(What’s So Funny About) Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and ESL Anyway?

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, around the time Armed Forces came out in the U.S. I experienced one of those strange moments yesterday that I imagine is not uncommon to many American expats living in Viet Nam – well, the more thoughtful among us, anyway. It was one of those moments when you are suddenly reminded that just a few generations ago the United States and Viet Nam were embroiled in a bloody conflict as ideologically opposed foes.

So who would have thought when the last helicopter left Sai Gon in 1975, with communist tanks rumbling through the streets not far away, that 37 years later – just a few generations – I would not only be teaching English to Vietnamese students in Sai Gon, but would be using Elvis Costello’s cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding?” as part of a listening exercise? Granted, it’s not Country Joe Mcdonald’s “Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” and not even a protest song, per se, but rather an existential paean to the lost ideals of the 1960s in the wake of the more cynical 1970s.

While certainly not impossible, I nevertheless didn’t try to explain to my students the context in which Lowe wrote his song without mentioning the America War (that’s how the Vietnamese refer to what we call in America the Vietnam War, naturally). The thing is – the thing that many of my country folk don’t realize – that for Vietnamese students, just like their American counterparts now, that war is a matter of history (and judging from my teenage students reactions, of only mild interest at best).

It is the stuff of dusty museums and history books and documentaries. Three quarters of Viet Nam’s population was born after the war, and here in Sai Gon – officially named Ho Chi Minh City in the wake of the Communist victory – foreigners are not uncommon and there are many of us Americans among them. The infamous tunnels the North Vietnamese used to such advantage are now popular tourist attractions, and one has to make it a point and look far and wide to find reminders of the war. Heck we’re even military allies now, our navies having gone on joint maneuvers in the South China Sea (given its history, one can hardly blame Viet Nam if even a hint of a Chinese expansionist policy make it nervous).

Having been born at the end of 1968, I only know the Vietnamese-American war as something from the television news reports of my childhood. But then I grew up with the aftermath and what it did to the American cultural zeitgeist. So while I could appreciate the irony of helping Vietnamese teenagers in Sai Gon practice their English listening skills by using “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,” I’m pretty sure it was lost on everyone else in the room.

Incidentally, just in case you were wondering: this song is actually part of the intermediate/advanced curriculum for this particular class that I’m teaching. Like many English as a second language (ESL) texts, the book we use has reading, writing, listening and grammar lessons that are centered around a particular topic in each chapter, relating each lesson and exercise back to the ones before it. This particular chapter happened to be about war and peace; the reading text that opened the chapter was about Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and the eponymous Peace Prize – Alfred having been appalled at how his invention had been put to use on the battlefields of World War I.

Musician, singer, songwriter and producer Nick Lowe (copyright, I assume, by the photogapher, Dan Burn-Forti)But then my school does permit us to use outside resources at our own discretion, so I could spring Country Joe on them if I wanted to. But somehow I don’t think it would interest them anymore than Elvis Costello’s Nick Lowe cover did. Keep in mind, these are teenagers who are reasonably well off (by Vietnamese standards and increasingly by American standards as well) who have never known war. When I asked what the students thought of the song after listening to it initially, one of the brighter girls in the class shook her head and said “It’s not K-pop!

No child, that is pub rock via punk, that. But then I suppose Nick Lowe has always been a pop-music bridesmaid and never a bride. That’s Mr. Lowe over there on the left, by the way. Below, thanks to the magic of VCRs, nostalgia and AV nerds, is the original video for Elvis Costello and the Attractions cover of the aforementioned tune.

The Disc Doctor Has Left the Building

And this mortal coil.

Watching all of the fuss over Michael Jackson the past few days, marveling over all of the people mourning his death, holding vigil at his star on Hollywood Boulevard, or wherever those things are kept, I couldn’t help but feel angry. Why are these people crying and carrying on over someone they have never met in real life? Okay, fine, you enjoyed his music, but you didn’t know him, so how can you truly mourn him? Are your emotions that cheap?

I can’t help but think that the multitudes of fans we see on video carrying on over Michael Jackson in the streets of cities all around the world are ones that have never lost someone truly close to them – never had someone they dearly loved taken from them – and that they are fools, one and all. With their crocodile tears they mock everyone past and present that has watched someone they truly know and love die.

Michael Riley

But such is life. For the first time in some months, I dreamed of my father, the other night. I guess Michael Jackson’s death is big news even in the realm of the dead; the ghosts are stirring and agitated.

As if to drive all this home, I learned Friday that my friend Michael Riley had died the day before. I feel compelled to memorialize him here in my own words, because that.s really all I can offer at this point, I suppose. It’s ironic, because I haven’t felt much like writing lately, either creatively, or blogging, or professionally. In fact, as of late, blogging just seems silly. But other than knocking back some beer with some mutual friends and reminiscing, I have nothing else to offer him.

I talked with his closest friend earlier today, and she said something that struck me. She was saddened most by the fact that Michael never struck it big as a DJ, in spite of having the chops and the respect of many people in the radio and music business. That is a sad aspect of Michael Riley’s life, and yet I can’t help but contrast his death with that of Michael Jackson. The only tears shed for Michael Riley will be genuine, and while he may never have got the fame and recognition he deserved, my Michael seems to have largely lived life on his own terms, which seems more than we can say for Jackson. Furthermore, while the music of Michael Jackson, whose fans are legion, touched millions (musical pablum that is; sorry, just have to be honest); I’ll wager that Michael Riley touched more people’s lives in a meaningful way, in ways that someone who lived in the rarefied air of pop superstardom never could.

