Monday, June 29, 2009

Burma (Myanmar): Stay Free

This is a video/photo collage I put together from our trip to Burma in 2008. All the photos were taken by Yuko.

1. Black Mountain: "Stay Free"- Inle Lake;
2. Jane Siberry: "The Life Is The Red Wagon"- Mandalay & Bagan;
3. Nina Simone: "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free"- Yangon & Kyaiktiyo.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson: I Want You Back

"I want you back...gimme back what I lost!"
I'm not sure what I'm mourning for - Michael Jackson or my own youth. He was a giant in the 80s – a glitterball of possibilities, ubiquitous and invincible. As Sean "Diddy" Combs said, “MJ showed me that you can actually see the beat.”

Me too. Watching his body snap, curl and slam through the rhythm of his music was enough to feel it. In the later part of the decade when his magic faded, he became a carny-like attraction, a sad freak in a circus show. As Margo Jefferson wrote, Jackson became "a new kind of mulatto, one created by science and medicine and cosmetology." After Thriller his musical prowess also suffered - the rise of rap and hip-hop put him the position of playing catch up with the zeitgeist and for the rest of his career he was never again ahead of the curve.

I stopped listening after Thriller waned and was never anything like a fan. But he owned the early to mid-80s and was a constant presence, even if a somewhat uncool one with his ridiculous companions like Bubbles the chimp or Emmanuel Lewis. Jeff Koons captured some of this baroque absurdity in his porcelain pastiche:

Whatever his failings, one thing is certain: he was genuinely a global phenom. From Mandalay to La Paz to a Filipino prison Michael is the lingua-franca responsible for wrapping young studs in red leather and zippers all over the world, for better or worse.

The places where our worlds collided:

* in early 1983 I won a contest dancing to “Beat It” at Bumpers Disco in Whalley (trust me, it was all about Eddie Van Halen's riffage);

* in December 1989, I actually met the man...on Christmas Day at Disneyland. I was there courtesy of my mum who had brought the family to SoCal for a vacation. It was early morning and the park was virtually empty. Then from across the way this man in a glittering red military coat, sunglasses and a hat emerged accompanied by a Macaulay Culkin-type waif. I walked over and said, “Merry Christmas Michael!” and he squeaked, “Thank you.”

Thank you, Michael.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Song For Iran: From The Rooftops

This is a song I wrote inspired by the uprising in Iran. Some images are ours, some borrowed. The background loop - "Allah O Akbar" (God is great)- is chanted after dark from the rooftops of Tehran & other Iranian cities...

From The Rooftops
By David Kootnikoff
On the rooftop a bird is building her nest
It’s springtime tonight in this city of unrest
While the bird keeps on working for some future prize
The harder she fails, the harder she tries

When the stars come out people rise from below
And their voices ring out as the dark shadows grow
They cry out for god in the heat of the night
They cry for each other, for comfort and light

From the rooftops you can hear their hearts in their song
Beat back the night until all fear is gone
While the dark pushes in like the blade of a knife
But the wound that it leaves only bleeds life

In the morning the bird rises up with the dawn
To continue her work, to sing out her song
And the people wake up to the beating of wings
To gather together ‘neath the shelter she brings

On the rooftop a bird is building her nest
It’s springtime tonight in this city of unrest
While the bird keeps on working for some future prize
The harder she fails, the harder she tries

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hong Kong: The Big Durian

The Big Durian. There are a few Asian cities that lay claim to this title - Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur - but none of them come close to our beloved Hong Kong.

The durian is a tropical fruit that's hard and prickly on the outside, soft and sweet inside.

They also have a putrid odor: imagine a septic tank dripping with sulfur on a sweltering day. It's so bad there are some hotels that actually prohibit guests from bringing this stink bomb onto their premises. It's true - this bulbous, porcupine of a fruit is an acquired taste. But once accustomed to its flavour, the yellow, velvety flesh can prove irresistible. Just like Hong Kong. Yeah!

When the chaos and pollution get to be too much, Yuko & I go for a hike to unwind.

This is the view I fell in love with on my first trip to Hong Kong. I'll never forget the surprise I felt after hopping on a bus bound for Stanley Market and emerging from the Aberdeen Tunnel to find this beautiful vista of ocean and shoreline waiting for me. The south side of Hong Kong Island, only 20 minutes from the city center, is unlike anything else in this stinky metropolis.

This is Shek O, close to our place in Siu Sai Wan. Not quite a durian, but you get the idea. Linger long enough, cut through the prickly shell and discover its charms.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Spirit In The Dark: Allah o Akbar!

"Tell me sister, how do you feel?
Tell me my brother, how do you feel?
Move on with the spirit, the spirit
in the dark..."

- Spirit In The Dark
Aretha Franklin
Anyone who has spent time in Iran shouldn't be surprised with the heroism and tact the demonstrators are displaying. They're young, savvy and cunning. They're also determined not to stand idly by while their country is ravaged by corruption and savage brutality. They love Iran too much for that. Many are also under 30, too young to remember the 1979 revolution and the subsequent terror that followed.

Yuko took these photos last summer when we visited Iran. The one above is of the Khaju Bridge in Esfahan, and below is from the ancient Persian site of Persepolis, near Shiraz. It's the mythological bird called the Homa - whoever it landed on became king of the empire. As of today, it's still up in the air...

