Sunday, November 30, 2008

On the Brink in Bangkok

The bloody terrorist siege in Mumbai may have ended, but not the one in Bangkok. Three bombs ovenight wounded more than 45 at three different locations.

For an estimated 100,000 visitors stranded in Thailand, it has been a nightmare since several thousand members of a motley mob of anti-government protesters stormed into Souvarnabhumi International Airport last Tuesday and shut it down. A day later another wing of the group closed the domestic airport at Don Muang, effectively grounding all flights from the Thai capital. The affluent, like Denmark's Prince Frederik and his wife, Princess Mary who left Friday, can get out via chartered jets from U-tapao military base 12o miles southeast of the city, but this airport facility, now stretched to the limit, can handle only limited commercial flights. Thousands are now packed into its small terminal waiting to be airlifted out. The government has promised tourists in temporary housing compensation of 2000 baht a day, enough for a roach-infested room and several drinks at a strip club, according to one wag. The adventurous have taken buses or trains hundreds of miles to airports on the southern island of Phuket or in the northern city of Chiang Mai or have traveled overland all the way to neighboring Laos, Cambodia or Malaysia. But many are stuck in "The Land of Smiles" until the standoff at the airports is resolved.

And that might not be any time soon, although the airport authority anounced optimistically that Souvarnabhumi is closed "until Monday." Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat remains in Chiang Mai along with his now dysfunctional government, possibly fearing a much rumored military coup. The general in charge of security in the country refuses to act, and Somchai fired the national police chief when he likewise did nothing. The new chief has stationed several thousand police around the airports, but yesterday protesters attacked a police checkpoint outside Suvarnabhumi Airport, disabling 10 police vehicles and forcing security forces to retreat. A similar confrontation occurred again in the evening. Despite this police presence, demonstrators continued to stream into the airport to join the well-organized sit-in which is amply provisioned with water, food, medical supplies and blankets. Rumors hint at wealthy backers who support their goal of toppling the Somchai government

“We are ready to talk,” Lt. Gen. Chalong Somjai of the Thai police said in a news conference at a police station near Suvarnabhumi. “We are trying to bring this to a peaceful conclusion.” And that precisely is the problem. A small group of anti-government fanatics, the ill-named Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), is holding the country hostage, demanding that a democratically-elected government fall because of its alleged ties to the hated exiled PM, Thaksin Shinawatra. The shutdown of the airports is a disaster for Thailand. It will probably take years for the tourist industry to recover, along with the hundreds of thousands of jobs it provides for a country where poverty is still widespread. Beside this, the inconvenience of the tourists and businessmen is small potatoes. How could this happen?

There is a complicated back story to the crisis which I do not fully comprehend, and probably could not report because of stict laws that prohibit mention of the royal family. Politics is a large part of it. Next week the courts are expected to force the administration's People's Power Party to disband because of vote-buying (a common practice) in the last election. But PPP members will shift over to another party quickly. The timing is important because some may not be eligible to run in the next election. PAD apparently will push for a select group of elites to head a temporary council which could force regulations limiting the ability of its opponents to regain control of the government. A fair election would undoubtedly elect politicians sympathetic to Thaksin's agenda (he remains influential in exile) because of electoral majorities in the north and northeast. PAD's anti-demoncratic policies would disenfranchise them. Added to these considerations is the birthday of the King next Friday. Since all sides profess allegiance to the monarchy, any conflict or violence on his birthday would be anathema.

Given all this, I am not a pacifist. The PAD leaders and their well-armed guards are fascist thugs and should be removed immediately. Their ideology has attracted a wide variety of mostly middle-class citizens (primarily female) with enough time on their hands to spend at the non-stop rallies. They besieged the government offices for three months before closing down the airports and damaging the future of the country they profess to love. An ill-managed attempt to evict them from Government House a month ago resulted in one death and many injuries because police used exploding tear gas cannisters from China. Past demonstrations that were surpressed by authorities in 1976 and 1992 left scores of protesters dead and wounded, so the government is understandably careful. But the PAD cross the line months ago. Its assemblies have not been peaceful. No government can allow its functioning to be so compromised by a small group of people. So the authorities now must clear out the sit-in and reopen the airports, and soon.

Sometimes I think the world is going insane, despite Obama's victory. I read of a Wal-Mart employee trampled to death in Nassau County, New York, on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, the day that consumers flock to worship in stores across America. And across the country in Palm Desert, where my brother practices law, two men shot each other to death in the aisles of a Toys R Us store, presumably because their wives were fighting over some desired toy for their kids.

There will no doubt be casualties in the battle to retake Souvarnabhumi and Don Muang. PAD members have vowed to fight to the death. The crowd is filled with old women and children who will be helpless to escape. What is missing at the moment is resolve on the part of Somchai and his ministers and will on the part of the security forces who must carry out the necessary dirty work. The red-shirted supporters of Somchai and his government have been relatively restrained, except for the overnight bombings. Today a large demonstration has been called for Sanam Luang. I was planning to go there to visit the crematorium built for the funeral of the Princess. But I will wear neither red nor yellow, the color for PAD members. Until the crisis is resolved, I find myself holding my breath.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

No-Fly Zone in Thailand

Hundreds of American tourists who have been vacationing in Thailand will be late for Thanksgiving dinner today. They're stuck in Bangkok after a large mob of yellow-clad anti-government protesters, some masked and armed with metal rods, invaded Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok Tuesday night and shut it down. Tourism is crucial to Thailand's economty and the busiest season begins next week. Although Suvarnabhumi (pronounced su-va'-na-pum') is the world's 18th largest airport and a major hub for Asian flights, police guarding the facility were ineffective and help from the powerful Thai military was absent. Why?

The protest, which began six months ago, was organized by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) with the aim of toppling any elected government it sees as allied to the hated former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, now in exile and on the run. It doesn't help that the current prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, is married to Thaksin's sister. The People's Power Party, a stand-in for Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party which was banned after a military coup unseated him in 2006, won a majority of votes in an election nearly a year ago, with support primarily from the rural north and northeast. Conservative factions in Bangkok and the south were unhappy with the outcome and took to the streets earlier this year. Their stated goal is to annul the power of the poor (deemed ignorant and corruptable) in Thailand and install a minority government managed for the interests of elites. "We sympathise with the passengers, but this is a necessary move to save the nation," PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul told supporters at the airport. "If he [Somchai] doesn't resign, I will not leave." "Democracy," ha!

