Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Whitewashing of Male Stripping in "Magic Mike": What Happened to the Black People?

WTF?! A black person?
I've finally gotten around to watching Magic Mike on DVD, and my initial reaction was similar to the one I had after seeing The Descendants back in January. Sometimes all a movie needs is a highly esteemed director -- in the case of The Descendants, Alexander Payne, with Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh -- and film critics won't even notice how mediocre it is. Would Matthew McConaughey's performance be generating any kind of Oscar buzz had Magic Mike not been directed by such a critics darling?

That's not to say it's a bad movie. Magic Mike isn't terrible by any stretch, and I enjoyed it more than I did The Descendants. But when you've got guys as hot as McConaughey and Channing Tatum parading around in various states of undress, and you still can't hold my undivided attention, Tampa, we've got a problem.

Ah, yes. Tampa, the place where Magic Mike happens, the Florida city only a few hours outside of my hometown of Kissimmee. Perhaps I missed something when I was distracted by the clock, but for a director who earned his reputation with a hyper-realistic brand of filmmaking that sometimes bordered on documentarian (see Sex, Lies and Videotape and Traffic, the 2000 movie for which Soderbergh deservedly won the Best Director Oscar), the Florida depicted in Magic Mike doesn't look anything like the Florida where I spent the 18 years of my life between the ages of 4 and 22.

Yes, it's been awhile, and places change. Perhaps all the black people who lived in Tampa, Florida, two years ago -- according to the 2010 census, 26 percent of the general population -- packed up and moved to wherever the New York City blacks took off to in order to make Girls one of the most lily-white shows on TV (more on that in a future blog) since the whitewashing of the Big Apple by Sex and the City, Friends and Seinfeld.

Here's the thing: Soderbergh cast an English actor (Alex Pettyfer) as a 19-year-old American, a gay actor (Matt Bomer) as a straight married stripper, two Latinos in key supporting roles (Adam Rodriguez as a stripper and Gabriel Iglesias as Tobias the DJ) and a 53-year-old WWE star (Kevin Nash) as Tarzan the stripper, and he couldn't put any black people onscreen. Maybe I blinked and missed something, but over the course of the entire movie, I don't recall seeing a single black face -- or body -- in a city that is one-quarter black. Ginuwine's "Pony" on the soundtrack does not count.

Would women in Tampa pay to see him naked?
Channing Tatum has some impressive moves, but that stripper revue could have benefited from the presence of a hot black stud. Mehcad Brooks -- formerly of True Blood, the HBO series in which Magic Mike stripper Joe Manganiello currently costars -- could give any of those guys a run for their G-strings. I get it, though: In the Florida where I grew up in the '70s and '80s, few white people would have paid good money to see a black guy strip, and perhaps things haven't changed so much in the decades since. But unless 25 percent of Tampa's population has gone into hiding, couldn't we have gotten a few black faces in some of those crowded club scenes, in one of the party scenes, in a street scene?

Wait, I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think one of Tobias's two thugs who broke into Mike's apartment may have been black. Was he or wasn't he? That's some double-edged sword. If he was, there we go again: the black guy as hired muscle. If not, an all-white cast with no black stereotypes. In some alternate universe where black people actually exist and go out in public, I guess that's some twisted form of progress.

The Best Performance in Magic Mike

Saturday, September 29, 2012

6 Random Thoughts I Had While Watching Christina Aguilera's "Your Body" Video

1. Her hair and make-up is cartoonish (Betty Boop with blonde yarn on her head), and her garish, clashing attire makes her one of the worst-dressed pop divas on YouTube, but when did Christina Aguilera become so normal? She's not thin; she's not fat. She's just right -- a healthy regular woman, the kind who actually lives and breathes in the real world. That's sexy. Somewhere around the umpteenth butt shot in the video for "Your Body," the first single from her album Lotus, which is out November 13, I actually started to kind of get why her milkshake was bringing all the boys to her yard.

2. She has great taste in men. The three featured in this video are HOT like fire. At 3:54, the last one looks a little like True Blood's Ryan Kwanten, my all-time favorite Aussie after my ex-boyfriend. And I love the tattoos on the first one. Location location location. It's all about tattoos on the lower arm. Makes me glad I got "Jeremy" in Thai on the left. Now if only I could come up with a suitable image to brand on the right.

3. Loving the trailer-park chic. I spent the first four years of my life living in a trailer, so I've always had a soft spot for them (and for unhealthy breakfast cereals, and for The Lucy Show, my favorite Lucille Ball TV vehicle -- both of which get visual props here). And I like it when Christina plays with her trashy image, which she hasn't done nearly enough since "Dirrty," which came out almost exactly one decade ago. Her antics here aren't so age-appropriate -- they'd be more suitable for a pop diva Rihanna's age (24) than a 31-year-old grown woman -- but then take away the hardened sexuality, and Christina doesn't look that much older than she did 13 years ago in "Genie in a Bottle."

4. While her fellow comeback diva Alicia Keys is trying to be everybody but Alicia Keys on "New Day" and "Girl on Fire," the two tracks I've heard so far from her fifth album Girl on Fire (out November 27), it's good to see Christina Aguilera being Christina Aguilera again, which may or may not be such a good thing, depending on how you feel about Christina Aguilera. I, for one, think it's always a positive when people are themselves.

5. As producers go, I still think she can -- and should -- do better than Max Martin, but the song is growing on me. The verses kind of just sit there, and it doesn't challenge her voice in any noteworthy way, but in the hands of the right remixer -- one who could untame the too-contained chorus -- "Your Body" could possibly approach the greatness of Florence + the Machine's "Spectrum (Say My Name)" and Cheryl Cole's "Call My Name," my two favorite pop singles in recent memory. Paging Calvin Harris!

6. All in all, not a bad video -- and certainly better than "Not Myself Tonight," the dreadful first clip from Christina's last album, 2010's Bionic. But it would be nothing without the guys, in much the same way that Maroon 5's "One More Night" (the video and the song) would be nothing without Christina's The Voice co-judge Adam Levine. In fact, watching Christina's new video makes me want to see more of Adam, which is pretty much the same feeling I have whenever I see her on The Voice. Though his studied, manicured ruggedness is a tad irksome, I'd gladly get into the ring with him any night of the week. Why do I get the feeling that Christina would, too?

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Shouting Stage: 10 Rock Songs To Lose It To

It's been another one of those weeks, the kind where more things go wrong than right, the kind that brings extreme relief when it finally comes to an end. And like the conclusion of all weeks, good and bad, this one deserves a fitting soundtrack. Sad songs say so much, but despite the grey skies, rainy days, and lack of sunshine on my shoulders (the Bangkok forecast calls for steady downpours until October comes), I'm in no mood for more doom and gloom today. Instead of wallowing in misery and gin (or Johnnie Walker), I think I'll turn up the volume and let it rip. Catharsis through music is so good for the soul. Today's get-over-it-and-then-get-on-with-it soundtrack....

