Archive | February 2014

my new feature article on popmatters.com

My first feature article for the online magazine popmatters.com, ‘The Swollen Eye of the Man With No Name’.

Sub-head: ‘Kurosawa’s samurai, Stuart Heisler’s gangster, Sergio Leone’s cowboy, and George Miller’s misfit suffer a similar black eye, but with dramatically different effect.

 

http://www.popmatters.com/feature/178352-the-swollen-eye-of-the-man-with-no-name/

Titiek Sandhora on Mutiara Records

For about a decade, roughly the late 1960 to mid 70s, Titiek Sandhora was the reigning queen of Indonesian bubble-gum pop. Eventually she married a man named Muchsin Alatas and the fun pop turned schmaltzy. However, when she was still quite young Titiek had a string of hits on Mutiara Records that were broadcast on the newly licensed private urban radio stations in Indonesia.  Apparently her popularity was so great the unusual name ‘Titiek’ became popular for new born girls during this period.

I’ve picked up maybe a half dozen 33 1/3 of Sandhora but here are my two favorites. Fujiyama is a fluffy confection representative of her early style as well as the style of light radio pop of the period. Djangan Ngintip is a little later and mellow and in odd ways the instrumentation prefigures the pop music of Beck when he’s depressed (Sea Change, the recent Morning Phase). N.B. The phrase ‘djangan ngintip’ literally means ‘peering around a corner’ in a sort of surprise, sneaky manner (like peering around a half-open door).

 Full track listing and other info are on the youtube pages.

Fujiyama

 

Djangan Ngintip

Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977)

Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Joe D’Amato. Eurotrash grindhouse doesn’t come any trashier! It’s a cash-in on the soft-core sensation Emmanuelle (1974) which spawned dozens of rip-offs in the 70s. This one stars the delectable Laura Gemser, who also starred in the Black Emanuelle films, none of which have anything to do with the original except for sleazily sexploitation and similar titles. But wait, there’s more! EATLC also anticipates the gruesome proto-torture- porn flick Cannibal Holocaust (1980) in which the beautiful are damned…then stripped and eaten. Basically, in EATLC two strains of B-flick 70s aesthetic merge into a hybrid monster that showcases the worst of both. I can recommend this piece of indigestible garbage because it is riotous fun for both housebound painkiller addicted winos that have nothing else to get off with on a Friday night and for discriminating cineastes like ourselves.

Singapore Black at Changi Terminal Two

This was posted to the #williamlgibson Instagram hashtag. On the shelf at Changi Airport Terminal Two — so that’s all three terminals at Singapore airport confirmed!

Next to Amy Tan and Tash Aw…well, that is keeping good company!

Keep those posts to Instagram coming…I’m thinking of a special giveaway for the best picture

 

 

 

Interview with Siow Kee Lin of Fusan Records

 Back in 2009, I was researching for a book about the Chinese-Singapore pop albums I had been collecting. As part of that process, I tracked down the owner of one of the grooviest labels, Sakura Records, owned by a man named Siow Kee Lin. I interviewed him with my wife translating. That interview, about 100min long, is downloadable in its entirety at this link:

https://app.box.com/s/mpnnbzm4373w0zfdmvuw

The book project transmogrified into a CD called Singapore A-Go-Go that was released on Sublime Frequencies and is still available. I had already drafted the introduction to the book that would have focused mostly on the album covers and much of that material wound up in the liner notes to the CD. While the notes were extensive, they were not exhaustive.

 Instead of letting the unused material just sit on my hard drive, I figured I’d post it here. So here’s the excerpt based on the interview.

