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Dylan, in whose shadow we all must stand…

I’m planning to sing All Along The Watchtower at tomorrow’s Coconut Rawai open mic night, a song I really love. Bob Dylan wrote it the same year (1967) that Like A Rolling Stone was written, a song I’ve played since I was a busker 40 years ago now. I played that one at the last open mic night and it’s thought to be about the vanity and shallowness of people in Andy Warhol’s circle, maybe about Andy himself (the Diplomat with the Siamese cat?).

All Along The Watchtower is a very different song lyrically and is full of doom and foreboding. Dylan is probably the “joker” and his manager the “thief” in the lyrics. The “Watchtower” is straight out of the 21st chapter of The Book of Isaiah: “Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise ye princes, and prepare the shield…. Go set a watchman, let him declare what he sees. And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen…”

It’s thought to be about Dylan’s fight at that time with CBS and his manager to get a fairer royalties rate for his songs, being written while Dylan recovered from a motorcycle accident. Dylan was also under pressure at that time to write more songs because of his huge new standing in American society. It wasn’t a happy time for him.

Dylan’s original recording is very basic, so basic one never hears it played. However, this song has been covered so many times, most famously by Jimi Hendrix. It’s a popular jam song where guitarists can show off their talents (not me, however, as I’m lousy at lead.) It’s difficult to bring anything new to it in any arrangement as it is musically such a simple song. At least that means we’re spared a reggae version I suppose …

No, the strength of Dylan’s songs is undoubtedly in his lyrics. Apart from maybe Peter Hamill of Van der Graff Generator, no one is in Dylan’s league when it comes to this. No other musician has ever won a Nobel Prize for them. No one. Dylan is unique.

Not many people make much effort to understand historically what is going on in this gifted songwriter’s mind. It’s not difficult today with Wikipedia to help us do so.

However, as I am a history enthusiast, I will be saying a few words in explanation before playing this song to the Coconut Rawai audience.

It seems only fair to such a lyrical genius as Bob Dylan, in whose shadow all songwriters will forever stand.

—————————————————
There must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief
Business men, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None will level on the line
Nobody offered his word

No reason to get excited
The thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But, uh, but you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us stop talkin’ falsely now
The hour’s getting late

All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
Well, outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl

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Something strange is going on….

Yes, something strange is going on….. and wonderful. All of a sudden, open mic or jam nights are springing up all over the place, and I don’t know why.

The Tuesday night jazz jam in Michelangelo’s Bar, Phuket Town, has now been joined there by some ad hoc Rock, Blues and Pop jam nights. The Coconut Rawai live music venue has had a very organized and well-attended Friday open mic night now for a couple of months. This started about the same time as one on a Sunday in Kokonuss Restaurant in Kamala. Pop Up Phuket has done a few over the past months. No doubt there are others elsewhere that have slipped under my radar, but why is this all suddenly happening right now?

A cynic would probably say, it’s just bar owners wanting live music for free, but I think that might be unfair. I think there is another reason, a more positive reason …

Forty years ago, I remember being a member of my home village’s Male Voice Choir (second tenor). It was fun meeting up for a practice, then a beer after and, occasionally, a performance somewhere. OK, I like to sit on my porch playing my cigar box guitar, but this reminds me that music need not be a solitary occupation – it can be a very sociable activity too.

I admit I don’t get out as much as I like. It all comes down to declining energy – I’m not so young anymore! It’s all too easy to stay in at night with the wife, cat, some beer and Netflix. However, I find myself making every effort to get out and see my muso friends performing. Meeting up with such valued friends beats Netflix hands over! And there are a good number of very talented amateur musicians in Phuket who enjoy playing and hanging out with each other and are happy to do so more now in a bar.

So, I may be wrong, but I think this new open mic phenomenon is mainly being driven by the social needs of musicians post-pandemic rather than bar owners being tight with money. If so, that gives me hope that, for us musos at least, things in this post-pandemic world are not growing colder, but are happily warming up!

And perhaps this all has something to do with Netflix’s share price plunging recently too!

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Good luck Blaze!

I was sorry to not have a chance to say goodbye to Blaze at the recent festival Lean on Me 2, but I was in the UK. It so happens I bid in a charity auction and got four guitar lessons with him for 1000 baht. Bargain! (..and God, don’t I need them!) But then I was too busy to do them….

That was a shame as, being a nosy amateur journalist, I was interested in finding out more about him before he headed off to the USA to seek fame and fortune. I hope all goes well.

I have to admit to feeling a strange sense of loss as Blaze was not afraid to write and perform his own songs, and there sure ain’t much of that going on here in Phuket. It’s important. Very important.

You see, imagine how impoverished the world would be if the Beatles just played Chuck Berry songs? Or The Rolling Stones ones by Muddy Waters? Or if John Lee Hooker songs were all you’d hear from Jimi Hendrix? If Eric Clapton only played Robert Johnson covers? Songwriters are important.

