A journal of TMI

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Small town I loathe you

small town I loathe you- your derelicts approach me

through every open transom and window I see

the same televised set-piece

portrayed on a tube screen

Can’t someone walk about

without watching this scene?

a man with an eye-patch and a suit too tight

insults his old lover

a mild social slight

made all the more galling

by the girl on his arm

the tension is rising

a slow-paced alarm- but no one is watching

they’re just staring

possibly even thinking

their bodies in repose

relaxed,

a small dream.

To have the time

to do nothing

and yet

be part of

this scene

small town your leaders

sit at tables

big and small

chanting fables

eating strange foods

and drinking as much

as they are able

I’ve sat with them before

they offered me plenty

told me what to eat

and when I didn’t want

any

smilingly threatened me

‘just joking-

now, again- drink!’

I walked away cursing

hours later

swaying on my feet

slow-motion accidents

a fascinating sight

when time’s at a standstill

Saturday night

I saw it at random

Time just hit

And stopped

that old boy

split

I watched

peering openly

Fate spit

I’ve sat down with you

we’ve talked before

I came to your bookstore

a habit I couldn’t break

didn’t want to

wanted more

was life such a crashing

waste?

Too long to wait

And wait for what

what water waits?

It’s an open gate

stuck open

shall we fix

what we chase?

step back

again

from a given fate?

The long road

the distant shore

And what of our children?

Crowded into

small rooms

with a board

a tutor’s home

on each lane

small town

study plan

I complain

you haven’t heard me

or left me alone

enough

that’s what I’m waiting for.

that’s why the pain

__________________________

Ho Chi Minh City, December 2013

Woodland Coastal Plain Roaming up to Piedmont- Where I Once Began

(Note- I’ve been reading the biography of Allen Ginsberg and keep remembering and forgetting and remembering how far back I’ve wanted to be a poet. The guy was amazing, silly and serious. A politician, an advocate for friends and the common man. A member of the street and the academy. He desperately wanted to be famous and was a fan and friend of others like himself. I met him and talked to him in line at a book signing and poetry reading at Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago on December 1st 1988 where he read from White Shroud. He talked directly to me, like I was a person he had just happened to meet- which I was! He signed my book ‘AH ‘ and then wrote his signature underneath. I looked at it puzzled and said “AH?- What’s that?” (thinking plainly it should be AG). He engaged me with a smile and said “Say it!”….”Ahhhh!” He said it for me, encouraging me to join him. “Ahhh!” I think I followed his lead. “It feels good!” he explained. I can still see him smiling at me, encouraging me, breathing with me. Ah indeed. For this reason I can’t believe he ever died. And there he had seduced another young college boy, who walked away seconds later. This poem is for him).

forest of my youth

diffuse light

mayflower frenzy

dinosaur hole

crouched against the earth

in a plywood-earthen fort

the bum musk

cleansed by a spring in bloom

desolate weed tree

patch of an old field

tick strewn waist high grass

abandoned path

I paced the woods

I saw her across the creek

embracing a new love

a different time

I crouched in darkness

phantom shadows on a high balcony

I slept in the leaves

when the world closed

I mapped your hide

mother of woodland

nest of the old tribe

fallen tree

haunt of the night bird

smoke of the lost brother

the shackle of the rusted camp

the stamp of the milk bottle

rotten porch of the fish shack

neck of the eagle branch

the golden hound

whose got em on the run

– has he?

I post his name

in an icy slick of storm winter day

I hide in electric heater warmth

I drove to a distant city

unable to make it

hauled back by a faint agreement

a steep drive

with a running start

a forgotten plan

a place to mourn

a cot to lay on

an old coin collection

a deep pit to sleep in

driven by the leaves

afternoon shadows

the light through the trees

it brought me through

slack-jawed

and lifted me

to my knees

Three pictures I didn’t take on my first day in Burma: Burma part I.

The first day I was in Burma there were three photographs I wasn’t able to take.  I went to Burma, or Myanmar as it is also, and officially known, to take pictures, write in my journal, buy gifts , and participate in other typical enjoyable traditions of traveling. The pictures that I did take felt good for the most part, the best ones I experienced almost as an act of Kung Fu, I can count on it being a good photo when I have that feeling, but the ones I missed I felt as a deep visceral ache inside. I then strove to let the feeling go, to be ready for the next thing.

I met my brother at the train station in Mandalay. We had made this plan in advance and he commented that our success in meeting there had been a triumphant throwback to the time before cellphones, where meetings were arranged at public places, and you had to be there, or that was it. We both remembered the tail end of this era, having grown up in the 70’s and 80’s, where public pay phones were also used, as well as the family phone at home.  I rode in a shared taxi from the airport, asked to be dropped off at the train station, strode across the street with my bags, and scanned the many-storied structure for an obvious meeting point. Although there was a porticoed pavilion indicating the entrance to the building, there was also room after room devoted to waiting, the exterior-facing curtain wall of each such room absent, save for some type of roll or fold-away grate to lock in the off hours. And so waiting rooms like open cells lined this side of the building that was opposite the train track, and no doubt the track side as well. Worried eyes from half-vacant benches glanced back at me, wondering, as I vaguely was, what I would do next. I was about to enter the building, from the myriad of open paths in front of me, when I heard someone yell my name, my brother of course, who revved up his scooter from his perch and came over to meet me. Apparently I had chosen the correct place. A security guard expressed mild concern at our reunion in what appeared to be also the taxi circle, my brother uninterested at the moment in observing the customary traffic flow. I motioned to the guy first with my index finger, that we would soon be gone, and then with a circular motion of my wrist and a nod of my head, that I understood that we needed to turn ourselves around before we left. We went through our greetings, fist-bumps, what have you, I adjusted myself onto the bike with my bags, and with the guard conducting, we somewhat clumsily u-turned out of the vehicle reception area and were on our way. Our mission at that point was to make our way to the nearby neighborhood across the railroad tracks, where the motorbike rental shop was located, so I could get outfitted with my own bike, as the plan was to leave almost immediately that day, at least right after lunch. My brother took the first side street past the station, but the tracks looked difficult to cross there, so we came back to the main road and went to the next street, a nice comfortable bridge. When we took that turn bells and horns seemed to go off from gesturing cops? Passersby? We weren’t sure, but motorbikes were prohibited on that bridge, as everyone knew, even my brother I believe, though he suppressed that knowledge from himself enough to express surprise and worry that we would be stopped. But we were given the ‘foreigner pass’ by whatever forces were on alert there that time and we made our way to the shop. After meeting the proprietor and gabbing for a while I had my own bike, and we were off in search of a lunch spot. It was then that I saw my first missed picture of the day.

The motorbike guy had given us directions to a good Chinese restaurant he knew of, and judging from the circle we had just gone in we had already abandoned that and were redirecting  ourselves to a cluster of restaurants my brother had already been to and thus had more confidence in finding. With him zooming ahead I found myself beside a strange bicycle carriage, the likes of which I had never seen before. Unlike the various bicycle taxis I had seen in Vietnam, China, and Cambodia, it was a rickshaw with a side-car, a single wheel supporting the car. A grandmother had just plunked in, as the passenger it seemed, and popped open her ancient looking parasol as an old grandfather began pumping his still strong legs to take her to her desired destination. As it was the first tricycle of this design I had ever seen, and because of the way that I happened to perceive them as a couple, I half supposed that this might be their private family vehicle they were tooling around in. Traffic seemed calm enough for me to risk taking a picture while driving (something I don’t think I’ve ever actually done before) so I reached towards the pocket that had my camera phone (an iPhone 4 with various camera apps), looked ahead at my brother turning out of sight at the next intersection, and adding the various risks all up, put aside my photo plans for the moment, and raced to catch up, losing an opportunity forever in the process (sob!).

IMG_5889

Different day, different bike.

 

We soon came to the restaurant cluster and my brother indicated a vegetarian Indian restaurant that he already had enjoyed, a Thai restaurant (Myanmar shares borders with both India and Thailand, as well as China, Laos and Bangladesh) and a local Burmese restaurant, and said it was up to me to choose. “Burmese!” I exclaimed and rushed towards the place, disappointing him a little I believe, as he can seem a picky eater and had already found a safety zone at the veg place, Marie Min as it was named, which was a fine restaurant as I later found out. Nevertheless I was thrilled to try the local food immediately. The restaurant, as  is common in South-East Asia(and already noted), had no front wall on the first floor, so we parked the bikes in front so we could keep an eye on our packs, walked up the stairs which spanned the whole of the building and tried to get oriented with a table and the food selection and so forth. It was busy so we were seated at a large table with another diner already present and eating, the ad hoc foreigner table as it were, we later learned that he was Italian. Other patrons were gathered around the glass cases that barricaded in the kitchen section of the room near the back, examining the dishes within. My plan was to follow this behavior, point at a few dishes when I got someone’s attention (as the bowls seemed small, and I felt hungry) and then go sit down and eat with abandon. It’s an understatement to say that many people have used this foolproof plan countless times before in the history of the world both in foreign countries as well as at home (pointing at food to order it), but for some strange reason the staff at this restaurant didn’t seem to catch on. I’d point at a few dishes, the coterie of waitresses gathered around would strain their faces in concern, the cook behind the case would shrug, and little else would be done. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little impatient, but I was too happy to be there to get downright cranky so I just tried to put more flourish into my gestures and expressiveness into my face. A waiter arrived who spoke a little English. It seemed that they wanted to explain to me what the dishes were. “This is maize…” he told me, of the dish filled with sweet corn. “I know!” I smiled, “please can I have some?” He still seemed confused. I tripled my efforts with my nonverbal communications, miming as I also spoke, for his possible benefit, “please put these dishes into bowls for me and I will eat them back at the table” like that, with miming and pointing actions for each component that I could think of. The food attendant finally had had enough and in a matter of seconds whipped every single selection out of the stainless steel trays and into the little serving bowls in the entire section that she controlled, without regard to whichever ones I had pointed at. The waitresses were now cheerfully laughing at our affair, which we all seemed to mutually agree to just push pass our communication impasse, and get on with the serving and eating of food, with some lingering confusion notwithstanding. The one assigned to our table twirled a serving tray within our circle and now playing, I wrestled her for it, and we began loading it with food. Now openly playing with her, I insisted on being the one to carry it to my table, lest she get confused… My taunts made them roar with laughter as I continued my instructions in how to deal with the outlandish foreigners- bring rice, cutlery, and so on, in short, everything that every other table in the restaurant had, including a plate of raw vegetables such as cabbage and sliced cucumbers and basil leaves carefully arranged. They got the joke- we wanted to eat lunch! Why hadn’t they thought of that? – and then my brother threw a new wrench into our nearly resolved situation by refusing rice, an act in fact utterly foreign to them. One after another the waiters and waitresses tried to offer him a rice bowl, which he continued to refuse to their consternation until one of the ladies finally just placed an entire serving bowl of rice on the table across from him and backed away slowly. “I’m not eating carbs,” he explained to me. Conversations about nutrition and personal eating habits can be volatile affairs, able to split families apart, sever friendships, but did that stop me? We’d been through it before I guess, though never really in opposition to each other and I was primed after just having read a great book on the subject- The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, so I ploughed ahead exclaiming “That doesn’t make any sense!” He strengthened his fighting stance and spooned more of some delicious vegetable mush into his mouth. “Tell that to my gut” he said. “No no, I don’t care about what you want to eat, that’s not what I’m saying”. He had lost a lot of weight after all. The last time we went on a road trip together he looked almost like a water buffalo from eating pizza? I don’t know, in any case he looked much much slimmer. “But no carbohydrates? That’s crazy!” I continued on with my rant about how carbohydrates were an absolutely essential nutrient and if he was saying he didn’t eat carbohydrates he was basically claiming to consume only protein and fat, and nothing else (with the vitamins and fiber just part of that mixture)(I actually knew what he meant, ‘carbs’ being a neologism of the ‘just eat meat’ craze that seemed to refer mostly to processed foods made from grains and starches). Unimpressed, he finished a bowl of corn, which the waitress quickly replenished (a clue as to what the food ordering confusion had been about). “I don’t eat rice,” he elaborated, “It’s just filler. And I hate it when people tell me what to eat”. “Yeah, you said it partner, nothing worse than that, I remember all the bullshit we went through in our teens and twenties”, I went on, shoveling it all in as I went, “but if you think about it, there was hardly a single obese Vietnamese person known until about the 21st century, and the way they say hello is ‘Have you eaten rice yet?’ I doubt it’s the rice that’s starting to make them fat”, and so on, my reasoning utterly failing to make a dent in the triumph of the propaganda of the Atkins diet, where even a vegetarian can be a believer. No carbs!