"Kashmir" Led Zeppelin The song most likely to pull me out of a funk? It would probably be a toss up between "Black Dog," "Dancin' Days," this, or something else kick ass by Led Zeppelin. Whatever it ended up being, it'd have to be something by rock's all-time greatest masters of funks.

"Black Star" Radiohead The best song on one of my Top 3 Britpop albums of the '90s (along with Ride's Going Blank Again and Suede's Coming Up). It starts low and increases in volume like it's creeping toward you, which is how I've always imagined a mental/emotional comeback must sound.

"New Generation" Suede Oh, to be 25 and invincible (if only in my mind) again.

"Cish Cash" Basement Jaxx featuring Siouxsie Sioux The former high priestess of punk gets fierce again.

"Way Out" Yeah Yeah Yeahs Karen O's feral yelping from 2:32 on gets me every time. Last year I got into a debate with a 21-year-old guy at Prince of Wales in Melbourne over whether Yeah Yeah Yeahs qualify as rock & roll. He insisted not in the AC/DC sense of the term. I still beg to differ.

"Back in Black" AC/DC There's no denying AC/DC's rock & roll might, though. The title cut from the Aussie band's 1980 album is all kinds of dark (possibly because the specter of the group's late lead singer Bon Scott hangs over it like a black cloud in Bangkok filled with rain), but its sheer brute musical force still manages to brighten my soul.

"Interstate Love Song" Stone Temple Pilots Walking home from Prince of Wales that night, I listened to this and STP's "Down" on repeat on my iPod. Catharsis through the musical equivalent of mind-blowing sex. Ooh, Scott Weiland! Every time I listen to STP all I can think about is sitting across from Weiland in a Burbank recording studio circa 1999's No. 4, trying to interview him and wondering if he was ever going to button up his shirt so that I could stop staring at his treasure trail. He didn't, and I didnt.

"Dance" Ratt You sort of can't go wrong with a song called "Dance." It was a toss up between this, Cinderella's "Shake Me" and something by Motley Crue, all my guiltiest pleasures in the history of '80s hair metal.

"The Phoenix" The Cult In college, nothing picked me up out of a blue bender quite like the holy triumvirate of '80s albums by the Cult -- 1985's Love, 1987's Electric, 1989's Sonic Temple -- and nothing on any of them did the trick as forcefully as this standout from the former. I'm on fire indeed!

"Mind Riot" Soundgarden One I missed when I was singing Soundgarden's praises back in February, from one of the most cathartic albums of the '90s -- hell, ever!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Don't Call, Just Text!

I'm trying hard to be better, but it's just so... hard. As much as I complain about modern society's over-reliance on newfangled 21st-century communication -- text messages, emails, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. -- and the way it's stunted our capacity to have meaningful in-depth conversations, it's actually the perfect set-up for a writer like me.

Though I still haven't mastered the art of typing on my iPod Touch keypad (damn that predictive text!), I can rock an email on my netbook. Go ahead, send me one. Chances are I'll respond ASAP (to use 21st-century acronym-communication lingo that was actually invented last century) because chances are I'm already at my mini-laptop tying something -- an email, a blog post, search words on Google or Bing to help me diagnose my latest imaginary ailment.

My quickness to respond to emails is not necessarily conducive to a thriving 21st-century love life, though. As a friend pointed out to me yesterday, people like a challenge, and if you respond to their emails within 24 hours with a mini-novel, they might think you're too easy and lose interest. Wait a few days! As much as I hate to play those love games, I had to admit she had a point.

Depending on emails to conduct important romantic conversations is risky enough as it is without making people think you have nothing better to do than sit around composing perfect replies to them. There's so much opportunity for misinterpretation and wrong impressions. There's something to be said for good old-fashioned telephone communication, not texting but picking up the horn and having an actual mouth-to-ear conversation.

There's no waiting for a response (unless nobody answers and you have to leave a message, kicking off the worst kind of waiting game). You can pick up little communication clues from subtle vocal inflections and awkward silences (which say a thousand words). After the conversation is over, there's no transcript for you to spend hours, days, weeks, months poring over and obsessing over (which is something I seem to be doing non-stop these days -- more on that some other time... maybe). Nobody has to worry about being judged for spelling, punctuation and assorted typos (something that more than one friend has told me makes them fearful of sending me emails).

Most importantly, though, since I've always hated talking on the phone, if I don't pick up (and even back when calling someone was pretty much the only way to reach them, I usually didn't), chances are that I won't respond in days -- if at all. Though I may have pissed off a lot more people back in the day, nobody ever accused me of being overeager.

But I'm trying to be better. Yesterday I had to talk to my editor at the Bangkok Post. I could have sent him a quick email or text, but I decided to challenge myself. I picked up the phone and called him. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't feel a twinge of disappointment when he picked up. It was good to hear his voice, but I couldn't wait for the conversation to be over -- and I was the one who called him!

Yesterday was actually a sort of double-throwback because I had not one but two phone conversations. The second one wasn't by choice. Someone I went out on a date with on Sunday night called me to plan our second date. Since he doesn't have my email address, and we're not connected on Facebook or Skype (don't even get me started on those video chats, though I've found a spot in my bedroom where the lighting makes me look halfway decent onscreen), texting and calling are his only options.

It was a relatively painless telephone conversation, but I still couldn't wait for it to be over, and I suspect it may have shown in my tone. I guess I'll never be the guy who falls for someone because we can stay up until 3am chatting on the phone about everything. When the call ended, I realized that it might be the first time in years that I've set up a date by telephone. Score two for yesterday!

Next time, though, I hope he sends a quick text.

"Don't Call, Just Text" Toni Braxton

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

5 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching the First Two Episodes of "The New Normal"

1. David and Bryan make a good couple on The New Normal, NBC's Tuesday-night freshman sitcom, but how unrealistic are they? In a sense, it's nice to see such seemingly well-adjusted longtime gay companions where one doesn't always have a eye on Grindr. Their relationship is straighter (as in no curves, no coloring outside the lines) than most straight relationships on TV! If that really were the new normal, opponents of gay marriage wouldn't stand a chance (and in the long run, they probably don't). But there's really little comic gold to be mined from it. The couple dynamic -- one's queeny while the other is slightly nerdy and could possibly pass for straight among the severely gaydar-challenged -- is not exactly a match made in sitcom heaven. Andrew Rannells (as Bryan) and Justin Bartha (as David) are appealing, but I wanted them to be funny, too, and so far they aren't.