As I blogged on Tuesday, the PAD was losing steam and desperate. They had taken over government offices three months ago and the politicians and bureaucrats moved to temporary quarters at the older Don Muang Airport. They have twice blockaded Parliament to prevent debate on constitutional issues they fear will bring back Thaksin. Declaring a "final showdown" this week (the second so far), they forced Parliament again to postpone its session and surrounded the Don Muang offices with thousands of mostly middle-class supporters who seem to have found a new social life in the festive traveling demonstration, waving ridiculous hand-clappers and singing patriotic songs. But the government's passive approach to the protest, allowing the mob to wander where it wanted, backfired when PAD leaders sent thousands of cars and trucks with supporters to Suvarnabhumi where Prime Minister Somchai was due to return from a meeting in Peru.

Violence is now rearing its ugly head (contrary to my headline here on Tuesday). A pro-government mob in Chiang Mai dragged a PAD activist from his car before shooting and killing him yesterday. Four bombs were exploded at the airport. In Bangkok there was television footage of a PAD guard firing on pro-government demonstrators while next to him someone held up a large photograph of the King. Both sides of the now large divide claim allegiance to the monarch, whom Thais revere as almost divine, and look to him for guidance. But the 80-year-old ruler, who has intervened successfully in past political disputes, remains silent. Somchai supposedly had an audience with him yesterday but nothing has been reported.

Yesterday Gen. Anupong Paochinda, the commander of the Army whom Somchai had put in charge of security during his absence, bluntly advised the prime minister to dissolve his government and pave the way for new elections. “The government should return the power to people,” he told reporters. The prime minister refused. “This government was elected by the people under the king,” Somchai said on his return, his plane landing at Chiang Mai to avoid protestors. “The government will carry out its duty to the fullest for the benefit of the country and the benefit of the people.” Speaking on Thai TV last night, he condemned the seizure of the airport as illegal, undemocratic and a threat to democracy and the well-being of the country. The stand-off continues.

"The incident has damaged Thailand's reputation and its economy beyond repair," airport director Serirat Prasutanont said. The takeover by the PAD mob is one more strike against Thailand's $16 billion a year tourism industry, already damanged by months of political unrest and the global financial crisis. Over 40 million passengers passed through the glittering new Suvarnabhumi in 2007. Besides angry tourists who will probably never return, the closure hurts thousands of workers dependent on the airport, from taxi drivers to airline workers and sales clerks in store shops. A friend who does massage on Koh Lanta has seen few customers so far this year and is suffering from the lack of income. Most countries have issued travel advisories for Thailand, telling their citizens to stay away.

Gen. Anupong's refusal to prevent the airport takeover or restore order after it was accomplished is very difficult for me to understand. I can think of no other country that would allow protesters to occupy its government offices for months or close an international airport. Some have called Anupong's inaction and his call to dissolve the government a "passive coup." "There's no doubt this suggestion was not a very veiled threat by the army," said Chris Baker, a historian and political analyst. "They're saying to the prime minister, if you don't go, there's the threat of a coup. I think it might happen." The PAD is very well supported. They feed their troops, entertain them, and provide portable bathrooms. This takes money from somewhere. Who is paying them?

When I talk to Thais about this crisis which has brought their country to the verge of anarchy and chaos, they hint at mysterious forces behind the scenes who support the PAD and are intent on controling the government and the electorate to serve their ends. No names are mentioned. To speak ill of the powers that be here is a punishable offense, as a poor Australian, who self-published a novel insufficiently respectful, discovered when he was thrown into jail four months ago.

Ian Williams, discussing "Thailand's Political Maze" on the MSNBC web site, says that none of this "is openly discussed by the Thai media, which is shackled by strict lèse-majesté laws which make it a crime to offend the monarchy, but the future of the Chakri Dynasty goes to the heart of the current power struggle. One seasoned journalist summed it up nicely: 'Covering this crisis is like trying to explain the unexplainable, without mentioning the unmentionable.' Writing in the Bangkok Post today, Thitinan Pongsudhirak believes that "the PAD has come this far in its thuggish ways is attributable to its powerful backing, without which its relative impunity in the face of flagrant violations of the law can hardly be explained." The longer the crisis continues, he sais, "the longer and more exposed and compromised the PAD's backers have become." They are continually "dragging them down to the cut-and-thrust of Thai Politics to their own detriment." Who the backers are is not spelled out, but local political observers have learned how to read between the lines. Thitinan thinks a dissolution of the government, buying time "for the various protagonists to come to their senses and for Thai voters to have a say after a year of turmoil and volatility," is the only solution now.

In the meantime, life goes on. I cannot emphasize enough that I see no evidence on the streets of the trouble not all that far away. The traffic is still bad, the air quality could be improved, and beggars block the sidewalks. I feel perfectly safe and believe that any violence will be directed against specific targets, not me. But Thais seem to be able to smile their way through difficulties that would daunt a westerner used to a generally-accepted rule of law and democratic ideals (however hypocritically voiced).

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nonviolence in the Streets

Anti-government mobs roamed the streets of Bangkok on Monday looking for a way to topple the government. But the government, like a good martial artist, avoided their thrust. As the Bangkok Nation described it, "their aggression was met with carrots rather than sticks by the Somchai government, which instructed the police to avoid any clashes and give way to the protesters." The violence of the previous weeks which was threatened yesterday was cleverly avoided.

Organized by the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the yellow-clad protesters, estimated at somewhere between 18,000 and 30,000, were participating in what leaders called, once again, a "final showdown" (the last one several weeks ago obviously did not do the job). They surrounded Parliament but were frustrated when lawmakers postponed the session. Then demonstrators blockaded the old Don Muang airport, where the Prime Minister had moved his offices after the PAD occupied Government House three months ago. But Thailand's PM, Somchai Wongsawat, was in Peru attending the Asia-Pacific economic summit meeting. Police guarding the temporary government headquarters allowed the crowds to gather without attempting to prevent their ultimately futile show of force. Pro-government supporters were thankfully absent.

Several stories in the local press illustrate the PAD's desperation. Armed men calling themselves PAD guards hijacked a bus at gunpoint to take them to the action. But police shot out the tires of the bus and arrested them. A truckload of protestors was stopped at a toll booth on the expressway to the old airport and tied up traffic when they refused to pay the fee. Power to various police and political offices was cut off by some protesters. The Education Ministry closed several local schools, and keepers at the nearby Dusit Zoo relocated some of their more tempermental animals - kangaroos, wallabies and elephants - to quieter holding areas.

