According to Wikipedia, a chapbook is "a generic term to cover a particular genre of pocket-sized booklet, popular from the sixteenth through to the later part of the nineteenth century. No exact definition can be applied. Chapbook can mean anything that would have formed part of the stock of chapmen, a variety of peddler. The word chapman probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for barter, buy and sell. The term chapbook was formalised by bibliophiles of the nineteenth century, as a variety of ephemera (disposable printed material.) It includes many kinds of printed material, such as pamphlets, political and religious tracts, nursery rhymes, poetry, folk tales, children's literature and almanacs."
So that's what a chapbook is!
Incidentally, I'm working on one right now!
It's called "The Loneliest Profession In The World" and collects about 20 poems I've written since October last year up until just a few days ago.
As you can see, no fancy InDesign or Adobe Illustrator for me. I designed the whole thing in Microsoft Word! Ha ha ha...
Music Snob Journal #3: Scritti Politti - White Bread Black Beer
I'm not sure if Scritti Politti is really music snob territory cause to me it sounds like how pop should be. But I guess what sets Scritti apart from the majority of pop out there is that lead singer (and these days the sole member) Green Gartside is much too intelligent compared to the average pop muppet. In fact, even the punky early days of Scritti, Green was a bit too wordy... the band name itself referencing Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci... you can read the band's Wiki here to find out more about the fascinating rise of Scritti from punky to pop to hip hop(?) to more indie-ish singer songwriter fare. I expect his next album will be another genre-jumper...
I first came across Scritti when I saw a videoclip of one of their late 1980s singles -- the still-pretty sounding "Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry For Loverboy)" featuring a sans-beard Green in a fetching hat looking rather pretty... (with a Miles Davis trumpet solo to boot!) I would've embedded the youtube clip of the song here if it hadn't been taken off... copyright issues methinks.
Anyway, I bought the cassette (I have since acquired the CD) of the album where "Oh Patti" came from, 1988's "Provision". It was their follow up to what is still considered by many their timeless classic "Cupid & Psyche 85". (I didn't manage to listen to "C&S 85" until last year... it is pretty!) I fell instantly in love with the band... because of the sparkling melodies (I still listen to "Boom! There She Was" all the time)... the hmm "intelligent" yet dippy lyrics... the intricate midi blue-eyed R&B pop soul funk arrangements (it's very 1980s! kinda Hall & Oates-ish)... and that voice!
Green Gartside has a voice that will divide listeners. It's a bit slight and thin. Not exactly reedy or airy. But kind of compact, cute and coy, like how you'd imagine a 12 year old would sing... kind of Justin Timberlake without the sex or Jordan Knight without the emoting. It's a voice that works strangely well when singing about puppy love. But unlike most other singers who cater for the tween pop market, Green is neither your regular heartthrob or really interested in high schoolers... on an earlier album "Songs To Remember" he has a song called "Jacques Derrida".
Which is probably why after "Provisions" I didn't much about Scritti anymore... what happened was Green got disillusioned by the music industry in the USA and returned to his native Wales... he came out with a hip hop rap album in the 1999 called "Anomie & Bonhomie". I haven't heard that album... but I've seen a few youtube clips and wasn't really impressed... the album kinda flopped and Green apparently went to live as a recluse in Wales, living off his 80s royalties.
Scritti Politti - White Bread Black Beer (Rough Trade, 2006)
1. The Boom Boom Bap 2. No Fine Lines 3. Snow in Sun 4. Cooking 5. Throw 6. Dr. Abernathy 7. After Six 8. Petrococadollar 9. E Eleventh Nuts 10. Window Wide Open 11. Road To No Regret 12. Locked 13. Mrs. Hughes 14. Robin Hood
The biggest shock that I got while listening to WBBB was Green's voice. You'd think it would've aged... but the unhealthy diet of the album title must be doing wonders for Green because he sounds the same as he did in 1988. Incredible... not many people would concur but I think Green's voice is sexy... he's also quite good looking too (I do have a thing for guys with beards!)... (If I could only have Green Gartside on one side of the bed and David Sylvian on the other both crooning to me at the same time, I'd die a happy man!).
The other big shock of WBBB was the mood of the album... unlike the glossy synthscapes of "Provision", WBBB was darker, featured guitars(!), the electronics more muted, and darker lyrics... about what I'm not exactly sure... but there's definitely a sense that age, experience, maturity, cynicism, opaqueness, and a quiet sense of resignation has crept in... in a good way, that is. No longer is the music in the service of puppy subject matter. Though some Scritti fans scoff at WBBB as not being as essential as his mid to late 80s stuff, I disagree vehemently.
WBBB is Scritti Politti's best collection of songs ever committed to record. It's intimate and mostly mellow, with melodic tunes that range from lovely to funny, uncluttered and yet full of interesting asides... like the Beach Boys-ish four-part vocal harmonies that introduce "Snow In Sun" one of my favourite songs on the album; the harmonies also pop up all over. And then there's that lovely intro to "Dr Abernathy" before it turns into the most upbeat song on the album about some guy who wants heroin... and mescaline... but it's balanced by a delicateness of touch... it could've easily become an indulgent album, with overly emo lyrics (Note to self: maybe tone down the emo, Jerome, for your next album...LOL) but Green knows when enough is enough and when to push a point just slightly that it stays like some seed in your head until one day you find that it's become some kind of park.
