Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | music
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I know exactly where I was the night of June 5, 1983: I was freezing my butt off, soaked to the bone but ignoring my discomfort because I was in musical heaven, surrounded by huge sandstone rocks on both sides, a stormy sky above and a hungry young band called U2 just hitting its stride in front of me, its members playing their hearts out despite the crappy weather. That concert was captured on an EP (for you post-CD fans, "extended play" releases were vinyl records with fewer songs than a full album but more than just a single with a flipside) and a video, both titled "Under a Blood Red Sky." The audio recording was actually a compilation of tracks recorded at Red Rocks and elsewhere during the same tour; the video was all filmed in Denver. The combination of the two established U2 as world-class big-time rock stars, not the scrappy new-wavers who played clubs and small theaters. MTV loved the energetic performances amidst the dramatic, almost otherworldly, setting. Radio stations caught on to the band's talent, and U2 hit their stride. In the years since, the concert was hailed as a seminal moment not just for U2, but for pop music: Rolling Stone magazine named it to its list of the "50 Moments that Changed Rock and Roll."

I'm a born-again Asian American. Most of my life, I was oblivious to my rich roots and Japanese heritage. I was a banana -- yellow on the outside, white on the inside. So probably more than some Asian Americans, I like the idea that May is officially "Asian Pacific American Heritage Month" in the U.S. There's a part of me that finds it irritating that APAs get noticed once a year and we're practically invisible the other 11 months. But I'm glad that former transportation secretary Norm Mineta drafted the legislation to establish this month-long celebration when he was a Congressman. I'm pretty immersed in the APA community now -- not just Japanese American, but also the dozens of other Asian ethnic cultures and how they've evolved as they've become established in the U.S. APA Heritage Month makes me think of times when I was less connected to my own roots, and not interested in the vast wealth of culture throughout Asia. When I was a kid, I was into Japanese and Chinese (or more correctly, Chinese American) food. That's what my family ate when we weren't eating hamburgers, steak, spaghetti and pizza. This was before I developed my voracious appetite for Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian, Singaporean and Filipino food. It was pre-dim sum. And, it was way before I grew to appreciate all kinds of Asian music, both traditional and Asian American. (Note: For those of you non-Asians who are Asiaphiles, I want to make the distinction that though we Asian Americans appreciate our heritage and understand how we're steeped in traditional values, we're all about the mix of being both Asian and American, or perhaps more accurately, being Asian in America.) One very clear example of my growth and awareness of Asian culture today as opposed to when I was younger, is my appreciation for one particular track in George Harrison's landmark recording, "The Concert for Bangladesh." The track is the Indian music performance, "Bangla Dhun," by the sitar master Ravi Shankar.

"Time-shifting" is a new media term for the ability of technology to allow us to consume media -- whether it's video or music or text -- at any time. The most obvious example is people recording TV shows on the DVRs to watch later, at their leisure. You can hear a teleseminar via podcast any time after the fact (for instance, on a plane flight to SF, which is when I listened to a class on my iPod). And this morning, I've been both time- and PLACE-shifting, by listening to an archival re-broadcast of Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" radio show, which was originally broadcast on April 14, 1973. It's kind of spooky because it's very possible I was listening to Casey Kasem's affable voice that Sunday morning, and yet here I am, "tuned in" to hear the show all over again, in a San Francisco hotel room but hearing a stream from Denver oldies radio station KOOL105. All I need is the newscasts and commercials of the time, and I'm a 15-year-old kid all over again.


Around the turn of the century (man, it's still weird to use that phrase in 2008), I started reading about a bootlegged series of cassettes making the rounds, of Cambodian rock and soul recordings from before that country's dark, post-Vietnam war years under despot Pol Pot. These recordings, I read, were all that were left, like audio archeology, of musicians who had absorbed Western pop and soul and rock during the 1960s and early '70s, and both covered those songs enthusiastically in their own language, Khmer, and wrote original songs using those sonic elements as their foundation. These musicians had all been slaughtered in Pol Pot's killing fields, the stories went, and these three-decades-old echoes were all that was left of that creative explosion. I finally got a hold of some of these recordings (some are now available via legitimate avenues including Amazon.com, no doubt cleaned up and sounding much better than many of the tinny recordings I got). They were exciting, and fun to listen to, but spooky when you realized all the artists were killed within a few years of the recording sessions. Sometimes they were faithful recreations of familiar songs -- until the lyrics came in. But whether they were covers or original, the playing and singing had an irrepressible and irresistible spark. Those recordings were enough to inspire a pair of California brothers to pursue the sound and make their own fresh echoes of long -ago Cambodian pop in a unique group called Dengue Fever, which has over the years evolved from re-creating the sound of the old Cambodian scene to integrating those sounds in a fresh take on world pop.