2. In fact, the only one who did or said anything funny in the first two episodes was Ellen Barkin as Jane, the grandmother of David and Bryan's surrogate Goldie. But I wonder why she wasn't cast as Goldie's mother instead. I get that she's supposed to be the first of three generations of babies who had babies, but Barkin looks too darn hot to be playing a great-grandmother. Jane easily could have been a gay-unfriendly variation on Holland Taylor's dragon mama on Two and a Half Men, but Barkin gives Jane a little bit of vulnerability and turns her into what might end up being prime-time TV's most lovable bigot since Archie Bunker. She seems to be vaguely aware, on some level, of how inappropriate her racist and homophobic pronouncements are, but she just can't help herself. Look out, Julie Bowen! She's coming after you in the Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy category next year!

3. Georgia King is fantastic as Goldie, David and Bryan's surrogate, but the goody-two-shoes character is a bit of a bore so far. I think the actress is taking the material too seriously, treating the vehicle like it's a tony prime-time drama instead of lightweight fluff. Her best scenes in episodes 1 and 2 were the ones featuring Goldie and her ex-husband Clay (Jasyon Blair). Maybe I'm swayed by the fact that I could spend 22 minutes just staring at Blair, but I found Goldie and Clay's straight relationship to be a lot more interesting than David and Bryan's gay one.

4. I like Bebe Wood (as Goldie's daughter Shania), and her bonding with Bryan over Grey Gardens was kind of sweet, but since when is Grey Gardens a gay thing? I'd never even heard of it until the Jessica Lange-Drew Barrymore TV-movie remake a few years ago. Maybe I'm just too much like David, who has no idea what it is (prompting Bryan to make the two episodes' only bullseye observation, about gay men who pretend to be clueless about "gay" things to seem more "straight"), but the flashback sequence with the model of the Dynasty mansion seemed more authentically "gay" to me.

5. NeNe Leakes' reality-TV origins (The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Celebrity Apprentice 4) are showing because the lady, though fierce, cannot act. Unless she's being the sassy black woman (which pretty much seems to be her only purpose so far), her line readings sound too much like she's regurgitating memorized, rehearsed dialogue. As much as I like Leakes, I think an actual actress, someone like The Game's Wendy Raquel Robinson, could make Rocky more than just a stereotypical archetype. I wonder if Mo'Nique is busy. It's not like she's been doing anything since she won that Oscar. She might be just what this sitcom needs to seem less like the old normal and more like something new -- and funny.

Monday, September 24, 2012

How Much Effort Are People Really Worth?

Words of extreme wisdom from the guy who once said, "Get jiggy with it"!

I'm not sure in what context Will Smith made the above social observation, but when my cousin posted it on Facebook, his words really resonated with me. I've never found a thrill that I was looking for. That applies to relationships and pretty much everything in my life, from jobs to lost items to forgotten trivia that always seems to magically reappear in my brain when I stop thinking about it. The moment I want something too much, I instinctively suspect that I won't get it.

Despite appearances (I'm good at faking the whole life-of-the-party thing), I've always been a loner, more comfortable in a party of one than in the company of strangers, or even friends and family. Since I have no fear of being alone, I generally don't pursue people. Most of the tight friendships in my life evolved naturally without any great effort on my part. Perhaps that's why they've lasted.

In love, I'm similarly passive, rarely the instigator in romantic entanglements. After a few too many drinks, I might approach the hot guy at the bar and make my pitch, but during normal business hours, I'm far more likely to let others to the heavy lifting. Last night, I was having dinner with a new acquaintance, and I told him that I don't know a thing about unrequited love. Part of what makes me fall in love with someone is bearing witness to how much they love me. Men need to make love to feel love, women need to feel love to make love, I need to feel love to feel love.

For me, it's not fear of rejection in action. I've had enough rejection in my life to last a lifetime. At this point, I'm fairly immune to it. It's more a form of self-protection and a spin-off from my insecurity. If I chase after you, once I catch you, how can I be sure of the intensity of your feelings for me? Did you give in simply because there was nothing better to do? And what's with the ambivalence?

It's not such a healthy thing. In a way, it takes away my power. If I'm only picking from the options that are presented to me, it's possible that I'll never get what I really want. With this in mind, I recently tried to change my ways, make the first move, be the pursuer instead of the pursued. The results have been emotionally draining. An ambivalent guy who waits for you to make all the first moves can wreak havoc on your self-esteem, and in the end, you might not even have him to show for it.

In my case, every move he makes, he makes when I'm not looking, when I'm least expecting it, when I'm too busy doing something else to be even thinking about him. Those old cliches are so true: The watched pot is slow to boil. When you least expect it, expect it. People want what they can't have. I hate the idea of playing games, but love is just a game. If everyone is playing it but you, guess who loses!

I'm glad I put myself out there, but I've crawled back into my shell where it's more comfortable. Things are already looking better. I love the view from inside. Will Smith is right. If you're interested, you know where to find me. I'll be here doing my thing, not waiting for your call, and not expecting it either.

"Stretch Out and Wait" The Smiths (no relation to Will!)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

10 Dated R&B Songs That Still Sound Fierce Today

I recently listened to D'Angelo's 1995 debut album Brown Sugar for the first time in forever, and I was surprised by how well it holds up. Unlike, say, Missy Elliott's two-years-younger debut, Supa Dupa Fly, which I also recently revisited, it could be released today and not sound like a relic from a pre-historic musical age. That said, timelessness is not necessarily the key characteristic of timeless R&B. Just because an R&B song reeks of the era that launched it doesn't mean it can't sound just as good on an iPod as it did on Cassingle or 45. Some 40-something minutes of proof...

"Giving You the Benefit" Pebbles Early '90s Babyface/L.A. Reid over-production at its very best, and Pebbles was hot in therre. I still like to pretend that she's singing "I can be a bitch, but I choose not to" at the bridge.

"Crazy for You" Sybil featuring Salt-N-Pepa You can't get more 1990 than Sybil's crazy turn-of-the-decade outfits in the video, a Salt-N-Pepa guest rap (also employed by the aforementioned Pebbles two singles later on "Backyard"), and the word "buggin'," but this song, not her 1989 cover of Dionne Warwick's "Don't Make Me Over," her lone Top 40 hit in the U.S. (No. 20), will forever be the jam for which I fondly remember Sybil. Where is she now?

"Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But the Rent" Gwen Guthrie I had forgotten all about the late one-hit wonder's 1986 wonder (incidentally, she sang back-up for Stevie Wonder at one point) until I heard it get a party started in Melbourne two years ago. I still love her gravity-defying 'do in the video!

"Dirty Cash" The Adventures of Stevie V This 1990 No. 75 R&B hit (and No. 2 UK pop hit) had slipped my mind, too, until the DJ slipped it on at a club in South London two and a half years ago. "I've no excuse/I just want you to use me/Take me and abuse me." The sound is a time capsule, but the sentiment is one for the ages.

"Uh-Uh Ooh-Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes)" Roberta Flack Another oldie but goodie on the playlist that night in South London. "I know a goodbye when I hear one." Girl, I know that's right!

