seven, but his response was tepid and dismissive; I don't think he even said Thanks!

Meanwhile, the second film I got called in on was a French import titled The Little Sparrow, a bio-pic on the life of, yes, Edith Piaf, whose nickname was "the Little Sparrow." This was the late-Seventies I think, 30 years before the recent international succes d'estime of La Vie en Rose, starring Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard as the living-on-the-edge chanteuse (France's own Billie Holiday/Judy Garland figure), with Piaf's voice performing the title tune, "Milord," "Non, je ne regrette rien," and other international hits. That recent film was brilliant, deserving of its surprise success, while the earlier Little Sparrow tried valiantly, but was merely sad and bleak, with lots of sex and drugs and pathos, and some fill-in singer's voice trying to recreate Piaf.

It was a downer, and I told Finlay so. He wanted the advertising to ignore that, trick the audience into expecting an uplifting, feel-good sort of film, a musical like Carousel maybe. I battled him, did my best to inject some realism and honesty, but the resulting compromise radio ads were no more successful than the film, from which Northwesterners stayed away in droves... You win some, you lose some.

Film number three was Richard Rush's long-time-in-the-making pet project The Stunt Man. He worked for a decade to get studio support and the necessary money, but by 1979 was struggling with studio bosses over their reluctance to issue his finished film. (He actually suffered a heart attack not many months later, I think, with stress no doubt a factor.) Rush picked Seattle as a test market to prove the film could succeed.

Eventually, Rush's film received Academy Award nominations and, still later, achieved major cult-film status. But anyone who saw it even at the beginning came away with strong impressions of O'Toole as a God-like director (Satanic, more like), swooping down on his camera boom, issuing edicts and tricky orders, manipulating the film-within-a-film and the people involved. Co-lead and director's-stuntman-patsy Railsback had just portrayed Charles Manson in another film (he would much later appear memorably in a couple of episodes of The X Files), and here was asked to play a Vietnam vet on the run from authorities; he acted suitably skittish and paranoid throughout.

And then there was Barbara Hershey... The woman was stunningly beautiful, at her youthful peak, with a pronounced earth-mother aura, better acting skills than one had previously known, and a startling ability to exude both charm and erotic promise; and she was obviously willing to appear naked on screen. (Railsback was naked too, but who noticed?) This was a bawdy film pushing the envelope back then, but the cut put out on video many years later was dark and poorly transferred and did not match my memory of full nudity; maybe the version I saw originally was recut for other markets, perhaps to protect an R rating?

Anyway, using the sound-edits solution again, I helped shape radio ads that spliced together pronouncements by O'Toole, music by composer Dominic Frontiere, tense moments among the actors, etc.--and came up with a couple of spots that teased and tantalized, promising suspense and intellectual trickery and, of course, the hint of sex. Finlay was pleased and told me that director Rush too was excited and hopeful.

Came opening night, the local premiere held at the Guild 45th. I shuffled around, chatted with a few folks, saw the stars from a distance (Hershey and Railsback, no O'Toole), then took a seat for the screening. As the lights dimmed, suddenly the leading lady herself sat down right next to me! She said Hi, and I mumbled something back.

I was immediately torn in two directions--I desperately wanted to gape at the gorgeous, subtly scented real woman beside me, engage her in witty conversation, but knew I should stay cool, keep my eyes on the screen 20 feet away, where the other Barbara was, er, giving her all.

Nerve-wracking? You bet. The nude scenes were many times more disconcerting with her clothed body sitting there too. But Ms. Hershey didn't shift or murmur or do anything else during the entire screening. (I was the one squirming.) And when it was over, she got up and left before the lights came up, so I had no chance to speak to her. And as the old gag goes, what do you say to a naked lady?

The Stunt Man played successfully at the Guild for an entire year and became a critical favorite, if not box office winner, elsewhere. ("Should have used my ads in the other markets too," he said modestly.)

But the one or two other minor films I consulted on after that one paled badly--in fact, I can't remember now what titles I got calls about. Dreaming up taglines for one-sheet posters just didn't have the magic and allure of sitting next to Barbara Hershey circa 1979...

Monday, May 12, 2008

Birds of a Feather?