Because violence was in the air, I stayed glued to the TV screen Monday morning, watching news reports on the Thai channel but understanding little. All seemed quiet except for mobs in a party mood wandering the now empty streets. There were no scenes of police firing tear gas like the clash that left demonstrators dead and wounded several weeks ago. Score 1 for the government, 0 for the PAD. The endless anti-government protest begun six months ago, which aimed in the name of "democracy" at shutting down a democratically-elected administration, appeared to be running out of steam. The expected crowd of 100,000 did not materialize; and the group's ability to attract followers seems to be diminishing. Their strategy of of provoking violence to produce a military coup has, for the moment, failed. But no one has the key to ending the stand-off.

On Sunday Marcus and I traveled the short distance from our digs in Pinklao to Mae Chee Brigitte's Phra Sanhachai International Meditation Center in Taling Chan. The Austrian mother of two is a nun who came to Thailand in 1989 and was ordained a year later. She began teaching meditationin 1992 and her center is located in a colorfully painted house on a quiet residential street on the outskirts of Bangkok. A half-dozen students speaking English and German, including a young woman from Brown University in Rhode Island, were staying in the guest dormitory.

We had come to see Phra Ajahn Sahapan, a former engineer who has been a monk for over 30 years, spending long periods on retreat in the caves and forests of Thailand. While his Thai was peppered with English phrases, his words were translated into both English and German by Mae Chee Brigitte. Frank, a Little Bang regular, had attended a previous afternoon talk and gave the Ajahn high marks. Rather than a prepared teaching, Phra Sahapan encouraged questions from the group of 15 who had come to hear him at the center. It included Thai men and women as well as farang. His answers, delivered in an energetic voice punctuated by smiles, covered a wide range of the Dhamma, the wisdom and insight taught by the Buddha.

A question about yawning during meditation led to a discussion of the five hindrances that prevent seeing things as they really are: desire, anger, doubt, anxiety and boredom. The two main forms of meditation, concentration and mindfulness, were described and their comparison dismissed. Both are valid. It is important to go deeper, he stressed, to understand cause and effect, kamma, and to know what true nature is. There is only movement, the kamma wind blowing, and not particular movements. This is our first duty, to obtain a clear undertanding of what we are experiencing.

The teacher said he could only offer a map for realization but that we had to do the work and decide where to walk. I was particularly encouraged when he said that the enlightened one still had to function in the world. So much teaching leads to the conclusion that the world must be abandoned, while I increasingly feel that my salvation can only be here, in the existence that I have been given. Thai people, Phra Sahapan said, echoing Buddhadasa Bhikku, do not understand Buddhism when they rely on rites and rituals. They need to cut off the belief that rituals can bring enlightenment. Marcus finds this difficult to accept because it sounds like an elitist position that demeans popular religiosity, and I tend to agree with him. Poor farmers and shop keepers have little time or energy for a rigorous meditation practice and the intellectual analysis of the Dhamma popular among wealthy westerners.

The truth is already in us, the monk said, sounding very Socratic. There is no hurry, and we must not work for a particular result. The more you want, the less freedom you get from the three temptations, anger, greed and delusion. Meditation, he said, should lead to the obsevation of change, impermanence; concentration makes this hard to see. Everything is change: we grow old with every breath. There is no need for us to change, but just to notice when change occurs, when liking and disliking arise with our perceptions, and to be aware that nothing is me or mine. Seeing the labeling of liking/not liking is the essence of morality, sila.

The aim of realization, he told his students, is not to be born again. This can be achieved not by erasing past kamma but by understanding now the workings of cause and effect and to see deeply into reality. When separation disappears with the understanding of no-self, Phra Sahapan said, then there can be no broken heart, no grief for the dead, no difference between a car and a child. Marcus and I found it hard to accept the absence of need for compassion in everyday life and we cling to the Bodhisattva ideal of helping others, particularly those who have lost a loved one and find no-self little solice for their grief. For the monk, however, compassion seems to arise with understanding, with seeing things as they really are. His teaching was certainly offered us in the spirit of compassion.

A week and a half earlier, Jeffrey Oliver, former monk and now meditation teacher from Australia, spoke to a gathering of the Little Bang Sangha at Bodhgaya Hall in Bangkok. His talk on "How to Meditate" was a preparation for a one-day meditation workshop the following weekend and it was simplicity itself.

"You cannot empty the mind, so don't try it," Oliver advised. The practice is to remove yourself from your story and your attachment to it. Be aware of thinking, and it will stop by itself. The insights from Vipassana or mindfulness meditation are an experience and not intellectual understanding. The chief insight is impermanence, the realization that we can't own or keep anything. A mind calmed in meditation is able to realize true nature without concepts. "We have all gone to thinking school," Oliver said to his audience of mostly western expats. Thinking, he implied, gets in the way of the present moment, since it is so often attuned to the past and the future.

Oliver, who found it "not convenient to teach as a monk" during 10 years of wearing a robe, and who now calls himself a "freestyle meditation teacher," took his audience through a basic meditation practice. First, relax; second, be aware of breathing through the nostrils, and, third, count the out breath from one to five (my first practice was to go to ten). After a few minutes of this exercise, we were told to no longer observe the breath and to stop counting. Just sit in the present moment.

It's important to know why we meditate, Oliver said, and he ticked off a list of possible benefits: become a good person, find the truth, get rid of stress, develop wisdon, understand life, become free of suffering; and he added a few controversial ones: develop psychic powers and talk to the dead. Nonsense, Marcus said to me later. "We don't need to know why we meditate. We just do it, or not. It isn't an intellectual exercise." A fan of Pure Land Buddhism such as he encountered it during his last year in Korea, Marcus believes faith is an important element of Buddhism and, like me, is inspired by the pure faith of the common people. Thailand is a land steeped in religious faith that takes outward form in rites and rituals. Reducing Buddhism to meditation is a way for the west to colonize and absorb Asia's religious heritage. But it might just miss the point.