"Don't Stop the Music"/"Don't Waste Your Time" Yarbrough and Peoples They were the Captain and Tennille for black folks, and their two No. 1 R&B hits (both of which I owned on 45) have actually aged better than "Muskrat Love," which I adore, by the way.

"Come into My Life" Joyce Sims I once fell for a white boy because not only did he know Sims's 1988 No. 10 R&B hit (which hit No. 7 on the UK pop chart), but he could sing every lyric and hit every note pitch perfectly.

"Pilot Error" Stephanie Mills Quiet-storm R&B, Mills's forte despite the fast song that is her biggest hit (1980's "Never Knew Love Like This Before"), tends to age better than the genre's uptempo jams. But if I had to pick just one of the latter to work out to every day for the rest of my life, it would probably be this 1983 No. 12 R&B hit from the genre's most underrated female vocalist.

"Woman Trouble" Artful Dodger featuring Robbie Craig and Craig David Remember when we all thought the UK two-step movement would live forever? Neither do I. It was always so obviously a passing musical fad, but some of its spawn, like this 2000 No. 6 UK single, has aged a lot better than anyone might have expected it to.

Friday, September 21, 2012

African Vs. American, Black Or White: What Difference Does It Make in Thailand?

I wasn't going to say anything, but then yesterday I found myself talking to Ben, a guy who is a guest at the hotel where I live, and it all came flooding out, everything about that odd question I was asked last week.

As for the guy who got it out of me, Ben is 32 years old, and he spent the first 18 years of his life in Zimbabwe. Being a white guy who lived half of his life among a predominantly black population (his first language was Afrikaans, his second Swahili, and his third English, which he didn't learn until he was 16), Ben approached race relations from an interesting angle. We dove right in.

He talked about some of the difficulties he had growing up in Zimbabwe, where his experiences in some ways mirrored mine growing up black in the United States. But it was what he said about the way Thai people react to him that left me somewhat shaken. He told me about how his sister, who lives in Bangkok with her boyfriend, applied for a teaching job here before her arrival, and was asked if she was a white African or a black African. Apparently, black Africans need not apply for teaching jobs with this particular organization, as a black African friend of Ben's recently found out the hard, direct way.

Ben had experienced this particular brand of discrimination against black Africans firsthand, having had professional contact with people before his arrival who were visibly relieved when they realized that he's white. According to Ben, "Are you a black African or a white African?" is a standard business question here. If they were afraid to ask, they came up with some excuse not to do business with him and magically changed their minds once they figured out that he is white.

As I listened, I thought about all of the people I've met since I've been in Thailand. I don't believe I've ever been in a country with kinder natives, and I haven't encountered any overt racism against me here. But I've always sensed that there might be another side to Thais, a darker side, one that I'm not privy to because most of my interaction with them is on the level of customer to service provider. People are pretty much paid to be nice to me in Bangkok.

My dealings with the folks who don't serve me have been mostly positive as well, but on a superficial level. They observe the traditional Thai code of conduct, but I can't say that they go out of their way to connect with me in any meaningful fashion. Even when I go out and local guys talk to me, I always sense it's more out of curiosity about the exotic black guy. "Is he really as big as everyone says he is?" I'm basically a piece of dark meat, and white meat is clearly the preference. Most of them save the deeper communication for the European white guys with blue eyes. That's what they really want.

Certain that he'd understand, perhaps even provide some valuable insight, I told Ben about the misgivings I'd been harboring over a conversation I had last week with a Thai-Chinese guy who works in my hotel who is good friends with a buddy of mine. He and I have known each other casually for months, and we always observe all the perfunctory niceties when we pass each other in the lobby or on the street or when we wind up in the same elevator, but this was the first time we'd had an actual conversation.

"Jeremy, are you from Africa?" he asked halfway into it.

I was shocked. Not because it was an uncalled for assumption but because somehow, astonishingly, I'd never been asked that before. During my six years living abroad, people had always assumed I was from anywhere but the motherland. In Argentina, I got (in the order of frequency) Brazil, Cuba, the UK, France, occasionally even the United States. If only I had a peso for every time I was asked, "Sos Brasilero?" -- I'd never have to work again. In Australia, I generally got the United States, with some people actually pinpointing the Caribbean because they were native English speakers, so it was obvious to many of them that my accent places my origins outside the U.S. mainland.

In Thailand, though, people rarely make those assumptions out loud when dealing with me. It's usually "Where are you from?" without betraying that they have the foggiest idea. So when I was asked if I'm from Africa, I was taken off guard. Not just because I'd never gotten that question before, but also because I couldn't believe he had no idea. I thought everyone who works at Anantara knew. It's sort of my thing around here, all anyone ever talks to me about.

"No, I'm from the United States, New York City, to be exact."

"Can't you tell by the way he talks?" our mutual friend, also Thai, chimed in. "He has a classic perfect American accent."

I don't, but I didn't feel like arguing that point. I was still focused on the question. I wasn't 100 percent sure, but I thought I noticed a shift in the guy who'd asked it, one that would have been imperceptible to most naked eyes. There was something about the look in his, the way it changed from one moment to the next, after I revealed the truth about my origins.

"He was raising his opinion of you," Ben offered, taking the words right out of my mind. "He saw you as being more valuable because you are from the U.S. and not Africa."

I don't like to think the worst of people -- even people who spend months thinking the worst of me -- but somehow I knew that Ben was right. It's why the conversation had been weighing down the recesses of my mind for the last week, and I felt that since Ben had finally said it, not me, there might be some justification for the way such a seemingly innocent but in reality, terribly loaded, question had made me feel.

One of my best acquaintances in Bangkok is a guy from Liberia, and shockingly, we've never even broached the subject of race. Memo to self: Don't forget to bring it up the next time you see him. Coming from a place where he's part of the majority to one where he's among the minority, perhaps he's not conditioned to over-analyze things the way Ben and I are. When someone asks him if he's from Africa, maybe he's genuinely impressed that they're able to figure it out on their own.

I just hope he's not looking for work.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why I'm on Team Mariah Carey (Sorry, Nicki Minaj!)

Yesterday, when I heard that Usher and Shakira will be replacing Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green as judges for the fourth cycle of The Voice, which will air next year, my first thought was this: Now that's how you pick two new judges for a singing competition!

They're both hot (physically and professionally -- along with Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, they will make up the comeliest quartet in prime time), experienced, and most importantly, talented. In fact, although The Voice has yet to produce a single singing star (other than a resurgent Maroon 5), I find myself thoroughly enjoying it -- the first season is currently airing on the Sony Channel in Bangkok -- more so than I have American Idol in years. I think a large part of it is watching four credible judges guide their teams with constructive criticism. It doesn't hurt that there also seems to be genuine affection mixed with a friendly competitive spirit among the judges.