When Erin and I traveled to Hawai'i last September, we spent several days at the home of my cousin Laura McHugh and her husband John, in Mililani, northwest of Honolulu. I didn't write abut it at the time, but one of the coolest things about our stay was that John is a music fan who shares a lot of the same interests as me and my rock-critic friends. I found a stash of CDs I promptly had to put on my iPod, including a bunch of John Hiatt, and some gems I hadn't even thought of in decades, like Green on Red, a late '80s alt-rock group I had seen at the Mercury Cafe that I had once compared to Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Anyway, it's taken me months to pay John back, but I've burned him some of my favorite music. These CDs contain sounds that sustain me, surprises me and makes me smile when it comes up in my iPod, which is always set to shuffle through all my music. bleeckerstreet.jpgVarious Artists Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village In The 60's To a fan of folk and folk-rock music like me, this is a rare, and little-known, treasure. It came out a few years ago and I came across it at a Borders bookstore. It’s a compilation of ‘60s urban folk-era remade by contemporary singer-songwriters, and though some of the covers are reverential and dry, some are really fresh takes on these songs, all of which I’ve known for decades. My favorites include Jonatha Brookes’ crystalline, haunting take of Paul Simon’s haunting “Bleecker Street,” the tribute to the first folk era’s ground zero in Greenwich Village, from Simon and Garfunkel’s debut album. Another favorite is Loudon Wainwright III and Iris DeMent’s rollicking “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” which led me back to Richard and Mimi Farina’s greatest hits album, where the original still glows, and Cry Cry Cry’s beautiful version of Tom Paxton’s deeply moving “Last Thing on My Mind.” Droll baritone folkie John Gorka tackles Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots,” John Cale and Suzanne Vega (!) wrap themselves around Leonard Cohen’s ”So Log Marianne” and Larry Kirwan of the NYC Irish rockers Black 47 revs up Phil Och’s still-relevant anti-war rant, “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.” Yeah, I like everything on the disc, and I’ve turned many souls onto this disc.

Interesting exercise in nostalgia with irony: KCUV-FM in Denver is celebrating the official kickoff of summer by recreating the sound of Denver's FM radio from 1967, complete with news items, radio commercials from back then, and typical playlsists, all presented by the airstaff of progressive radio from the time, including guys like Bill Clarke (who's on Channel 7 now but...

The old cliché holds true in Texas, where there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. And a lot of it is good. Not only has the state been a hotbed for great talent for decades, but something about the dust and sun and the cross-cultural pollination of being so close to Mexico has made it possible for artists to ignore lines between genres. So blues pioneer T-Bone Walker laid the groundwork for Chuck Berry's later quintessential rock-and-roll guitar licks. Freddy Fender warbled about being lovesick and letting his teardrops fall in both Spanish and English, his music infused with the galloping conjunto rhythms and accordion melodies, and hit both the Country and Pop charts. Clarence Gatemouth Brown played killer blues, stone country and toe-tapping swing. Lyle Lovett could veer from his James Taylor folkie-isms to his big-band (er, "Large Band") forays into swingy rhythm and blues. Doug Sahm, about whom an entire encyclopedia of music could be written, started as a country guitar prodigy but quickly absorbed blues and rock and played music like the British Invasion until he met marijuana, and scooted to San Francisco to become a psychedelicized hippie before returning to Texas to play country again. His shows could run the gamut from conjunto music to rich R&B to killer blues and rock. Jerry Jeff Walker's a folkie and a country legend but he's just as remembered for sloppy, drunken rock and roll about sangria wine and a killer pop song, "Mr. Bojangles." Another signature tune, "London Homesick Blues," written by yet another Texas songwriter, is the theme song for "Austin City Limits," the PBS show that brings all these wonderful Texas sounds to a genteel, yuppified national audience. Genre-busting is a sport in Texas. There are so many stories to tell about music from Texas, that some get lost in the flood. One that deserves telling is the tale of Joe Ely, a singer-songwriter who's always had one foot in stone country and the other in rowdy rock and roll, and a hand in R&B and the other in folk music.

I dunno about you, but I find it fascinating that Prince played the Super Bowl halftime show tonight. It’s good to see him again, and damn, he looks good and he’s hot, ripping up the guitar like a diminutive, modern-day Hendrix. It’s sort of weird to see him playing music so centered around his “Purple Rain” period, but cool to see the marching band playing along, though I can’t really hear them at all. Just in the past few years during the Super Bowl halftime show we've seen Janet Jackson (with her "costume malfunction") along with Justin Timberlake, P. Diddy, Kid Rock and Nelly; the Rolling Stones ad last year, Paul McCartney. But Prince?