[please also check out my interview with Huang Qing Yuan, the ‘Elvis of Singapore’: https://drgblogsupreme.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/interview-with-the-elvis-of-singapore-huang-qing-yuan/ ]

fusan records

Sakura Records was the trademark imprint of a manufacturing company—and what we would think of as a production company—called Fusan Records and Radio, operated by a man named Siow Kee Lin and his family. Mr. Siow is still living. He runs a small shop under the same name—Fusan Records and Radio Co—that sells electronic household appliances as well as music CDs in an arcade above the steamy clank and clatter of a hawker food center in Geylang, not far from the glittering skyscrapers of the financial district and near the location of his original shop on Old Airport Road. Fusan Records existed from roughly 1967-1980 (Mr. Siow couldn’t quite recall the exact dates). Very much a businessman, once cassette tapes began eating into his bottom line (easier to pirate the music), Mr. Siow stopped producing vinyl records and got out of the industry.

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The business model of Sakura Records was standard for the industry and it worked something like this: There were only a few guitar bands in Singapore that would sell a-go-go and cha-cha records, The Stylers, The Melodians, and The Silvertones being perhaps the top three, though other bands such as Tony and the Polar Bears and The Travelers also appear on many labels. Each band had a distinctive logo that appeared on the record sleeves so that buyers would know which group was backing the singer, whom for the most part were selected based more on their good looks rather than their singing ability, though potential singers would have to pass a sound test. Often they were chosen because they had appeared in local singing contests or had won prizes in amateur talent competitions, such as the popular “Talentime,” a version of which is still annually performed.

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After choosing a singer, she or he would rehearse with a “guitar band,” in this case usually The Silvertones, and if the groove fit, then Fusan Records would press a 45rpm EP. If that proved popular and sold well, then two more EPs would be pressed, and if they sold well, all of the songs were collected and issued as a 33 1/3rpm LP, usually with cover art that combined elements of the EPs.  Sukura/Fusan EPs retailed for about SGD$1.50, though some of the more popular artists might fetch higher prices (not considerably more than they sell for in flea markets today) and were sold from small storefront shops or stalls in street markets.

Advertisements would either be newspaper print ads, especially for 33 1/3rpm LPs, but also through radio play. Before FM radio became widespread in the 1970s, Singaporeans heard their radio through a contraption called Rediffusion, a wired-system that carried radio waves to desktop boxes (not unlike modern cable radio). A company like Fusan would hire half-hour blocks of air-time and play their own records of new releases; this is how new EPs were introduced to the audience. Live performances were less frequent, though televised variety shows were one (expensive) way to get new material across to the audience.

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Live performances of Chinese pop would most likely have occurred at one of the three “World” Amusement parks in Singapore. Approximating something like London’s Vauxhall Gardens of the eighteenth century, the Worlds were places to hear music, dance, eat food, drink: general entertainment centers. Great World City is perhaps the most famous, if only because it is now the name of a shopping mall, though New World and Gay World (later Happy World) were just as well known within the region. The Odeon on North Bridge Road, a cinema owned by the Cathay Organization, offered live performances before films, though due to the cinema connection they were mostly active with the singers signed through EMI, which also cut deals to promote film soundtracks on locally sold records. The Odeon seldom promoted local acts, though the Capitol Theatre (which, now empty, still stands) used to have a two-hour Sunday morning show that featured the most popular Chinese singers and bands. However it seems that in those days most people would hear the music via the recordings themselves, either at small house parties, or more frequently for the less affluent, at community centers, which would play the records in halls so people could dance (it is only a step from this town hall boogie dance to the concept of a disco, a space dedicated to solely to dancing in groups to recorded music, with a live DJ controlling the sound).

The Singapore Chinese music scene overlapped with Malaysia and generated minor celebrities in its own right. Often popular singers in Malaysia would record on Singapore labels, and small labels in Kuala Lumpur would swap singers with “sister” labels in Singapore. One such singer whom recorded with Fusan Records from roughly 1971 to 1980 was called Ling Lim. Usually backed by The Silvertones in the studio, she rarely performed live, and thus existed for her fans only as a voice on vinyl, and by the photos on the record covers. Mr. Siow believes that she died several decades ago, perhaps of cancer.