But everybody loves a diva throwdown, and I might be underestimating the appeal of good old-fashioned on-set rancor, which is what is apparently percolating between new Idol judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj during the 12th-season auditions. It's ironic that the two don't get along since the first time ever I saw Minaj's face was a few years ago when she ruined a rap remix of Carey's "Up Out My Face," the best song on her last CD, 2009's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel.

The single flopped, and plans for the Memoirs remix album Angels Advocate were scrapped. Maybe Carey blamed the whole thing on Minaj, who has since gone on to considerable solo stardom. If the stuff I've been reading is true, the new judge line-up might make next season the best season of Idol since Paula Abdul was still around. The image of Carey talking over Minaj's critiques is almost as priceless as this one: Reportedly, when Carey got the call that Minaj had been hired, she promptly hung up the phone. Click!

I'm going to have to side with Carey on this one, and not because Minaj recently came out as a Mitt Romney supporter. It's just so hard for me to get into her. Yes, she's intermittently entertaining, but she's more cartoon than artist, the epitome of the stardom-obsessed generation that will do anything to be rich and famous. She has a way with words, and she can spit them out at a rapid clip, but I just don't understand how that qualifies her to crush young people's dreams. It's not like Auto-Tune didn't do all the work for her on her recent hits "Turn Me On" and "Starships."

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to what Carey has to say. I interviewed her a decade ago for Us Weekly, and I was pleasantly surprised by how funny and insightful she was. She embraced her celebrity, but she also knew how ridiculous it was. When I asked her about the sideways glances, the hyper-sexy posturing and the referring to her fans as her "lambs," she called it as she saw it: pure schtick. In a sense, she taught Nicki Minaj everything she knows about creating a Barbie-doll pop persona, but at least Carey owns hers without being swallowed up whole by it.

Minaj, in comparison, is 100% pure artifice. I can't recall a single moment in her career when she's taken off her mask and given us a glimpse of Onika Tanya Miraj (her real name). She's so Lady Gaga that way, hiding behind a pile of pop pomp. Also like Gaga, she more middle of the road than her costumery might suggest. Minaj would have us think she was just slumming with Madonna and David Guetta (at least M.I.A. had the good sense to look bored in the "Give Me All Your Luvin'" video), that she's first and foremost a bad-ass bitch, a friend of Drake and Eminem (Carey's sworn enemy). She's going to have to come up with something a lot more hardcore than "Starships" then.

Maybe Minaj will surprise me on Idol, and she'll finally come across as an actual person, not just a black doll with a potty mouth, but it's going to take a lot more than silly wigs, outlandish facial expressions, and strange vocal tics to hold my attention for more than the 3:19 it took for me to fall for "Super Bass." It's Minaj's crowning achievement thus far, one of the top songs of the summer of 2011, but "We Belong Together" still blows it away. Come January, I suspect Carey will do the same to Minaj.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

So She Thinks You Can’t Sing?: Why Britney Spears Shouldn’t Judge

How time flies and things change!

Once upon a time -- 13 years ago, to be exact -- Britney Spears was the biggest pop star on the planet. Her debut single, “...Baby One More Time,” was a No. 1 smash, and so was her debut album of the same title. On it was the ballad “I Will Still Love You,” a duet with an upstart teen heartthrob named Don Philip.

At the time, Philip was a high priority with Jive Records, Britney’s label, hopefully, the next Ricky Martin, who was still “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” or another Justin Timberlake, without 'N Sync deflecting his spotlight. His publicist brought him by the Teen People magazine offices in New York City and introduced him to the staff as a future male solo pop star. We considered his assets: He was cute and charismatic. Mostly importantly, he was on Britney’s hit record, so he was a known entity to any teen or tween who’d bothered to read the album credits.

Could he sing? To this day, I’m not so sure that it really mattered to Jive. He had a great name and a great face -- did he really need a great voice, too? It’s not like Britney could blow like Celine Dion. Christina Aguilera blew her away -- and Britney was still the bigger star. We assigned a one-page feature on him.

That was the last I heard about Philip until this past June, when the news broke that the singer, now a 32-year-old out gay man, would be popping up on the September 12 season premiere of the second cycle of The X Factor. When he walked onstage to audition during last week's show, I was impressed that Britney recognized him because I wouldn’t have. The last decade and three years haven’t been so kind to him, and not just because he’s pretty much lost his teen-idol looks. That plum spot on ...Baby One More Time had been his last hurrah. He’d spent the years since looking for love (in the professional sense) and not getting any.

As for his singing, well, Britney said it best in her critique, with the other three judges -- Cowell, Demi Lovato and L.A. Reid -- concurring: “Your voice really isn’t up to the bar of the standards of The X Factor and what we want.” So much for that declaration of everlasting love in the title of their ...Baby One More Time duet!

Ouch! In fact, much to the surprise -- and delight -- of viewers and critics, Britney spent much of the season premiere being as nasty as she wanted to be. That's entertaining, yes, but call her hypocritical (not maybe, definitely!). While a part of me secretly loves the idea of Britney being a queen B is for bitch (why should Simon Cowell have all the fun?), another part of me can’t help but cringe. Yes, she’s sold millions of records, and she does indeed have that extra something that it takes to be a star. But if she knows what a great singer sounds like, God only knows what she hears when she listens to herself.

Apparently, though, when it comes to talent, the standards for judging The X Factor are not right up there with the ones for moving on to the second round. It’s not like Cowell hired Britney because of her skills. She practically ensures ratings (or so he thought -- her X Factor debut couldn't beat The Voice, which airs at the same time and features her one-time rival Christina Aguilera in one of the four judges’ chairs), but she owes her career to Auto-Tune and other studio trickery. If she were just coming out today, would she be “up to the bar of the standards of The X Factor”? Please. What made her a star in 1999 does not necessarily apply in 2012 -- not any more than what made the perfect duet partner for pop’s soon-to-be reigning princess back then, as Don Philip now knows.

You still need the right look or some colorful shtick that can make everyone forget that you’re not really much of a singer. That’s how Nicki Minaj, Britney’s one-time remix collaborator (along with Ke$ha, speaking of the marginally talented, on “Till the World Ends”) gets by. It’s how Minaj got her own spot in the pop-star firmament and by extension, her new gig as an American Idol judge. Compared to her, former Idol judge Jennifer Lopez and ex-X Factor and Idol judge Paula Abdul are Mariah Carey, the first Idol judge who can actually give aspiring singers vocal advice while keeping a straight face. (So can Keith Urban, who has just been assigned to the Idol table, which will make Idol's upcoming 12th season half as legitimate as The Voice, which features four sturdy, undeniably great singers as judges.)

