The fact that the first song I heard after touching ground in Thailand—played in the bathroom in the Bangkok airport, no less—was the theme from The Godfather was, I figured, probably not a very good sign.
And it did turn out to be something of an omen of things to come. First I left my brand-new Swiss-made one-sheet-of-aluminum water bottle, which my best friend had given me as a going-away present the day before, on the plane. When I realized this, I had to ask at least five airport and airline personnel (miming ‘water bottle’ each time) before I found the one person who could help me. She radioed the cabin crew but no luck. The report came back over the walkie talkie: no sign of it.
I also left my ATM card in the bank machine, though I didn’t actually realize this until three days later, after which I returned to the airport in one final attempt to recover both card and bottle. I found neither. (I did feel a tiny bit better, however, when I saw a) how many bank and credit cards had been left behind in the airport and b) that some people were far worse off than me, having managed to lose important-looking documents and even passports. I also seriously pissed off the Cathay Pacific personnel by showing up at their office during what was apparently lunch time.)
But first came the taxi ride from the airport—and with it my first real musical experience in Thailand. And by this I do not—unfortunately, believe it or not—mean Thai music.
In fact, as I draft this post in a bamboo hut on a farm in northern Thailand somehow, someone, somewhere, is blasting ‘Born to Be Wild’ and it’s coming through loud and clear (the walls are thin, after all). But I am getting ahead of myself.
The taxi ride. I suppose I should have been alerted by the
I <3 Farang*
We Can Speak English
sticker on the window that this guy meant business. And I was indeed in for ‘special’ treatment.
Shortly after settling into the back seat, I saw my driver turned on a little screen. Oh, GPS? I thought. Cool. That should help even more than the piece of paper I had handed him scrawled with Thai script, which had been given to me by a very nice woman at airport information who had called my guest house and written out explicit directions, convinced that my taxi driver would not otherwise be able to find it.
But no. This was a video screen. Surely the driver was not going to watch videos while driving, I thought. And as far as I could tell throughout the ride, he did keep his eyes on the road. So I guess the videos were for my ‘benefit,’ and the music I can only assume he enjoyed listening to while driving. Or perhaps he was playing it for the enjoyment of his passenger, the farang that he heart-ed. Enjoyment was the complete opposite of what I experienced, however, as, one after another, I was subjected to live concert versions of some of the most overplayed old-man American and British rock of all time, starting with—mysteriously, I thought at the time—Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Have you Seen the Rain?’
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little CCR from time to time; I just found it an odd and fairly obscure choice of video. Little did I know that CCR was standard classic rock fare in Thailand and that I would hear this and other songs—most often the ones with ‘rain’ in the title—pretty much everywhere I went.
A psychedelic-themed party I went to: more evidence of Thailand’s obsession with the 60s.
At this point I wasn’t yet put off, just slightly bemused. But then came ‘Hotel California’ and I could barely keep myself from groaning aloud—not to mention resenting that my brain, having memorized the lyrics approximately 30 years ago, sang along involuntarily to itself like some vestigial biological process. Not to mention seriously beginning to worry what kind of trip this might be foreshadowing. Nothing like they-stab-it-with-their-steely-knives-but-they-just-can’t-kill-the-beast and you-can-check-out-any-time-you-like-but-you-can-never-leave on the way to your guest house to put you in an upbeat frame of mind for your trip.
The Taxi Horror Picture Show continued for about 40 minutes in much the same fashion. I suffered through ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘Wonderful Tonight’ while gazing out the window at two men sleeping in hammocks they’d strung up between their cargo trucks for the night.
Then came Rod Stewart doing a vaguely-familiar-sounding number with a full Gospel choir backing him. Then a country singer I did not recognize who resembled Herman Munster. Then James Taylor. ‘Handy Man’—a song which would return to haunt me, next in karaoke form, a few weeks later.
I decided to christen this Night of A Thousand Old White Men Tunes.
Then came Santana. OK, so they weren’t all white. Then ‘Still Lovin’ You.’ OK, not all American or English either. Night of A Thousand Aging Rock Stars? Night of A Thousand Has-Beens?
The Scorpions video was particularly wacky: shots of a Marie Antoinette type fanning herself while roaming smoky hallways—interspersed, of course, with the requisite live concert footage. (Up until now, the videos had just been straight-up old-guys-on-stage.)
Then came ‘Sultans of Swing,’ which, unlike some of the other songs, I had actually always hated—and which also made me realize I had never known what Mark Knopfler looked like. From my view in the back seat he looked pretty skinny, which made me think it must be old footage. Most of the other rockers were fat by now.