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If she looks young on the record sleeves that is because she is. Mr. Siow told me that most female singers were signed by his label were around 15-16 years old; the boys were signed slightly older, perhaps 18-20 years old. Singers signed three-year exclusive contracts, yet most didn’t consider singing on pop records to be a career. Most of the singers considered it more of a hobby, and most retained some kind of day work. Despite this nonchalance, the singers chose stage names. It is worth noting that none of the names of Singaporean artists printed on the sleeves reproduced here are original names. Some stage names were chosen because they carried connotations of good luck or prosperity. One such singer called herself Zi Ling: the surname can be translated as “purple”, which is considered a lucky color. Yet Zi Ling also used an English name, calling herself Linda Yong on several records. Some names were chosen simply because they were easier to remember, or sounded sexy to Chinese ears: Lim Ling’s real name was Rui Hua.

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However, the adoption of stage names does not mean that these singers also adopted stage personas. There was no marketing apparatus that felt the need to craft a “personality” for the singer. The girls and boys simply appeared as they were, and if they had a reputation for being morally flexible, then that comes purely from the singers’ own personalities. The insinuation is that fans bought records and attended shows to hear the bands, not to watch a spectacle revolving around a single persona. In this regard the Chinese pop music of the era conforms more closely to the swing tradition of a tightly knit band that performs with different singers than it does with the tradition of a rock band that always performs with one singer: Count Basie’s orchestra can stand on its own without a vocalist. This is an inversion of the Western standard of rock and pop that stems from a blues tradition in which the singer takes centre stage and the band is relegated to “back-up.” Beyonce Knowles is a case in point: her persona is crafted in such a way that she can always have a different group of musicians playing behind her, yet fans will still buy a record or attend a concert of “Beyonce.” Even in cases when the band is as famous as the lead singer, it is difficult to imagine separating the two. For most fans of The Rolling Stones, a record without Mick Jagger wouldn’t be a Rolling Stones record. Or as Mick himself once sang, “It’s the singer, not the song.” With few exceptions, in the Chinese pop tradition the opposite is true. It’s the song and the band that fans pay the most attention to while the singer is of secondary interest (this phenomenon informs the karaoke tradition as well).

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Graham Greene’s take down of Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple is dead. Amidst the usual fawning celebrity obituaries was this gem from The Guardian:

‘Graham Greene, infamously, reviewing Wee Willie Winkie [1937 Fox film] in the London weekly Night and Day, wrote: “Infancy with her is a disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult … her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry … watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood that is only skin-deep … “‘

As usual, Greene nailed it perfectly. After reading that, watch the most famous clip from Temple’s childhood oeuvre:

There’s barely disguised lust in the way they film the little girl singing to a group of grown men that enhances the double entendre of the lyrics.

This sort of slavering male gaze is all over the adaption of Kipling (where the lead was a boy) that got Greene into so much trouble:

Of course speaking truth to power and pointing out the filth behind the innocence is never easy.  People cling assiduously to their veneers of moral superiority and celluloid dreams of little blonde girls.

The Guardian notes that ‘Fox sued and the case was settled in Temple’s favour with the judge (a fan) deeming the libel “a gross outrage”. Greene fled to Mexico, and the magazine was fined £3,500. The settlement remained in trust for Temple in a British bank until she turned 21, when it was donated to charity.’

Hopefully  the Shirley Temple’s in Mexico had rum in them.

Singapore Black ebook and Instagram

Fan posted this image to Facebook. Enjoying ebook of Singapore Black with a Tiger beer and sambal prawns…just as it was meant to be!

Apparently there is now an Instagram hastag #willliamlgibson so if you use Instagram, get on that and post your copy of the book!