Anyway I later figured out what I believe the confusion had been that day in the restaurant. Inspired by T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, in part an epidemiological report showing the healing properties of a plant-based diet, and in concert with my brother, who was a vegetarian before me, and stuck with it after I had abandoned my stint avoiding eating meat, which lasted at least a few years if I remember correctly and which I now only intermittently practice, by that meaning sometimes only once a month, and getting my bike and being rigged and ready to go out to the countryside, infused with all that, I had decided to go veg that day in the Burmese restaurant upon arriving in Myanmar. It was in an arc of activities and enthusiasm so to speak. The problem that so confused them was that I was standing in front of the selection of food that essentially, for the mode of cuisine that they were engaged in, were condiments, or natural accompaniments of the meal, and it didn’t make any sense to them for me to ‘order’ them or ask for them. It would be like ordering salt and pepper and ketchup off the menu in an American diner, or fish sauce in a Vietnamese restaurant, or… something like that. Everyone else was over deliberating between chicken livers or stewed sparrows, or boiled pork belly and so on. But we wanted to eat lima beans and eggplant and corn and food like that that day, and thank god we worked it out, because it was delicious.

The second picture I missed that day occurred after we were not very far out of town and were approaching a teak foot-bridge that was quite long, at 1.2 km the longest such bridge in the world. We were driving with the Irrawaddy River to our left and a thatched fishing village to our right.  Fishermen waded along in the shallows with nets and other gear, gathering their catch, and the village itself was quite active in a way that would have required a long scrolled panoramic painting ( like Along the River During the Qingming Festival ) to capture it, or in this era, a lengthy photo spread. We were just whizzing by however, and I was not equipped for any distance photography. In fact for the most part, with the equipment I had, if my pictures were to have any value, they would need to be snapped at close range, with all the apparent connections to the subject matter quite visible. In other words I would have to get up in people’s faces in order to take their picture. Probably anyone who has ever contemplated taking a stranger’s picture in public has felt the same trepidation and anxiety that this can provoke, although obviously there are ways to get over this and just do it, many ways I’d say. Some also back away from the task, either at key moments, or altogether. It’s something worth discussing. I have found, for instance, that a lot of people will smile and indicate that they’re quite happy to have their picture taken, while others will show no hesitation in refusing. I have my own ad hoc rules about this, and I’m not sure I even always follow them, but how about this: let’s just keep talking about it and I’ll promise to do the right thing in the best possible way that I can. One of my rules for instance is that someone participating in a public display, such as a parade or some other performance, has pretty much licensed themselves to be photographed, and you’d have to tell a pretty intricate story before it started to be problematic to take their picture. However, to tell such a story, one thing I’ve enjoyed doing in the past is that when I come across people posing for pictures in public places, if I think I can get away with it (because the photo subject is occupied with smiling and posing for their intended photographer) I’ll snap a shot of them posing, either including their photographer, or not, depending on where I’m standing, or what looks better. Although it passes some of my tests, I at least feel it’s a little ethically strained. I could call it a ‘freebie’ as they are posing in public, though I’m well aware and possibly the subjects feel this also, that they are posing only momentarily, and not for me. I could imagine that they, if aware of my actions, might be thrilled in some way at the extra attention, like it’s all part of the fun of being on vacation or at leisure. I could also imagine them moving away from this pole passing through a place where they would just say ‘fair enough, you got me!’ and then start drifting towards lands of greater vulnerability, where they might wish I hadn’t taken their picture at all. It seems fun anyway when I capture a smiling person, maybe flashing some hand jive, and I’ve mused even about presenting a series of such shots in a show, but I haven’t been doing this too much lately, either because it’s a thing that I did, and I’m over it, or because of all the ethical dimensions of this practice. My brother and I talked about the whole wider subject of taking pictures of people on this trip and I brought up three different standards that I was aware of, none of which I am completely conversant in. The strictest I would think is in the world of anthropology, where there is a developed ethical protocol, at times known as the Human Subject Protocol which was developed in response to the wider problem of scientific researchers abusing their human subjects while conducting research upon them , of which there are all too many examples. The basic standard is informed consent, with a conscientious weighing of benefit and harm, in a bureaucratized environment, where scrutiny and oversight are established. For example, a graduate student in anthropology typically would develop a proposal with their advisor and then have to submit an ‘Ethics Review Protocol Submission Form’ to a committee and would not be able to engage in fieldwork without final approval from a ‘Research Ethics Board’. So, if they wanted to take a picture of someone in the village we were traveling past (or anywhere in the world) and use it in any way, they would first have to go through all that. Another relevant standard, especially for photography, would be the Model Release Form. This is similarly a measure of consent to give up privacy, tailored for legal and commercial interests, rather than academic ones. But it’s not clear exactly when it’s required. Certainly if you’ve appeared in a Pepsi ad, you’ve signed a model release form. George Clooney no doubt has signed a model release form. What about the Afghan girl with haunting green eyes from National Geographic? Is there some document somewhere establishing her consent? Or was it all done with a wink and a nod of the head? There’s no way that news photographers get model release forms, for example, when shooting a battle, a natural disaster, a political rally, or anything of that nature, so obviously there is a wide range of editorial content considered exempt from any standard of consent (the third standard I presented while discussing this with my brother) because the public nature of the acts renders them ipso facto not private. Actually, even anthropology acknowledges exemptions for situations based in the public arena. Imagine if you will however someone looking out their window in contemplation. You can dress them in pajamas or formal gowns or their birthday suit if you will, as this is a thought experiment. They are staring out their window, you are on the street, with a lens powerful enough to frame them, and you yourself are not hidden in any way. Is this consent? Who’s asking, really? How many pictures are we ourselves part of around the world without even realizing it? When my brother and I got to this part of the discussion, we both recalled situations where we had actually found pictures of ourselves published, without any direct awareness of the picture having been taken, albeit in very small magazines.

For my brother’s part, he boiled it down also to three different stances you could take. One is the set-up mentioned above where you have your camera out in a near ready, but not absolutely ready position, and you smile and nod and wink at your subject and mime taking the picture, using similar basic language if such language is shared or understood, encouraging the subject to indicate consent to have their picture taken. If they refuse, you walk away, and try to think no more about it, if they consent, you snap away, and hope you’ve taken your lens cap off.

The second way is what he described as ‘pretending to be their friend’, where you spend time building trust with your intended subjects, however long it takes, until you’ve passed some sort of test, and then you carry out what had been your plan all along, and take a lot of pictures.

The third way is to just take pictures whenever you can and decide later whether it was appropriate or worth it when deleting and publishing said pictures (in our case on Facebook and our own personal blogs).

IMG_5007

Thatched bamboo wall.

 

In any case, that afternoon, while driving along with the Irrawaddy River to my left, and a small, bustling, sprawling village to my right, I spied an older gentleman in a hat and jacket seated in an alert but relaxed manner, entirely on a small platform built at about waist height above the ground around the base of a tree. He was reading a newspaper and so had the double position of both being at rest, as well as participating in the business of attending to and holding up the world. I don’t recall whether he was wearing trousers or the more typical longyi sarong, as it was the hat and jacket and newspaper, and the overall poise that captured my attention. There’s nothing else to refer to, as I didn’t stop my bike, put down the kickstand, walk over to him, and after some or no negotiation, take his picture, I just kept driving along, with some tearing and longing in my heart.

 

The third picture I did not take occurred I am not sure where. After we finished at the teak bridge we began heading in a West South-Westerly direction, hoping to somehow make our lodgings in the archeological city of Bagan that night, despite our late and meandering start. My brother drives faster than I do, and the bikes we rented, while great bikes, were actually cheap Chinese copies of a great bike (the Honda Wave) that itself had limited power and suspension. The roads were fine, but not without some pitting, so I soon found myself skipping through town after town with just enough control to not really worry, but with a sense that going a little bit slower would be infinitely more sensible. The towns were all similar, and all different, all with some market activity near the road, some with more beautiful tree glades than others, some with more active urban pursuits. The men for the most part all wore longyi sarongs, some tied up higher if their thighs were directly involved in their work or play, such as when they were kicking a rattan ball around, the women also wore longyis, though more brightly colored, and tied at the hip rather than at the center. The women and boys and an occasional man wore a yellow paste-like single-colored yellow make-up on their face, sometimes in squares or rectangles on their cheeks, for example, sometimes in fierce stripes, occasionally in circles or any other design. I saw a sixteen year-old boy with a semi-circle of dots going across his forehead, meeting at the two larger circles on his cheeks. Somewhere in the midst of this kaleidoscope of market items, melons and fruit, fish and knives, and men and boys at work and at play, of cool creek oases at low points in the road where the largest trees would grow, amidst the dust and approaching golden hour of sunlight, I saw a little girl with a full face of the traditional sandalwood make-up, the ghost-face as I termed it for myself, as it is striking to behold, I saw this tan-faced girl somewhere on one of these roads in one of these towns, with two bright-yellow marigold-like flowers in her hair, one above each ear. I saw her right beside me it seemed, in front of me and beside me at the same moment, as I was in motion. She was looking straight at me, and I didn’t take her picture. Instead I slowed down just a little bit, and then kept on driving.

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On the road in Myanmar.

 

Happy Bloody Valentine

In honor of the new album by My Bloody Valentine,  “m b v” released more than 20 years since the previous album, “Loveless”, I am posting this fan video I made of their song “Feed Me with Your Kiss”,  the video also maybe more than ten years old.

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis make appearances from early pre-code films they were in:

My own worst critic: Reflections on Solar Mannequin

Okay so I’ve turned in the Solaris project, now known as Solar Mannequin, and the desk is a little clearer. By ‘turned in’ I mean that I posted it on Youtube and on this blog, and I probably won’t be doing any major edits to it, if any more edits at all. Now it’s finished and free to stand on its own, albeit also with some commentary I am now providing.

Before I say anything else about it I want to make clear that I really like the film, and I’m really proud of it. I want to thank my collaborators who gave their all and also mention that it took a great deal of work to see the project through to the final state that it’s in.

The truth of the matter is, however, that the film failed on a few fronts, and despite its relative charms, it is still in search of an audience. Truthfully no audience was ever really expected, and thus the failure that is in the film is almost pre-designed, and comes out of the context of my whole profile as a film-maker, an amateur that is, an amateur film-maker. Within that personal context the film is a great success, and deserves further consideration, but without that frame, refracting and reflecting the motions on the screen, it’s more of an awkward child, provoking one’s inner bully, or mother to come out and, one way or another, take hold of the situation. I do want the film to be viewed more, I think there are people who will enjoy it, but realistically there’s zero chance of it going viral, becoming a cult classic, inciting a movement, or anything along those lines. I do think some of my present and future friends, at an event like a summer outdoor barbeque screening, might give it a watch, with the outside prospect that a Tarkovsky freak might check it out on YouTube and maybe mention it to a few other such freaks at an annual meeting, or in a newsletter, thereby pumping up the views from the pathetic 54 that they now hover at, to eventually somewhere above, say, 75.

So, what’s wrong with it? This film was my first attempt at narrative, and the goal I stated and my collaborators agreed upon was that we wanted the audience to understand what was supposed to be happening. No one yet has claimed that they have, so I have to face that squarely. There were other goals attached to the film of course, but this one is of particular note, with its complementary corollary, that I wanted to move beyond abstract music video form, which is what I usually have produced- another obvious failure as a goal, considering the two long sequences cut to music, maybe half or more of the film.

The whole decision to re-make this ponderous classic was a bad art-joke from the get-go. I’ll admit, it still makes me chuckle, but that’s probably some character flaw of mine. To take a treasured but obscure foreign film, and translate it into an absurd comedy that isn’t really a comedy, was a small feat, and I guess when I look at it that way, maybe I’ve actually succeeded, but… – is it really worth all that work, the resulting chuckle being very dry indeed? We thought it’d take a night or two of acting, with another week of editing, and out would pop the joke, of 8 to 10 minutes. This actually did happen this way (the tan-suit interrogation), but for various reasons I decided to amp up the whole production, including deciding to get a green screen…In the end I nearly died from exhaustion (and pneumonia) and commandeered night after night of my cast’s time.