Oliver explained his technique for "motorcycle meditation," and said that he closed his eyes when riding on the back of a bike driven at break-neck speeds down a Bangkok soi. Yes, I said, but your body was not calm. I expect you were holding on for dear life. Someone mentioned the objective of perceiving the spaces in the mind between thoughts, the place where bliss supposedly resides. But, I argued, if you focus on the spaces between words, or the white space surrounding black letters, you cannot read. What is needed is something like a gestalt of enlightenment that permits us to experience reality fully while chopping wood and carrying water in the real world.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Chaos or Competition?

When I looked out of my window early this morning, I was surprised to see the expressway unusually empty. It is a major thoroughfare into Bangkok over Pinklao Bridge and it is normally full of traffic, even on Sunday. My first thought was: trouble. The political conflict here is escalating. Bombs were thrown last week and people killed. The anti-government group has called for yet another "final showdown" today with thousands coming here by bus and train. They plan to besiege Parliament tomorrow to force the government to resign. But the pro-government faction is also meeting today at a Buddhist temple west of the city. Their last gathering drew tens of thousands who resent the other group.

But I was wrong. After watching the empty road for a few minutes, I saw a runner, then another. It was a race and the road was closed to allow the runners to pass. I got on the internet and quickly discovered that today is the annual Bangkok Marthon with a route that traverses the city and passes by my apartment building. But because of traffic concerns, the elite runners began the race at the Grand Palace at 3:30 am. The winners had surely passed by the time I got up, and I only caught a glimpse of the loneliness of the long-distance stragglers. By 9, traffic was flowing again on the expressway and I could hear the familiar murmur of rubber on the road through my window.

Once I was a runner. Back in the 1970s, I bought one of the early pairs of Nike running shoes, bright orange with a red swoosh, and followed my friend Gerry to fun runs along the San Francisco Bay waterfront. I competed in the Bay to Breakers race in the city and in Santa Cruz ran in the Wharf to Wharf, both over six miles. Twice I ran 11 miles and hoped eventually to participate in a 26-mile marathon. Always a sickly nerd, I began to think of myself as athletic. Jerry suggested we do the Honolulu Marathon where he lived at the time and so I began training for the December event. But I was working and it was fall so I could only run in mornings and evenings when it was dark. After a few weeks of dodging cars in nighttime traffic, I decided to quit. And not long after that, took up smoking again, an athlete no more.

Occasionally you see runners in Bangkok, but they are usually members of the Hash House Harriers, an international organization that sponsors fun runs all over the world. Last month I saw a large collection of HHH members, mostly farang, finishing up a race on Sukhumvit Soi 8 where they settled down in their shorts and sweaty tee shirts to drink beer. They don't look much like athletes. Members often describe their group as "a drinking club with a running problem," meaning that it's more social than competitive or athletic. Hashing began with a group of British officers in Malaysia in 1938 who took up running to recover from their hangovers. Each chapter of the Hash House Harriers now is called a "kennel" and there are more than 1,700 all over the world. In Vientiane I saw fliers for an HHH run. The Bangkok group has a web site here.

If anyone is running today near the government house, the official seat of Thailand’s prime minister, it's probably from a bomb or grenade. Anti-government demonstrators from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) group have occupied the area since August. The pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) held a rally Nov. 1 which drew 60,000 to a stadium in Bangkok to hear a message from Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister who has polarized politics in this country. The PAD is threatening to blockade an important session of Parliament tomorrow. An identical blockade Oct. 7 resulted in running street battles between police and protesters in which two people were killed, and hundreds, including many police, were injured by lethal tear gas canisters purchased from China. Last Thursday, and again yesterday morning, grenades were hurled into the PAD compound killing two and injuring dozens.

Some have suggested that competition in sports can be a substitute for war. Nationalism is rampant but relatively harmless during the Olympics, although hooliganism at soccer games in Europe occasionally ends in riots. I think PAD members, who wear yellow shirts, should engage in a race with UDD members, in their red shirts, with the spoils of government going to the victors. Unfortunately, there is not much to win. After three months of PAD occupation, the government offices are so trashed that one newspaper article suggested they be replaced after the siege ends. Currently the government is being managed, or mismanaged depending on your point of view, from the old Don Muang airport north of the city.

I've written often this year about Thai politics, a mysterious maze to the uninitiated, but I cannot see a satisfactory end to the long-running conflict. A story in a CNN blog yesterday is headlined "Thailand's Descent Into Chaos." According to Reuters correspondent Ed Cropley, "Whatever happens, Thailand is likely to remain divided between the rural and urban poor who support Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted as leader in a 2006 coup, and the Bangkok middle and upper classes, loosely represented by the PAD, who despise him." PAD spokespersons have made it clear that they are seeking anarchy to encourage the military to stage yet another coup (an average of one every four years since 1932) leading to political rule by elites who have been thwarted in democratic elections that overwhelming favor Thaksin and his stand-ins.

The legal scene is every more complicated, as as a blizzard of court decisions make life harder for Thaksin and his supporters. Sean Crispin has written extensively about this "judicial coup" in Asia Times Online. A long-awaited decision to ban the ruling People's Power Party (PPP) for vote buying (a common practice by all parties) may set in motion "a concatenation of court-endorsed events that overhauls the country's politics and bids to bring its dangerously escalating political conflict to a conclusive end." If the courts rule against the PPP, the current leaders would be barred from politics for five years, but party members would immediately join the recently formed Puea Thai party; the same thing happened when the PPP replaced Thaksin's Thai Rak Tak party after it was disbanded. This game of political musical chairs is mystifying to an outsider. Crispin suggests that the PAD has an alternative plan, its own version of a judicial coup leading to an interim "Supreme Council" which could take charge, similar to China's state council or cabinet.
The PAD-favored scenario would allow the conservative forces that have aligned behind its movement - including segments of the military, bureaucracy, opposition Democrat Party and, at least symbolically, the monarchy - to overhaul the country's politics in the name of the rule of law and without resorting to what would likely be an unpopular military putsch.
This move "would intentionally diminish the popular voice," Crispin says. Two senior judges have had their residences targeted by small explosives in recent weeks by forces upset by the court decisions. And the PAD solution might also "forge a final, non-violent solution to the country's debilitating political crisis while in the process guaranteeing the future centrality of the monarchy in Thai society after the highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej eventually passes from the scene." The possibility that Thailand's "now simmering street violence between Thaksin's supporters and his PAD detractors explodes into full-blown civil strife without some sort of perceived neutral intervention from above," is worrying, Crispin writes.