Review of book Being Here

Interesting review over at popmatters.com of a book that it looks like I’ll have to get…interviews with some of my favorite jazz musicians. Makes me miss NYC and all the great music I used to see!

http://www.popmatters.com/review/178838-being-here-conversations-on-creating-music/

Tantric images from Pashupatinath Temple

So I’ve got lots of photos from my trips around Asia which sometimes turn into larger projects. Other times they sit on my hard drive. In my spare time at work I’m teaching myself the video editing software  Final Cut Pro. I’m also, of course, constantly promoting my own for-sale stuff.  All of this adds up to a short video clip featuring images of erotic carvings on the Pashupatinath Temple in Bhaktapur, Nepal.

I first encountered the carvings in David Gordon White’s book Kiss of the Yogini and on a trip to Nepal later that year sought out the temple. The carvings are not pornography as that entire concept did not exist in that culture: rather they depict certain ritual sex acts–tantric sex–that are believed to bestow power from the life-force (read White’s book to get the skinny on all that). Suffice to say that when Sting or your hippie Uncle talks about ‘tantric sex’, they probably mean the version that blends elements of watered down Yoga breathing techniques with positions from The Joy of Sex. They probably don’t spend a lot of time collecting and drinking mixed sexual fluids during orgies in cemeteries.

Check out the temple carvings in my video. The music is from two sources: an SAE Institute graduate student’s field recordings in rural India, and ‘Apna Desh’ from Bollywood Steel Guitars on Sublime Frequencies.

 

W.G. Sebald

German author W.G. Sebald was at the peak of his career when he died suddenly in a car crash in 2001. If you search the dark web, eventually you will come across conspiracy theories regarding this event. Some believe that the quiet, scholarly man had grown tired of the international limelight and faked his own demise and now continues to live and work in monastic bliss somewhere in Norfolk. Others believe that during the course of his research, he stumbled upon some sort of hidden knowledge about the Second World War and was assassinated by the Illuminati. Still others, perhaps at the deepest levels of the conspiracy vortex, believe that his death was faked by the leaders of the hidden cities of Napoleon and Josephine, who, for reasons unknown, kidnaped him and now keep him in a state of suspended animation beneath either the North or South Pole.

Whatever the true nature of the events surrounding his death or disappearance, his sudden removal from the literary scene nipped in the bud a cult-like status that was accreting to his writing. He was an unusual candidate for this sort of adulation, and his odd blend of fact and fiction was not the sort of narrative that would gain mass financial success. Nonetheless, the cult formed. His ability to create uncanny stories that weaved together arcane scholarship with Kafkaesque first person pseudo-journalism about people and events so obscure as to acquire a hyperrealism (the inclusion of ‘found object’ photographs without captions accentuated this effect), slowly but surely led to an international following promulgated by such high-minded champions as Susan Sontag. That he wrote in his native German while living in England created an aura of European sophistication that often led fans to claim to have read far more of his work than they truly had (all of his work is now available in English). In other words, he was (briefly) an intellectual vogue. Getting past this hysteria requires a reappraisal of his novels. To my mind, they withstand the hype.

(It should be noted that some of the conspiracy theorists have pointed to elements in his writing that they claim as evidence that his untimely death was planned, faked, or never occurred. That many of his works were published posthumously has only fueled such speculation).

Like all authors, Sebald was working in a lineage. He was following the work of ‘experimental’ European authors like the Bernhard and Robbe-Grillet. Part of the reason for his vogue in English was that a generation of American readers who thought that Pynchon and DeLillo’s brand of post-modernism was the only one were suddenly exposed to a European variety that abjured pop culture totems in favor of scholarship and existential dread…and it blew their minds (this is the same generation that ‘discovered’ Werner Herzog and pulled him from art house obscurity into the main stream).

Nonetheless, like all true artists, Sebald’s vision was clear and that clarity allowed him to alter the lineage in which he worked. Which is another way of saying he used the tools of his predecessors to experiment in new ways with literary form and discover new outcomes.

Like many Germans of his generation, the war and the Holocaust, and the near total destruction of German cities by Allied aerial bombing campaigns, all loom large in his imagination. These horrible events become the touchstone of his fiction.  In some ways, all his books are one book, or each is a continuation of the last, for each approaches these themes from a different direction.

