Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Geezer Rock

I turned the TV on early Monday morning here in Bangkok not so much to watch the Superbowl as to see if Pete (at 64) and Rog (65) could still strut their stuff. Half a Who, after all, is better than no Who at all.

The Monday Morning Quarterbacks were divided. Writer Todd Everett, a friend from the music business daze, drolled on Facebook: "Talkin' 'bout an abomination..." My bass-playing friend from Guitar Player Magazine, Ferd Mulhern, wrote that "half a who is less than the sun of its parts. Lame." Townshend's guitar playing was "very good," he added, but "the vocals sucked." Son Chris was prepared for the worst, but found them "pretty awesome." John Mendelssohn, rock critic for the Los Angeles Times in the 1970's, titled his blog post "So Sad About Us" and refused to watch "the superannuated half of a group that should have been dissolved the day the first of them died." Ellen Sander wrote, "All right! Rockin OUT! I'm going to forgive the medley. Hard to type while dancing." One critic noted that Pete's "belly made an unwelcome TV debut as it flapped out of his shirt on Sunday." Daltrey told an interviewer, "What can you do in 12 minutes? I thought it went OK. It's a TV show. Cameras were everywhere. I was so blinded that I couldn't see." Pete said, "We were trying to put on a great show. We had as much fun as we could have."

No, it wasn't the full group I watched up close and personal during the Quadrophenia tour of 1973 when I was publicity director for their U.S. record company. Pete's windmills and Rog's microphone-held hand raising seemed pale reiterations of their original moves. Despite the overkill of lights and pyrotechnics in the stadium, each looked as if they were having fun and the songs retained the cutting edge spirit that made them anthems of the 60s and 70s. The surviving front men at the Miami event were backed by Ringo's son Zak on drums, Pete's younger brother Simon on rhythm guitar, bassist Pino Palladino, and keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick.

I missed the manic Keith Moon who trashed the record company hotel suite in Montreal with Pete's help and got us all thrown in jail. And the stoic Ox, John Entwistle, should have been there as well. Sure, it's decidedly odd to sing about a "teenage wasteland" when you're only a few years away from a rest home. But give the old geezers credit. They prove that rock and roll will never die, and will never fade away either. Child protection advocates protested Townshend's appearance at the Superbowl because of his 2003 arrest for viewing online child pornography. He avoided a jail term by claiming it was for research purposes only, but was ordered to register as a sex offender for five years. Another couple of geezers, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both 66, toured with the Rolling Stones last in 2007 and rumors have them going on the road again this year. Despite faces ravaged by age, their energy seems inexhaustible. Mick has seven children by four wives, and Keith was the model for Johnny Depp's characterization of Capt. Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie series (the rocker played the pirate's father in one film). As their record company publicist, I watched the Stones record in Jamaica and perform onstage in Hawaii back in their glory days. The music retains its primal growl even though Jagger is now Sir Mick. (Richards reportedly said he did not want to take the stage with someone wearing a "coronet and sporting the old ermine. It's not what the Stones is about, is it?")

Another old geezer, 62-year-old Elton John, also the recipient of a British knighthood, showed up at the Grammy Awards recently in the company of 24-year-old Lady Gaga. The piano-playing pair opened the show, and it was overkill all the way. I was present at Elton's America debut at a small club in Los Angeles in 1970 before the wild outfits and crazy glasses took over and "Your Song" from his first album has always been my favorite. On the Grammy telecast he sang an updated version with Gaga on a Siamese piano topped by black arms and hands. Both were smudged with ashes from Gaga's earlier performance of "Poker Face." Go figure. The entire show, aside from a few moments, was mystifying to me. Music has changed drastically since I was involved in the 1970s. Can I be forgiven for thinking it seems like another disco interlude, when surface effects hide an absence of depth? Is Pink an acrobat or a singer?

I feel like an old geezer mostly when I try to sit on the floor to eat lunch with my students after class on Saturday mornings. I'm teaching the five Buddhist precepts in English to graduate students in education administration. Most but not all are monks who know much more about Buddhist morality than I. It was easy enough to give them the English words for the precepts to abstain from killing, stealing and lying, but explaining the meaning of sexual misconduct was more of a challenge. Fortunately, most of the lay people stayed home to study for a test. I told the monks the Dalai Lama was against homosexuality but that the Buddha had not mentioned it anywhere. In Buddhism, the precepts are like training wheels on a bike for helping the follower live a moral life without falling. They are not commandments like the Judeo-Christian rules given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. If Buddhists fall, they pick themselves up and start all over again rather than go to hell. This week I will try to explain to them why they should avoid intoxicants as well as various drugs that cause heedlessness. On the way to class last week I spotted the pink commuter bus that takes students daily to the new campus at Wang Noi near Ayutthaya. On the back was my photo which was taken last year to promote the new language center. I couldn't teach in the center this term but may do during the next term which begins in May.