However, music in a tourist destination like Phuket is inevitably dominated by bands playing other people’s songs, yet creativity is clearly supremely important in music. If someone somewhere doesn’t take the risk of performing their own material, music is forever doomed to stagnation. For original songs can lead to a unique musical style and ultimately, perhaps, to a whole new, exciting genre of music. Who knows, it might happen here with a fusion of rock and Isan dance music!

But it’s not easy being a songwriter these days. So much has already been done before, and computer songwriting software risks songs ending up sounding all the same. Writing hit songs is risky and involves a great deal of self-belief and dedication. Lyrics too are often personal; sharing them publically may not be comfortable, but there’s little emotional connection if you don’t. Only the bravest of the brave write and play their own songs today.

So good luck Blaze. Keep writing and playing those songs, and please keep us musos here updated on how you are getting on.

Oh, and when you become the next Jack White, I’ll be popping around for those four guitar lessons, promise!

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Hats off to Adam Green (again!)

I’m just back from my month-long holiday in the UK, and I still have a bit of jetlag, but see I have not done a blog post for six weeks now. I’m so busy, but I’ve got to write something fast!

Now I’m back home, I’m again closely following the ups and downs of my friend Adam Green’s frustrating efforts to form a band once again. My heart goes out to him – It’s not easy getting a band together and keeping it moving forward, especially if all amateurs and other things take up their time and attention. It takes a lot of time, commitment and energy, which are always limited. I’m experiencing something similar with my efforts, but I seem to be getting more success, perhaps because I’m working as just a duo or trio.

Some musicians insist that bands should be run like a democracy where everyone gets a veto and every opinion must be equally accommodated. This makes things even more complicated for anyone trying to move things forward!

Sometimes it can feel like two steps forward, three steps back. Sometimes it actually is. A bass player decides he doesn’t have time and quits, a drummer gets sick, the vocalist goes on holiday, keys throws his teddy in the corner, the music studio is shut for a month, and so on.

No wonder that musical acts driven forward by a motivated, single personality often have most success – think Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Neil Young and Johnny Cash. When you see how Oasis suddenly blew apart with Noel and Liam Gallaghers’ spectacular punch up, having just two such competing, managing figures can have its dangers.

Bands are all about differing personalities working together as best they can in an atmosphere where their gifts, aspirations and opinions are respected. It’s not easy managing this at times, sometimes it’s impossible, but someone has to do it or the musos just carry on playing in their bedrooms, and nothing ever gets created or achieved. The prize, when it comes, is when you are on stage and you hear the applause (and hopefully some whistles etc too)!

So here’s hats off (again) for people like Adam Green! (Click here for my first blog post.) Keep on at it, Adam, and don’t give up and you’ll win through in the end!

Andy Tong Dee

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It’s a great time to buy guitars, even if you don’t play so well!

This is a great time to buy a new guitar – the design and craftsmanship now is so good and fierce competition keeps prices down. Not only that, the guitar is still prominent  in modern music, despite what they said in the 80s about keyboards taking over. They didn’t…entirely…

So here’s a shout out for Bangkok’s guitar suppliers! In the last 11 years, I’ve used Proplugin, CT Music, Music Boulevard, Boosey, Tone City, Bangkok Music Exchange, Theera and Music City. They’ve all been great. (OK I like to try and buy local, but they only just order from these places anyway.)

And particular thanks today is due for Music Collection who just sold me this (Indonesian) Squire Standard Tele for a mere 9,400 baht. It’s reduced to about the same price as a Squire Affinity as it’s being discontinued, so I thought I’d best hurry up and get one. (I checked three shops before this one, but they had all sold out).

No scratches, clean and the action, truss rod, pickups and intonation are perfectly set up. It’s a fine guitar with terrific playability and sound. But why did I just get a mere Squire Standard?

 1. Is a Squire Classic Vibe Tele really worth 7,000 baht more? 13,000 extra maybe for a Mexican Fender Standard? Or 18,000 more for a Fender Player? Frankly, I can’t see much difference apart from the word “Fender” on the head stock. Maybe that’s why it’s being discontinued. Such bargain guitars are maybe discouraging people from buying more expensive ones.

2.  At 3.2 kg of agathis,  it’s a whole lot lighter than my mahogany 4.3 kg Les Paul (oof!) and nearly half my 6 kg solid ash Chinese tele copy (phew!). It’s a good choice for a smaller or aging  guitarist, shall we say, as wood is not a big factor in electric guitar tone.

3. No one expects lightening, shredding guitar solos from anyone playing one of these kinda guitars. That suits me fine because I don’t want to!

I think that guitars are like clothes. Yes, they need to be functional, but you also need to feel comfortable with them. They need to look and feel right for you. This guitar does that for me, but maybe not for you. Natural wood or antique burst is my thing, maybe electric blue is yours. It’s a great subject for a friendly discussion, especially when amps and pedals get involved.

So if a Squire Standard Telecaster does ring your bells, get online and order one fast while they’re still available…or  (argh!) a Squire Standard Strat if you really must.

We’d best leave THAT conversation for another day!

Andy Tong Dee