His most accomplished work is Austerlitz (2001), the novel he completed shortly before he ‘took his leave’ (as the Javanese describe those who have passed).

Austerlitz is ostensibly an intricate tale of a war orphan (the titular character), a member of the kindertransport, seeking information about his parents. As he tells his tale to the narrator, what unfolds is a tour of underground mid-century Europe, mostly of places that echo forebodingly: libraries, prisons, railway stations, garrisons. Most these were destroyed in the war or transformed beyond recognition in the post-war ‘reconstruction’. As with all of Sebald’s works, this book is an elegy for a time that not only is lost but that always existed at the margins; a lament for liminal spaces.

My favorite trick in this book is that the way Sebald conflates the ‘I’ of the narrator with the ‘I’ of the characters so that the personality of the protagonist becomes sunk completely within the characters of the story. In a nifty meta-textual move, the author and the narrator and the main character become indistinguishable: it’s like the famous M.C. Escher print of hands drawing themselves.

The best review I know of the book is by Gabriele Annan in the NYRB: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2001/nov/01/ghost-story/

Despite the polish of Austerlitz, my favorite Sebald novel is The Rings of Saturn (1998). I taught this book at Lehman College in the Bronx in a course on ‘the history of the novel’ and some of my students reacted to it almost violently. I remember one woman nearly threw her copy at me, yelling that the book ‘isn’t fiction, it isn’t anything!’ The lack of a 3-act narrative, of definable characters, of a discernible genre, was too much for her and a few others. Never before or since have I taught a book that caused such a visceral reaction.

The book describes a walking tour of the coast of Suffolk, which becomes, metaphorically, an earthly version of Saturn’s rings. Sebald himself said that The Rings of Saturn wasn’t a novel, only a collection of notes. This is disingenuous.  There is a narrative element that ties the whole story together, and that is silk (I’ve never seen another critic point this out so I’ll trumpet my originality here). The word silk, or mention of sericulture, the process of making silk, appears on nearly every page of the book. It acts as the warp upon which the weave of the narrative is weft and held together, for the main story is about erosion and the peripheral.

The book ends with the unnamed narrator—perhaps Sebald himself, perhaps not—discovering that during the Holocaust, the Nazis were adopting sericulture. To extract the silk requires the killing of the worm, which presents an odd but apt metaphor Nazi barbarity. It is to this revelation that the long ramble through erosive shorelines and strange archives finally leads.

In the end, Sebald is able to comment on human civilization, human effort, in such a way as to recalibrate our conception of our endeavors. Civilization is predicated on combustion, he posits. Therefore all human effort leads to destruction of one kind or another. Human truth, as such, is a manufactured illusion to hide this horror from ourselves. (This gnostic strain of German existentialism runs throughout Sebald’s work, as well as Werner Herzog’s [they would be about the same age, or they are, if Sebald is still alive]).

Sebald is now something of a known quantity and while the vogue for him is no longer hot, he retains fans. Apparently there was a film made in 2012 called Patience (After Sebald) but I have yet to watch it—the trailer makes it look terribly pretentious.

As for the conspiracy theories, should they exist, the idea that he is working away in secret in the Norfolk woods, or being held in suspended animation under the South Pole, is appealing because its holds the promise of an exquisite return.

Whether or not this will come to pass remains to be revealed. In the meantime, we have the books.

 

MY ODYSSEY

Being Part of Our Great History...

Forgotten Films

A look at the movies forgotten by time

Bunhead

Give her food and she will conquer the world

Wonderful Cinema

Short reviews on high quality films. No spoilers.

pacificREVIEW

An annual review of prose, poetry, and artwork, published in affiliation with San Diego State University

HAJI MAJI

SCRATCHY OLD ASIAN MUSIC

Street Talk

Word on the street is...