The Mekon

Just ask the Mekons and many other bands from outside the United States who probably wouldn’t have a fan base here in the Midwest if it weren’t for the efforts of the Disc Doctor – bands you’ve probably never heard of, who made music because they love to do it, because it was their calling – not to feed the hungry maw of the undiscerning masses, lining their pockets and those of their sycophants along the way. The Disc Doctor, as he was known when he spun records, was a bit of a legend around Cincinnati, at least in certain musical circles – circles that actually spread well beyond Cincy, actually.

I only got to know Michael in the last few years of his life, long after he had left the airwaves, but my life has been the richer for it. He used to work at the coffee shop where I frequently hang out at, since moving back to my old hometown. I don’t remember how we eventually got to know one another; I imagine one day I was trying to find out what obscure music was playing in Sitwells, and the inevitable answer that anyone would give was “ask Michael.” At some point Michael determined that I was not just another ignorant hipster douche bag hanging out in an indie coffee shop, and he started bringing me music, giving me homemade compilations that span just about every musical genre you could think of. Aside from his friendship, he turned me onto a lot of music I would not otherwise have discovered, and for that, I will always be grateful. And I am just one of many with similar stories.

I can’t claim that we were super close friends, but we were close enough that we would take road trips to see bands. We were close enough that I happily volunteered to help him move when he needed it, because I knew he couldn’t manage it himself. I only asked that he let me come over some time and let me comb the extensive music collection that wasn’t on CD and let me rip whatever my heart desired. I think he got a kick out of the fact that in spite of our age difference I shared many of his musical predilections. As he used to tell me, “I don’t know about these other kids (anyone 10 or more years younger than him was a kid) but you get it. You know what’s good.”

Of course, I never got around to actually doing that. And now it’s too late. As I wrote this, the last song he played as a radio DJ came to an end. It seemed only fitting today, when I confirmed beyond rumor that he had died, that I listen to a copy of his last radio show that he had given me a couple years back. The last song on it is Sun Ra’s Nuclear War. The lyrics are rather spooky, given the circumstances:

If they push that button
You can kiss yo’ ass goodbye

What you gonna do without yo’ ass?

Indeed, Michael Riley, what are we gonna do? Who else could choose songs from the likes of Muddy Waters, The Stones, Dylan, and Hendrix and mix them up with Alpha & Omega, The Mekons, Patti Smith, Carol King and Bette Midler into one radio show and make it work? You will be sorely missed my friend, and like others that are gone from my life, the world becomes a slightly more dreary place without you in it. I’ll try and take comfort in the fact that our paths crossed for a time; I’m a better man for having known you.

You know, Michael hit just about every genre of pop music you could think of during his final show, including punk – that was the Disc Doctor. While many of the choices were pointed commentary on the politics that led to his leaving his radio station, and the fact that he was leaving the air, they are also eerily poignant in the wake of his death. Among those songs is one from country artist Matraca Berg, River of No Return:

All aboard
The ship is waiting
All aboard, you know I’ve finally learned
That I don’t need no farewell party
I’m just gonna watch my bridges burn

Cause I’m going down the river of no return

Well, I let it go
Yeah, I cried myself an ocean
Now I’m gonna, gonna pack up my dreams and sail away
And my destination is none of your concern

Cause I’m going down, down the river of no return
I’m going down, down the river of no return

A misty grey morning covered for me
As I left, I left you there sleeping
All tangled up in your dreams
And this morning I woke up
And I knew I was free
You may shed a teardrop
But, oh baby, it won’t be for me

So all aboard
The ship is waiting
All aboard, yeah, my ship has finally come in
And I don’t need no farewell party
Just gonna watch those bridges burn

Down, down the river
All the way down, down the river of no return

Goodbye, my friend.

To the last, I grapple with thee …

To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.
— Herman Melville, [tag]Moby Dick[/tag]

Damn you, [tag]rhinovirus[/tag]. Damn you Nonta for making those ass-kicking shots weekend before last, shots that apparently delivered the coup de grâce to my immune system, breeching the white-celled wall for the invading rhinovirus horde (but I forgive you, since you’re so darn cute). But most of all, damn myself for partying like a rock star. No one to blame but myself.

Oh well. At least reading [tag]Melville[/tag] in high school was not completely for naught. And on the plus side, being stuck at home for the bulk of the four-day weekend, waiting to cough up a lung and/or for one of my sinus cavities to explode, I finally found time to rip every CD I own. Some 21 gigs of tunes, all ripped at a variable bit rate with 320 kbps being the max. Rawk on. It was kind of fun, actually – rediscovered a lot of music that I hadn’t listened to in ages, and relived memories both good and bad. For example, back in the mid 90s, getting my goth on at the Phoenix in Cleveland when Queue Up was playing … good. Very good. Hating my life and everyone in it while whithering away in the high desert of Northern Arizona in the late 1990s … not so much. Escaping to the Bay Area at the beginning of 2000 … good, very good.

Ah, the memories that are inextricably mingled in with music. I remember the first time I heard The Cure. And the girl who played it for me. I remember the album I listened to on the way home from the hospital the night before my mother died. I was listening to Type O a lot back then. I remember blasting Alice Cooper on the last day of high school; you can easily guess what song (of course, that was actually on a cassette; I wouldn’t own a CD player until well after college … but I do have an Alice Cooper disc with that song on it). And L7 is still probably my all-time fave, if I had to pick one. Smell the Magic and Bricks are Heavy just never get old. I still Bite the Wax Tadpole.

So there is that. All of my music and the associated memories available at a few mouse clicks. For every cloud, there is a pleghmy silver lining, I suppose.