Don Philip is not about to get as lucky as that other Phillip (Phillips, Idol's talented season 11 champ). He may have missed his final shot (at least that’s what he seems to think), but other X Factor rejects shouldn’t be too quick to toss their dreams of stardom. Despite the criteria required to soar on The X Factor, Idol and The Voice, one can still be a pop star with a modicum of singing talent -- or none at all. And when your career starts to sag, if you’re really lucky, you just might be offered a job sitting next to Simon Cowell or Randy Jackson and crushing others' dreams.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tower of Songs: The Best of Leonard Cohen Revisited

Don't mess with perfection. That's what they say. I'm not sure who "they" are exactly, but in this case, they're sort of wrong. I'd amend that old aphorism thusly: "Don't mess with your own perfection."

Consider: As a writer, it's possible to be too much of a perfectionist and ruin perfectly good copy in the revision process. Not that I've ever produced perfect prose, but over the years, I've learned when to let it go. Occasionally, I've hit "publish" to soon, but that's what the edit button is for. I've never created anything as magical as a Leonard Cohen classic, though, and I'm no plagiarist, so I don't regularly flirt with the danger of messing with anyone's perfection.

Rarely, though, do musicians improve on their own perfection when attempting to reinvent their perfect songs. It's better to leave that to someone else. The cover artist may have a tough task at hand (we're always too ready to hate what they've done, just as we watch film adaptations of beloved books or great TV series expecting the worst -- though, inexplicably, theater buffs seem to be much kinder to Broadway revivals and shows based on material from another medium), but in my listening experience, the odds of producing something listenable are more with you if you're messing with someone else's song.

The Police apparently had no idea what else to do with "Don't Stand So Close to Me" a half decade after going Top 10 with it ("Don't Stand So Close to Me '86" was an unmitigated disaster), and Chicago massacred 1970's "25 Or 6 to 4," the band's first Top 5 single, 26 years later with '80s over-production and a lead singer who wasn't Peter Cetera. I can't think of a symphonic re-imagining or jazz-inflected revision of one's own classic catalog that's ever improved or even matched the source material, not even with an artist as skilled as Joni Mitchell at the helm.

But since I didn't expect Maria McKee to do "The Way Young Lovers Do" quite like Van Morrison did with his 1968 original (which immediately gives women covering guy songs, or guys covering women's songs, an edge), she had the freedom to take it further on 1993's You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, which she did. That might be why a day after first hearing Feist's version of Leonard Cohen's "Closing Time" in Take This Waltz, I still can't get it out of my head.

I've got to be real: Had Cohen messed with his own perfection exactly as Feist did, I'd probably hate it. But under the sleepy, sexy, slightly deranged influence of Feist, I heard a certain swagger in the song that I'd never heard before. I wanted to pull that Johnnie Walker bottle off the shelf in the kitchen and take a swig -- and not just because Cohen mentions JW in the song. It was nearly as enlightening as when I first heard Mary J. Blige taking a swing at U2's "One."

It led me to revisit some other Leonard Cohen covers I've loved over the years. You know an artist is a true treasure when he, or she, leaves behind a golden legacy that includes not only his, or her, own quality back catalog, but other people's interpretations of it as well, which, despite his lower-profile legendary status, would put Cohen, who turns 78 in four days, right up there with Bob Dylan and fellow Canuck Neil Young.

My 4 Favorite Leonard Cohen Covers Before I Heard Feist's "Closing Time"

"Everybody Knows" Concrete Blonde From the 1990 Pump Up the Volume soundtrack (my favorite for the first half of the decade, until Trainspotting came along), which came out shortly before I discovered Cohen, right around when Concrete Blonde could do no wrong. 

"Lover Lover Lover" Ian McCulloch From 1992's Mysterio, his second album without Echo and the Bunnymen, McCullock's remake of Cohen's 1974 song was his biggest UK solo single (No. 47).

"Hallelujah" Justin Timberlake, Matt Morris and Charlie Sexton As well as his film career is going, the former 'N Sync boy bander has only nicked the surface of his talent in music. The standout from the 2010 Hope for Haiti earthquake telethon, Timberlake and company's reading of "Hallelujah" worked for me in a way no previous cover of it that I'd heard had because they sold it in such a straightforward, unfussy way (with fewer baroque vocal flourishes than Jeff Buckley, which is why I never took to his rendition, perhaps the most commercially successful version), nailing the iconic song with reserved understatement.

"First We Take Manhattan" R.E.M. From 1991's I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, one of the best tribute albums of all time (and the first of two dedicated to Cohen in the '90s), possibly the first one I ever bought, and definitely the one that turned me on to Cohen in the first place.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Best Thing in "Take This Waltz"

"Life has a gap in it, it just does. You don't go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic." -- Sarah Silverman (Geraldine) to Michelle Williams (Margot) in Take This Waltz

I just finished watching my DVD of Take This Waltz, and I'm still marveling at how far Michelle Williams has won me over. It's not that I ever had anything against her as an actress. I just disliked Jen Lindley, the character she played for six seasons on Dawson's Creek, so much that I had a hard time separating her from the TV alter ego that made her a star until Williams' version of Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn forever put to rest all of my thoughts of Jen Lindley. I still say that of the five nominees, she should have won this year's Best Actress Oscar. (Sorry, Meryl.)

As a whole, Take This Waltz is hardly a perfect film. It's occasionally plodding and self-conscious, but I prefer this portrait of a marriage on the rocks to the overly bleak one served up in Blue Valentine. I also appreciate what the movie says about romantic relationships and restlessness, how we're always chasing new highs, new news, but what's new eventually gets old. What then?

Like Julie Christie in Away from Her, Sarah Polley's 2006 debut directorial effort, Michelle Williams' Margot transfers her affection from the old, her husband of five years Lou (Seth Rogen), to the new, the hunky artist/rickshaw driver Daniel who lives across the street (Luke Kirby). In Away from Her, Christie's Fiona had an excellent excuse: She was in the throes of Alzheimer's Disease. Margot's memory is perfectly intact. She's just young and restless.

My favorite scene in the film takes place at a party celebrating Geraldine's sobriety. Lou invites Daniel to join in the fun, unaware that his neighbor has the hots for his wife and that the feeling is mutual. On the soundtrack, Feist is covering "Closing Time," my favorite song by her legendary fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, from whose back catalog the film gets its title. It took me a while to recognize the Feist rocker as a remake of the standout on Cohen's 1992 album The Future, but once I did, I loved her drowsy, agit-rock take even more. Great covers of great songs don't grow on trees, you know.

I didn't want the scene to end, and when it did, I sort of found myself half wishing the movie would, too. I had to hear that song again.

Songs for Rainy Days and Sundays

As constant companions in stormy times go, one could do so much worse than Duffy. Ever since my iPod shuffle landed on her 2008 debut album Rockferry on Friday night while I was walking home in the rain from Babylon, she's been on a continuous loop on my mp3 player and in my mind. I just spent 45 minutes running around Lumpini Park in the drizzle, with only Rockferry as my soundtrack.