I got the green screen to combat a basic flaw of the amateur home-movie auteur, what I call “parents’ house syndrome”. This occurs when you’ve rounded up your volunteers who bravely attempt to dramatize the chosen story-line, in front of-what… whatever situation you happen to be living in, that they so strongly have turned in their minds into the landscapes of the story-line, and yet the camera is not getting these mental projections… For example, there is a vast legacy of such films of some brave thespian in a robe emoting in front of a suburban staircase or bathroom mirror. Who cares, you’re having fun, right? In our first attempt for Solar Mannequin we got something like this- what I believe was an outstanding performance, on a shag carpet in front of a plaster wall etc. a stage set to be ignored. No, it wasn’t our parents’ house, but the intentionality of the setting was insufficient to the cause, in other words, in a quite accidental landscape for our Sci-Fi outing. Adding the green-screen allowed me to include a diverse host of backdrops, from the World Expo in Shanghai, China, to the basement of the seat of the South Vietnamese Republic, to the theaters of the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Moore College of Art and Design, in Philadelphia, as well as just textured space-junk, such as a vintage tube amplifier, from our personal basement collections. Heck, the green-screen allowed an actor to mount a cat-dragon, and fly above a cityscape, exacting his revenge on the inhabitants. The absurdity of such juxtapositions was of course intentional, and this successfully captured a theme of the film, the absurdity and narcissism of everyday life, which also can be a little spooky at times.

Another intentional aspect of the film, and perhaps something that ends up subverting the main goal of the film was that at a certain point I began to see the film as an opportunity to house collections. I knew I was leaving home soon, for an extended time, and I guess in a way I was thinking “I can bring this world with me after all, or at least show this world to… the Asians, the Solarians, or anybody who just would not otherwise see it”. The film became a place to just put a bunch of stuff, almost as a time capsule, hopefully thematically consistent with the film. For example, we drove through some pretty bad neighborhoods, like Point Breeze in South Philly, and near the waterfront in Camden, New Jersey as a way of showing the degradation that Dr.Spacebo is concerned about, and why he would risk everything to explore a new world, as a way of renewing the current situation on Earth. Collecting such landscapes also makes it almost like a documentary. I also added the Chinatown New Year’s festivities as a way of suggesting a different, possibly strange, possibly invigorating world. The collection of junk and other locales pushes the science fiction aspirations of the film (junk and landscapes of junk = technology affecting the social realm- the sine qua non of sci-fi). This is all good, in my opinion, and independent and possibly all good film should have something of a personal edge. The problem is that it can become the opposite of the “parents’ house syndrome” where instead of just glossing over the familiar, which is carelessly included in what you are presenting, one can intentionally collect everything that is familiar, and present it, and its just this personal collection, you know, for a target audience, ‘come up and see my etchings’, rather than a story that people are following. But what can you really do as a storyteller; you have to stick with stuff that interests you.

I think the real answer to that is just a process answer- because making film is such a time and resource intensive endeavor, and it’s collective, as well, we’re not just talking about wasting your own time or throwing away your own money, one really has to be prepared and organized, which in my case means writing the damn thing first.

We basically were a bunch of friends hanging out, working together, looking after kids, making dinner and so forth, and just rapping a lot. I’m always conspiring to make a film, so when Rob (Dr. Spacebo) began regularly joshing about the things going on around him as if it were an action film (starring himself as some sort of fictional twin brother of actor Stephan Seagal) just as part of a verbal routine to entertain his two daughters, I smelled an opportunity to recruit a new team of film volunteers. Caleb (Pilot Rochester, and his twin, Dr. Holbrooke) was also game, so we started casting about for a plot. We had some ideas about dramatizing various events going on around us, and we were watching a lot of films in the evenings.  I think I latched on to the idea because the 70’s was an era of Sci-Fi that, post Star-Wars, has largely been forgotten. WestWorld, Logan’s Run, Silent Running…. These kinds of films are largely slow-paced and mood-driven, and absorb their contemporary fashions in a way targeted and encompassing enough to present a world seemingly alien in its everydayness, because, of course in the future men will have side-burns… After I came up with the fateful plan to do a 10-minute fast-paced remake while watching the Soviet classic we had a few more conversations and then assembled what gear we had to shoot our first takes.

That brings up another fact about this production- it was a no-budget enterprise, I even pirated the software if you want to get down to it. Sure, I had a computer (bought a year before, not because of the film), and an HD camera, but we’re talking the mac-mini, a powerful little bugger, but the bottom of the line, and an HD flip, and then after that broke, another handheld consumer gadget camera, less powerful than an iPhone. It seems that even a no-budget film shot on digital starts to eat cash immediately however; there were other expenditures as well.

As far as the theory behind the writing of the film, I felt buttressed by two main pillars- firstly, that the film had already been written, and secondly, that digital filmmaking allows for improvisational scene creation without any cost-impact. This allows for a new type of acting/ writing process that I adapted in part from Larry David’s show, Curb your Enthusiasm. The show famously uses a bullet-point skeleton script of basic scenarios. The actors themselves are steeped in the sensibilities of the characters they are portraying, which are likely typecast alter egos, intimate and yet almost independent in their power to create themselves The characters generate the script by interacting; only the set-up is pre-determined, with a general sense of the outcome allowing the next set-up to be plotted. An enormous amount of material must then be edited, which is much easier when you have a team of professional editors waiting. Another filmmaker, Mike Leigh, has a similar method, with a crucial difference. He allows his script to be generated by his actors during rehearsals, later to be solidified after many practices into an ironclad shooting script, a necessity due to his use of film stock during his career beginning in the 70’s.

I think we created some great performances, such as the haunted and defiantly bitter Pilot Rochester, the grand outsider statesman Professor Spacebo, and the worn-out but incisive bureaucrat Professor Enzyme. The scenarios needed to be introduced more carefully to the audience, especially an audience who had never seen the Soviet film, and our conversation about the film really started to get ahead of our ability to capture it adequately during the final days…which is reflected in the post-credits shots, surely incomprehensible to one and all as to how they could fit into any narrative. My fallback explanation here is two-fold, the precedents set by acknowledged classics: 2001, A Space Odyssey, where the resolution implies infinity, death, the possible fate of Spacebo after traveling through a worm-hole to Solaris, and mapped as well in the original movie, when Kelvin encounters his father in a house that is raining on the inside, an imperfect re-generation of his previous life, signifying the finality of those possibilities. Also, I came up with the idea to present my film using inter-titles as episodic chapters, along the lines of the Flash Gordon serials, hoping the audience would allow crazy incomprehensible scenes as a natural enticement to watch the ‘next episode’, which will never come of course. To be honest, many times I considered giving up on the effort to tie the film together. It had become impossible to shoot any more expository or linking shots, which went against our methods anyway, so in the end I faced the choice of only presenting successful scenes as they were, as fragments, or pulling the project together as best I could. Many friends have noted that I have succumbed to one of the fates a filmmaker should avoid, of falling in love with footage. It’s true, and a tighter film would be a better film, but in this case, I will allow myself the indulgence because without the cues a master-hack would have provided, I think it’s better to just wade through the plodding drama, than cut quickly to a plot that’s barely there.

In the end I was able to tie together some loose ends, bejewel it with a few songs that otherwise might have been lost, and like any great project, hint at a psychodrama that was unfolding beneath and is mirrored in the final product. Not a bad job, and yet…

Final thoughts:

The plot, for what it’s worth is as follows:

Professor Spacebo retreats to the holy temple of nature to reflect on his relationship to the Earth, a sacred bond unquestioned until now. He asks himself, “Earth, my home, what will it look like at the end of a telescope?”

Meanwhile, a formal panel has been assembled to examine the testimony of troubled space-pilot Rochester. Rather than being a routine debriefing, the proceedings feel like more of an interrogation to the rattled pilot. His colleagues attempt to calm him, but it is clear they are reluctant to take his statements at face value. In fact he reports nearly unbelievable and almost certainly hallucinatory phenomena, such as a giant baby frolicking in a distant planet’s sentient ocean. A planet where Earth scientists devoted to pure research, and the professionals and politicians devoted to the mineral extraction industry are battling for control. Rochester’s revelations, as they stand, not only ‘lose the battle’ for the scientists posturing for their cause, they also threaten to wipe the slate clean, making the planet irrelevant for all human interests, thus provoking the plant’s abandonment.

Professor Spacebo realizes that he must investigate in person. Overcome with intense feelings for his remaining links, such as his father and friends, he chants out his feelings, freely adapting segments of Walt Whitman’s Blades of Grass in the process. A friend reveals that Spacebo once before had attempted space travel with his own questionable technology, and caused a major disaster in the process. Spacebo blandly manufactures confidence that his adaptations will succeed this second time.

Spacebo’s ‘space-jump’ technology seems to involve capturing travel impetus from trains. On his previous try, it is said that he blew up the underground. This time he’s riding the elevated train, but seemingly with no improvement in outcome- he travels through space, but does he survive?

He arrives somewhere, and meets new and old companions. Perhaps these individuals, like himself, have retreated into their own ruminations, and become phantom wards of a planet with its own intelligence, and agenda. The implication of course, like all good science fiction, is that this is the state of things for us now. We have abandoned active life and exploration in order to play out our mental urges. Some strange planet has diverted us from our purpose of travel by giving us our thoughts, and our wishes.

Or maybe…Spacebo has succeeded in reaching a new world, depicted as a rock party in outer space. Fine conversation, companionship, youth and age aligned, what’s wrong with that? Mere problems can be annihilated from astride a cat dragon in this world of freedom. Let’s go!

What- you didn’t get that? Watch it again!

Blind street musicians: Ho Chi Minh City

From over a year ago:

 

Worthy of a serious recording, if it could be arranged.

Solar Mannequin release

A deep-space pilot brings back troubling testimony from his mission monitoring the solaristics project- a research center orbiting a mysterious planet. An old friend and stake-holding scientist springs into action to save what’s left of this faltering project, the implications of which could shatter what’s left of a struggling democracy; or simply be forgotten…It all hangs on DIY worm-hole technology. Let’s hope the roto-intentional booster has been stabilized!

 

 

This is the first complete edit of this epic re-make of Solaris, shot on location during the Winter and Spring of 2010 in South Philly, locations also shot in Camden NJ, the World Expo, Shanghai, China, and the Presidential Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Enjoy!

Please share the sadness…

One week after I arrived in Vietnam I set out on foot on a quest to purchase various sundry items to outfit myself with, the basics, so I thought, needed to set up house. I remember buying a hairdryer in a bookstore for instance, thinking it would be necessary for my new job, which required me to be fresh and professionally attired at 7:00 am Saturday and Sunday mornings. I never ended up using it, as Saigon is blessedly free from the freezing temperatures that I was used to half the year in the city I had just come from (Philadelphia). In any case had I began teaching a class with wet hair, no one would have actually been bothered as it would have been dry by the scheduled break-time. In other attempts to acclimate myself I also purchased a Chinese chess set that I am still waiting to learn how to play as well as a ceramic teapot that I use nearly everyday. As I wandered around that day I had an iPhone in my pocket that I used to snap shots of all the interesting and bizarre things that I was witnessing, events that I half-guessed were normal everyday affairs in this new place that I was calling home. Among the things that I saw were denim-clad municipal electric workers on bamboo ladders, people transporting all manner of things on motor-bikes, including mannequins and sheet-glass, such as a large mirror, and what was the prize event of the day, in terms of range of detail and sheer illumination into the Vietnamese way of life, a funeral procession, complete with a Prajna carriage and a marching band accompanying the mourners in what was an unmistakable to my American eyes bleed over from New Orleans tradition, the ‘funerals with music’, now known as Jazz funerals. This was the first time I had ever seen whatever I was seeing, so when I turned and saw what I can now refer to as a Prajna boat (having done a little reading on the subject), the thought that popped into my mind was “Buddha bus”. I needed little confirmation to suspect what this ornate and impractical vehicle was intended for, what we call a ‘hearse’ (but with a decidedly different signature), intended to deliver the guest of honor not to a solemn rain-soaked last-rites, but to Nirvana. It seemed as good a photo opportunity as any, although I hesitated with the typical laziness diluted with shyness of a middle-class tourist witnessing something not yet categorized. My split second dawdling lost me some key moments as the band somehow cued into action. In a swirl of photogenic activity I managed to capture a few fumbled shots and turn on the digital recorder that my phone also contained. Now captivated, I followed the bus along as it began to amble down a Saigon lane, carrying the beloved family member to their next place of rest, not realizing that I had formed a second-line to the musicians until some people we passed on the street smiled and pointed at me, hoisting my iPhone almost like a parasol in rhythm to the unmistakable tune of [St. James Infirmary]. After a short promenade the musicians in their captain’s caps and all-white coats and pants hopped onto the bus and it accelerated to the normal pace of traffic on its way to wherever the deceased would be buried.