One of the reasons why I can't really dig heavy music is because I like to hear the words coming out of the singer's mouth. (Although for a while I liked death metal... but I think that was an isolated case of having a crush on this guy I knew who had a death metal band...LOL). Anyway, Green is a rather precise singer, and obviously the way he sings and the way WBBB was produced really gives prominence to the voice and words! Thank you!
The other shocking thing is WBBB is the quality of Green's songwriting. All the songs are really incredibly well-written... arrgghhh... why can't I write songs like this???!! It's because I'm not Green Gartside, that's why.... arrgghhh!!! Oh well... one must find peace with one's lot in life otherwise there'd be nothing but strife... I mean, how many pints of beer does it take to come up with easy-flowing subtle lyrics such as these?
from No Fine Lines: And there are no fine lines Or there are more than I can draw Got crossed from here and there Between each after and before Tying everything together So I can't make it anymore
from Dr Abernathy:
I wonder how I'm feeling now I don't suppose I should've chosen that stuff How much is enough I don't quite hear the dime drop The buck stop or the bells
I stole a glance at circumstance It's way too big for them to figure outside In the exercise yard The three winds blow The Dear Johns It won't be long
Round and round, punks jump up To get beat down All the days of my life, love
from After Six: Please keep your love away from me Jesus keep your hands where I can see There's nobody here you can trust I'll break every bone if I must Wisdom keep your hands away from me"
from Snow In Sun:
I was watching you sleep I've been watching you dream Should we be beset with trouble I would never let you come to harm
Looks like maybe we'll lose our home Out of pocket and all alone I should've worked and I should've known Seen the dirt clouds coming
And you will never be without me I'll be beside you never doubt me There'll be something good about me soon Like sun on the London snow Like snow in the London sun
from Window Wide Open:
Slept with her window wide open And longed for the touch of (?) Stroking her skin with true lover's fingers From Parliament Hill down to Greenwich it lingers The seconds in a small moonlit room She remembers how love feels for you
(This song comes with a gorgeous guitar solo btw.)
It is pop, with tiny yet profound revelations and winsome tunes! (Oh how I love winsome tunes!) But it's also more. Well, whatever it is, who cares? It's one of my favourite albums... love it, love it!
There were no music videos shot for this album... here's one of Green performing for the Mercury Prize show. He lost to Arctic Monkeys that year. Jools Holland got the title wrong. It's actually "Snow In Sun" not "Sun In Snow"... ah but who knows where that sun really is?
Folk music is a strange genre because I think it's undefinable. And it's because there's an inherent conflict in the politics of folk music. On one hand, folk is the music of community, the common people, everyman and everywoman and everyone in between. Because of every folkie's unshaking belief in humanity, every folk song is a plea to the so-called emotional universality of human experience. And that is reflected in the obsession with acoustic instrumentation, poetic lyrics (but not overly abstract), nostalgia, outmoded genres... which is why when Dylan went electric at Newport, the hippies freaked out.
Many have accused Dylan of killing the scene, dividing what had been assumed as a folk renaissance in the US at the time. This was the 60s, an era of heightened political consciousness and experimentation with alternative lifestyles in the face of growing disillusionment with the superficiality of modern living in the post-WW2 years. But what Dylan really did instead was reveal folk music's internal conflict and gave the scene a much needed injection of reality.
The future of folk music was given a new trajectory: it would embrace that disillusionment. The hippies would have to choose: remain idealists or become more individualistic (or, more bluntly put, selfish, self-obsessed and self-serving)... Goodbye community. Hello me, myself and I...
When the loud blaring slick 70s and 80s came along, folk music and its quaint charms were seen to be anti-modern, old-fashioned, dull as unpolished brass.
On the other hand, one can think of folk music in a broader sense, that it's a genre of music of the people. And no matter what it's incarnation, the music that gets heard, that gets to the heart of the people (in spite of the marketing plan, or maybe because of it) is just folk music in the guise of pop, rock, hip hop... etc.
In that sense, folk never died. It merely found another door, different clothes, new instruments, louder amps, a new attitude, things that reflected the concerns of the society that produce and embrace it.
Still, neither definitions of folk music is really satisfactory. Such is the tyranny of genre labelling. When one tries to pin down something as ephemeral as culture, all one can find is that if you can pin it down, it's already dead.
Which is artists who are contrary, contradictory, seemingly of and outside of the age, culture and society they live in, are important. I regard such artists as embodiments of what's so wrong and so right about our lives. Someone like Britney Spears, for instance. I don't really like much the music she makes but I have to take my hat off to her. Because she channels that tunnel-vision obsessiveness with the narrative of the self that has become such a significant element of contemporary life. There is nothing but the self. And the self is really nothing but layers and layers of useless stories clad in designer clothes and glib pronouncements of "Yes, it took a lot out of me but I overcame my problems and now I feel OK." It's the journey of a fool to sage, with a few hairstyle changes to illustrate the transformation.
There is another journey that a musician can take... it's a bit lonelier. Because the cameras are not turned on 24/7, and the songs are less facile, less instant.
For me, it would be too easy to reduce contemporary society to a "confederacy of dunces", consumer-robots, proles. We are a violent society with violent urges. This is very Freudian, yes. Humans cannot be trusted with their own fates. Civilisation demands the force of state violence in order to keep it in line. We resist civilisation even as we embrace it. (Actually some of the most excitingly uncivilised people I've met in my travels through the social strata turn out to be the really rich, the modern nobility I guess.) Thus the fact that democracy cannot exist in its ideal state--otherwise it would just fall apart. In a way, I think this is the reason for that inherent conflict in folk music. To sing for an audience who instinctively wants to see the singer destroyed is not a career path for an idealist.
