Monday, January 31, 2011

Rich Men Want To Be Kings: Springsteen

Poor men want to be rich, rich men want to be kings,
And a king ain't satisfied until he rules everything - "Badlands"
"Controlling the narrative" isn't something I like to associate with rock 'n' roll. It's more the habit of desperate politicians or tin-pot dictators. In the end, any attempt to write your own history is fleeting at best, no matter how much power or wealth you may have. As Joe Strummer said, "the future is unwritten."

Yet it's a pursuit more and more (aging) rockers are engaged in due to the increasing prevalence of reissues and the hoopla that surrounds each release. When inspiration and cash run thin, the mind tends to focus on secure investments, legacy issues and, sadly, revisionism. Enter the Boss. In 2005, when Born To Run was reissued, it marked thirty years since the original and the renewed fanfare was justified. But what excuse is there for another look at 1978's Darkness On The Edge Of Town? The album has its moments, but it's certainly not a "classic."

The recent reissue deepens the original sin - ham-fisted pretense, brow-furled pomposity, self-important naval get the picture. The original was the work of a mid-20's adolescent who was desperate to be taken seriously and join the hallowed ranks of masters like Lou Reed, Neil Young or Bob Dylan. No more horsing around with "Big Man" Clarence...

Now just the bruises and scratches of a lone wolf racing in the backstreets.

Darkness was a retreat and a let-down from the elated celebration of Born To Run. Springsteen knew he could never repeat its dizzy heights so he rejected any tunes that may have raised the specter of "Thunder Road" or "Jungleland." Predictably, whenever an artist feels stifled, the work suffers. True, it marked the beginning of another conversation that achieved its greatest expression in 1982's bleak Nebraska, but it fell short. "Badlands" is stiff and strident, like a marching band attempting funk; "Factory" is naïve and trite; and "The Promised Land" is the sound of one man's reach exceeding his grasp. Its best moments are the sadness of "Racing in the Street", the intensity of "Adam Raised a Cain", and the bruised grandeur of my favourite, "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" (check out that sustained note @ 3:51 and watch his body flail).

A smooth, opening piano riff recalls the lights of Broadway before the lead up to the chorus busts in to shoot it all to hell. It's an intense and revelatory performance on an album with far too design. The reissue drives this home. On the accompanying DVD, Springsteen says he cut out anything that sounded like Born To Run and the shitload of extras (3 CDs and 3 DVDs) is an admission of the original's inferiority...which begs the question: why a reissue?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wang Dan: Barred From Hong Kong

"...the Tiananmen Massacre is still going on, only in different ways..." - Wang Dan
It should never have been in doubt; mainland dissident Wang Dan would have no problem arriving in Hong Kong from Taiwan, where he currently lives, to attend the funeral this Saturday of local patriot Szeto Wah. Hong Kong enjoys "one country two systems"; it has the legitimate right, according to its mini-constitution, to "a high degree of autonomy" from the mainland. But no. This autonomy doesn't extend to allowing a grieving countryman to visit and pay tribute to one of Hong Kong's most beloved sons. The long arm of Beijing pulls the strings and our much vaunted "one country two systems" has been exposed as nothing but a sham.

As Wang said, "Refusing me entry again tells the world that the 'one country, two systems' formula is a total lie, as the Hong Kong government has totally given up its right to autonomy, and Beijing's will prevails in all of Hong Kong."

"Execution" - Yue Minjun
Wang has paid his dues. He did time in prison on two separate occasions for his leading role in the 1989 Tiananmen protests. As a 20-year-old student from Peking University, Wang topped the list of most wanted "counterrevolutionaries" Beijing published after the June 4th massacre. He was finally released to the U.S. in 1998 for "medical reasons" and enrolled at Harvard where he obtained a master's in East Asian history in 2001 and a PhD in 2008. His PhD thesis was a comparative study of Chinese mainland and Taiwanese politics in the 1950s. Wang continues to advocate for democratic reforms and petition Beijing to allow him to return to visit his aging parents. In 2009, he spelled out four steps Beijing should implement to "begin to turn the tragic page of Tiananmen":
"First, it should pay reparations to the Tiananmen mothers who lost their children forever.

Second, the government should allow me and other forcibly exiled Chinese citizens to return to our homeland.

Third, the government should release the remaining political prisoners who were jailed for peacefully protesting in Tiananmen Square and more recent prisoners persecuted for their efforts to encourage human rights reform.

Finally, China's leaders should address the long-term objectives shared by the Tiananmen students and the authors of Charter 08 -- establishing the rule of law, guaranteeing basic human rights and ending corruption."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fellini: Visionary Realist

"There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the passion of life." - F. Fellini
As an artist, I strive to find the humanity in my characters even in the most inhumane situations. Behind the cacophony of events, there's a hand, a brain, and ultimately, a heart. A maestro at accomplishing this was Federico Fellini who would have been 91 this week. His films have been a deep source of inspiration since I discovered La Dolce Vita (1960) for the first time about twenty years ago.