New Orleans Funeral c. 1991

Saigon Funeral c. 2010

I later asked Vietnamese friends and colleagues about the music that I saw that day but no one suggested a foreign (i.e. American, New Orleanian) source for this. But how can they think this is Vietnamese music? Perhaps there are earlier Vietnamese horn-music traditions that this seeming anomaly was grafted onto, but I was reduced to stretching for a proper explanation.

Here are the facts on the table, as far as I can tell, be they relevant or not. Vietnam and France have a lot of history together, both politically and inevitably culturally, the French for instance introducing Roman letters, coffee and bread into Vietnam. Take iced coffee with condensed milk and banh mi sandwiches (both decidedly Vietnamese in flavor) away from the average Vietnamese and they would be disoriented to say the least, and very few would be able to read the old Vietnamese Sinicized chữ Nôm characters, still visible on some old temples here and there. The French also settled the city of New Orleans, eventually selling it to the growing American nation in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, finalized in 1804. So…is it possible the French provided some sort of cultural conduit from New Orleans to Saigon? Quite a stretch it would seem, as Jazz wasn’t really developed until the beginning of the twentieth century, long after the French played any direct role in the administration of that city. The Catholic church, another item introduced by the French, frowned on the playing of secular music at funerals (in New Orleans), especially so the ‘hot music’ that has come to distinguish these marches, though it can be said that the restrictions of Lent, for example, dictate the excesses of Carnival. Nevertheless, the musical societies that comprise the tradition in America, although inarguably influenced by French  (and Spanish) martial music traditions practiced during the city’s history, are almost uniformly Protestant African American New Orleanians (not French!), a set beyond miniscule in Vietnam’s Saigon which could be said as well of any one of the components of the previous description. Nevertheless the French have long been big Jazz fans since the 1920’s at least and probably played the role of introducing through diffusion Jazz recordings and appreciation in what was then known as Indochina.

There is a also rather large settlement of Vietnamese in New Orleans these days. I found an article that figured the population as around 12,000 in 1990 and described them as largely being Catholics that fled the North of Vietnam to the South during the division of 1954, and then fled further after reunification in 1975, perhaps being drawn to the strong Catholic presence in N.O. as church sponsorship could be a decisive factor in successful immigration. This possible back channel of American culture to Vietnam, through overseas Vietnamese contact, only points to the larger issue of cultural contact between the United States and Vietnam, largely of course through the American support of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam beginning in 1955 and then escalating into the well-known and well-studied conflict that ended in 1975. During these years somehow the “funerals with music” tradition of the marching brass band with military style caps somehow became adopted or melded onto a similar tradition whose sensibilities matched what I am only aware of taking place in one other city in America.

Is it always so, and has it always been so?

A woman I know who runs a tailor shop in HCMC tells me that people didn’t use to have music at funerals. “When did this change?” I asked her.  She seemed a bit puzzled, because she didn’t know. Her recollections it seemed came from her childhood, when she lived in the countryside. The change came when she moved to Saigon although she’s not sure exactly when was the first time she remembers this. Nowadays at least it’s a frequent complaint. Mourners sometimes revel until 5 in the morning, drinking beer at tables while being entertained by Mekong Delta guitar-men (a common feature of Saigon funerals separate from the brass band tradition) who play their strange slinky riffs, similar to the slide of old Delta bluesmen of another river, the Mississippi. My friend calls this “crazy, noisy, country music” and smilingly described its proponents as “xom lao dong (hamlet laborers)”, or common country people. Another friend recently joked “if this funeral lasts much longer, there’ll be another one coming right up” meaning either that he would perish from lack of sleep or be driven to a homicidal state, the funeral outside his window having lasted for 3 days.

As mentioned above, music plays a key role in more than just the final procession in funerals in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly [and informally still] Saigon).

“As with weddings, feasting is an essential part of the funeral process”(189) according to the editors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit ,and along with feasting comes music.

I first began noticing these gatherings on my way home from work. Many motorists would just stop in the street, in a crowd of motorbikes, to watch the musicians play, just like I saw them do in front of electronics shops, to watch an important football match or because a promotional extravaganza was being put on by the store, with a model or some other form of entertainment provided. The Mekong guitarists sometimes play with the guitar flat, recalling the prior stringed instrument, the đán tranh, a Vietnamese board zither.

I am still struggling to learn more about traditional Vietnamese music forms although I can tell you that there is a folk opera tradition called Cải lương as well as a folk chamber music tradition called Nhàc tái tử (the name translating something like skilled amateurs) which undoubtedly share melodies and themes  much like jazz, blues, old-time, Broadway and popular music have interacted in America.

I moved into a house on a residential alley (hem) in District 3 soon after arriving. Fortunately for my neighbors, no household funerals were required during my year there, demographics and luck being as they were. The next year we moved deeper into the residential hems just down the street, near  chợ vườn chuối (the Banana Garden Market). Life here seemed to be more all encompassing, catering to many needs of the residents, like a self-contained mini-city. All manner of vegetables and protein as well as varieties of dried rice are available in and around the traditional market. Thoroughfares through the adjoining alleys provide various types of noodle stands, as well as hair-dresser shops and juice and banh mi carts. There is a pawn shop, various bodegas, as well as small tailor factories, computer and motorbike repair shops as well as people just selling mobile phone credit, all out of the gated first floors of the residences lining long and sometimes twisted alleys, not big enough for a car but wide enough (for the most part) for two motorbikes to pass. Generations of folk live together here, or in houses close to each other, and occasionally one of the old people will die. Several, in fact, seemed to die all at once, or in close proximity to one another right before this past Tet holiday. I speculated on the psychology of giving up one’s last hold on life, and dying peacefully at home, before the New Year could begin, clearing the way for one’s family to make a fresh start. Was this a common practice? My wife insisted I had this wrong, as no one would wish that there families be sad on such an important holiday. Nevertheless, with a few also coming after the turning of the year, we have yet to see such a cluster again, in fact barely any have been held at all in the past few months, with our neighborhood thankfully busy with matters other than dying for the moment.

There are preliminary signals to the neighborhood that someone has died, and a funeral will take place. The family will hang a special flag somewhere in the alley at a crossroads near the deceased’s house. The design is a series of concentric squares starting in the middle with red, then going outwards, white, sky blue, orange, and then deep blue. The final deep blue border has a jagged edge.

The flag reminds me somewhat of the international Buddhist flag and at least one informant also misidentified it to me as such. A side by side comparison reveals that they are not the same. Incidentally, the location I am describing is a quick walk from the Xa Loi pagoda, the center of the Buddhist crisis of the 1960’s, which began when 9 unarmed civiliains were shot in Hue protesting the banning of the Buddhist flag by the South Vietnamese government. The self-immolation of  Thích Quảng Đức  probably the most memorable event of the crisis also occurred at a nearby street-corner. (These events led to the downfall and assassination of President Ngô Đình Diệm after 8 months of such turmoil, through an internal coup.)

Though this flag can be striking once noticed, harder to miss when they occur are the barricades or signs leaning against chairs blocking the alley which ask neighbors to kindly find another way around, as a mourning tent is to be set up. Tables and chairs are placed under the tent for family members, relatives and neighbors to gather for the vigil, until the body is carried away. If the deceased died at home, the coffin will remain. However, according to the editors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit, “when someone dies outside the home, the casket is not permitted to be brought back inside, and the funeral must be conducted with the casket outside the door”(188). A small altar is set up near the casket, usually with a portrait photograph of the deceased, and incense and candles.

A professor of Vietnamese culture, Professor Phan Thi Yen Tuyet, of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City graciously answered my questions further about what typically takes place. According to her, the family often carry out the washing of the body themselves; using herbs and water made fragrant with a special red flower, and then carefully dispose of the water. The deceased is then dressed in a traditional Ao Dai (silk tunic) suit tailor-made in advance for the occasion. The family themselves will wear white ghost-like shrouds over their clothes, or perhaps only headbands of the same rough linen. 9 grains of rice (and sometimes even gold) will be placed in the deceased’s mouth. The coffin will be filled with dried tea to absorb water and odors from the body as it may lie in state for days or as long as a week before the appointed day to journey on arrives. In another curious custom peculiar to South Vietnam a bunch of green bananas may be put on the umbilical region of the corpse, explained either as a diversionary meal for a spirit dog who might otherwise consume some of the deceased, or merely as a natural neutralizer of odors and dangerous substances which might leak from the body. A friend of mine witnessed this once as a child when her grandfather passed away and his body was prepared in the family home.

The contours of Vietnamese spiritual life are revealed and confirmed further by some of the less immediately pragmatic practices that may take place. For instance, the editors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit tell of a practice where bowls of rice porridge are often placed near the threshold between the house and the outside, in order to appease and distract wandering, possibly angry ghosts who seek to find lapses in proper ritual as an entree to cause havoc (like the aforementioned spirit dog), perhaps by stealing items intended for the family ancestor. These angry ghosts (con ma) are themselves the result of an inadequate funeral, perhaps the result of “one of Vietnam’s most poignant contemporary problems…the tens of thousands of soldiers, from both north and south, who died in battle and never received proper funeral rites.” Published in 2003, only 8 years ago, the authors go on to say  “Although the wars are over, this army of wandering souls remains, and scores of families continue to search for the bones of their lost loved ones so they can perform appropriate funeral rites and give their souls their final peace “(191).

Sadly, as the world turned, inexorably, another and another and another person died, including one of our neighbors. The authors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit compare weddings and funerals and after describing typical features, admit “above this deeper structure rests a bewildering number of possible variations”…and “not only have such variations long existed, but new ones keep appearing”(185). I can confirm that features of the funeral that I witnessed did not conform wholly to accounts I found in other sources; an example is the clowning that the bandleader performed, beginning by balancing his cap upright on his forehead. He continued with a plastic stool, then a bicycle, then two bicycles (I kid you not, balanced on his forehead), then 13 red plastic stools arranged geometrically, and then finally ending with a folding metal table balanced on one leg, all on his forehead. I can only guess that the unreal performance was intended to somehow balance the magical forces present in the air, not unlike the lively music played by the brass band accompanying the coffin to the waiting vehicle, or the fighting stance taken by the band member wielding two funeral flags like torches as he led the vehicle in a slow procession briefly on the street before the ceremony ended and basic city-street driving began.

The machinery of the ritual thus arranged itself around us to guide the family and all others swept up in the wake of events through to what is perhaps just another beat in the cycle, where a person who was walking among us becomes a corpse laid in a box, and then carried outside the community to whatever new incarnation, in this particular case, cremated remains and then whatever, if anything, after that. My wife told me that the Vietnamese have a saying, that this is the temporary life, which is over quickly, and then the real life begins. On the final day, when this occurred for one white haired lady we had been accustomed to seeing, a brass band arrived to line the alley adjacent to our house to act as an honor guard. I instinctively grabbed the best camera we had in the house and went out to capture some of the events. The neighbors encouraged and directed me to photograph as fully as possible what was taking place and later I was able to provide them with an album for their memories. Perhaps also my presence as a foreigner gave them luck somehow, as I may have overhead the matriarch of affairs comment to the others after she insisted I come on the bus with them to the cemetery; my language comprehension however is spotty. In any case I hope my being there served to “share the sadness” and dilute the burden, as I had said the day before to the brother-in-law of the woman, as I carried out a custom of giving a small envelope to help defray the costs of all that was taking place; “xin chia buồn”.

Cambodia, your reputation precedes you.