But there is that other path. And now I will write about one of its most well-known traveler... and whose journey, while not as prophetic as Dylan's, pioneered the later change in the American folk music scene more presciently. All singer songwriters born after 1969 owe a debt to this woman...
Joni Mitchell... Princess of Alberta, transplanted to California ... musical drifter... hippie diva... Queen of Woodstock (denied of her throne)... breaker of hearts from Laurel Canyon all the way to Paris and beyond...
Before there was Madonna or Bjork or even Kate Bush, there was Joni Mitchell. She may have held on to her wheat blonde locks and imposing canyon-dweller looks, but here was a female musician who broke barriers of genre before most people knew there were barriers to be broken.
OK. OK. Enough with the platitudes already. You can read all about her various achievements on her Wiki page.
I want to talk about one of her albums in particular. My favourite Joni album, that is: "Hejira".
After all that has been written, what is there left to write? Not to worry... I'm in a verbose mood.
The first time I ever encountered Joni Mitchell's music was way back in 1984 or 85. My eldest brother Abraham was back then and still is a fan of folk and country music. And it was from him that I learnt about the song "Both Sides Now" which is Mitchell's signature song. But the version that I knew was not the original version recorded for Mitchell's second album "Clouds" (1969). But the Judy Collins' version which was a hit. But by the 1980s the song had already become a folk standard. And if you look it up now, you'll probably find that tons of people have covered the song over and over.
But learning to sing that song even via secondary sources, I had the feeling that here was a very special song. It wasn't like most other pop songs, which were usually straightforward and had no inherent wisdom to reveal. Mitchell's songwriting shone through... and though I didn't know at the time that she had written the song, I knew instinctively that it came from someone who saw life through ancient eyes.
Sometime in 1987 I saw a video clip of a song she did with Peter Gabriel, "My Secret Place" from the album "Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm" (1988). She wore Native American clothes... I was intrigued. She looked like some middle-class shaman wannabe... but she wore it well. At the time I was really into pop music... I was 12. So I was kinda scared of listening to more "exotic" stuff... I remember listening to Barbra Streisand's "The Broadway Album" and thought "What the fuck is this?" (I did eventually like that Barbra album. But you know that's something I'd rather not go into much detail about... maybe for my Music Embarassment Journal.)
In 1992, my curiosity got the better of me and I bought my first Joni Mitchell album. It was her early 90s comeback album "Night Ride Home" (1991). Compared to her earlier albums, "Night Ride Home" sounds more polished, less focused... but at the time, I really loved it. Her voice had already become its present-day tar-burnished croon. But she retained her ingenuity for melody and lyrics and that was enough for me...
So it was rather strange that I sort of sidestepped Mitchell's music the whole time I was abroad when I could've immersed myself in it. Granted during the nineties I was more interested in jungle, trip hop, and alternative rock... I had given up on folk music for a while... but when I moved to KL in 2000 and had a chance to frequent the music stores here, I took another look and found some of Mitchell's earlier albums.
And after listening to her "Hits" to acquaint myself with the Mitchell standards, I decided to pick up "Hejira". Later I listened to "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" which I also love dearly and probably listen to more than "Hejira" but really the latter is a much more solid album. If I had to choose between the two, I would choose "Hejira".
Joni Mitchell - Hejira (Asylum, 1976)
1. Coyote 2. Amelia 3. Furry Sings the Blues 4. A Strange Boy 5. Hejira 6. Song for Sharon 7. Black Crow 8. Blue Motel Room 9. Refuge of the Roads
I don't know how Joni Mitchell writes her songs... I know she uses alternate tunings and strums strange rhythm patterns... but I just don't know how and where she comes up with the songs on "Hejira". Compared to earlier songs like "Both Sides Now" or "The Circle Game" or "Big Yellow Taxi"... the songs on "Hejira" just sound formless.
Music critics like to call the period during which "Hejira" came out her "experimental" period. Yes, she was experimenting... I don't think anyone has yet to come close to approximating the kind of musical hybrid she concocted here. She blended folk and jazz and rock elements into such a peculiar fusion, and with such strangely mystical and yet personal lyrics that it's hard to imagine how she ever thought that there would be an audience ready to embrace this back in 1976.
Granted she had already done her proto-experiments on previous albums like "Court And Spark" and "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" but even those albums still hewed to a certain pop convention (although the latter had really taken off on its own tangent).
I can imagine "Hejira" putting off the purists of folk and jazz and rock. But rightly so, because "Hejira" is about a journey, the album title itself (which I long thought was a Native American word) actually comes from "hijrah" (as her Wiki page explains), referencing the Prophet Muhammad's escape from Mecca to Medina. Mitchell herself explained that the album was mostly written while travelling solo across the States.
It was an indulgent exploration of the self definitely... what is art if not that? And yet, to be able to produce a work of art that has true resonance for a broader audience... don't you need to be honest with your musical ambitions and remain true to your artistic muses, despite the society's preconditions? Mitchell is nothing if not a musician who is able to see both sides of the page. The complex songs on "Hejira" deal with contradictions, the conflicted soul in transition, wearing masks and casting them off, revealing the restlessness of someone who wants it all and yet is unsure of what she can offer in return except the restlessness itself.
All of it comes out in the song: the freeflowing lyrics, the doubled strums of her guitar, Jaco Pastorius's singing basslines, and Mitchell's vocal melodies that twist and turn like a figure skater across a vast expanse of frozen lake, with only the winter sky as audience.