I still get mesmerized by the "helicopter Christ" scene, the graceful flight of the saviour over the skyline of Rome that opens the film. Christ is plucked from his pedestal and brought back down to earth. Then there's the sweet tenderness in the face of Giulietta Masina at the end of Nights of Cabiria (1957).

Fellini's films reveal the entire spectrum of human endeavor with nothing but a lust for life offered as explanation for any transgressions, perceived or actual.

As the closing scene of La Dolce Vita suggests - Fellini, as played by Marcello Mastroianni, has nothing to feel sorry for, nothing to be ashamed of in his pursuit of life's passions and pleasures. The young girl, representing the future and absolution, sees him for what he is and casts no judgment but an affectionate smile. And in the end, that's all each can hope for...or deserves.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tunisia: Après Le Déluge

The news from Tunisia has been good so far - despot Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia due to pressure from the ongoing street protests. Events are moving fast - what happens next is crucial and daunting if reforms are to succeed. As of today, a so-called unity government has been coming under attack. The country's main trade union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), has refused to recognize it and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi resigned from the ruling party after only 24 hours. According to Moncef Marzouki, one of the country's best known opposition figures:
"Tunisia deserved much more. Ninety dead, four weeks of real revolution, only for it to come to this? A unity government in name only because, in reality, it is made up of members of the party of dictatorship, the RCD."
The RCD is the Constitutional Democratic Rally which was led by Ben Ali. Something far more legitimate will have to be implemented.

When Yuko and I were in Tunisia in the summer of 2002, we rented a car in Tunis and drove around the country stopping at Dougga, Sousse, Djerba, Kairouan, Matmata and El Jem. I'd already been to Morocco so Tunisia seemed like a practical next destination, open and more stable than other Arab states.

But in April 2002, a bomb blast at the El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba killed 19. This shocking news was made even more so by the alleged involvement of al-Qaeda. After some serious hesitation we continued on with our plans, convinced that this attack was an aberration for normally moderate Tunisia. We had no regrets. Wherever we went we were warmly welcomed and greeted with generous hospitality.

Tunisia is a beautiful country with an austere landscape that borders the Sahara. The Roman ruins of Dougga exist alongside French cafes and Arabic tilework reflecting the country's rich history. My most memorable experience occurred while visiting the same Ghriba Synagogue with a new friend, Hamza, an economics student and a Muslim from southern Tunisia. He was genuinely proud of his country's diversity and showed us all around Djerba. I've recently been in touch and he's fine, but wary of what might happen next.

Ben Ali has said he plans to return and the pressure on the government will have to be maintained to avoid keeping the old guard at the helm. The uprising was sparked by the release of a Wikileaks' cable at the beginning of December documenting the corruption of Ben Ali and his family. The government tried to block all internet references to it, but failed. This was followed a few weeks later by a 26-year-old university graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, setting himself on fire to protest the country's harsh economic injustices. The opposition is too widespread for any compromises. Once the security forces defy orders and refuse to shoot their fellow citizens, as has been happening, change can be unforgiving.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Viva Macau: Las Vegas East

You gotta sin to be saved, you gotta be damned to be raised. In Macau, China's nouveau riche come to pursue gilded pleasures with the passion of invincible religious zealots.

From the casinos of the Grand Lisboa Hotel to the ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral, this is a town that thrives on glitter from the gutter.

And overlooking it all are the ghosts of revolutions past, remixed to fit the times.

Macau, like Hong Kong, is a Special Administrative Region and its citizens enjoy more freedoms than those on the mainland. An hour away by ferry from Hong Kong, it's a unique blend of Portuguese and Chinese cultures reflecting its history as a colony from the 16th century.

Portugal handed it back to China in 1999, two years after Hong Kong, but the Macanese culture still survives with Portuguese an official language along with Cantonese. This has made the territory a tourist mecca with thousands of mainlanders arriving daily to spend in Macau's gilded palaces of sin. Over 20.68 million visitors arrived in Macau between January and October 2010 and more than half – 10.93 million – came from mainland China.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Republic of Angels: Užupio

"A dog has the right to be a dog"
Tucked away in a bohemian enclave of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, is a wonderland where fools are kings and death is a right but not a duty. The Republic of Užupio, affectionately known as "The Republic of Angels", was established by a bunch of glorious freaks on April 1, 1997. One of its first acts was to raise a statue in honour of Frank Zappa and invite former Czech president Vaclav Havel to the unveiling.