Cambodia was one of the first places I began reading about when I came to South-East Asia. As I sat in the ground floor café of a guest-house in Ho Chi Minh City, getting my bearings, among the sellers that would come in hawking goods would be the booksellers bearing a large stack of books, about 3 feet in height, tied in a package with string. Any eye contact with a spine would prompt them to deftly extract a volume and begin pitching it at twice the price they would actually accept. I was desperate for something good to read, call it an addiction, but balked at the Dan Brown titles and those by Obama and his ghostwriter. Later, I did succumb to some beach books that robbed my life of precious minutes and hours such as the dreadful Memoirs of a … and something about a witch that later became a musical, an equally dreadful and thoroughly sterilized account of what could be, dare I say, magical, but the first book I bought in Vietnam was First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung about a middle class family swept from their life by the total evacuation of Pnom Penh, the capital city, in a revolutionary attempt to return the entire country into a pre-industrial state, even pre-historical. The “organization” behind this putsch used a term for their target state-of-being in their dramatic social engineering gambit, the term was the “Year Zero.” Among the books currently available to the English reader cast into South-East Asia there are quite a lot of books written about the infamous genocide of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, the events that first thrust Cambodia into my life as a household word when I was less than 10 years old. It wasn’t surprising to me that I chose a book with this topic, a book, as it turns out, that is quite a good read. There is a lot of bravery in facing one’s worst memories, and in facing human nature in its starkest terms. This first person account forges a connection between the liberal humanity cherished in places such as an America, where the teller of the story eventually fled to, and the unbelievably appalling and perhaps inexplicable saga of a country insane, occupied by its own leaders and impelled to kill perhaps one out of three of its own people, often with the blow of a hammer to the skull. Although I cannot argue or explain the causes of this catastrophe I recommend not overlooking the effect of Nixon and Kissinger’s decision in 1969 to secretly order 3,500 bombing sorties over Cambodia, because of its use by the North Vietnamese army as a supply trail, resulting in 600,000 civilian deaths among Khmer villagers. Nixon and Kissinger’s carpet bombing campaign of 14 months is now seen by historians as a furious episode in a series of secretive bombing raids that lasted over 11 years that began with the Johnson administration. It is often argued that the outrage of a peasantry who were not even at war with the country whose flag was painted on the B-52 bombers that granted such gifts drove them into the ranks of an otherwise marginal group (the KR) who alone promised opposition to the arrangements as they were. This was in fact the initial explanation given by the KR cadres as they emptied their capital in 1975, that they had intelligence that the Americans would begin bombing it any minute now.

Cambodia is also known the world over for its dramatic ancient monumental cult cities, akin to places like Chichen-Itza in Mexico, the Forbidden City in China, and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Egypt is the oldest of these examples, and China is the most recent, but there is no reason not to include the classic ages of Greece and Rome in this panoply, and surely there are many other standing monuments to compare and contemplate (e.g. Stonehenge). Archaeologists and anthropologists get easily annoyed however if you compare too closely, for several reasons, of which I will name just a few.

Wall inscription at Angkor Thom: Just how old is this place?

For example, there is an obnoxious legacy of disbelief among Western  “discoverers” of such sites outside of Greece and Rome that local people, or their ancestors rather, could have ever been capable of such remarkable and incomprehensible feats of complexity. The structure is then credited to a “lost tribe of Israel” in order to subtly claim ownership. Nine times out of ten however one needs only to look at the pictures carved into the sides to know who built them…though this is hardly foolproof (e.g. the sinoid and negroid features perceived by observers of remnants of ancient Mexican societies such as the Toltec and Olmec). I think speculation on cultural contacts heretofore unverified or unknown is not actually a great crime to science, and can be an aid if done carefully. But only speculate or make claims carefully if you care about science, otherwise, go wild, you are free. This leads to the twin view of course, wedded to this by the sheer awe such places inspire is the notion that the builders were people superior to the Western tradition. Awe tends to silence the chatter of the mind, and bring peaceful stirrings, therefore the creators of such places must have been peaceful New-Age geniuses, no? Again, as those who devote their lives to studying such places have discovered, the tale told by the images and writing etched into these stones is typically of war and bloodshed.

A bad day for the guy lower middle left.

Yet they remain beautiful and awe-inspiring. So should we speculate a golden age of arts and state-supported public works, perhaps even levitated into place? Or one of cruel slavery and forced labor? Such is the dilemma of the pyramidiot, too lazy to read the dusty words of the scholars who have gathered the (credible?) facts. For what it’s worth, here is my nuanced view. The romantics in the debate as a rule want too much, are too invested in redeeming themselves, and want to see what they want to see. The scientists are possibly all secretly romantic (to their own tune perhaps), but are invested of course also in their own success to a very human degree (and thus must focus rather narrowly, as any succesful person must). To me, they (whoever actually works to preserve and understand this heritage) are the heroes  if there is in fact some culture war between the two, even though their commitment to evidence can be a drag. Said in jest of course, because the real obstacle to a pure, unfiltered knowledge of what these temples in Cambodia and the others around the world are really all about (that is, knowing beyond our limitations and errors) is (obviously swinging back to the romantic side) our own capability to perceive. That is, although we might wish it, we are not New-Age qualified enough to know the intent of these structures. Any structure or object is at its core, intent. I learned more about this as a builder myself, listening to old timers talk about how a table or a wall “wants” to do this or that. This kind of builder, by seeing the intent of materials and structures, can direct them into the useful devises that they can become. The other kind of builder builds crooked buildings. As an apprentice I was intrigued, how does a table want anything? So try it yourself. Make a three-legged table, or a table with 4 legs of different lengths, and see what the table “wants” to do. Much has been made of our pre-packaged society and the assumptions that go along with it, that we are the one’s with wants, and the stuff on the assembly lines has no agency to challenge us (up in our baby chair). And a chair doesn’t “want” anything! But only the king baby really thinks that, anyone that actually tends to the stuff knows that the meat, at the very least, wants to rot after death, that the liquid wants to fill a cup or spill from the bottle, that the toy car wants to break or get stuck somewhere, like under a foot or in baby’s mouth. It’s only by taking such “wants” under firm consideration that we can design a good life for ourselves or is this just a way of talking? In any case the monumental structures remain a puzzle because they so clearly speak to life beyond the average day to day. I don’t think anyone disputes that. But what does this non-average life “want”?

Let’s take a case in point, the temple of Bayon at Angkor Thom, Cambodia, the towers of which each have two, or three, but mostly four serene faces clustered and jutting out every which way. There is no official count of towers and faces as the number has changed over time tough currently it is about 37 towers and 200 faces. Observers note a striking likeness between the faces and that of the ruler who ordered they be built (Jayavarman VII). Because they also represent figures in the Buddhist pantheon, further reasoning sees the ruler’s intention of representing himself as an incarnation of Buddha as a facet of his rule. But the deeper intention of the work is to last as long as it did (or be knocked over in places by the force of a growing tree, as it were), and to be as impressive as it is, and to impress in a specific way. Whatever the actual deeds of this Buddhist emperor (a notion puzzling in itself to the Western mind) the sublime inner nature as depicted here, and in the remarkable statue held in the National Museum of Phnom Penh represents a being in possession of a powerful force apart from, but not opposed to, rationality. Tyrant or not, its better than anything the people in my age we call tyrants have done.

Whatever power he possessed in life was tossed off in death, and subsequent rulers and events conspired to convert his temple to Hindu worship, and then later again to a different branch of Buddhism.

The Hindu aspect of this story underlines a cultural fact about Cambodia that separates it from its cousin to the East- Vietnam, though both share Buddhism, historically practiced more thoroughly in Asia outside its legendary home in India. That fact is that Cambodia takes more culturally, in the deepest sense from India, than it does from China, the mother culture of Vietnam and much of Asia. Though Vietnam and China are frequent and bitter antagonists throughout history, they resemble each other too much. But there is nothing Chinese about Cambodian pop music, its unmistakable psychedelic sensibilities indebted forever to the Hindu pantheon. Because of this cultural debt, English seems to come so much easier to those who need to or wish to speak English, such as in the hospitality trade, from receptionists to porters, and even street hustlers. Linguists classify English as Indo-European and here the DNA seems to match, or perhaps it is just the mere fact that the Khmer language is not tonal, like Vietnamese, which makes English and Viet so mutually alien to each other.

But Cambodia and Vietnam are also very much alike, and very close not the least because of their geography. And in fact as it is so often the case in such matters the maps are subject to change throughout history. For example, Saigon has an older, Cambodian incarnation, as Prey Nokor, and all of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta had been inhabited as Kampuchea Krom, or Lower Cambodia until the Vietnamese population surged past that of the fishing villages of the Khmer. An old map I saw also showed an inflated, but northern Vietnamese empire, which seemingly swallowed Laos. The food is nearly the same, the array of fruit at the market the same, the weather the same. Because of the weather and the food, both cultures share a love of sour soup, the Khmer version I found to be even more delicious than the Vietnamese version, its qualities bringing a chemical balance to my body. There is a tree in Cambodia dear to its culture that we call the sugar palm, its fruit being very similar to coconut. My wife asked me for the English word for this fruit. We don’t have the fruit, I told her, so we don’t have a word for it. “Speaking as an American…” I corrected after a little thought, guessing that the British, because of their old habits in overseas adventures let’s say, would have developed more of a reference for this sort of thing. I found later that they sometimes call the fruit “ice-apple”. Because of a saying that wherever that tree grows, there is Cambodia, and because of the history of the border issues between the two countries, the tree is not allowed to grow in Vietnam, for fear a Cambodian claimant for the land will arrive. If a Vietnamese person sees the tree anywhere they will cut it down. At least according to my father-in-law (lets call him Ba), who I was traveling with. My wife told me that he knew the Cambodian language, Khmer. Yes, she said, he can talk to people; listen to the radio, read the newspaper. As a lifelong soldier in the Vietnamese Army, he participated in the invasion of Cambodia to drive Pol Pot from power and was stationed there for 8 years. Returning to Cambodia was like visiting an old friend for him. He freely talked and chuckled with the cab driver on the way from the airport to our hotel in Siem Riep. True to his profession, the cab driver tried to sell us on his services, offering to be a guide today, tomorrow… My wife had already booked a tour for her parents but we were slightly deviating from it, we did have some free time and had already bought a sim card for our phone at the airport, why don’t you just give us your phone number we offered. No, he didn’t have a phone he said. Was it possible? Of course there was a disparity of resources between a tourist on holiday and a working person in an undeveloped country emerging from decades of civil war, but it had long been a gag with me to spot monks on motorcycles with gadgets in their hands, mountain villagers in traditional clothes gathered around a glass cell-phone counter in the market, and so forth.

trust me- she just got off a cell phone call

It seemed that the world had already passed the cell-phone gap for the most part, but still, not everybody wanted or had one. He continued to gently press us to go to this tourist village he knew, the tickets were $12 and he would take us there and back for $11. Sometimes while traveling you just have to let yourself be hustled if it can roll off your back and you’ll see something new, but this was mild highway robbery with dubious bait. I didn’t even bother to get angry, the key I am learning to becoming a good bargainer, but just blandly turned him down. We had a few hours to kill so a quick nap was what we wanted anyway, to have the power to enjoy whatever came after. As he dropped us at the hotel it was the cab-driver who began to get angry; that we were declining to allow him to set our itinerary. “You can’t even arrange one afternoon,” he challenged to me. Sorry, I said, sorry you don’t have a phone. I have a phone he retorted, but I don’t want to give out my number, people have just taken my number before and they don’t call me, they just chuck it in the bin. Yeah so what? -I shrugged. I think this was his third explanation so far so I don’t think he actually had his own phone, maybe relatives or girlfriends or associates he could sponge off perhaps, but it was also possible I was encountering some kind of pre-capitalist sentiment of thin skin and hurt feelings at the lack of personal relationships between partners, where the money went his way, simply because we had more of it. The battle of don’t call us, we’ll call you was to go his way in his thinking, he would take our number, and we could sit around and wait- take that barang. I don’t know, sometimes I can be sympathetic, but his way of doing business wasn’t winning me over. Several times later that day I would have called him in fact had I been able but it was actually for the best. Ba had no trouble negotiating with the drivers of the more common way of getting around, the tuk-tuk, or motorcycle driven carriage, which was in fact much more pleasant for me than the closed space of the automobile. Did Ba learn Khmer from the Army or just on the street? – I asked my wife. He just learned, she said. Listened to people, wrote down first what it sounded like in Vietnamese writing, than asked people and more and more begin learning the local script. It wasn’t surprising when I began to consider his bilingual daughter, my wife. He carried himself in an investigative way, seeming to poke anything new, with his finger or a twitch of his eyebrow.