My favourite song on the album is "Amelia". Of course. It's one of Mitchell's loveliest songs, in which she addresses the celebrated aviatrix Amelia Earhart, whose plane went down mysteriously somewhere in the South Pacific in 1937. Obviously Mitchell considers Earhart a kindred soul, imagining the pilotess to be her airborne counterpart...
"I was driving across the burning desert When I spotted six jet planes Leaving six white vapour trails across the bleak terrain It was the hexagram of the heavens It was the strings of my guitar Amelia, it was just a false alarm
The drone of flying engines Is a song so wild and blue It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you Then your life becomes a travelogue Of picture postcard charms Amelia, it was just a false alarm
People will tell you where they've gone They'll tell you where to go But till you get there yourself you never really know Where some have found their paradise Others just come to harm Oh Amelia, it was just a false alarm
I wish that he was here tonight It's so hard to obey His sad request of me to kindly stay away So this is how I hide the hurt As the road leads cursed and charmed I tell Amelia, it was just a false alarm
A ghost of aviation She was swallowed by the sky Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly Like Icarus ascending On beautiful foolish arms Amelia, it was just a false alarm
Maybe I've never really loved I guess that is the truth I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude And looking down on everything I crashed into his arms Amelia, it was just a false alarm
I pulled into the cactus tree motel To shower off the dust And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust I dreamed of 747s Over geometric farms Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms"
The song echoes the bittersweet sentiments of her earlier song about altitude "Both Sides Now" but I think "Amelia" is the more interesting. It's more convincing... less sure... more fragile... more honest...
Other vignettes of lives on the verge of sublimation appear on the album... "Furry Sings The Blues" "A Strange Boy" "Black Crow" "Song For Sharon"... just beautiful... so easy to just disappear into the songs.
For me, the most outstanding quality of the album is its consolidation of its various parts. Listening to it is like listening to a complete suite of songs, thematic, melodic, self-contained and yet with an emotional reach that goes beyond. I've only heard it successfully pulled off on a few other occassions: Kate Bush's "Hounds Of Love", Judee Sills's "Heart Food", Joanna Newsom's "Ys", and Bjork's "Vespertine". But Joni Mitchell did it with much less... and much more...
Music Snob Journal #1: David Sylvian - Secrets Of The Beehive
I first heard of David Sylvian sometime in the early 1990s. I was in my mid-teens then really had no idea about his work with Japan. Back in those pre-Google days, information came in books and magazines. And if you were growing up in a town like KK, with an allowance of RM50 a month, you would rather spend it on other more worthwhile things, like cassettes! (I remember when cassettes sold for RM12.90! LOL.) I was a cassette fiend. My family frowned upon the habit. I remember having to hide my latest purchases as though they were contraband. Ha ha ha...
Anyway, I didn't even hear the song, but I read the lyrics to a song he did with Ryuichi Sakamoto called "Heartbeat." And I fell in love with the words. I remembered saying to myself: I need to listen to this. So I pestered a friend to buy the CD for me from somewhere... which he did. (I didn't even have a CD player then! What was I thinking?) And I heard it... at first I wasn't too sure... what was this strangely languidly jazzy yet queer piece of sombre pop music? And why does he sound like that? What's wrong with his voice? Why does it quiver like that? Did he have a cold?
Of course, I was young and stupid then. I was still in training to become the music snob that I am today. It took a while...
I got reacquainted with David Sylvian a few years later while studying in Australia. A friend, Paul Bambury, lent me Sylvian's late nineties comeback album "Dead Bees On A Cake" (which was a sort of non-sequel to "Secrets Of The Beehive"; Sylvian had said somewhere that the bees are dead, so we shouldn't be expecting a part deux - love these pretentious artist types!). Though I liked some of the songs on that album, I wasn't entirely taken in by it. But it did change my mind about his voice. I love his voice now. He's one of my favourite male vocalists. Not to mention that he's also a hottie. (Sylvian was once voted one of the most beautiful people in the world back in the Japan days.)
Paul had also recommended me to listen to his third solo album "Secrets Of The Beehive" which he said was more interesting. I never got around to borrowing his copy however.
When I got to KL, of course, who should I meet if not another fellow Sylvian fan? Pang Khee Teik, who is more of a music snob than I am, lent me a Sylvian compilation called "Everything & Nothing" which had songs from almost all his albums, excluding the avant garde experimental instrumental stuff he did with Holger Czukay during the eighties. It was in this compilation that I first heard songs from "Secrets Of The Beehive". Paul was right. The songs from that album really had something special about them.
Then when I moved into Villa Scott, one of my flatmates Hari Azizan, also a fellow music snob, lent me her copy of the coveted album! Sometime later I got my own copy of the album, a remastered version.
David Sylvian - Secrets Of The Beehive (1987, Virgin Records)
1. September 2. The Boy With The Gun 3. Maria 4. Orpheus 5. The Devil's Own 6. When Poets Dreamed Of Angels 7. Mother And Child 8. Let The Happiness In 9. Waterfront 10. Forbidden Colors (on the original release) 10. Promise (The Cult Of Eurydice) (on the remastered version)
First of all, this album doesn't rock nor does it swing. If Duke Ellington had heard it, well... it really is white boy music... brother probably would've yawned. So let's leave that aside. It's not an album to put on for when the vodka shooters kick in. Sylvian's music, for better or worse, is poetry set to music. And not just any poetry... but the bookish, sensitive, haunted romantic soul kind.
Sounds bad, does it? Well... that's probably the reason why this album didn't break any sales record.