This remarkable video comes via Nico Pitney at Huffington Post - a stirring reminder of what the dark conceals and what it can inspire...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Iran: A Stolen Election

O, mankind! What has made you be arrogant and rude towards your creator who is the supreme bounteous
**Follow my friend in Iran, Sadaff, on Twitter.**
When we were in Iran last summer we met Sai who taught us a lot about this amazing and complex country. One unforgettable event happened on the outskirts of Yazd on the way to Shiraz when a soldier stopped us at a checkpoint. What was supposed to be a routine check turned a bit more heated when he asked for our passports. After we complied he demanded we open our bags. Sai stood up to him refusing to do so and accused the soldier of overstepping his authority. After a few more words we were allowed to continue on our way. It was a brave act that took guts and demonstrated Sai's willingness to invoke his own rights in a way that I found truly inspiring.

One of the legends that make up the Persian epic, Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, involves the hero Rostam mistaking his own son Sohrab for his enemy on the battlefield. As he cradles Sohrab's dying body he recognizes who he actually is, learning of his mistake only when it's too late.

Today a case of mistaken identity plagues Iran. Over 60% of the population is 28 or younger and they identify more with the Persian elements of their culture than the radical interpretations of Islam that the old revolutionary guard represents. The people we met all fit this description - the women said if they had a choice they would discard their headscarves, while both men & women expressed more interest in pop music, Sufi poetry and Zoroastrianism than in any strict adherence to Islam.

The older generation is holding the younger generation down. Iran is a country where youths are carving out alternative identities and pushing the envelope in dramatic ways; where the average age is 27 and epic poetry is as popular as the Koran. Will they be sacrificed in battle, mistaken for counter-revolutionaries or pro-western dupes?

This message from Hossein Moussavi, Ahmadinejad's opponent, comes via Andrew Sullivan:


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Louche Life: The Poetry of Frederick Seidel

"I spend most of my time not dying.
That's what living is for"
Frederick Seidel is a gnarled, cantankerous old fart of a man who absorbs sordid and unseemly themes the way a mushroom sucks out the nutrients from a turd. Like Charles Baudelaire he takes ugliness and gilds it with the transformative power of his writing.

A jaundiced, elegantly wasted vibe permeates his poetry and you can feel the weight of his headless stare:
Evening Man sits signing bills in the Oval Office headless -
Every poem I write starts or ends like this.
His hands have been chopped off. He signs bills with the mess.
The country is in good hands. It ends like this.

- from "Evening Man"
Of course he starts his poems without a head - it's all about heart and appetite. The image has such a grisly resonance in this age of beheadings and terror, but Seidel transforms it from a news-flash fear-bite into an absurd vision. He has become the US President, a kind of Ichabod Crane pursued by some headless muse.

Seidel has a passion for Ducati motorcycles and the type of glam luxury that easily succumbs to decadence. He captures the fizz of Los Angeles during the slow plunder of Charlie Manson's "Family" as only one who was there can:
A football spirals through the oyster glow
Of dawn dope and fog in L.A.'s
Bel Air, punted perfectly. The foot
That punted it is absolutely stoned.

-from "1968"
And from Ooga-Booga:
Anything is better than this
Nursing on a long-stemmed bubble made of crystal.
I’m sucking on the barrel of a crystal pistol
To get a bullet to my brain.
I’m gobbling a breast, drinking myself down the drain.

- from "Drinking in the Daytime"
If record albums were personalities, Sticky Fingers would be Seidel.

His poetry is caught in the sway of a demon life, laid out on the tiles with a needle and a spoon drifting down that moonlight mile....

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Purple Reign: Let Me Guide U

"Electric word means forever and that's a mighty long time..."
Dig if you will, Prince in strawberry polka dots and silver cuff links summoning the music of the spheres. And he likes what he hears...It's been 25 years since Purple Rain dropped. The hairs on the back of my neck still stand up every time I hear The Kid's falsetto soaring above the guts of that wounded guitar solo... the '67 Mustang drove off, blasting down Saturna Drive through the early hours of a far away June morning...

"I only wanted 2 be some kind of friend"
...a brilliant anthem to a youth well misspent, burning the candle at both ends.

“I’m not a woman, I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand”
The purple cowboy was a seamless blend of genres and genders, the Hendrix frenzy...

...the Rick James super freak...

...the sexy-class of Lena Horn...

..and the Sly Stone juju...

An androgynous appeal in heels, shoulder pads & a pompadour....electric word means forever and that's a mighty long time, indeed...go crazy!

Monday, June 01, 2009

A Network Of Mutuality: The Tiananmen Massacre

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." -MLK
Time is the great revelator -- it uncovers everything, eventually. One of the more profound ironies to have emerged from the 1989 Tiananmen massacre is the enduring image of the "unknown rebel" halting a procession of tanks with nothing more than a couple of shopping bags in his hands.

The fact that "tank man," as some call him, will forever live alongside the benevolent visage of Mao as symbols of China in the twentieth century is something to truly relish 20 years on.

While tank man wasn't able to stop the massacre that was already occurring -- not only in the vicinity of Tiananmen, but all around Beijing -- he was able to single handedly overturn perceptions. By doing so, he created a legacy extending far beyond the bloody culmination of those horrific events.

Living in Hong Kong for over 8 years has given me an insight into how the community reacts to the Tiananmen massacre every year. This year being the 20th anniversary has made it more sensitive than most. It's seen the publication of Zhao Ziyang's memoirs - Prisoner of the State - and people from all over the political spectrum speaking out about reconciliation, truth commissions or the wacko revisionism of the importance of the massacre to the prosperity of the nation. There's also been the shocking revelation of an assassination plot targeting veteran democracy advocate Martin Lee.

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." -MLK
On June 4, the anniversary of the day the Chinese government tried to crush the spirit of its people, the legacy of tank man lives on. Let those who perished remind us of our mutuality, our single destiny.