holiday in Cambodia

Because of the various tides of the civil war, there are quite a noticeable array of land-mine victims (and land-mines waiting to go off) in Cambodia, men riding bicycles with one leg, riding motorcycles with one or no legs, walking around with the aid of rugged home-made crutches. Here and there you might notice other limbs missing. At Ankgor Thom we saw a group of landmine victims musicians playing along a path to one of the major temples. They had a tip-jar with a polite sign in several languages as well as cds and dvds for sale. Traditional Music Bands Victim of Land Mines/ We play benefit and find out the generous ladies and gentleman to support for daily family’s life and for the future of our children at school. We expectancy your great helps and supportes to us. We all wish you to gets everything what you desirous.

you don't need a foot to pluck a string or sing

At Angkor Wat later that day I overheard a guide mentioning the barbarities of the Khmer Rouge past to his European client as they walked along. I have a habit of never hiring guides at Museums and places like that. I like to stock up on the facts off-site, and just follow my whims when I’m there. I suspect I’m missing something and consider changing my ways, so from time to time I’ll lurk in the background or tag along on a conversation and then split long before they can begin rightfully charging me. Like with so many other negotiations part of it isn’t the actual price, it’s the laugh in your face sucker deal that I am afraid of, no matter how much the actual money means to me. Living in Asia has taught me that I have to move beyond that but I also find that guides anywhere sometimes charge real money, so it matters whether you are getting a con man or a scholar, or something in between. In any case the foreigner had a solemn serious face but a stern absent stare, tolerating the comments but wanting to move on. The guide was calm and articulated his point, the ‘them’ of the KR, and the ‘us’ the country that had suffered, and then prevailed. This perhaps is a key part of the identity of that project. Who was it that did ‘this/ that’? Was it ‘them’, the KR, brutal murderers, or was it murderous peasants, or murderous communists, or murderous Khmer people, or the murderous developed world, the US, the French, and the entire industrial world that worked together and dropped bombs on a people who were not even claimed to be involved in the supposed conflict at hand, that is, the entire murderous human race. And yet, the comments I heard that provoke these contemplations were just a story that I overheard being told while we were all walking in a peaceful garden, a story that could be swatted away like a mosquito that emerged from a shadow, a story that maybe wasn’t even real, told by a nervous suspect in the docket pardoning his relatives in front of a sleeping judge. But the story was real, and as I am writing this and as he was telling it (by my impression actually a sweet intelligent looking young man) a tribunal was sitting in Phnom Penh and attempting to adjudicate the fate of the surviving high-ranking participants in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, where convicted prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch was providing testimony against his superiors. There are four defendants in the case, known as Case 002 in the court of the ECCC, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (Extraordinary Chambers or ECCC), and under trial are: Nuon Chea, aged 84, former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, commonly known as Brother Number Two; Ieng Sary, aged 85, former Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs; Khieu Samphan, aged 79, former Head of State; and Ieng Thirith, aged 78, former Minister of Social Affairs. These are, it is said, the sole surviving “Big Fish” and it goes without saying that the legitimacy of these proceedings threaten the tenuous balance between glassy amnesia, and these events “really” being dealt with (with many suggesting a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process as a more productive alternative).

On the bus from Siem Riep to Phnom Penh, while going through what seemed to be the first town outside Siem Riep, Ba told us to look out for a statue of an elephant stepping on a tiger. Minutes later we passed by such a statue and he was gleaming with pride at remembering his way around. You lived near here? I asked him in Vietnamese (Ba da song gan o day?) He gave me an affirmative shake of his head and after we passed through the town he pointed at an orchard on the side of the highway. My wife translated his account for me, that the Vietnamese Army camped here along the road, and the KR cadres camped on the other side of the orchard and would come out at night, to fight (in her idiosyncratic usage of English, she referred to them as “the Pol Pot team”).

Also along the way we saw huts on poles, baroque temples, an insect market (with spicy fried tarantulas for sale), and a riverside dock with hammocks for the comfort of bus travellers at their rest stop. In the province closer to the Angkor temples, there didn’t seem to be any waterworks for dry season agriculture. Such sites sorely test the romance of the 1st world onlooker: the despair of the idle, blankly staring out of the window or door of a shack, when so much trash and ripe fruit is lying about. We want the people to be busy, striding in traditional clothes, strong and smiling. Isn’t that what they want also? Would that the targeted aid for this type of thing create a durable infrastructure for agriculture rather than gilding the cell phones, VIP cars and toilets of the final recipients of these buckets of cash. These types of characters roar down these highways in their Lexus SUVs, driving small engine motorbikes and bicycles off the road and playing chicken with buses transporting foreign tourists.

mmm, spiders...

Back at Angkor Wat my wife retold a story to me that Pol Pot had used Angkor Wat as offices, maybe even filled the magnificent pools in the interior courtyard with bodies. Although seemingly ghoulishly plausible, this story I believed to be merely a contrivance to put the two prominent themes of Cambodian life together for out-siders.

Such rumours can be trifles, but they can also have immense power, and no less so in South Asia. Such a rumour caused a riot in January 2003 in Phnom Penh, when a newspaper printed a claim that a Thai soap opera actress said something along the lines that (quoting from Wikipedia) “ Cambodia had stolen Angkor, and that she would not appear in Cambodia until it was returned to Thailand”. No less than the prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, repeated and denounced the accusations, insulting the actress by saying she was “not worth a few blades of grass near the temple”. Radio and print media echoed the charges, stoking centuries of simmering between these neighbors who have warred before (perhaps the meaning of the elephant/tiger statue?). The Cambodian government banned all Thai television from being broadcast; finally a mob approached the Thai embassy and destroyed it along with many major and minor Thai-owned businesses. There was never any evidence that she had actually said this and in fact she strongly denied it, in the end the Cambodian government had to pay to rebuild the embassy. It is unclear however whether they ever ponied up more than half of the promised 6 million dollars.

Due to this reputation of violence I perhaps over-reacted (just in terms of fascination and adrenaline, with no clear outward response) to something I saw when walking along a street in central Phnom Penh, someone pointing a hand-gun into the face of a young kid and clicking it off  as a gag- sure, I could tell it was a plastic toy by the sounds it made as I walked along my path, but for a few seconds  I was riveted in this vision of the lawlessness of Phnom Penh from the ‘90’s that I have read about. I have also read that it’s different now, but how should I know?

young boy given to be raised in a temple/ at angkor wat

As I maybe mentioned already, there is a large body of work written about South-East and South Asia (and maybe anywhere) by English-speaking expats who have been there for whatever reason and just had to record their experiences for posterity, as moved as they were and are. I concur, it’s a crazy place (to me) and maybe one day I will kill a tree in offering to this heap. I don’t have the depth of knowledge to catalogue all these types, but among the sub-genres (and surely there are more) are the foreign correspondent types (like the brilliant Dispatches,by Michael Herr, with the most full account of lost photographer and pin-up Sean Flynn and others such as Dana Stone and Tim Page, as just a bonus in the mix of an unforgettable vision, perhaps crystallizing the understanding of the war more famously portrayed in Apocalypse Now), the home-seekers (such as Andrew Pham with his Catfish and Mandala) , the decadence seekers (or sex-pats) who I think should more be represented by someone like Somaly Mam, rather than the pathetic sleazes who typify this sub-genre, with her first person account of being sold into sex-slavery as a very young orphan girl (the road of lost innocence), and her struggle to form a rescue operation as she came of age, and the violent border-line criminals most gloriously portrayed in Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which in fact for the most part is a fantastic read, until he transforms himself into a macho full-fledged Mafioso member, among his many different manifestations in the book, and begins to follow the lunk-headed logic that typifies so many of the authors of the lesser of these books, where you might start to fathom, “ah, this is how you go to prison”.

As alluded to above, ex-pats in Phnom Penh sometimes can have a seedy image, at least judging by the literature that they themselves generate. One of these writers who has done his part as a flag-bearer of this line is Amit Gilboa, in his Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja, which is seemingly uniformly denounced by old-timer types on forums such as Thorntree and Lonely Planet, for a variety of reasons, including that the author when writing the book was not really cognizant enough of the local scene to realize that one of the low-lifes that he was portraying was the English tutor of a high government official (which seemingly would have made his book even more brazen). I pawed my way through a dictionary in the 4th grade, looking for dirty words, so I’m not above leafing through a lurid tome, though as I said above, the account by Somaly Mam is crucial to really understanding the gears of this background. Whatever their true and aggregate habits, expats in PP seem to be at least a literate bunch, at least judging by the haul I made at a hole in the wall bookstore I happened by. The store boasted of more Haruki Murakami I have ever seen on one shelf, that’s comparing to both London and Philadelphia, matched only by the virtual super-sellers on-line. After plunking down a twenty for a stack I could reasonably put in my luggage, I had to spend my change on a collection of essays by Luc Sante on the table in front of me, an original no less, as so many books are indeed pirated photocopies.

Later that night, at the Foreign Correspondents Club with Ba, we had ice cream and beer on the balcony over-looking the Mekong river while he told us tales of an empty city. Did he participate in the initial seizure of Phnom Penh? No, he came there later from time to time. To him the war was fought to stop the Khmer Rouge from killing every last person . He emphasized how the KR army in the fields required no specific approval, no records, no command structure or bureaucracy whatsoever to kill. All executions were pre-approved. Ba described the aftermath occupation as being complicated by a king that spoke out of both sides of his mouth, while looking straight ahead. Finally the international involvement was such that the Vietnamese Army could do no more to help, and went home.

Walking back to the luxury hotel where the tour had put us up (getting a hefty discount no doubt as our wing was under construction, and had no direct elevator to our floor) which I thought of as “snake-world”, after the real name, Naga World (Naga can just mean snake in many sanskrit related languages but more famously are mythical King Cobras or snake creatures in both Hindu and Buddhist lore; in Cambodia apparently, according to wikipedia, the Naga are “a reptilian race of beings who possessed a large empire or kingdom in the Pacific Ocean region”, Ba pointed to what used to be a bridge a mere 30 metres from us. Just last year, about 350 people died there during a festival, stampeding after perhaps another rumour set off an already intensely dangerous situation during a water festival. After that, the government destroyed the bridge and built two new modern ones.

I can’t understand all this, the smiling, kind intelligent faces of the people I saw around me, yet how guarded I was against becoming angry, much more than in Vietnam, where people regularly cut in front of me in line rendering me indeed as an angry ghost. I’ve read a few books and articles about Cambodia, I have been a brief visitor. I have no choice but to let it be a puzzle, a puzzle of complexity.

My tale is a normal tale of Cambodia; these are all well-known facts. I have added little or nothing to the discussion, including these final thoughts. Cambodia has invaded my mind, my imagination, my dreams, and I will return. Cambodia, your reputation precedes you.