The two most important poets writing in English during the last quarter of the 20th Century--distinctive, innovative, acclaimed, influential--were Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. I came to revere the careful wit and rigorous thought of Heaney, and the sheer pleasure of his language (not for nothing was one book of his prose titled The Government of the Tongue), but originally I was quite taken with Hughes' early poems, back when he was married to then-still-living Sylvia Plath, and long before he lost the thrust of his work and settled for Poet Laureate honors instead. The Hughes of those first books (Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal) seemed to have immersed himself completely in Nature and to have attained pure dumb animal thought--owls and crows, jaguars and foxes, pike and trout, creatures great and small indeed.

One of my forever-favorite poems is his "Hawk Roosting," which begins "I sit in the top of the woods, my eyes closed..." and ends thus: "I am going to keep things like this." That is one never-to-be-forgotten, egomaniacal bird (like Hughes himself!)--and I thought of him while travelling Down Under back in 1986. Oddly moved by the duck-billed platypus shown at the Sydney Zoo, I read what I could conveniently find on that unique creature of living pre-history, and then cobbled together this on-the-road portrait, a recognition of Nature's bizarre sense of humor (the poem also a distant homage to Hughes' surly hawk). By the way, it's hard to make out, but the color illustration above shows creation of platypus--mammal, then duck, and then down below, a couple of platypi emerging:


I am mocked: leathery bill of a duck
I root with, my flat snout
nuzzling the stream bottoms, shoveling worms
out, gobbling yabbies up from stones and ooze.
Fifteen million years you laugh at—my otter’s fur,
wet, and webbed feet. I live a sleek, watery secret
you would do better not to discover,
with poison spurs on my hind legs, and claws
as needed, aft and fore. Oh, I am other
than you dream of, you with your nippled love
and blood-birthed womb. My young come
from egg, and then seek mother’s milk—
and a hard suckle they have of it with no teat
to grapple. Eons of amphibious battle,
and I am here; with elegant flair
species arrive, then go; I munch larvae
and close my ears to the cries of you brief intruders.
I am monotreme: of beast and bird the sum.
So the meal chews bitter, this life; is yours better--
eggless, dry? I outlive and am free.
Yes, call me Platypus; the name suits. But of us
which is the stranger? whose world more meagre?
I survive my each plunge. Why change?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Goodbye to All That (Burma 3)

((According to world news, a bad cyclone hit Myanmar several days ago--weather is one thing the generals can't control--with over a hundred thousand killed. Between destruction and suspicion, the West will have a hard time sending aid, and NPR's correspondent is staying anonymous and moving clandestinely, to keep getting the news out. The gentle Burmese people deserve a better fate... Meanwhile, visiting there in 1986, I was up country and ailing.))

June 28

Taking medicine, eating nothing, resting for long stretches. I roused myself sufficiently to tramp about for a few hours to visit eight or ten of the closer and more scenic jedis (pagodas). Some are massive, looming high over the dusty plains like Egyptian pyramids; others have baroquely ornate shapes and facades, like giant seashells; and many are compressed and crumbling away. The Buddhas sit unattended. Lizards and monkeys prowl the outer terraces and the stairs too worn to climb. But I did clamber up to the top of two huge platforms, to survey mile upon mile of scrub growth and hardpack fields, temples rising like tombstones in a giants' cemetery, distant smudges of mountain, and the flat, sluggish, meandering Irrawaddy River, so famous from the past, but looking just muddy and empty today.

Clearly my enthusiasm is minimal. Nothing--no design, no Buddha contemplating swarms of gnats, no breathtaking view of ancient structures stretching to the horizons--can rouse me from this drugged lethargy. Even the two metal statuettes I spent more illegal kyat on earlier, an antique opium-weight lion and a "good spirit" figure, seem just ridiculous this evening. So what? Now I must preserve the rest of my kyat to buy food (if I ever get back to eating), and my way out of Burma, come Monday.

June 29

Sitting at Pagan's dinky airport, awaiting a flight that stops here en route to Rangoon. Ordinary folk, including tourists, can be bumped off any flight if a government bigwig or other visiting fireman shows up wanting a seat; but things seem safely quiet here.

Still feeling punk. Out of illegal kyat, so I'm trying to decide if I should sell some dollars at the black market price for now ((which was about 30 kyat per dollar)), in order to get three times the amount back (in dollars!) at the time of legal reconversion. It's just crazy. Some people manage to slip around Burma spending as little as $10 legal by spending who knows how much il-legally, but I'll be out about $90 total since my sick, tired spirit demands an airplane return to Rangoon.