Who cares if Frank had absolutely nada to do with Užupio or Lithuania - he was the freaks' freak and their own patron saint. The next thing to do was to make up a Constitution:

The Constitution of Užupio
Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, while the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone
Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof
Everyone has the right to die, but it is not a duty
Everyone has the right to make mistakes
Everyone has the right to individuality
Everyone has the right to love
Everyone has the right to be not loved, but not necessarily
Everyone has the right not to be distinguished and famous
Everyone has the right to be idle
Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat
Everyone has the right to look after a dog till one or the other dies
A dog has the right to be a dog
A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times
Everyone has the right to sometimes be unaware of his duties
Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not a duty
Everyone has the right to be happy
Everyone has the right to be unhappy
Everyone has the right to be silent
Everyone has the right to have faith
No one has the right to use violence
Everyone has the right to realize his negligibility and magnificence
Everyone has the right to encroach upon eternity
Everyone has the right to understand
Everyone has the right to understand nothing
Everyone has the right to be of various nationalities
Everyone has the right to celebrate or not to celebrate his birthday
Everyone shall remember his name
Everyone may share what he possesses
No-one can share what he does not possess
Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents
Everyone is capable of independence
Everyone is responsible for his freedom
Everyone has the right to cry
Everyone has the right to be misunderstood
No-one has the right to make another person guilty
Everyone has the right to be personal
Everyone has the right to have no rights
Everyone has the right to not be afraid
Do not defeat
Do not fight back
Do not surrender

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Death Of A Patriot: Szeto Wah

If you had to choose one person who embodied the moral aspirations of Hong Kong, a person whose love for justice extended to all of China, it would be Szeto Wah. He's been on the frontlines for almost forty years fighting relentlessly for human rights and democracy. But no more. Earlier this week he succumbed to lung cancer. He was 79.

Szeto began as his career in 1952 as a primary school teacher in the hardscrabble district of Kwun Tong, eventually becoming a headmaster. In 1973, he headed Hong Kong's first city-wide teachers' strike after the British colonial government tried to cut wages by a whopping 15 per cent. Realizing that teachers were vulnerable, he helped form the Professional Teachers' Union the following year. It's since blossomed into one of the city's largest with a membership of 85,000, including me.

Szeto Wah beside the "Pillar of Shame" at Hong Kong University commemorating June 4, 1989.
Following his success with the PTU, Szeto became a legislator and briefly worked with Beijing to draft Hong Kong's Basic Law - our mini constitution - in preparation for the 1997 British handover. This stint ended abruptly when Beijing turned the tanks on its own citizens in the early hours of June 4, 1989. In the weeks prior to the massacre, Szeto had founded the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which he remained in charge of right up to the end of his life.

In the fevered aftermath of the massacre, the group spearheaded "Operation Yellow Bird," the codename for a plan to rescue the leaders of the Tiananmen movement who were on the run in mainland China. He helped raise funds from the people of Hong Kong and smuggled them into the territory via underground and pirate channels. One was Wu'er Kaixi, now based in Taiwan and who is seeking to attend Szeto's funeral at the end of this month. Branded a criminal on the mainland, it's still not certain if Wu'er will be allowed to enter Hong Kong, despite our much lauded "One country, two systems."
These actions predictably earned Szeto the wrath of Beijing. He was banned from the mainland and villified as a subversive, but none of this phased him. He remained an unwavering advocate for democracy and for the vindication of the Tiananmen Square protesters, helping to organize Hong Kong's annual Candlelight Vigil every June 4th and supporting the "Tiananmen Mothers." When asked how he felt about China, he expressed the popular sentiment in Hong Kong, saying, "I am a patriot. I love China. I just don't like the government."

A memorial service will be held in Victoria Park on February 27 to pay tribute. The funeral will be held on January 29 at St Andrew's Church in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Musical Raves: 2010

For me, this year was all about Before Today by Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti. As I wrote when it came out, the album's bleached out soft rock left vapor trails all over my 2010.

Other albums I enjoyed this year in no particular order:

1. All Day - Girl Talk. As a child of the 80s, this tickled my synapses.

2. Contra - Vampire Weekend. Word of the year: "Horchata".

3. Have One On Me - Joanna Newsom. Bucolic, melodic & epic.

4. Hawk - Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan. When syrup and salt mix.

5. Love Letter - R. Kelly. Still high as supaman!

6. Swanlights - Antony & The Johnsons. Breathtaking, brutal and literally ethereal.

7. One Life Stand - Hot Chip. If New Order and Jimmy Webb swapped heads.

8. I Learned the Hard Way - Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Inner city make me wanna holler.

9. Odd Blood - Yeasayer. Right between MGMT's sweet pop & Animal Collective's rubbery math.

10. The Suburbs - Arcade Fire. A grower that turned into a keeper.

11. Small Craft On A Milk Sea - Brian Eno. In a year of no Radiohead, this does fine.
12. Crazy For You - Best Coast. The sounds of summer pumped through Maria, the robot lady from Metropolis.

13. This Is Happening - LCD Soundsystem. Good, sloppy techno. Finally.

14. Everything In Between - No Age. In a year of no new Japandroids, this duo will do.

15. Together - The New Pornographers. Cuz they're a genuine supergroup and not just because Carl Newman graduated from the same high school as I did.


1. "Tightrope" - Janelle Monáe

2. "Born Free" - M.I.A.

3. "Like Rock & Roll Radio" - Ray LaMontagne

4. "Power" - Kanye West

5. "Fuck You" - Cee Lo Green

Big Discovery:

Isle Of View - Jimmie Spheeris (1971). Gauzy folk crafted by a master astride a gryphon.

Big disappointment:

The Courage of Others - Midlake. After The Trials of Van Occupanther, my expectations were high. A couple of very good songs ("Acts of Man" & "Fortune") does not an album make. A snoozer.