After a couple of months of avoiding the Buddhist expat community, I attended two talks in the past couple of weeks. Last Monday, Ajahn Kusalo from Tisarana Monastery in eastern Canada, spoke about the desires that prevent us from the happiness of living in the present moment. Speaking from personal experience, he asked himself if he could be happy with cancer (despite lymphatic cancer, the answer was yes). Desire for what we don't have (health, wealth) can be stilled by stabilizing the mind. As a father who ordained in New Zealand after his marriage ended, Ajahn Kusalo evoked this by describing how he held his crying son until the tears stopped. "The mind is like a child," he said. As someone with cancer (who would prefer it to go away), his advice was particularly poignant. But I had problems with his advice to not buy a newspaper and get rid of gadgets. Fine if you're a monk who has renounced the world, but not good advice for a lay person. Ajahn Amaro, a British monk who is co-abbot of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in California, spoke two weeks earlier about the clinging to sense pleasures that holds us back from liberation. He described the movement from "I like" across a bridge to "I want," and finally to "I gotta have." For Ajahn Amaro and many Buddhists, there is an inevitable disappointment even after we get what we want, almost as strong as when we do not realize our desires. "Desire is a liar," he told his audience of English-speaking expats. To argue that sense pleasure always engenders the dependency of addiction goes too far, I believe. Sensual pleasure is not so much the problem, I think, as wanting it to continue forever. Desire gets a bad rap from Buddhists. Must we avoid the beauty of a sunset or the love of a child? Ajahn Kusalo, when asked the difference between sense desire and the desire for enlightement, described the later as an "aspiration" which I think is to play unhelpfully with words. Liberation, I suspect, will come from the full acceptance of change.

It's been a busy time for films in Bangkok. Our IDEA discussion group watched a DVD of "Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country," a documentary by Danish filmmaker Anders Ostergaard from pictures take by Burmese video journalists during the protests against the military regime led by monks in the late summer of 2007. The scenes of crowded streets filled with cheering people before the crackdown made it apparent how much the generals are hated. "Burma VJ" was nominated last week for an Academy Award. The next week some of us went to the Foreign Correspondents Club for a screening of "Breaking the Silence," a documentary by Canadians Pierre Mignault and Helene Magny newly translated into English about the ethnic Karen within Burma who are struggling for independence and freedom. Then John Solt returned to Bangkok for his second annual (and last) Buddhist Film Festival at Thammasat University. I only saw two of the films over a two week period but they were both terrific. "The Burmese Harp" is a Japanese film made in 1956 that takes place during the ending of the war in Burma, and it's an eloquent testament to non-violence after the horror of conflict. "Enlightenment Guaranteed" is a comedy about brotherly love between two Germans that surfaces in a Japanese monastery." Made in cinema verité style by director Doris Dorrie in 2001, the film says more about the Buddhist dharma (zen in this case) than many a dhamma talk. I'm trying to see as many of the Oscar-nominated films as I can before the March 7th (the next day here) ceremony, and have been most impressed recently by "A Serious Man," "Up in the Air," "An Education" and "Invictus." None have played in the big Bangkok multiplexes so I have to resort to subterfuge. Nan and I saw Jackie Chan in "The Spy Next Door" and laughed a bit, but of course it's not in the running. Director Oliver Stone recently came to speak at the Foreign Correspondents Club and gave an entertaining political rant. I'm looking forward to his "Wall Street 2" as well as his TV series on the secret history of the U.S. (R.I.P., Howard Zinn).

As for books (R.I.P., J.D. Salinger), I just finished Naomi Klein's master narrative of the last 35 years of political economics, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. We'll discuss it on Friday at our monthly IDEA Group meeting. For those who can't breeze through its 560 pages as I did, I've downloaded the Michael Winterbottom documentary of the same name. But I do not think the feature-length film does the densely researched book justice. Klein bookends the recent tragic histories of countries, from Chile to Russia to Sri Lanka to Iraq, by comparing electroshock experiments in psychiatry which contributed to torture techniques with the neoconservative economic theory developed by Milton Friedman that advocates destroying economies in order to rebuild them, through privatization, deregulation and drastic cuts in social spending. Friedman's idea that freedom and absolute laissez faire economics go hand in hand was adopted by leaders from Pinochet to Reagan, Thatcher, Yeltsin, the two Bushes and even Nelson Mandela. But Klein provides ample evidence that an unregulated free market in every case only enriches the wealthy and impoverishes the poor. Even more horrifying is her story of how the United States government was privatized. Just as global corporations are now hollowed-out brands, subcontracting everything, under Bush and Cheney the federal government was also downsized and hollowed out, leaving the real work to subcontractors (more of whom are in Iraq than soldiers on the federal payroll). I'd like to know how much of this Obama has (or even can) turn around. Shock Doctrine is an unbelievably important book for the 21st century and any hope of restoring democracy to the planet.

This Sunday is an unusual confluence of holidays. Besides Valentine's Day, February 14th is also Chinese New Year, a very big holiday in Asia, and also the beginning of the Year of the Tiger. The shopping malls of full of red and cold decorations and various depictions of the tiger. Tiger prints are very popular in the clothing stores and stalls. And the infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand is coming under renewed scrutiny for what wildlife activists consider cruel treatment of its animals. My friend Michael treasures the photos taken of him snuggling up to a tiger during his trip there last year, but the evidence I've seen condemns the practice of turning wild animals into pets for the enjoyment of tourists. I don't know whether to give Nan red roses and chocolates before or after our evening visit to Chinatown where, if last year is any guide, a million people or more will crowd into the streets to enjoy the festivities. Valentine's Day is another holiday that Thais have adopted, perhaps for crass commercial reasons (the tourists in the shopping malls feel more at home). I suppose you could say the same for Chinese New Year, but since most Thais have Chinese blood somewhere in their ancestry, it's a time they embrace with zest, fireworks and dragons.

1 comment:

Emilie said...

Thanks Will for your insight on what may be your "homeland".

We shall see where this leads you, but for the present you are hear ...now with your presence.

I like "What I'm trying to say here is that having a homeland does not necessarily provide security, and that not having one does not mean one is deprived." Thanks again,
EmilieK