The Spastic Rats: New Interview with Kenny Hill


When I was in about the 11th grade in high school, one of the English teachers suggested that I write a piece for the youth-page of my local newspaper. My credentials were that I was a dreamy juvenile poet who had been somewhat radicalized by reading On the Road. I had doodled in class extensively and had undergone multiple musical awakenings. In other words, although I had evidenced some creative output I felt rather suspect as a legitimate source of the news. Comparatively what my peer journalists corresponded on in said youth-page is mostly lost to memory as well as history though I would hazard a guess that there were a lot of articles about the 4-H organization and the county fair (nothing wrong with that!). I felt giddy with responsibility when I proposed an article on a local group of guys that I knew of that played in a punk rock band. I felt that what they were doing was both vital and entertaining and so a legitimate subject for a short piece of writing. Nevertheless when the adults in the chain of permission blandly accepted and encouraged me to just turn it in I felt somewhat surprised and incapacitated by the freedom. I don’t think I had whatever it took to present such a hybrid of hometown gee-whiz and leather rebellion- another way of saying I was a youth accustomed to being paralyzed by ideas, as often as I was enlivened and charged by them. I was about fifteen or sixteen years old at the time.
The members of the band that I talked to were enthusiastic and answered my questions without hesitation. The basic thrust of the article started forming- friends meet and become excited about the freedom promised by a new trend. They begin copying songs (“covering” them), then start writing their own. They brand themselves with a hand-drawn logo and play music for whoever will listen. Paragraph, paragraph, paragraph, picture. Easy enough, and yet I stalled. The editor of course, used to working with kids, had seen it before. She called and asked about my intentions, presciently gauging that actually getting copy out of me was hopeless, and withdrew. Ned, a member of the band, expressed bitterness at my excited but powerless posture- “Are you ever going to do it?” – he demanded. Was it that sneer that dragged me back into this mess more than 25 years later? Now living overseas in a country strange enough to me that I clearly should be posting reports, communicating my findings, engaging in journalism in other words, I find this old assignment sitting on my desk so-to-speak, still not so easy to file.
This wasn’t the first time I had tried to write about punk for a square audience. I had taken on the subject in an earlier paper that I submitted to an English class in prep school. The class had been taught by a renegade teacher who quit mid-course, due quite frankly to her immaturity. Before she exiled herself in an outburst to one of the school heads she had been trying to seduce the class into Ayn Randism and personally counseled me to take up the cause of greatness, in the terms that she saw. After she left I carried on with this campaign (and my assignment) by researching Punk via the only media I could get my hands on- found blurbs in Time magazine and Newsweek on microfilm at the public library. I compared it to the French Revolution via Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables I believe. The replacement teacher, a stayed trustee of the school placed over our class to calm the disruption caused by the confusing absence of our previous leader, indicated that she thought my topic ridiculous and unworthy of the initial approval it had received. My grade I remember as a C, maybe a C+.
I no longer remember the specific parallels I drew between Victor Hugo’s wordy tome and conditions in London in 1977 but perhaps it was the contrast and mixture between the noble and the criminal in Jean ValJean, a.k.a. number 24601 (a man of assumed identities) as well as the backdrop of revolution(although not actually the French Revolution) and barricades in the streets. Although punks didn’t mass in collective actions, they saw themselves as street enemies of the established order and thrilled at civil unrest such as the Notting Hill Carnival Riots of 1976 when Caribbean youth turned on the police and kept them at bay for hours (see “White Riot” the Clash).
The Spastic Rats represented a new iteration of Punk- its arrival in the small towns and suburbs of America. Roughly speaking, the Sex pistols Johnny Apple-seeded through a string of cities in the U.S. in a fabled tour that planted the first wave of such culture. Of course, seminal artists in the U.S., especially in key centers such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles pre-date and perhaps have paternity over many strains that followed. However, examples such as The Stooges (with Iggy Pop), from Ann Arbor, Michigan, demonstrate that research in counter-cultural and innovative primitive music took place in less urban settings as well. This all occurred in an ongoing and reciprocal cultural exchange between the cousin cultures of England and America. There is no doubt however that the excitement generated by the spectacle of the Sex Pistols in America ignited a vast prairie of dry brush. Kids living near cities such as D.C., Austin, Los Angeles and San Francisco became aware of new possibilities, and grafted them on to old traditions of garage-bands that already had bloomed before throughout the preceding decade. After a few more years of such experimenting, these and ever generating new waves of kids began infiltrating the urban nexuses and bringing the germinating pollen detritus of such culture back to their suburban perches. In a crucial, grueling follow-up to this process, the members of Los Angeles’s Black Flag got into a van and visited it seemed nearly every out of the way city and town that they could find, playing to perhaps handfuls of people at a time, but in a process that, like the Sex Pistols, produced an artist or a band out of nearly every spectator-participant.
The Spastic Rats bit onto this wave in the early 1980’s as high-school students living, in most cases at least, with their parents, and aspiring both to glory at the battle-of-the-bands in the school auditorium, as well as in fields beyond.
My hometown, Annapolis, was an hours car ride from the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. Interstate 95, which runs from Florida to Maine, and which also passes through the major cities called out on James Brown’s classic song, “Night Train”, such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Richmond, has an on and off ramp here, at the gates of this federal enclave. The folk artist songwriter Leadbelly described D.C. as a “Bourgeois Town”, unkind to folks like him. It was and remains a puzzling city that I can hardly begin to unravel. Deserving of praise and scorn, it shares countless features common to all cities. For that reason, as well as the particular features that make D.C. unique, those of us in Annapolis that cared were blessed by our proximity. My peers and I began traveling here when we could to soak in the storied strain of punk, both native and alien, that was cultivated here.
What follows is an account, given long after the fact, of that experience. I have more to say about what it was like to do all this, but let’s take a break and hear from one of the participants that I talked to this past holiday season, in the tail end of 2011.

I recently contacted an old friend, Kenny Hill in order to continue some work I was doing documenting the story of a band from my hometown. Kenny was the drummer for that band, The Spastic Rats and had also started a small record label, “Vermin Scum”, in order to release the music of that band. The label took on a life of its own after another local musician entrepreneur offered to shepherd it forward and Kenny agreed. Kenny also found more fame himself anchoring the rhythm for emo-core pioneers ‘The Hated’. During our conversation we noted the onset of his being invited to join the Hated and also discussed his feelings about the record label and its ‘part II’ history. We focused however on what it felt like to be the first or of the first in a small town to adopt the wave of ‘Hard-core’ as it grew out of the swamp of youth culture as it existed in America in the early ‘80’s.
Posiedon of the Pins
Kenny invited me to visit him in his new digs, a comfortable trailer he had recently purchased, positioned in a small community just south of Baltimore across the Patapsco river, Kenny was in the process of re-orienting his life after the loss of his beloved mother who he had spent considerable time with as a care-giver. His new home was decorated with framed Scottish poems and illustrated scenes of Scotland, a heritage closely held by Kenny. An antlered deer skull hung over his hearth area, which also contained Christmas stockings.


Kenny caught me up on his most recent past while his small dog, Terra, zealously sought attention and simultaneously guarded us against anyone outside who might press against our interests. This reminded me of the days gone by at Kenny’s mother’s house when Kenny would welcome any and all, despite the fuss put up by his mother’s dachshunds. Kenny brought out his file on the band, showing me old photos and a hand-made layout circa 1986 for a double album with another local band (Disdain) that was never released. Kenny and I had spoken already via e-mail about these days but I thought an in-person interview might paint a more detailed picture of what exactly went on.


As Kenny had clarified in an earlier interview, our hometown, Annapolis, had had numerous weird music scenes before we came up. Bands such as the Monuments and Judy’s Fixation perhaps would be classified as some permutation of Punk or New Wave. Bands like these, however, populated by seasoned bohemians, operated in a terrain far beyond the high school landscape where our story begins. Punk and New Wave, while pre-dating 1977, erupted into mass exposure in Britain in an often told tale of media shenanigans and manufactured and real outrage. The average American suburban youth had had little chance to form an opinion of this style and music until the launch of MTV, and also billboard chart penetration by rock/new-wave cross-over (i.e. skinny) artists such as The Cars in the early ‘80’s. As Kenny will attest, the response was often visceral, and taken as a threat against a bed-rock way of life that was anthemic in its musical form.
Kenny: I hated Punk Rock when I started going to boarding school. I was into Skynrd. You know, AC-DC, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath… I went into a room at school where someone was playing a Sex Pistols record. I remember grabbing the record and throwing it out the window. You know…”Fuck this”… I would see guys like Pete Boynton in Annapolis with pins. Gary Numan, The Cars, Devo. I was laughing at him. I thought it was a stupid style. I hated Disco and I hated Punks. “Play it Right!” But Devo are fucking great now. For that matter I can also listen to and enjoy Disco.
I went to boarding school for four months in 10th grade in a small town in Pennsylvania north of Philadelphia. I got thrown out. It didn’t last half a year. There were kids from New York there playing all that music, Television, the [Talking] Heads, Richard Hell, The Ramones. I was into guitar-oriented rock and then it finally dawned on me that that’s what punk was. About a week after I threw the record out the window, it stuck. I heard something…and it was like, “what is this?” It was the Buzzcocks or The Ramones or something and it was guitar-oriented rock and it clicked on me.
Before I went to school I had been hanging with Matt Pumphrey and sharing in our same musical tastes. When I got back, changed, it turned out that he had changed too. He had discovered Art-Rock and was listening to Genesis and stuff like that. I played him some of my stuff and he played me some of his stuff and we were both like, [twists his lip] “hrmm”, not convinced you know. He was like, ‘this is nonsense’ to my Buzzcocks and Ramones and I was…’okay, this is fine…. A little boring and indulgent, but fine… to his Genesis record.
Me: Was that the Pumphrey of ‘Pumphrey’s field?
Kenny: Yeah, you know the Faction fiasco. The biker’s stole everything. We were lucky to get out alive. His family owned the woods up there on Route 2. There was only Anne’s foot-longs [a hot-dog stand] there on the highway.
Me: And that was their house back in the woods?
Kenny: That was the Pumphrey family home. His Mom got rich off [selling] that.
Me: So that’s Marley Station Mall now.
Kenny: Yeah, his mom did some thing where they wanted to buy the whole thing as farm-land but she said, no, you could build this number of houses here and held out for that rate and finally got it and now she’s rich.
[The ‘show’ or party that was organized at this small non-operating family farm provokes memories in myself and others that were there, such as fellow Rat Ned Westrick who cites it as formative. “That’s when I knew I was on to something.” In the free-wheeling creative style that hardcore kids employed at the time a touring band from California, the Faction (with skateboard legend Steve Caballero) was hosted along with the Rats and another local band, Fit of Rage, (that I was a member of) in a field in some woods that were part of a sequence of suburbs that linked Annapolis and Baltimore. Parts of the stretch retained a country style attitude. At some point during the day a local biker gang smelled a party and showed up, demanding to hear Freebird from Lynrd Skynyrd. Dan (the guitarist of Fit of Rage and later The Hated and Ida) was in fact a guitar prodigy who could produce licks at will. He would tease them with the opening bars of Stairway to Heaven and then with a wink and a cue we would tear into one of our thirty second thrash compositions, at the end of which they would go “no, no, no. This time, play it ‘agin, RIGHT!” The bikers ended up drinking a lot of beer and stealing the generator that was used to power the PA system. ]
Me: Tell me more about the early days of punk and hardcore in Annapolis.
Kenny: It was purer then.
Me: Pure how?
Kenny: There was no crossbreeding back then. You would see someone with pins and hair and go right up to them and be like ‘who are you’ ‘what are you into’ ‘are you into this[band], are you into this’. I met Scott Bickle that way, he was walking down Hillsmere Drive with his girlfriend and they had on leather and like a Sid and Nancy look. I pulled my car over and went right up to them. I met Kabler the same way.
Annapolis sucked. It was a tourist town with a lot of rich people. It had sailboats and rednecks. There were a couple scrubbly redneck gangs. The Pharaohs, the Majestics. They hated punk. A couple people got beat up. It was the ‘city of the dead.’
At that time, Punk was seen as Adam and the Ants [a decidedly British fashion-conscious rhythmic music experiment organized by former Sex-Pistols manager Malcom McClaren]. Teddy Rayhart had been to ‘Frisco and seen Mubahey Gardens[a seminal nightclub that booked early American hardcore icons]. He was aware of shit really happening. From trips to D.C., probably to Commander Salamander [an early New-Wave boutique and meeting point in the Georgetown neighborhood and shopping district of D.C.], I saw a flyer for Black Market Baby and The Ramones. We went to that. Then I saw a flyer for The Dead Kennedys. It said ‘Dead Kennedys and 4 D.C. bands’ and didn’t list the bands. So we went to that show. I was there in paint spattered pants and a t-shirt with greased hair roaming around while the other bands played, waiting for DK. to play. I had DK tunnel vision.
Me: Who were the other bands?
Kenny: It was Double O, Red C, Government Issue, and…mmm… can’t remember the other one .
Me: So it was the lost legendary era of D.C. hardcore.
Kenny: Yeah, I didn’t get the local thing quite yet. I was just focused on Jello [Biafra, the lead singer of the popular San Francisco band Dead Kennedys]. He had on this t-shirt that said “Libyan Hit Squad” because supposedly at that time there was a group of Libyans roaming around the U.S. trying to take out Reagan. Jello always pointed out all the crazy but important stuff that was going on. We had the [Berlin] Wall then, Russia, the Bomb. Jello was a trip, unbelievable.
Me: Where did you get your fashion tips?
Kenny: From the Clash. There was this magazine/book thing at the Record Exchange called New Wave, from England that had all these pictures of the Clash. Paul Simonon [the bassist for The Clash] designed their clothes, throwing paint on them and shit. He grabbed things from different eras and had stuff sewn. In a way the Clash were some Monkees band, fabricated by a cash oriented manager type Svengali like the Pistols and McClaren.
Me: Everyone knows the story about McClaren but how do you figure the Clash?
Kenny: Bernie Rhodes stole Joe from the 101ers and put them together, and said “Write about what you know, Society, living on the dole, living in a squat.”
Me: So how did you meet the other guys?
Kenny: Tristan [Lentz] was playing in this band Jade with Les [Lentz(his brother)] and Butch Powell, playing Judas Priest and Rush. They were playing this party and I had heard that Tristan was into the Sex pistols. I started heckling him to play a few chords of that ’God Save the Queen’ and he did. But it was a few years before we got together.
Me: When did you first play with the Rats and who was the first line-up?
Kenny: The first line-up was Tristan, Gregg Speight, Richard Whelan, and Pat Moynihan on drums. I first played with them in ’83 or ’84.
Me: Were the Rats your first band?
Kenny: I had played some with Jim McPherson around ’81-’82. Jim had this long-haired hippie scene and was into the Stooges. He also played Damned songs and 3 or 4 originals, like “Blow Nun”.
Me: Yeah I think he found out about the Damned because they covered the MC5 song “Looking at You”. I also remember the Slugs originals “Cold, Wet and Dead” about the 14th St Bridge plane wreck as well as “Schizophrenia Blues.”
Kenny: This was even before they had the name Platinum Slugs. We played in my room a few times before the Rats were like ‘let’s ask Kenny to play.’
Our first gig was at John Thompson’s house. Gil Cochran [a local alderman] came by and was like “You’re great!” It was around 5,6 or 7 p.m. Maybe there were 10 people there. We had six songs, all covers. We played them over and over.
Me: Who did you cover?
Kenny: The Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Fear, the Germs, one or two Clash songs, like 1977, although Tristan had a hard time with them.
Me: What was the first original?
Kenny: “Armageddon’s coming Down.” I remember writing the lyrics to that.
Me: What inspired that?
Kenny: [Pause] I don’t know. Some bleak PR [punk rock] outlook. [laughs] I also wrote the music to “Swine” and then Ned and Tristan ran with it. It was kind of a rip-off of a Black Flag song I think.
After a while we realized it was easier to write our own songs than try to sound like somebody else. Even at Pumphrey’s field though we were still playing Minor Threat. [Our band F.O.R. also covered a local band that day, performing Government Issue’s “Sheer Terror”.]
It wasn’t until Ned joined the band that we did originals emphatically. He had lots of lyrics and musical ideas.
Me: So what was it like to be a Rat? What did you do?
Kenny: We would meet at school and then go [hooking school] to Shaw’s Market to get liquor and find a place to lay low. [Note: Shaw’s Market was a corner grocery store operated by a Chinese family who for whatever reason allowed liquor sales to some local youth.] At some point in the day we would start practicing or go cause further trouble.


