In this extract from Jim Algie’s new book—On The Night Joey Ramone Died—a fallen rock star hears about the death of the musical mentor he once corresponded with when he first began playing guitar and singing.
Whenever they hired Lek to produce another album for yet another young singer who had started off in modeling, was making a brief stopover in the music business, and would soon be bound for soap operas, game shows and romantic comedies with sappy endings, he felt more like a pornographer than a music producer: the person who airbrushes the blemishes from nude models to make them into the launching pads for fantasies that bear the same relationship to real sex as the songs he produced bore to real love.
Except there was no glossing over the fact that this Thai-American pretty boy (“Sweet Pete” his label had dubbed him) possessed the whiny voice of a mosquito buzzing around Lek’s ear at 3am. Or so it seemed after a ten-hour recording session of too many takes and retakes, too many coffees and colas, bowls of instant noodles and cigarettes, during which they had only just started the first chorus of the second song. Since the ‘singer’ could only ‘sing’ two or three words at a time that were on-key Lek and the engineer had to construct the lead vocal tracks line by line.
During the next take, Pete hit the first note sharp and Lek slammed his fists down on the console, rocked back in his creaking swivel chair and yelled, “Stop!” into the little microphone on the mixing board. He turned off the mic and looked over at the engineer. Grabbing two tufts of his long, dyed-blonde hair in his hands, he rocked back and forth moaning, “This kid is so far off-key most of the time he needs to catch a taxi back to the melody.” The engineer laughed, but Lek shook his head, lit another clove cigarette and exhaled through both nostrils. Then he turned the mic back on. “Little brother, let’s take a fifteen-minute break.”
Halfway through his cigarette the old phone in the booth rang. The engineer handed Lek the receiver. On the other end was the drummer he’d played with on and off for twenty years. After a bit of chitchat, Ric said, “Afraid I got some sad news for you.”
“Is that malicious bitch slandering me in the press again?”
“No, I heard that Joey Ramone just died.”
Lek’s deep voice, sandpapered by all the alcohol and cigarettes, went up an octave. “Joey? The king of punk is dead?” He sat up straight and clutched the phone tighter until his arm was trembling from the tension and caffeine jitters. “Don’t keep me in suspense, man. What was it? What happened?”
“Some kind of cancer or something.”
Lek let out a sigh in one long exhalation. “Not a good sign when your musical heroes start dying of diseases instead of overdoses. He must have been around… what? Not much older than us I guess.”
“Right. I think he was almost fifty.”
Lek stubbed out his cigarette, watching the glowing embers turn from orange to black as they burned out, until the grey cinders, blown by the cold breath of the air-conditioner, chased each other around the bottom of the ashtray. It was like watching a cremation in miniature.
Lek tried to shake off the thought but he was entering into that stage of mental exhaustion when the border between what he felt and what he thought he was seeing had begun to dissolve.
“You there?” asked Ric.
“Physically, sort of… mentally, not really. Here’s a weird thought, but do you remember when we were teenagers and first started playing in bands and fifty seemed ancient? Now it seems young.”
He waited for Ric to say something. After an awkward pause, Ric said, “Right.”
Lek couldn’t blame him. Among his male friends, aging was right up there with divorces and erectile dysfunction as a popular topic of conversation. Even bringing up the subject had made him feel older and weaker.
The former band-mates promised to meet up again soon, like they always promised but never did, because both of them knew that the lingering resentments from spending years on the road together in a perpetual state of intoxication or exhaustion, or some volatile combination of both, were sure to resurface if they actually hung out in person.
There was no point talking to the engineer about Joey. He was not yet thirty and mostly listened to jazz fusion and Thai classical music. His favorite rock band was Pink Floyd.
Sweet Pete was into K-pop, modern R&B and Broadway musicals. Born into a wealthy family and blessed with good looks, fair skin, and opportunities galore, Pete had never been pestered by an inner voice of discontent screaming to get out and be heard. Punk was too noisy and angry for him. It was for outsiders and misfits not the fortunate sons and daughters of the upper echelons.
Head down, eyes on the dirty carpet, Lek trudged down the hallway between the dark and unused recording studios to peer out the window that overlooked Bangkok’s sky-line of office towers silhouetted against the indigo sky of twilight. Most of the windows in the buildings were dark now. Even the few lit up by fluorescent lights shining down from the acoustic ceiling tiles looked empty.
Is there anything quite as desolate and inhuman as deserted office towers at night? he asked himself. The offices looked like rows and rows of crypts in a towering mausoleum for white-collar workers. Everywhere he looked he saw desolation and death. Fire that turned into ash. Plumes of smoke that rose and disappeared into thin air. Offices shrouded in shadows. Deserted buildings that looked like mausoleums.
Too tired to stand, he sat down on the floor, using the wall for back support. Other than exhaustion he didn’t feel much of anything. Perhaps he was in shock, or it was middle age creeping up on him again to steal a little more of his enthusiasm for life.
The reasons did not matter, because the truth was simple. His favorite living rock singer had just died and here he was producing an awful album for a glorified model. Joey would not have approved and Lek was a sellout and a traitor to the music that he used to love and play.
His ex-wife, whose slurs kept repeating on an endless tape loop in his memories, even though they’d been separated for a year and divorced for almost six months, said, “You’re not a punk or a rebel anymore. Why keep pretending? You’re a mainstream rock star who became a pop producer. You’re a businessman in a leather jacket and torn jeans.”
When Lek saw the executive producer’s assistant—the guy looked more like a chic marketing manager with hair gel and tortoise shell glasses than a disheveled musician—coming down the hallway, he stood up.
Right from the start the two of them had disliked each other in such a deeply ingrained way that it felt more like the instinctual contempt that the Bangkok elite such as him, fair of skin, trendily dressed and convinced of their own sophistication and superiority, had for the dark-skinned and flat-nosed people from the northeast like Lek, who were supposed to be uncouth and uneducated.
It was time for a showdown.
Jim Algie’s new book, On the Night Joey Ramone Died, combines rock ‘n’punk history and debauchery, with doses of autobiography from his own musical career, in a pair of interlinked novellas that chart the highs and lows of a Thai rock star’s career as he approaches middle age, faces his own mortality and tries to balance his work and family life. The settings range from recording studios in Bangkok to gigs in New York and drug parties on tour, with scenes that details the difficulties of songwriting, keeping a band together and staying on top in a cutthroat business that causes many stars to come crashing down from the heights of fame to hit rock bottom in the gutters of infamy.
The book is now available from www.amazon.com in print or as an e-book.