Well, between credit-card trouble ((I'd had Visa card removed from hotel "safe" in Thailand and a stack of forms run off, used for jewelry and other expensive stuff, that my watchful sister in the States noticed almost immediately, saving my ass)), kyat confusion, and crappy illness, I've about had it with Southeast Asia.

July 1

Stopover Delhi, about 4 a.m. My last days in Rangoon and then Bangkok seemed endless bus rides and waiting rooms and check-in lines, though I did have good conversations with an English cricketer, a Cypriot woman architect, a Scottish jewelry importer, an American farm-techniques Peace Corpsman, and a grand old dame (English) who sat next to me, Bangkok to Delhi, where she exited to head for the Taj Mahal.

Final thoughts on Asia: I guess I lack the requisite fatal attraction for the exotic East of Maugham and Conrad and company. I think one must be younger, less used to creature comforts, more flexible about dirt coating the skin, scabs dotting the legs, beggars in the streets, perennial humid heat and cold showers, smiling people eager to rip you off somehow. I'm tired of being stared at, laughed at, overcharged and under-rested. I'm ready to take on the different hassles of being an American in Europe in the summer of 1986 ((when Reagan had bombed Libya, outraging much of the world)). At least there I'll be less conspicuous, as long as I keep my mouth shut, anyway.

July 2

Yesterday's demented ravings before dawn convinced me I should concentrate first on sleep, but it eluded me for many hours more. Into Heathrow at 8 a.m., two hours getting through regulations and into the city via the Underground, then a half-hour walk lugging 90 pounds of pack and other bags to the hostel--but a good one, Holland House, an old Jacobean mansion at the edge of Holland Park, in the pricey area called High Street, Kensington. I checked in but couldn't get access to a dorm bed, had to try napping in a lounge chair.

No luck. At my nadir, 40 hours without sleep, my stomach aching steadily, feeling completely rotten, I decided to find the area hospital, for a check-up on leg and bowels.

But walking through the park got the blood pumping again, and I persuaded myself that exhaustion and lack of food might account for much, so I dragged myself to the nearby... yes, the High Street McDonalds, where I scarfed down two burgers, fries, and a cola (not a Coke, for some reason). Feeling full if not better, I strolled back to the park hoping to crash on the grass; but dogs and picnicking schoolkids had other ideas, so I returned to the hostel, where the warder studied my pallor and took pity--penciled me in as "sick" and let me go up to the bed area two hours early.

A nap worked wonders, as did the long-overdue clean-up and then a ramble around the park last evening. How civilized it is here! Soccer players and all-in-white cricketers, lovers lolligagging together on real grass, Arab-looking kids running, Caribbean men lilting and smiling, hunched old ladies mumbling to each other in their tired verbal shorthand, a popular and mobbed ice-cream seller, and--sounding forth, magnificently resonant over all--a live performance outdoors of Verdi's opera Un Ballo Maschera. I sprawled on the greensward for nearly an hour just drinking it all in. No ants, no mosquitoes, no filth evident; simply a warm summer's evening in a park in London.

I am a child of the West, however old now. There's no denying how much better I feel here than I did in Indonesia or even slickly Westernized Thailand. The hell with pretending any different.

((I guess I'm as biased and ethnocentric as the next ordinary schmuck.))

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Mixed Up in Myanmar (2)

((Last post ended with me heading for the train to Northern Burma, speculating that the ride on wooden seats "should be interesting."))

June 26

That last remark qualifies as basic understatement of the week. Twelve hours of sleepless nightmare on slatted wooden seats too hard to relax on and too narrow to sprawl on, with four people packed in each facing pair. Since we tourists can't read Burmese numbers--my seat 29 looks something like "JC"--we need help right from the start. Then the train pulls out, racketing and rocking back and forth, the cloudy lights inside burning all night long, covered with insects right from the start. Metal louvers on the windows keep fresh air out, but admit bugs and rain. The toilets waft their aromas throughout the car whenever a door is opened. Yet nothing fazes the Burmese passengers, whole families travelling with every scrap of their belongings: bales, bundles, boxes and bags tied to the overhead racks and heaped everywhere else.