Despite the potential conflict across the river, life goes on as usual in Pinklao after the passing of the marathon runners this morning. Occasionally I ride in taxis whose drivers have the radio tuned to the endless PAD rally, and one of them wanted affirmation from me that the anti-government mob was justified (who am I to disagree with a driver racing through Bangkok at unsafe speeds?). My life certainly continues as before, but no day remains the same. My smiling monks pretend to understand my English and I diligently correct their mistakes on the essays they send me by email. Last week my song exercise was "Take Me To Your Heart," by Michael Learns to Rock, a selection suggested to me by Phra Chheav, a monk in his 20s from Cambodia. I'd never heard of MLTR before, but with the help of Google I was able to describe them as successful Danish group who write hit songs in English. They will in fact be performing in Bangkok this week but at prices range from 1000-4000 baht which is a bit high for my students.

There is a new woman in my life. We met a year and a half ago on a Thai dating web site when I was still in California. Our intense conversations, for various reasons, did not lead to a meeting when I arrived in Bangkok last August. We kept in touch, however, and when Pim left, I met her one afternoon for a long conversation on a bench in Bencha Siri Park on Sukhumvit next to the Emporium. I found her to be intelligent, feisty, funny and irritatingly stubborn, but utterly chaming. The following week we went to see the new Woody Allen film at the Bangkok Film Festival, followed by a visit to the "Traces of Siamese Smile" exhibit at the new Bangkok Art & Culture Centre. Then...nothing. She lives at home with her parents on the other side of the city from me and is a dedicated teacher with little time to spare. Finally, we managed to meet again yesterday and sparks of friendship flew, with the promise of perhaps much more. Since she reads this blog and refuses to let me take her photo (a prudent precaution), I will respect her privacy and leave her nameless for now.

Pim has made a few moves toward friendship, seeking my help with an eBay business and offering to clean my room, and last week we chatted online for the first time in weeks. When I heard she was seeing a 55-year-old Canadian who works in Thailand and Vietnam, I simmered for a bit and then became "Mr. Upset man" once again. Her stated reason for ending our relationship had been that she could not have an old man for a boyfriend; she would lose face with her friends and relatives. But here she was seeking another whom, she acknowledged, was not as generous as I. I lost my cool (which maybe I never had) and sent her a few angry emails accusing her of lying to me about leaving (you were probably bored, I said, and never really loved me) and accused her of replacing me with another old man rather than seeking a young man to marry who would give her children, which she said she wanted. So once again there is silence between us which will probably become permanent. I just have no talent for ending relationships well.

Looking for a new love has been exhausting. I spend way too much time online scanning the most productive social networking sites here, Hi5 (Thailand's favorite network) and Tagged, and the dating site ThaiLoveLinks. There seem to be hundreds (perhaps even more?) of Thai women who are ready and willing to love an old farang. Many, if not most, are poor girls from upcountry farming families, or store and office workers in Bangkok who send money to their relatives back in Isan. Quite a few have children being raised by their grandparents. Meeting them online and in person is an education in Thai society and culture. Most make appallingly low wages, typically between 9,000 and 11,000 baht (a fifth of my Social Security income), and send a quarter of that back home. They live in tiny rooms with a small collection of possessions, sometimes with a roommate, and share a toilet and shower with others. There are no jobs back in the villages of northeastern Thailand, and little chance of advancement in BKK, so the prospect of a beneficial romance with an elderly farang can be enticing.

So I read Thai blogs and web sites and watch Thai TV to monitor the political conflict not far from me over the river. The King will be 81 on December 5th and Thailand will throw a party in his honor with celebrations and fireworks that will be respected by both political factions. But if violence hasn't occurred before then, it might soon after if a compromise cannot be found on which all will agree. At the moment this does not seem likely. Maybe I should take up running again.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cremation of a Princess

Princess Galyani Vadhana, the elder sister of King Bhumibol Adulaydej, was cremated Saturday with elaborate pageantry at Sanam Luang in Bangkok. And I was there, in the midst of the crowd of hundreds of thousands of mourners clad in black.

The six-day funeral began on Friday with a private ceremony in the Grand Palace where the body of the Princess has lain in state since her death from cancer at the age of 84 last January. The actual funeral was to take place in the adjacent parade grounds where a spectacular temple complex has been constructed for the cremation. The centerpiece is Phra Merumas, a 128-foot structure towering over the adjacent structures. In a mythology borrowed from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, royalty are considered gods and after death they ascend to the top of Mount Meru, a mountain at the center of the universe, to take their place among the deities. The glittering crematorium is adorned on all sides by sculptures of the gods, half-human, half-animal statues. As the tower spirals upwards, the statues get smaller, symbolizing the ascension to pure spirit, according to the chief architect, Arvuth Ngernchuklin. The price tag for the first royal funeral since that of the King's mother in 1996 has been set at 300 million baht (8.9 million dollars). Once the funeral period is over and the public has had a chance to view the crematorium, the buildings will be demolished.

I paid my first visit on Friday morning when I expected crowds to be small. The trees around Sanam Luang have obscured my view of the crematorium when passing on the bus and it was my first chance to look at it up as close as the fences and guards would allow. Set against at backdrop of the stupas of the Grand Palace behind, the scene was one of exotic luxury and mystery. The monarchy and the rituals surrounding it are the glue that holds Thai culture together. The people's reverence for the King and his family is unfathomable to a westerner, but, like all deep faith, impressive to behold. Before the big day there were hundreds of visitors in black, circling the buildings like me to get a good look at where the Princess would ascend to heaven. Vendors were selling commemorative books, buttons, medallions and posters. The trees had been wrapped with blossoms and the plants in the garden featured blooms of blue, her favorite color. The roads around Sanam Luang were still open but most of the sidewalk had been blocked off and pedestrians were forced to squeeze by each other single file or risk being struck by traffic. The closed-off portion of the sidewalk was empty and the reasons for crowd control, as always, were mysterious. As noted in previous blogs, Thais love to restrict access whenever possible.

Events on Saturday began at 7 a.m., too early for this farang. I could see more on television anyway. The day was to feature three processions to the crematorium by over 6,000 participants in colorful costumes, ancient and new. The giant chariot carrying the urn with the body was drawn by 216 men. Walking in the procession was Crown Prince Maha Vagiralongkorn, likely to succeed to the throne when his 80-year-old father dies, and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the favorite of the people. There were bands and a variety of musical instruments including a Siamese oboe, bugles, conch shell and drums, and in the field several big artillery guns began a booming accompaniment to the slow-moving marchers.