Though Rockferry went platinum in the U.S. and won Duffy a Best Pop Vocal Album Grammy, the Welsh singer has been overshadowed by Adele and Amy Winehouse among British pop divas of this millennium. A flop second album -- 2010's Endlessly, dismissed by critics and Rockferry fans but nearly as beloved by me as its predecessor -- put her even further behind those frontrunners. If Winehouse was Britney Spears (at the dawn of the '00s) to Adele's Christina Aguilera, Duffy was Jessica Simpson, which means she could still come back strong enough to be Ann Curry's first guest should Katie Couric's former colleague ever get her own talk show.

As much as I love Winehouse's Back to Black (which was released a year and a half before Rockferry and thus led to Duffy being dubbed by many as the new Amy Winehouse) and 19, Adele's 2008 debut, for me, Rockferry actually holds up slightly better today. Even if my iPod shuffle weren't so partial to it, Rockferry might still be the one in heaviest rotation.

Retro without being stuck in the past, vintage yet thoroughly modern, it's one of the best albums of the century so far. If I had to pick one to listen to all day -- Back to Black or 19 or Rockferry? -- especially a rainy day like today, it would be Duffy. No, she's not quite as dynamic a stage presence or singer as Adele and Winehouse, but she's an equally gifted songwriter and a more accessible one, unfettered by Adele's propensity for overstatement and Winehouse's archness.

"And the less you give the more I want so foolishly," she sings on "Stepping Stone," Rockferry's best single, even better than "Mercy," her biggest hit. That's unbelievably sad, yes, but it's the kind of straightforward hard-earned truth we cling to in times of crisis and despair because it says that someone else knows exactly how we feel. And that's Rockferry's greatest strength. When it's dark and stormy, outside and/or in, Duffy's songs about love among the romantic ruins still manage to let the sunshine in.

My Top 3 Rockferry Songs

"Stepping Stone'

"Hanging On Too Long"

"Delayed Devotion"

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Don't Touch Me There! (Part V): We All Feel Better in the Dark

There's nothing like walking in the dark as multiple hands poke, prod and grope you to make you appreciate living in the light.

Hello, sunshine. It's nice to see you again. I think I'll stay awhile.

Yesterday I experienced a rite of passage one year and two months after my first arrival in Bangkok that takes most gay men only a day or two to plunge into. I went to Babylon, not the Biblical contemporary of Sodom and Gomorrah, Bangkok's premiere -- and possibly only -- totally gay luxury hotel. Though I wasn't expecting to go out in a blaze of fire and brimstone, I'm pretty sure He wouldn't approve of some of the stuff that was going down there either.

I went with my friend Nestor, who for months had been regaling me with tales of his escapades within the place. Thanks to my slightly prudish streak and the superfluousness of a hotel with on-site dark rooms in a city where you can get a happy ending from pretty much any massage therapist for under $10, I resisted any urge I may have had to do more than live vicariously through his tall tales of tall men in the dark.

Then last week a taxi driver changed my mind.

"Silom Soi 2," I announced when I got into the cab.

"Oh, you're going to DJ Station," the driver said. Then he started singing a song with "DJ Station" as its only lyrics. "Have you been to Babylon?" he asked around what I assumed must have been the bridge. "Sathorn Soi 1." New song, new lyric.

I wasn't sure if it was an invitation or just some friendly information from a taxi driver to someone he figured was just another horny gay tourist looking for a thrill over a few days in Bangkok, but my curiosity was piqued. Now I knew where the famous Babylon was located -- right along my thrice-a-week running route.

It's not every day that a straight guy (and I presumed that's what the driver was) gives two thumbs up and a song and dance to a capital city's gay mecca. If it was good enough for him... A few days later, I told Nestor that I was ready to take the Babylon plunge

It wasn't at all what I expected, which was a seedy-looking facade with a tacky-posh interior design, sort of like the love motels in Buenos Aires. It's actually a boutique hotel with a pool, several bars, a gym and a restaurant that serves excellent food. Oh, and there's also a maze of dark rooms where guests and visitors (100 baht, if you're under 30, 260, if not) retire for "fun," to use the Thai euphemism for sex.

I wasn't interested in any of that, but I stripped down to my swimming trunks anyway because that's what people do there. "So what exactly do you like about this place?" I asked Sonny, the guy who'd come to Babylon with Nestor and me, as we sat by the pool. He seemed bored, like he was only tolerating the experience. But as it turns out, he's quite the Babylon regular.

"I just like to come and touch a little bit."

Oh, so that's what they're doing these days. It sounded a lot safer than what I imagined was going on behind those closed cabin doors. Sonny excused himself to go get touched.

After dinner, Nestor took me on a guided tour of the grounds. I couldn't believe the things I saw -- or rather, couldn't see as we walked through the dark maze outside the cabin doors. I laughed nervously as hands grabbed my ass and crotch, swatting them away at first before balling up my towel and using it as a protective shield in front of me. I would have been flattered by all the attention, but it had nothing to do with me. They couldn't even see what I looked like.

I'd never been so relieved to be back in the light -- until I ran into the French guy who'd been chatting us up in the dark only minutes earlier. Finally, it all made sense. I wasn't planning on ever coming back to Babylon, but at last I got it. Like the Eiffel Tower, some things are best seen in the dark.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

How Gay Is This Bangkok Billboard?

The things you notice when you wear your glasses for the first time in weeks!

Today I put on my specs, stepped onto the balcony and immediately noticed something that nearly made me fall over it. How could I be so blind without my glasses not to have noticed it before? Off in the near distance was a bright red billboard with a shirtless guy motioning for me to "Shhh." He needn't have bothered. I was already speechless.

What are they trying to sell? That was the first thought that ran through my head. Ah, there's the word "delivery," but just what would show up on my doorstep if I rang up the number in the upper left corner? The guy?

My second thought: The male model in the ad would look more at home gyrating onstage at G.O.D. than attempting to lure passersby on Narathiwat Road during rush hour. I'm pretty sure I must have flirted with him once on the dance floor. So this is what Thai women want? I'm assuming the advertisement is for their benefit and not the Silom Soi 2 and Soi 4 crowd.

It's an intriguing advertising concept, mostly because it goes against everything I've come to associate with Bangkok and Thailand outside of the red-light districts. Though Bangkok is the sex capital of Asia and possibly the world, there's a whiff of prudishness permeating the air here. Modesty in everyday activities is the norm: I never see shirtless guys jogging around Lumpini Park in the morning, or cleavage popping out from low-cut blouses during regular business hours.

You can buy bootleg copies of movies that are not even out yet in the U.S., but I still haven't been able to track down Magic Mike, the stripper hit that was released in the U.S. two and a half months ago -- not even on Silom Road, the night-market strip that I can't walk down after midnight without half a dozen people hawking porn DVDs in my face.