Unashamedly moody, "Secrets Of The Beehive" exists in its own storm-tousled universe. Like a troubadour of lonely shores and damp wilderness, Sylvian has gathered all the autumnal and wintry elements he could find, leeched out all traces of summer, and condensed them all in what would be his ultimate statement as a musician. The album is tender, melodic, poetic, haunted, timeless... I can just imagine him in a big black cloak dragging all the folds across some bare forest as he sang these songs, with a coven of crows tagging behind... but that would be too gothic... maybe he's just wearing a nice black suit and a guitar.
Musically the album is a cross between chamber folk and textured soundscapes (with a few avant jazz asides), with outstanding arrangements and performances by top notch musicians like Ryuichi Sakamoto (whose adventurous and exuberant piano appears on almost all the tracks). Strings, pianos, acoustic guitars, tape loops, double bass, flugelhorn, et al are fused into an multigenre hybrid.
Post rock comes to mind. But as I said, there's no rock here... although "Secrets Of The Beehive" share an almost similar mood as Bark Psychosis' "Hex", the two albums couldn't be more different. There's a polished lushness to the production on "Secrets Of The Beehive" that is so hi-fi it's almost embarassingly middle class.
And whereas "Hex" is all about mood and texture, the music on "Secrets Of The Beehive" is always in service of its narrative heart. , in the tradition of sixties and seventies concept albums. There's a story being told here. And its evident in the lyrics to the songs. From the first track to the last, Sylvian plays the poet, always opaque, not giving away anything. Every word is carefully chosen and placed in the melodies that sneak under and above the arrangements.
It's not all flawless, of course. Sylvian comes from the "schooled" school of verse. And some of the lyrics tend to come across as too... too... well... overly precious. Bring out the evidence, please...
From "Mother And Child": "Shadows form knights and pawns Upon the squares Blood is drawn up from the well Secret signs brought the crime Right to your door An innocent guilty as hell"
From "September": "The sun shines high above The sounds of laughter The birds swoop down upon The crosses of old grey churches We say that we're in love While secretly wishing for rain Sipping coke and playing games"
From "Orpheus": "Sunlight falls, my wings open wide There's a beauty here I cannot deny And bottles that tumble and crash on the stairs Are just so many people I knew never cared Down below on the wreck of the ship Are a stronghold of pleasures I couldn't regret But the baggage is swallowed up by the tide As Orpheus keeps to his promise and stays by my side"
They're beautifully written, I can't deny that. The man is a skilled wordsmith. But at some point, you kind of tune out from what he's saying... because you're not really sure if you should be paying attention or not at all. Still it fits the sombre mood of the album...
One of the standout tracks, "The Boy With The Gun" has some of the more straightforward though harrowing lyrics about a mass murderer. "He carves out the victim's names In the wooden butt of the gun He leans well back against the tree He knows his kingdom's come He'll breathe a sigh self satisfied The work is in good hands He shoots the coins into the air And follows where the money lands"
Dark they may be, what makes this album bearable is really Sylvian's voice. If the material had been channelled through anyone else's pipes, it would've been either too dramatic or lack enough gravitas to pull it together. By the time this album came out, Sylvian's voice had deepened from the rather reedy voice of his younger Japan days, and has remained so until today.
A tad raspy but smooth like Cognac, Sylvian's voice has a gorgeous echoey baritone quality to it. It's very sexy... not like any other voice I've ever heard. Even when he reaches for the higher notes, that baritone doesn't let go. First time listeners may think it's rather monotonous... but that maybe because Sylvian doesn't do melismas...
But he does do that quiver... especially when he stretches a note at the end of a line. More of a tremolo than a vibrato. Sort of like how Billie Holiday does it. I love it. I love the thrill of hearing that trill in a voice. I try to emulate it all the time. And hearing David Sylvian do it is like having gold poured into my ears. Sonic orgasm...
Which goes to explain why I listen to this album almost once every week... it's definitely a keeper.
This morning I was asked if I was a "political" person. I took it to mean if it meant that current political affairs concern me. My answer was both yes and no.
No, because politics is really boring to me. Not to mention depressing. Because if you take a step back and really look at Malaysian politics, it's really nothing but an elaborate power game played between neofeudalists. And I think that's just fucking boring. But still... what these overgrown boys get up to affects all of us.
The government issues our ICs and passports and licenses. They can put anyone of us under ISA for who knows what. The (blatantly racist) New Economic Policy determines which one of us gets a bigger piece of the pie (and let me remind you that it's not ideal). All things considered, how can anyone not be "political"?
So. Therefore. Yes, I am "political" person.
Being a "political" person, however, is not such a rare thing. Most of us are political without really knowing when or how or if we're involved in a political action. Being political need not necessarily mean attending marches or rallies or getting a elbow (or bladder) cramps from marathon letter-writing campaigns. It's about taking a stand. For something that you believe is right.
Of course, it doesn't mean one should be physically standing there in front of the enemy, waiting for someone to cast the first stone... please lah. That's just Hollywood bravado.
While sometimes taking it to the streets is the most dramatic way of bringing attention to an issue, I prefer political actions that are more creative in nature. That not only highlight the issue but connect it to something more or less fantastic. The Emergency Festival organised by Five Arts Centre last year was definitely a political action that was creative. I saw it as a big "fuck you" to the state sanctioned version of history, in particular the Malayan Emergency, which painted the Malaysian Communist Party and their guerilla struggle as terrorists and terrorism. But that was not the whole story. It was armed and it was violent, on both sides. And both sides had political agendas with consequences that affect us until today.
Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels and animated film "Persepolis" are not only touching works of autobiography but also reveal themselves to be a strong indictment against the government of Iran which has killed not only innocent people, but also more importantly, dreams, and replacing them with fear and suspicion.
Other examples abound.
Putting out zines, documentaries, films, books, paintings, letters to editors, making flags, coming up with new recipes, writing songs about it, etc -- these are all creative ways of stating one's political position. And the best thing about such strategies is that not only are they enjoyable to do, they present us as not merely pawns in someone else's political chessgame. We are all citizens with equal rights. Our level of education and stations in life should not hamper our access to those rights. Doing things that draw not only from our political stand but also from our creative ingenuity reinforces the reasons why these rights are vital in the first place: because we are humans. Our lives, no matter how inconsequential they may seem along the vast continuum of this planet's history, matter to us all. The fight against cynicism is vital. We are not machines along an assemblyline the state can turn on and off as it wishes.
And the way to make people stand up and notice when we stand up for ourselves and the people whom we care about is to do it creatively. With crayons and helmets and fairy dust!
Anyway, this long and aimless and somewhat naive rant is really to say this: please RPK don't kill yourself because of "that man". It's not worth it. The country needs you to stay alive! it's the only way we'll understand that heroes don't have to be martyrs to win the battle.
During my eight-year musical sojourn in KL, one thing has struck me as particularly odd. That there's actually not that many gay men who are making music. Or at least not in the underground scene where I ply my so-called singer songwriter trade. (I don't really know about the pop world... but I reckon there's a few there.)
Not that the lack of representation is anything to be alarmed about.
But I wonder why it's so.
Why is it that underground music is predominantly populated by hetero dudes? Even when they wear really flamboyant clothes or have flirted with the frilly edges of questionable un-macho behaviour, they're very much straight. And they will tell it to your face if you dare so much as to "suggest" that perhaps the time has come to put the "experiment" to the "test".
Which explains why I'm a bit of a loner on the indie circuit. Not only am I more or less a pink punk, I come with a history of social awkwardness. In the early days, I just didn't really know what to do or how to act around the "guys". I've always hung out in a close circle of gay friends. But wanting to do music and deciding to do it indie-style and all, I had to leave that comfort zone and hang out with all these straight guys. Which in a way represents a sort of a return to the dreaded "closet". But at the same time, it was also a bit of a relief to get away from all things pink.
Sei Hon, one third of the Troubadours alongwith with Azmyl, once jokingly commented that I was the straightest gay man he's ever known. Hurray? Must have been all those boob comments I was making... but you know it's true... I do notice women's boobs... and I can appreciate a girl just for her looks... shiver... and I have been known to drop a few misogynistic jibes... tsk tsk tsk... not to mention all those girls I've kissed... shameless is what this blog entry is...
Anyway, when I'm around the guys, I try my best at least not to "stare". Which is not always the easiest thing since some of the guys who go to the gigs are really cute... ah... I've had a few crushes... Shah the lead singer of Love Me Butch is right at the top of the list...
And who doesn't have a crush on Ron of Furniture? But since Ron's a good friend, you know... gay or straight... the rules are the same... bonking one's friends is a huge NO-NO... NO NO NO...
Ha ha ha... sorry Ron... didn't mean to single you out but it's so easy to tease you because you're such a lovable raging hetero hunk... ;-p
Anyway, among my peers, I can count maybe four or five gay musicians who are more or less "out". One of whom is a close friend, and we sometimes compare notes on who's cute and who's not... ha ha ha...
Still it's rather endearing how the indie community has more or less accepted as one of their own (well, in a cursory way, I guess). My sexuality doesn't really get discussed. Except once in a while, when one of the guys gets curious as to what really happens... hmm... those are times I wish their curiosity got the better of them... but maybe I'm not such a great seducer after all. In all my years as a wannabe musician, the only musician I've ever slept with didn't even really like my music. Ha ha ha... I swear it's an elaborate cosmic conspiracy to get me to write more depressing songs! Ha ha ha...
Nevertheless, it's very gratifying when a cute guy comes up to me after a gig or writes me an email and tells me he really likes my music... LOL... I remember this one cute guy who came up to me after a gig, with his girlfriend in tow. That was really sweet... but in a way it's good too... I'll never have the hangup of having too many groupies (what a liar!).
Thankfully for the scene there are a number of lesbian musicians, and they definitely outnumber their gay counterparts. It's a good thing. I'd like to see more women (doesn't matter if they're lesbian or not) in the local indie scene. I think the successes of young female talents like Liyana of Estrella, Yuna, and Zee Avi aka KokoKaina, definitely contributes to a more balanced musical diet for the rest of us.
Are there any local gay musicians that I look up to? I wish I could name them here. But it's probably not a wise thing to out them unnecessarily. At the end of the day, the merits of a good musician should not be decided based on his or her sexual preferences. God knows I wouldn't want to be known as a "gay musician", though I don't mind being known as a musician who is incidentally gay.
Even though this whole blog entry just contradicted that last point.
I can't help it. I'm queer. And most of my songs are about the guys I failed to secure.
Just goes to show that you don't have to be straight to go emo... LOL...
All good things come to an end... The Actors Studio at Bangsar Shopping Centre is closing down after many years of presenting some of the best theatre in town. I remember watching many plays, dance and music performances there, including Jit Murad's Spilt Gravy On Rice which remains one of the best Malaysian plays I've ever seen ... but I've never performed there myself... (Why ah?)