Since the processions were to take over four hours, I had plenty of time. Now all of the streets in the vicinity were closed and I could take a bus only as far as the river, then walk over the empty Pinklao Bridge to Sanam Luang where the atmosphere was electric. The large oval of Sanam Luang had been divided in half with the crematorium complex taking up one end with the crowds on the other sheltered by tents for shade around the periphery. There were few western faces among the throng of Thais of all ages, many of whom had arrived before dawn on buses from upcountry. The official figure was 100,000 but I estimated more. I was there in a similar crowd last December for the King's birthday celebration (then the dominant color was happy yellow compared with Saturday's somber black). There were families, students, monks (their orange robes a startling contrast) and nuns in white, many old people walking with difficulty, boy and girl scouts, and organizations obvious from their shared outfits. Vendors were doing a brisk business selling souvenirs and food, but I also saw food and water given away for free. It was warm but not oppressively humid. People found shade and refreshment on the grounds of nearby Thammasat University and Wat Mahathat. The periodic boom of the big guns hurt my ears.

From my vantage point in the midst of the crowd I could see little of the ceremony. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of military headgear and sometimes parts of a body passing. After the chariot had transported the remains of the Princess to the crematorium, I saw it from a distance on a side road as it traveled into a compound beyond a fence. Some of the participants strolled on the edges of the crowd and let people take their pictures. I should add that 9 out of every 10 mourners had cameras and were taking photographs. The ease of inexpensive digital photography has turned everyone, at least in this country, into a photographer and often all you see if people taking pictures of people taking pictures of... Around noon, when the heat began to get oppressive, I walked through Thammasat's campus to the river where I found the S&P restaurant I like still open, and I ate some chicken with cashew nuts and rice while resting my feet, along with a lime freeze. On the back roads, people were buying and selling momentoes of the day and, like me, eating lunch. I saw a passing truck full of horses who were gazing out placidly and allowing their noses to be stroked by admirers.

The next event scheduled was the placing of sandalwood flowers on shrines dedicated to the Princess at several locations in the field. They would be added to the funeral pyre, allowing her subjects to participate. After the last drum beat of the procession, thousands lined up and guided by soldiers presented their flowers in rows on silver platters. I had been told that over 200,000 of the sweet-smelling flowers made from wood shavings had been prepared, but I did not know where to find them. In any event, waiting for a long time in the hot sun was not my idea of respect for the dead. So I went back home and took a nap.

In the late afternoon I arrived back at the action just before the King. I even saw a flash of his gold limousine pass by not far away (not the privileged look into the car I got, twice, during his birthday celebration). In this view, on one of the big screen TVs set up around Sanam Luang, you can see both the King and Queen and their three children. The King, who reportedly suffers from Parkinson's disease, could be seen walking with difficulty and it was painful to watch. He had two duties, to light the crematorium fire and then, after an interval of five hours, to preside over the actual cremation when royalty and honored guests would add their sandalwood flowers to the flames. There were three large stages in the field and following the initial lighting ceremony, each would present cultural performances for the crowd. Puppet plays and music were scheduled. The beginning of the cremation rite included much chanting from the assembled priests and I maneuvered my way as close to the actual events as possible. At night the brightly lit crematorium complex was spectacular. I could almost see inside to where the cream of Thai society, as well as generals and politicans, were gathered. This close there was no TV screen, but the sounds were broadcast over loudspeakers.

By this time my feet were feeling the strain of walking and standing for nearly ten hours (yes, I know, but the nap was only a short break). I tried sitting in one of the few places where the crowd had thinned out. Earlier I had gotten caught in a jam where the normally passive Thais were pushing and shoving with abandon. First the tide moved one way, then another, with no clear direction. Then, as suddenly as it began, the surge ended, and after the King passed people had their picture taken with members of his honor guard. At one corner of the field I spied a line of people and saw that free food was being dispensed. I was hungry and I found the end of the line which had been moving rapidly. Just as the bus you want I've discovered is always the least frequent, the line stopped as soon as I entered it. I waited, and I waited. Farang are noticeably impatient. But I had no way to request an explanation. After about 15 minutes we began moving again. I accepted gratefully the small portion of chicken and rice offered, and sat on the grass to eat. The entertainment, scheduled to begin at 7 had not commenced 45 minutes later, and so I decide to return home. After a long walk across the bridge and a short bus ride home, I watched the final lighting of the cremation fire on television and saw the smoke rise above Phra Merumas. The King and his entourage were treated to a puppet play and he reportedly did not leave until 1:30 in the morning. Entertainment for the public on the field was scheduled to last until 6 a.m.

On Sunday morning I watched on TV as the Prince collected the ashes of his aunt which were then taken in another large procession to the Grand Palace. More ceremonies take place at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall on Monday and Tuesday before the ashes of the Princes are finally enshrined at Wat Ratchabophit. The crowds have gone back home and the buses are running again across the river. Now I can put my black duds away until the next extravagant royal funeral, which might not be far off.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Whatever Floats Your Boat

As the sun set yesterday, and as the 12th full moon of the Thai lunar year rose over Bangkok, I walked the several blocks from my apartment to the Chao Phraya River at the foot of Pinklao Bridge to observe Loy Krathong. "Loy" means to float, and a krathong is a small boat traditionally made out of a banana tree trunk with elaborately-folded banana leaves, various kinds of flowers, candles, and incense sticks, among other objects d'art (the creativity of krathong makers is endless).

It was a bittersweet celebration for me. Last year Pim introduced me to the mostly secular holiday and we co-mingled with millions of residents drawn to both sides of the river to honor the goddess of the waters, Phra Mae Khongkha, and to symbolically let go of our troubles and cares for the year by floating our boats. The festival probably began in India as a Hindu celebration, similar to Diwali, to thank the deity of the Ganges with floating lanterns for giving life. In Bangkok the holiday is marked by fireworks over the river and a procession of elaborately designed ships lit up with colored lights. This year I celebrated alone, my date for the evening having canceled a few hours before. But though it began in sadness, the evening was a delight.