Gradually the bodies mount as well--determined nappers stretched across aisles, pretzeled into seats, hiding under seats, jammed among goods and feet. (I tried craning up straight, slanting across, curling down, and several other postures, to no avail.) But what a wonderful array of travellers! Dazed tourists staring blearily at nothing, mothers suckling two-year-olds, soldiers in Socialist Army olive-drab, venders scrambling over bodies and loudly hawking their wares, young girls checking their make-up, older men struggling to keep their longyis wrapped. (I was feeling like a character in Paul Theroux's famous book about Asian trains.)

Most affecting to me were a beautiful, sad-eyed woman tending her small boy, who handed me her copy of a Tourist Burma brochure, wanting me to keep it, wanting me to admire all the slick and pretty pictures of her (impoverished) country. (All this conveyed by gestures only.) And my seatmate, a handsome guy in his 30's, but with stubble on his face, violent tattoos on his arms and ankles, a blank despairing look, and bandages at both temples, as though he'd received some sort of electrodes treatment. Yet his pockets are full of rolls of kyat, and he offers friendly advice, in fair English, on Burmese numbers, expressions, even the right train station for my bus connection to Pagan.

But, before that, we watched dawn come to central Burma: dirt roads, woven-mat houses, women with baskets on their heads, boys squatting to watch the train pass, a man and his dog also squatting, but to shit. Scarecrows of flapping rags, horsedrawn carts hauling goods to market, clay pots (for water?) outside the doors of houses, stick fences around dust yards, patches of succulents and bushes and small trees, white Brahma cows pulling wooden plows, above-ground flat tombs filling the village cemeteries.

In Thazzi some of us transferred to a small mini-bus, six Westerners and 20-some Burmese all crammed in, on, and hanging off the van's slatted sides and roof. So we went, rocketing across the dusty plains for another four hours of severe discomfort--van ceiling bumping our heads, wind attacking our backs, hard seats cutting off circulation to legs, no room to stretch or avoid each other's sour breath... What can I say? I guess there's just no pleasing the ornery tourist.

June 27

And then, heaping insult on injury, after five safe months and with not many days left in Asia, last night I came down with a serious case of La Turista--cramps and diarrhea and no interest in food. Don't know whether I just got too cocky, or picked something up walking Rangoon's filthy side streets. Whatever the cause, I'm feeling listless and not real enthusiastic about tromping the ruins of ancient Pagan.

We arrived yesterday exhausted, and booked into various small guesthouses. Some tried to sleep, others to soldier on; I couldn't relax, so I walked out to explore, check prices, and wound up hiring a horsecart to take me to a lacquerware village where I swapped jeans, t-shirt, batteries, and spare cassettes for a nice plaque of Buddha, two shoulder bags, and some more kyat. So now I must go on a spending spree, once feeling better, to unload all the illegal money. What an odd system.

Last night in a stupor of pain, I had the possibly inspired revelation that the Burmese government really is slyer than given credit for. These Socialists have taken a reading on Western capitalist thinking and decided we are all greedy pirates of industry at heart; so the "pinko" bosses have devised the tourism system accordingly. Our visas are limited to seven days, which protects the Burmese citizenry from too much infectious contact with our decadent ways--and makes us think of a visit here as something special and desirable, yet kept so brief that we are easily channeled into the controlled routes to Pagan and Mandalay.

On top of that, the confusing kyat system: by turning a blind eye to our liquor/cigarette sales, goods trading, even most of the black-market dollar exchanges, the government accomplishes much more. The Burmese get enough (but not too many) Western goods, which the Socialists can disavow all responsibility for; and we tourists wind up with so much excess money that we must buy more food, drink, taxi rides, horsecarts, tour guides, and blessed souvenirs than we ordinarily ever would, thus providing economic support to both common people and cottage industries.

Diabolical, these Socialists! All the locals kept happy, all the travellers kept busy (and boring) with their scheming and dealing, working so hard to travel around for a week on, seemingly, next to nothing, laughing as they/we, uh, pull the wool over the government bureaucrats' eyes. In a pig's eye, says I! We're being led by the nose, all unknowing, every step of the way...

((Next time: seeing the sights of Pagan and bidding farewell to Asia.))