Next we moved away from the concert videos and got a bit more modern with some weird-ass white-boy rap-rock stuff I’d never heard (and hopefully never will again), followed by an insipid girl group who could only have been the Corrs or a cheap(er) imitation (three really gorgeous dark-haired women and really really bad writing…who else?). What’s worse, I asked myself, this ‘What can I do to make you love me?’ crap or the unrelenting desperation-tinged ebb tide of testosterone that is old-man rock? Truly a hard call.
The nightmare didn’t end with that cab ride, unfortunately. Everywhere I went in Thailand I heard the same music again and again. Always CCR. Often Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight.’ Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to Be Wild’ clearly a perennial favorite.
And then there was the particular horror that was Your House Guest House in Chiang Mai, where I spent three weeks of long, dark, loud nights. It was located right behind what we liked to call Farang Alley, where one, sometimes two, cover bands played their little hearts out nightly—and always played almost the same set lists. Definitely noted hearing ‘Born to be Wild’ at least three nights running one week. Usually went to bed just about in time for ‘We Will Rock You.’ Also always sure to hear some Nirvana (they even went so far as to sometimes play ‘Rape Me,’ which a friend of mine had offered up as a joke guess when I told him over IM that the Nirvana section of the evening had just started but, amazingly, it wasn’t ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’).
Now don’t get me wrong, I really don’t have anything against Nirvana. I like them, in fact, and admit to enjoying the cover band’s rendition of ‘In the Pines’ the first two times I heard it. The main problem with the music being played was that a) it was the same songs every damned night, b) the acoustics were such that it was louder and clearer in my room than it was outside, forcing me to turn the fan on and aim it at the wall in order to sleep (it was too cold to need a fan for any other reason) and c) have I yet mentioned that it was literally every damned night?
And then there was Bob. Now, I don’t have anything against Bob Marley…honest. But after years of Bob overload in almost every country I’ve ever traveled in, I simply cannot tolerate hearing any more of his music.
The seeds of my antipathy were sown back in 2001, in Antigua, Guatemala, where I spent three weeks at a guest house with a rooftop kitchen where every day a fellow guest—a pretty scary and definitely not quite sane man in his 40s—played his best of Bob Marley tape over and over. Literally. Every day and every night. With no roof up over our heads… Seriously, if he was there, the tape was playing. One side would end, he would flip it over. It drove me batshit.
Bob has continued to haunt me over the years as each and every song I had gotten sick of in Guatemala has been played and played again in bars, on radios, on buses and on guitars in pretty much every country I’ve spent time in.
And so, as luck would have it—my luck, remember, having been foretold by both ‘Hotel California’ and the theme from The Godfather—not only did the two cover bands (one of which was exclusively reggae—oh, and have I mentioned that both bands were playing at the same time?) always include at least a few Bob songs in their nightly torture sets, but one of the young men who worked at my guest house also loved Bob. I mean looooooved Bob. I would be on my computer in the common area (which was where I could pick up the wireless signal), where there was also a computer for guests’ use. And personnel’s, apparently. This guy would come in, already humming ‘Buffalo Soldier’ or maybe ‘Stir It Up,’ and then play Bob on the computer. Loudly. Indefinitely. Sometimes he would sing along, which was even more painful. And then one day he showed up with an acoustic guitar. He started picking a few chords and I recognized enough of ‘No Woman No Cry’ to fear I really might start crying, so I cut my internet session short and got the hell out of there.
Perhaps this boy’s presence and perseverance were not really so much bad luck as a sign from the universe that I was spending too much time online. Or, dare I even think, punishment for this crime? I did suffer the consequences, that’s for sure. Once I had ‘Buffalo Soldier’ in my head for about eight hours straight, and I hadn’t even heard it played that day.
Now that I’m safely in Laos (see postscript below, however) and no longer subjected to Bob all day, every day, however, I can recall with some fondness the night that Bob Boy was sitting in the restaurant across the street accompanied by guitar and girlfriend (or someone he hoped, presumably with Bob’s help, to woo into being his girlfriend). It was hard to feel harshly towards him as he sat there, serenading her. Was it love, was it love, was it love, was it love she was feeling?
For Bob Boy’s sake, I hope so.
*‘Foreigner,’ in Thai. A catch-all used for all tourists and any residents of the non-Thai variety.
OK, I swear to you, I am not kidding: At the very moment I typed the final part of this piece, the above footnote, the weird live music that had been blaring from some wedding or other festivity on the other side of the Mekong in Luang Prabang where I was eating lunch suddenly…yes…the unmistakable opening notes of The Final Countdown drifted—or was it stormed—across the river to assault my ears.
And so the On Music series has come full circle. And left us with this lesson: there is no escape.