The rainy season has been long this year and the Chao Phraya is full. Sandbags contained the overflow and puddles were frequent. Near the river there were dozens of tables selling hand-crafted krathongs, many the product of families working together. Children for a fee jumped into the murky (undoubtedly polluted) waters to launch krathongs on their way into the current. Newspaper articles this week have advised against purchasing krathongs constructed from a foam base that is nearly indestructible and ecologically harmful. The annual celebration fills the poor Chao Phraya with tons of trash that must be later removed to keep the essential waterway open. Exhuberant youngsters were setting off firecrackers that sounded disturbingly like the bombs the various political factions here have taken to throwing lately. I cringed repeatedly.

I wasn't ready yet to float my own krathong, so I walked across the Pinklao Bridge to watch the parade of ships up the river. Some of them blasted music at full volume and featured dancers that were hard to see from the shore but easy to watch from the bridge as the vessels passed underneath. To the south I could see fireworks beyond the Grand Palace and Wat Arun. The riverbanks on both sides were lit up with neon color and spotlights crossed the sky. Bangkok really knows how to throw a party.

The narrow walkway on the other side of the river was becoming crowded as I walked north towards Suan Santichaiparkran Park with its stately Phra Fort Sumen which was built during the reign of King Rama I over 200 years ago. This is the edge of Banglamphu and not far from Khao San Road, so the crowds were full of farang eager to buy and launch their krathongs. Now that I am a permanent resident I maintained my distance, knowingly aloof. On the other side of the Phra Arthit river taxi pier, the crowds got almost nasty. I struggled towards the park in a failed attempt to recapture the memory of last year. While the hoardes of revelers were the same, the entertainment from a variety of stages was new. I bought a plate of rice and chicken and reclined on the lawn to dine and watch the festivities.

After getting my fill of claustrophobic bodies, I retraced my steps and returned to the foot of Pinklao Bridge on "my" side of the river with its refreshing absence of seasonal tourists. This was Thai family territory. I bought a krathong for 30 baht and stood in line at the riverbank until a swimmer came to carry my gift of forgetfulness and forgiveness into the healing waters of the river. The kids, girls as well as boys, seemed to be having a blast, though I saw one shivering from the cold water. Celebrants lit their candles and incense (some added sparklers), said a short prayer, and turned their small boat over to the a swimmer who accepted a donation which they put into a pouch or bag for safekeeping. I gave this little girl 20 baht to launch my krathong which she did with the help of an older kid, and I'm sure they all made a killing. The park between the river taxi and ferry piers was full of people. The homeless who usually live there must have been moved aside for the evening. People were selling all kinds of food as well as krathongs. The barbecue restaurant had expanded its tables onto the sidewalk and was full of diners. Even on the 4th of July in America you would never see such a lively nightlife as you see on the streets of Bangkok on any night of the week as well as one that is as special as Loy Krathong.

We're having a cold spell in Bangkok. I haven't used my air-conditioning or fan in over three days. Perhaps this signals the end of the prolonged rainy season and the beginning of winter. It's only in the high 60s but Thais have put on their sweaters and coats. I'm still sitting with my shirt off as I type this.

While it's the fourth week of the new term, I've had only two classes so far. At the first meeting there were only two students. And this week there is no class. Wednesday was the full moon and Wan Phra, or Monk's Day. The class would normally have been held on Saturday, except that this Saturday is the cremation ceremony for Princess Galyani Vadhana, the sister of the King. It promises to be a splendid affair and I'm planning to take photos. An elaborate crematorium has been constructed on the Sanam Luang parade grounds for the Princess who died ten months ago. She had been a French professor who also worked in rural development, and she died of cancer at the age of 84. The ceremony, which honors royalty as a deity, ceomes from Hindu traditions. Official mourning begins tomorrow, ahead of the moving of Princess Galyani's body from the Grand Palace (where it has been lying in state) to Sanam Luang on Saturday, when her body will be cremated. The collection of the ashes will take place on Sunday. All residents have been requested to wear black for three days, and I bought new outfits for the occasion at Tesco Lotus.

It's now officially the Christmas season in Bangkok. Immediately after Halloween, decorations went up at all the major shopping centers. They ignore the Thanksgiving bump in the road that inaugurates the season back in the USA. It's hard to know what ordinary Thais think of this, but they love to celebrate holidays, their own as well as others. In Starbucks the cheesy Christmas songs on the PA, from Frank Sinatra and Eartha Kitt among others, is disorienting. Both Loy Krathong and the annual Bangkok custom of decorating stores for the Christian tourists prompts me to reflect on my residence abroad. I've been living here for a year and two months. I have six more months to go on my visa and work permit, and expect to renew both for another year.

Although I'm lonely now that I've grown used to having a companion, I feel at home in this city, this country, and cannot see leaving in the foreseeable future. My youngest son Nick, who turns 26 years old TODAY (it was also my late father's who would have been 100 today), is thinking of coming to visit in February, as is my daughter Molly. Luke, who travels from Boston to Austin this weekend to visit his new girlfriend, would like to come once his job prospects and finances are in order. Chris is busy fixing his roof, a DIY project necessitated by the economic downturn (his business is home furnishings and homes are being foreclosed at a rapid rate), which means that he and his wife Sandy (who just celebrated her birthday last week) probably cannot budget an Asian vacation (although they are world travelers). Tonight I join members of the Little Bang Sangha to hear some instruction in meditation by Jeffrey Oliver, a former monk from Australia. So I continue to lead a normal life as an expat, savoring new experiences, tastes and sights, an elderly man continually entranced by lovely Thai ladies, and a school teacher bemused and challenged by his two classes of monks. It's not a bad life.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Remembering the Fast Lane

You can check out any time
but you can never leave
"Hotel California," The Eagles

I've been reading Danny Goldberg's new memoir, Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business, and wondering what my life would have been like had I not been fired by Atlantic Records in 1975.

Unlike me, Goldberg climbed to the top of the executive heap, becoming president of Atlantic and several other record companies, and managing the careers of Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Nirvana and Warren Zevon, among others. In addition he has lent his weight to liberal political causes, writing articles in The Nation and other publications and publishing How the Left Lost Teen Spirit.