I never go to bed with my glasses on, so I probably won't have a very clear view of the delivery guy the next time I wake up with the curtains drawn. That's okay, though. I'd rather see Matthew McConaughey or (and!) Channing Tatum first thing in the morning.

Can You Judge a Guy By the Way He Packs for a Sleepover?

Apparently, I'm ridiculously out of practice. So much for life in the fast lane for this "happy bachelor" (as my brother Alexi once called me). Lately, this swinging single has not exactly been hitting them out of the ballpark.

I can actually count the number of dates I've been on this year with one hand. Don't cry for me Argentina (or anywhere else I've lived recently): It's been mostly by choice. I've been too focused on other things -- writing a book, enjoying my solitude and the silence -- to spend my time wading in the dating pool. But if the depth of one's commitment to romance depends on the number of overnight bags he packs, even before my recent dry spell, I was biding most of my time in the shallow water. If I spent the night, it was usually unplanned. It's been five years and five months since I've actually prepared an overnight bag before meeting up with a guy.

Yes, I'm truly out of practice.

Recently, for the first time in 2012, someone grabbed my attention. Suddenly, it feels like I'm 16 again. Not because the crush glow has returned all of my youthful vigor. If anything, I worry that my worrying over whether I'm doing everything wrong has added years to my appearance. I'm fairly certain that I'm doing it all wrong. I'm flubbing most of my lines, sweating too much, and over-examining everything to the point where I sometimes feel like throwing up my hands and heading to the nearest Buddhist monastery. (Orange really is my color!) Butterflies are beautiful and free, so why do they feel so ugly when they're locked in your stomach?

It's not him -- it's me. I'm so out of practice that I can't even get it right in my sleep. Last night I dreamt that I was packing to go over to the apartment of some undisclosed guy, not the one with whom I've been embarrassing myself, someone in a land far away from Bangkok. I'm not even sure what city I was in, but it felt like somewhere in the middle of the United States. I could tell by the fact that I was watching American TV without subtitles, and I was going to have to drive to get to his place.

You'd think that I was packing up for an extended holiday to the moon or someplace equally faraway and exotic the way I kept tossing things into the bag, reconsidering, and pulling them out. Several times I thought about calling the whole thing off. Maybe if I just didn't show up, he wouldn't even notice.

When I woke up, I think I was just remembering to pack my nasal decongestant, which is strange considering that I haven't used it in nearly two weeks now. First Klonopin, now Dexalergin. I can still kick a bad habit's ass, but apparently, in my dreams, I suck at that, too!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dark & Lovely: The Sound of Hard Times

I'm not sure how yesterday managed to slip my mind.

That's not why I'm writing about it one day late. I did eventually get around to remembering that yesterday was September 11, and technically, when I did, it was still September 10... in New York City. That's one of the beautiful things about living in Bangkok, where it's 11 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. I can remember important days when they're nearly half over and still be pretty much ahead of everyone else back home.

Unfortunately, it didn't really matter that it was well before noon Bangkok time when the significance of the day dawned on me. The gaffe that made me remember it would have been just as embarrassing at any hour. Another ex (not the one who saved my life a few nights ago) was checking in with me on Facebook just as I noticed a reminder in the margin of my homepage that it was his birthday.

"Happy birthday! Do you have any big plans for today?"

I ignored his concern about the latest goings on in my life. It was his day. I was expecting him to tell me about some big bash he had in the works. Instead, he dropped a bomb on me: He stopped celebrating his birthday 11 years ago!

"Why?" I was clueless, in more ways than one.

Then as I was multi-tasking while waiting for a reply, it dawned on me. Finally. It was September 11. For 10 years, I never failed to make the connection, even though he and I broke up in 1999, two years before 9/11. Then the one time when I really needed to remember, I completely blanked. How could I not have known why he would stop making a fuss about his birthday in 2001? It's not like September 11, 2001 is a day I'll ever forget, and not just because of my proximity to Ground Zero at the time.

The aftermath was just as indelible. Of all that I saw and heard and smelled in the weeks that followed, one of the things that still stands out most is an offhand comment made by my friend Dave, who was touched by the outpouring of fraternity and solidarity and appalled by the gross opportunism. I mean, the very idea of selling souvenirs commemorating a day in which so many lives were lost!

"This tragedy is really bringing out the best and the worst in people," he declared, hitting home. He was right. I thought of what he said again 10 days later while I was watching America: A Tribute to Heroes, a celebrity telethon providing relief to victims of 9/11. In this case, tragedy was bringing out the best in everyone, and most importantly, the best in music. Songs always have been a healing force in my life, but music is perhaps most powerful when it serves as a universal healer, as it was on the following special occasions.

"Wish You Were Here" Fred Durst and Johnny Rzeznick I was never a fan of Limp Bizkit or Goo Goo Dolls, so I had absolutely no reason to expect that the teaming of both bands' frontmen on a Pink Floyd classic would provide my favorite moment of America: A Tribute to Heroes.

"One" U2 and Mary J. Blige Another unexpected teaming floored me four years later on Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast, another celebrity telethon, this one benefiting victims of Hurricane Katrina. Listen closely. Despite the misleading title, the 1991 U2 hit has nothing to do with the brotherhood of man. The angry, biting, withering indictment that are its lyrics completely went over my head until the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul had her way with them.

"You'll Never Walk Alone" Barbra Streisand The only two things I remember about the delayed Emmy Awards telecast after 9/11 are that Ellen Degeneres hosted it and Barbra Streisand stole it.

"What a Wonderful World" Esperanza Spalding Speaking of thieves who steal the show... I didn't think I needed to hear another cover of the Louis Armstrong classic or anything by the 2011 Best New Artist Grammy winner until they both gave everyone watching the In Memoriam segment at the 2012 Oscar ceremony the best reason possible for holding the applause until the very end.

"Take My Hand, Precious Lord" Mahalia Jackson The one great thing about growing up going to a black church was the "song service," which, every Sunday, I never wanted to end. It's probably one reason why I have such a huge appreciation today for gospel music and the immense talent of its greatest ambassador ever, Mahalia Jackson, who sang this classic hymn at the 1968 funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"We Are the World" USA for Africa Nearly 30 years later, Ray Charles still kills me at 6:30.

"Why Not Smile" R.E.M. I always thought this offered a much stronger incentive to live than "Everybody Hurts." My ex reminded me of its powerful opening line yesterday when our conversation shifted to R.E.M.'s Up, an underrated 1998 album that flopped several months after we met. "The concrete broke your fall." Positively chilling.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" Aretha Franklin A similar sentiment first expressed by Simon & Garfunkel in 1970, then totally nailed the following year by the Queen of Soul.