... until now that is! I'll be performing three songs this Friday at TAS Bangsar, alongside a whole lot of other talented musicians, as part of the theatre's farewell celebrations this weekend (which goes on with more celebrations next week!!!).
Still, it's a bit of a shame that my first and only time performing on the stage of TAS Bangsar will also be the last. It's like finally getting to score with the guy I've been eyeing for the longest time only to find out he's leaving for Antartica the next day. Bummer...
Well, at least it'll be a blast... I haven't performed alongside these guys and gals for a while so I'm definitely looking forward to be part of it all.
All the gigs are FREE btw! Just pick up your tickets from the box office!
The full lineup below:
Friday 20 February, 8.30pm Tan Sei Hon Ida Lisa Jerome Kugan 13 Voices In My Head Peter Brown and Markiza Tony Leo With guest appearances by Pang Khee Teik and Priya K
Saturday 21 February, 8.30pm Blister Ariff Akhir Wani Ardy Azmyl Yunor Edwin & Albert Silent Scenery With guest appearances by Fahmi Fadzil and Ciplak
Sunday 22 February, 3pm Otam Ian Chow Jasemaine Gan Izzy Mohamed Broken Scar Rashdan Harith With guest appearance by Farah Rani
All shows hosted by the irrepressible Fahmi Fadzil!
When I listen back to my songs, a fair majority of them tend to deal with themes other than romantic love. It's true. I don't write much about love. Most of the songs on Songs For A Shadow deal more with death, loneliness, social injustice, imaginary people, etc. Only one or two vague pronouncements of love... hmm...
But lately I've been writing more about love. I guess it's because I came late into it. During my twentysomething years, I was very much skeptical that such a thing existed. I thought love was really more about business... even though I did fall head over heels for a few hopeless guys...
It took a while to understand how wonderful love is. And how actually to sustain it... not to say that I have. It takes a lot of commitment. And a kind of understanding beyond words. Also chemistry. Also patience. Little things, big things... the right situation, the right timing... there's no easy formula.
And yet... in music... love is such a cliche. Because they often can't describe fully how it feels like to be in love. Some songs come close though. Especially the sad ones. Maybe I'm just a sad feller, but I prefer listening to sad love songs than happy ones. Happy love songs somehow have never conveyed for me the reality of the hapless state of love.
There's a song called "It's Only A Paper Moon" where the lyrics go: "Say, it's only paper moon/ Sailing over a cardboard sea/ But it wouldn't be makebelieve/ If you believed in me". It's kind of sweet and rather witty. And most probably inspired by the fake sets of the Hollywood musicals where many of these chirpy lovey dovey songs were first launched into the popular imagination.
I prefer the more tragic side of the love song genre. And no one does it better than Billie Holiday, of course. The woman is tragedy herself. On "I'm A Fool To Want You", the opening song from one of her last studio albums "Lady In Satin", her voice has been reduced to a painful croak from years of alcohol and drug abuse, she sings of hopelessly pining for someone who... well... basically... doesn't love her back, and she knows it.
"I'm a fool to want you I'm a fool to want you To want a love that can't be true A love that's there for others too
I'm a fool to hold you Such a fool to hold you To seek a kiss not mine alone To share a kiss that Devil has known
Time and time again I said I'd leave you Time and time again I went away But then would come the time when I would need you And once again these words I had to say
Take me back, I love you ...I need you I know it's wrong, it must be wrong But right or wrong I can't get along
But she can't help herself... I know the feeling... and I suspect a lot of people have felt it at least once... especially those of us who fall for the philandering type. Ah... love... what a fabulously twisted thing...
It's not easy to carry songs of unrequited love, of regret, loss and madness... it takes real life experience. And Billie Holiday definitely had tons of it. Abandoned as a child, raped, hanging out with men of dubious character... it would make anyone run to the pharmacy. Naturally, for someone with so much grief and with that amazing voice, Billie channeled her despair through her music, offering generations of depressed fools a voice of cold consolation.
Whereas other singers often try to pep you up, kick you out of your low spirits, Billie just pours it on, telling you like it is, bourbon and all. And I think that's why she's stuck around for so long. The sorrow is so direct, and yet so cleverly twisted around her handling of the melody, her vibrato like some kind of glass hammer on the fragile node of one's psyche. When I first listened to Billie about 15 years ago at the age of 18, I thought, "My god, she needs help" and later after listening to the whole CD "My god, I need help". She has that effect.
Anyway, I love Billie, amongst others... she's not the only one that I like though. Next diva would be Sarah Vaughan.
Yep. I'll be performing this Friday and Saturday night at The Annexe Gallery with lots of other people at Torch Song Massacre.
All the performers are partnered up. I'm partnering with Sherry, one of my favourite local singer songwriters. Together we're doing a 4-song set, each doing an original song and a cover. My original song is "You Will Be Mine", which I wrote last year and have been performing in most of my recent gigs. It's a song based on Thomas Mann's novel Death In Venice. And also I'm covering Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" -- a favorite of mine from the New Wave scene of the 1980s. Sherry will accompany me on both songs. He truly is an amazing guitarist!
I'm dedicating both songs to Julien, my ex. Some of my friends may think that's rather tragic. But since the two nights are about tragic love songs... LOL... I think the gesture is rather fitting.
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TORCH SONG MASSACRE Two Nights of Tragic Love Songs - On Friday the 13th & Valentine's Day
Fri 13 & 14 Feb, 2009, 8.30pm Presented by The Annexe Gallery Admission RM25 (Adults), RM20 (Students)
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Ah... tragic love songs. They have given cold comfort to countless lonely, miserable fools who are carrying their torches for their lost loves, keeping their flames alive in vain.