My paths crossed with Danny's a number of times. We both attended the now legendary Alternative Media Conference of underground DJs, writers and record company "house hippies" at Goddard College, Vermont, in 1970. Covering it then for the rock magazine Crawdaddy!, he now writes that "it would be impossible to explain to those who weren't there what the connection was between the yippies, mysticism, and the crass commercial task of getting rock records on the radio (or, from the station's point of view, selling advertising), but in the moment it all seemed to make sense." Like me, he probably listened to music of the J.Geils Band, meditated with Baba Ram Dass, and took acid (at least I did) supplied by Wavy Gravy's Hog Farm. Although in his book he criticizes the radicals for their "shrill rhetoric" that made it difficult for art and commerce to come together, he also quotes a music industry heavy who tells him 37 years later: "I think about it [the AMC] all the time. All roads led to there and all roads came from there."

We also both worked with Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s. I was their record company's west coast PR man. The picture at the top was taken during Zeppelin's 1973 concert at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, and the teenager on the left is Cameron Crowe, the Rolling Stone writer who immortalized that year and himself in his movie "Almost Famous." Danny worked for their British label, Swan Song and recounts some of the band's notorious antics. I know even more, and if I ever write my musical memoirs I may describe drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham's birthday party when I got thrown fully clothed into the pool by the group's road manager, along with George Harrison. Or the time Atlantic's Hollywood office supplied them with a bicycle, wheel chair and motorcycle to ride down the hallway at the Continential Hyatt House. The boys also threw empty bottles of pricey Dom Perignon champaign at their billboard across Sunset Boulevard (I missed). In the photo at the right, I'm at a music press party with my friend Diane Gardiner, confidant of Jim Morrison and Pam, press agent for the Jefferson Airplane, and Chuck Berry's girlfriend.

Goldberg's stories are more wholesome than mine (if I were to tell all). He gave up drugs and was introduced to a spiritual teacher, the late Hilda Charlton, by Ram Dass. I always divided up the people I knew who worked in the record industry into fans and sharks out for the money. Goldberg defies the stereotype and was apparently both. His book exhibits a fan's love for the music and the often erratic artists who made it, as well as an insider's privileged look at the workings of the business. He married an entertainer lawyer and no doubt was handsomely rewarded for the bicoastal commutes to service his tempermental clients. Many of my former colleagues and friends populate the pages of his book. In the end, he chronicles the decline of the once powerful industry as lawyers and accountants take over the companies, and CD (the "record" is long gone) sales plummet becuase of the popularity of free but illegal internet downloads.

The title of the book comes from a saying of Atlantic's founder Ahmet Ertegun. The way to get rich (as David Geffen told the story at Ahmet's funeral) "was to keep walking around until you bumped into a genius, and when you did -- hold on and don't let go." Goldberg recounts the stories of the geniuses he's met, from Neil Young to Kurt Cobain, and provides anecdotes about how they all ultimately acknowledge the role commercial manipulation must play to enable their art to be heard. Even the purist leader of Nirvana was occasionally willing to compromise in the marketplace. Geniuses need handlers.

But not all are regarded as artists. Gene Simmons of Kiss tells Goldberg: "We are still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but there are three thousand licensed Kiss products, a Kiss toothbrush that plays 'I Want to Rock and Roll All Night' when you put it in your mouth, and everything from Kiss caskets to Kiss condoms. There are no Radiohead condoms."

My tenure in the record business was short, from 1970 to 1975. I began with Atlantic Records, an innocent husband and father from Pasadena who had written record reviews for a daily newspaper. Five years later my marriage had ended, my kids stayed with me every other weekend in my tiny Venice apartment, and I had a drug problem. In the interim, I had flown on the Starship with Elton John, gotten thrown into a Montreal jail with The Who and their entourage, consorted with groupies eager for backstage access, partied at Willie Nelson's picnics in Austin, bought weed for Robert Flack, road managed for Dr. John, listened to Joni Mitchell and David Crosby sing in a Seattle hotel room during a CSNY tour, sat on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, shared a hotel bedroom (but not the bed) with photographer Annie Liebowitz on the Rolling Stone tour to Hawaii, accepted a Grammy award for George Carlin, listened to dinner jazz by Stephane Grappelli at Atlantic's convention in Paris, and more. This photo was taken at a Lynryd Skynyrd party during their inaugural tour opening for The Who. I was clearly showing the strain of debauchery. Getting fired was a blessing, and it undoubtedly saved my life.

It wasn't all bad. I have retained friendships with some of my partners in crime. I met Jerry Hopkins when he was Rolling Stone's first Los Angeles editor, and we have stayed in each other's lives (with one significant gap) ever since. He is the reason I came to Bangkok and our friendship makes even the gloomy days bearable. I hired Pete Senoff to replace me during one of my three terms at Atlantic, and although he's now doing something in the medical field, he keeps me posted on Atlantic reunions (with photos of the gold-wearing no-talent boss who fired me) and the whereabouts of mutual friends. Michael Ochs (brother of Phil) recently retired from tending his huge collection of rock memorabilia and is now married to one of the secretaries at Gibson & Stromberg, the Hollywood PR firm that nutured fragile egos of performers and writers in the 1970s. Jazz critic and magazine editor Colman Andrews is one of the premier food critics in New York City. PR queen Bobbi Cowan has a Facebook page. Diane Gardiner died last year about the same time as Corb Donohue, a music biz regular who had owned the first head shop in Los Angeles with Jerry in the early 1960s. Jerry and I caretake their memories, along with those of John Carpenter, a sweet man and music writer for the Los Angeles Free Press in its salad days, whose demons would not let him loose. He died in 1976 under the wheels of a car while wandering drunk in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not far from my house. R.I.P., John.

My kids and some friends have urged me to write my own memoirs. My ex-wife among others could not stand to hear my stories about those many nights of excess and glory in the music business. Now, over thirty years later, I can barely remember the details. Goldberg paints interesting portraits from close up of Patti Smith (who called me on the phone one night to ask me to describe Jim Morrison's grave in Paris which I'd recently visited), Jackson Browne (we had drinks at the Troubadour and I knew his guitarist David Lindley from Pasadena), Bad Company (I traveled on their first tour of the U.S.), David Geffen (played poker at his house one night with members of the Eagles), and Warren Zevon (whom I never met) who played his impending death by cancer for all it was worth (telling David Letterman to he wanted to "enjoy every sandwich" during his last days). I never got into the music of Nirvana but I've heard about the Cobain legend, and Goldberg tells the story of his friend's rise and fall with love and admiration. I have no such personal encounters to relate, and certainly no wisdom to impart, which is why this blog is the only memoir I'll leave behind.

Below, I'm having a bit of fun with Ochs, one wild night of many in the V.I.P. booth at the Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.