Me: Didn’t you risk getting discovered playing loud music in the middle of the day?
Kenny: We would usually wait until the afternoon to play but occasionally we would play earlier thinking everyone was at work. We did get caught a few times. We would also hang out and loiter downtown. There was that whole Hooligans controversy [a brief editorial campaign in the evening paper depicting a downtown youth element as Sha Na Na type greaser menaces].
Me: Oh Yeah.
Kenny: Like 3 or 4 kids standing around looking slightly different completely upending Izod sensibilities. Necessitating editorials and cartoons. Man there was nothing else going on in that town.
Me: I guess I was part of that downtown hooligan scene. That’s how I met everyone. Any other notable adventures?
Kenny: Yeah there was this fascist gated community in Eastport that we rampaged through one night, stealing liquor, an American flag, and a wet suit from their cabana/club-house. I still have the flag. The police questioned Richard and Gregg but we got away with it. We also spray-painted six- foot tall tags of the Dead Kennedys and Fear on this 100’ sea wall to assault the local sailing community. You could see it all the way from the Naval Academy. You could only see it from the water so it remained there for a long stretch.
Me: What did your Mom think of the band?
Kenny: Mom always encouraged me. She bought my drums and wanted me to play bagpipes. She brought me to lessons for both. I eventually bowed to some unseen peer pressure on the bagpipes and stopped playing. I regret it to this day.
Me: The band played at your house, right?
Kenny: Yeah.
Me: What about some of the other parents?
Kenny: Mostly they were cool with it I guess. Tristan’s mom however was a complete psycho head case at first. She was like, “This punk-rock shit is villainous- it’s nasty, you need to throw it away!” Then she started taking Valium and switched. She became supportive of Les also [who started doing sound and opened a recording studio in the basement] and she just became cool. You’d go into the kitchen and there would be Pink Floyd playing and you would just listen to it with her. She didn’t like Punk, me, us, and then she became a completely different person. It turned out she was a nice lady.
Ned lived with his Dad in Arnold [a community near Annapolis on the way towards Baltimore]. His Dad was quiet. Ned’s Mom lived with her boyfriend in Takoma Park [a community that is partially in Maryland and partially in D.C.] I think that Gregg lived with Ned for a while.
Gregg, now Byron, never got along with his parents very well. At sixteen or seventeen he was ready to move out and deal with the world. He left here and went to New York. He was all about that he wanted to act. He was waiting tables, doing the audition thing. He went through a couple reincarnations and now he’s kinda cornered the market as it were on… I still don’t understand exactly what it is that he does. [Byron Speight owns and operates IB Creative Inc., a company that specializes in video production, podcast marketing and website design]. He’s pretty successful now but in the band he wasn’t too great a guitarist. It was, you know, turn him down, fade him to the left, like Joe Strummer- a chugging monotony.
Me: I’m sure many guitarists would enjoy being compared to Joe Strummer.
Kenny: It’s like, yeah, you know there’s a rhythm guitar in there but its not doing much.
Me: So you guys never really toured. How many hometown parties do you think you played?
Kenny: Two or three.
Me: I’m sure it was more than that. You definitely played in Baltimore countless times.


Kenny: Yeah, at the Marble Bar and mostly at the Loft. Maybe 5 times. We played at this place in Pittsburgh, the Electric Banana. For some reason that felt successful. That went well. We wanted to play a Spring Nectar so we drove up to the Institute one day.
[The Spring Nectar was an annual party in Annapolis held at a local private residence dubbed The Institute because of the way the space was arranged and run. The host was a well-known eccentric who collected bicycles and ‘60’s era Dodge and Plymouth cars among other things. The Nectar party was always an all-night bonfire that attracted a wide swath of types.]
Me: Was that when the Institute was at Weems Creek?
Kenny: Yeah. Anyway we drove up and there was this old man raking leaves. We couldn’t tell whether it was Sam or not. We said we wanted to play the party and there was some kind of cryptic exchange and then we just had to leave. We couldn’t tell what had happened. Anyway like a week later Sam showed up at the Exchange [The Record Exchange was a used vinyl shop owned by a dentist that Kenny and many other members of the local original music scene clerked at]. He asked to hear a tape or something and just straightened the whole thing out. We also played a College Park Party.
Me: Oh yeah, I remember that place. I think they were friends of Jim’s [Jim McPherson].
Kenny: Anyway we finally got a gig in D.C. at this placed called “The Complex”. It was with Dain Bramage with one Dave Grohl as the drummer [Grohl, who got his start in the D.C. scene in Dain Bramage and Scream, later went on to fame in Nirvana and the Foo Fighters]. We hadn’t been playing and I was out of shape. Ned reprimanded me for playing too slow at the end of the show so I freaked out and kicked the drums off the stage. Danny and Eric were there and asked me to join The Hated. So we practiced for a week and one week later we recorded “What Was Behind”. That was the end of ’86.
Me: So was that the end of the Rats?
Kenny: No, they played on for a year without me. Ned was getting into Venom and Celtic Frost and eventually moved on to do Iron Christ with Tristan and Scott Treude. Richard joined the Army. Byron as I said moved to New York.
Me: Okay. So what does it all mean?
Kenny: I don’t know. I felt it at the time. I was really into Jimi and Janis and basically anything that could be construed as protest music. From Sabbath to Country Joe and the Fish. I always thought how cool it would have been to have been a part of the hippie thing, you know, an active movement. I was never political until Punk Rock. It made me think about the environment, war, politics, everything.
With the music that I was into prior to PR you couldn’t go the Capital Center and meet Robert Plant or Jimmy Page. You could go to the 9:30 club, go up to the stage and meet people though. It was music for people and people for music. All music is basically made between four walls and we took those walls and made a community center.
All these zines popped up in every major center in America. We all collected flyers. Granted, the arts were a little different, just cut and paste and go Xerox down at the Minuteman Press. It was so much more grassroots, that shit’s never going to happen again in this era of the computer.
[Punk] was entertaining. It was pseudo-intellectual. It made you think. It made me want to go out and research things.
Me: What about Reagan?
Kenny: God man fucking Ronald Reagan. I was primarily political through Punk Rock. If I had known what was coming. There were so many songs about war. But we got off easy, without many wars for us. Then Bush came on and it was back to cowboy. I got tense, uptight; I was having a hard time sleeping, [thinking] “what this bastard is doing to our country?” But I guess we had to worry about Russia back then.
Me: I read the newspaper every day back then and I couldn’t believe that people took Reagan seriously. He seemed to so obviously be a liar, a murderer, a clown. Not a real person.
Kenny: That was when the Republicans were mastering the craft of placing propaganda. Bush was behind Reagan. Cheney was behind Bush. You know I really hate this bullshit [intoning in Reagan’s voice] “Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” That shit was falling apart for years, not because of some American president. What about Solidarity and Glasnost, do you think that had anything to do with it? You’re damn right it did! I mean here we have 200 years based on genocide and slavery, based on killing people.
Me: But why give a shit? What you describe is so far beyond us.
Kenny: Bands like the Dead Kennedys make a mockery of it, so first you laugh, and then you cry, because it is based on the truth. But maybe there was no reason for us to care. We were too young to vote. Foreign policy didn’t really affect us. We didn’t have to worry about food stamps then. We had freedom to burn. We weren’t going to get shot or sent to the Gulag like some people. What I had to worry about was my next good score of records and when and how I’d get laid. We would practice and practice and try to get a gig. But I never did a D.C. punk percussion protest against apartheid for example, so I’m hypocritical. I guess I feel like politics is a scam, they’re going to do what they do. But then you have the classic example of Eisenhower, who was a war-lord, a war-pig himself, warning about the military industrial complex, telling the American people to watch out because they are taking meat pies from your baby’s mouth.
Me: So what about class issues? Relevant, do you think?
Kenny: There were some ratty shit-hole urban punks, but mostly we are talking about middle class kids who had everything and didn’t have need to complain about anything complaining about everything.
Me: So you were middle class?
Kenny: I don’t know. I never really knew what that meant. My Mom did a lot for me. She made it all work. I’ve since found out how difficult it was for her. I wasn’t aware of it. I could have gotten a job and helped. On the other hand I was too shy or depressed out of my mind. I swung between seething with pent-up angst and being afraid of my own shadow.
Punk had a range of classes. There were people from Dundalk who just wanted to fight and are still scumbags. But we had D.C. where things were surprising. I mean the leader of the Skins in D.C. was a black woman. It wasn’t like Cleveland with no lyrical content.
Me: But what about you guys?
Kenny: We were all totally outcast. We couldn’t play downtown [in local bars]. They weren’t going to stand for that shit. It was a struggle to be heard. We were relevant, pertinent, and of the same ilk [as kids in D.C. and nation-wide]. Nowadays everything is a convoluted homogenized cross-over. I mean Paula Deen has spiked Sid Vicious hair. The bars downtown have everything.
But on the other hand the establishment shows up at 3 in the morning at the Occupy site in full riot gear. They got rid of them and for the most part people were lucky when they didn’t get the shit beat out of them.
I mean I went through this thing where Anti-Seen got together again and it caused me stress to get into it and read the lyrics. I mean I’ve never really grown up. I still feel like a kid. I was never lucky in love. I guess I took heartache too hard. I would love to have the ‘white picket fence’ but the people I know who went that way are either miserable or hollow shells. I mean, should I feel irresponsible, silly, stupid? Or just be a cog in a faceless machine. In a sense we have to face that we were just put here to propagate, spread seeds and die. Beyond that, we’re here to have fun. It is what it is. But with these young kids, there’s gotta be someone young and innocent, yet to be jaded by the ineffectualness of taking a stance.

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