Where would we be without these gloomy tunes to soundtrack our pitiful moments of rejection and despair? From Billie Holiday to Madonna to P Ramlee, self-piteous tragic love songs are proof that not even the wisest among us have figured out that love comes with no warranty. But we know you love the pain.
Come join us at The Annexe Gallery as we present Torch Song Massacre, two nights of tragic love songs as performed by some of KL's best music and stage talents, including: Shanon Shah, Azmyl Yunor, Junji Delfino, David Gomes, Shanthini Venugopal, Llew Marsh, Zalina Lee, Sherry, Panda Head Curry?, 13 Voices In My Head, Jerome Kugan + special guest Rohaizad Suaidi.
Come with your Valentine date, or lone ranger if you must, and watch in delightful horror as these masters of tragedy butcher your favourite songs of heartbreak and make you cry, laugh and cry some more.
There will be a Mystery Misery Lucky Draw for the unfortunate ones in the audience! For the rest, there will be a bar set up where you can drown your sorrows at reasonable prices.
Contrary to common knowledge, I don't not follow the political goings-on in our fairly unjust country. Two in particular which have really captured the country's attention have also swung like a gaggle of hooting macaques into my brain.
Macaques... dreadful animals... 1. The Kugan Case I had wanted to do a funny blog on the Kugan police brutality case but that would've been tasteless... our collective modesty should be outraged. Killers in uniform!
Even if Kugan had been guilty of theft, his sentence wouldn't have been death. No one has the right to take another person's life away like that. The police force is meant to protect, not kill. It's not the first case, for sure. I can only imagine the countless number of unreported cases. The police department and related governing bodies have to be made accountable for this. And the officers should be charged and tried and imprisoned for what they did. No one should be above the law.
Still it was kind of uncanny when I read the news online while back home for CNY and saw "Kugan Murders" among the headlines. A friend remarked to me a few days ago that he was so glad that I'm safe. He had thought I got thrown into jail and had been lynched because of my piercings. LOL. And then came that I Am Kugan campaign... oh...
"No, but I am actually Kugan." "No, you're not." "Yes, I am." "How can you be a real Kugan if everyone claims to be Kugan?" "?"
2. Silver Frogs And then there is Perak... what can I say? It's undemocratic, unethical. And people are asking: "How can? How can?" Oh yes they can! They've done it before... in Sabah in the 1990s... when the Federal government manouevred and brought down the-then-Opposition Parti Bersatu Sabah.
Ironically, if I'm not mistaken, that manure-vre was executed by then DPM Anwar. And now, well... Najib may seem villainously triumphant, but the real disappointment was how Pakatan wanted to do it in the first place, after the March 8 elections. They didn't manage to pull themselves together to do it, of course. But the intention was made public. And now everyone's crying foul over BN's wangledoodling.
Clearly, something is very amiss with Pakatan's political mission.
Which makes me think: what really is Malaysian politics if not just another pissing contest for overgrown boys in overpriced silk batik drag?
I like watching music videos. And I've embedded some of my favourites here.
I like it when they're trashy and funny. Or weird and fantastic.
[Note: Those who are reading this on Facebook will have to hop over to my blog to see the vids.]
The selection below includes vids by Roisin Murphy, Goldfrapp, Grace Jones, Bjork, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Grizzly Bear, Jose Gonzalez, Sufjan Stevens and Ed Bassmaster... yes, Ed Bassmaster the guy who likes dogs...
Roisin Murphy hangs out with trannies in "Movie Star"
Goldfrapp celebrates trashy glamour in "Ride A White Horse"
Grace Jones wants to eat you in "Corporate Cannibal"
Bjork rides a river with strange friends in "Wanderlust"
Bonnie "Prince" Billy pays strangers to make out in "Lay & Love"
Grizzly Bear sink in quicksand in "Knife"
Jose Gonzalez flirts with paperdolls in "Hand On Your Heart"
Sufjan Stevens performing "To Be Alone With You" live - nothing special about the vid, I just love the song :-)
Yeah... life sometimes take a tumble through the Republic of Self-Piteous Miserablisms.
Although I have much to be thankful for in my life - wonderful friends in KL, a nifty job, family members who love me despite my strangeness and loving vibes all around - there is still that heartbrake episode early this year that I'm still trying to get over.
It comes and goes. I've written poems about it... LOL... click here to read them...
But... as I've said, it comes and goes. Some days I feel like screaming. Some days I'm fine and dandy. Today's one of those days when I'm just sadly reminiscing about his face, his smell, his hair, his voice, his conversation topics...
Oh well... it's strange. I don't usually write such frank things about my personal life. I guess he affected me more than I thought was possible. And he's still affecting me... the motions, people... it's the motions!
His name I've already mentioned in a previous post about that song.
Hey... look on the bright side... maybe I can milk more songs and poems out of this... LOL.
Still... however... alas... would anyone forgive me if I say that all I really want more than anything is to be with him again?
So fuckin sad.
Oh well... at least it'll prepare me for the Torch Song Massacre gig at Annexe Gallery... I'll be singing tragic love songs for it... how fuckin awful... someone drown me in KY jelly now!
JK is a writer, poet, musician and artistice based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In April 2008, he released his electro-acoustuche debut album "Songs For A Shadow". Currently figuring out his second also electro acoustuche album "City Of Mud". And oh he's done other stuff too.