In Part II of our exclusive excerpt from Jim Algie’s new book, a fallen rock star comes to grips with the death of his musical mentor.
He put on the first Ramones album, remembering the thrill of hearing it for the first time. This was the antithesis of the airbrushed music he had heard on AM radio as a boy and which he produced now. This was raw and it was real. It was something he’d never heard before, though there were enough echoes of the Beach Boys and Eddie Cochrane to make it seem both radical and traditional. All the critics and fans either applauded or criticized the band for their minimalism and the lack of guitar solos, drum fills, or bass lines. But Lek heard something different in their sound that made it a part of his drab neighbourhood in Bangkok of concrete tenements and Chinese-style shophouses, of fresh markets and street stalls hawking the cheapest clothes, sandals and piles of plastic housewares next to women threading jasmine garlands together for Buddhist shrines and street dogs afflicted with mange—something that was located in a different galaxy from the stadium rock concerts he’d seen on TV and in music magazines, starring bands who sang songs about stairways to heaven and highways to hell, of dragons and wizards and journeys to other planets, on stages decorated with elaborate sets strafed by laser lights and misted with dry ice. The shows looked more like movie sets or theatrical productions than rock concerts.
By then his father had died of heart failure and the family had been bankrupted because his mistress had run off with all their savings. So they had to move from the military base to Bangkok. Lek and his older sister had to help their mother run a noodle stall beside a busy street that was open from six in the evening until two in the morning.
His first and most enduring impressions of the capital were all the overpowering sounds and overwhelming smells: motorcycles revving, buses whooshing past in updrafts of black diesel smoke, jackhammers tearing up streets, pile drivers clanking in construction sites above the whirr of drills and the buzz of welders’ torches. Just when he had a minute or two to relax in-between serving customers, or kneeling down on the dirty sidewalk to wash the dishes in a plastic tub of water, sirens began screaming that somebody was hurt, or dying or committing a crime, or their house was burning down in a firestorm of crackling sparks.
He heard that sense of emergency in the early punk bands, the furious rhythms set to the relentless pace of city life, beneath the corrosive guitars echoing the machinery that powered it.
The constant clamour in the city drowned out everyone. It reminded him that he had no say in what went on, and no power to change anything. The millions of strangers appeared to him like so many apparitions and zombies, trudging down streets, waiting in lines, standing on buses, dead to everything and everyone around them. The only thing that animated them were their desires for food or companionship, to make money or go shopping, to get drunk and laid, to find a job or buy a car, to relax or take a vacation.
And it was that yearning, so often unexpressed or unfulfilled, that he heard in Joey’s voice and the songs the band wrote, where all the wants and needs were right up front: “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You.”
As fast and raw as the music was, the vocal melodies were strong enough so he could still sing them in the shower.
Later, when he got his first taste of chart success, the music writers, radio DJs and TV hosts would ask him the same question over and over again, “Who are your influences?” And he found himself repeating variations on the same musical theme.
“Punk rock is another stupid, meaningless label made up to sell newspapers and albums and airtime for TV commercials,” he said. “To me it always sounded like the soundtrack of the city. When I saw that first Ramones’ album cover—the black and white shot of four guys standing in front of a decaying wall—I thought to myself, ‘Hey, these guys come from the same sort of big, ugly, noisy city that I do, and that’s what they’re singing about.’ I could relate to them and the Dead Boys and the Damned, the Clash and Buzzcocks in a way I could never quite relate to Led Zep and Pink Floyd, because the punk bands were singing about street-level realities and ordinary kinds of sexual or romantic frustration. There I was in the middle of this city, a teenager working a shit job, making shit money, living in a shit apartment with no hope of a better future. So what did I have to sing or croon about? All I wanted to do was scream about the unfairness and the ugliness of it all.”
Around then he would pause dramatically to make sure the journalist was paying attention so he or she wouldn’t miss the most quotable line that they could blow up in big letters in the magazine or newspaper. “If it wasn’t for punk allowing me to vent all my rage and frustration and boredom then I probably would have ended up killing a few people and spent the rest of my life in jail”
Lek stood in front of a framed poster of a blown-up cover for Rocket to Russia, the 1977 album that he thought was their magnum opus. He looked around at the band, all dressed in their leather jackets, T-shirts, sneakers and torn jeans—the look a million groups had copied—and then at the gangly singer who stood a head taller than the rest of his band-mates and wore tinted glasses. He raised his cup of green tea in Joey’s direction and said in English, “To you, my man. You never sold out like I did, and you guys stayed on the road for 22 years.”
Smiling, Lek recalled the fan letter he’d sent to the Ramones when he was thirteen or fourteen. In the American English he’d learned from the GIs on the base, he told them that he was their biggest fan in Asia, and that he was practicing really hard and learning all of their songs, so if they needed a second guitarist he was ready to move to New York and join the band (now he laughed at his youthful naivety). Four or five months later an envelope arrived with American stamps on it. Inside was an autographed photo of the group, a couple of stickers, and a hand-written letter he’d read over so many times he could still remember every single word and comma:
Thanks for the cool letter. Great to hear we have some fans over there in Asia. Didn’t even know where Thailand was, actually, I had to look it up on a map. Guess we shouldn’t have sniffed all that glue and paid more attention in geology class. Ha ha.
Hey we appreciate the offer of a second guitarist. But Johnny’s already so loud it would blow my eardrums if we had another guy on-stage. You can play guitar. You know how to write. Start your own band. That’s what we did.
Just remember to stick to your guns and don’t take any bullshit either. When we started playing at CBGB’s we could barely draw a dozen people. Because we played so fast and didn’t have many originals, the gigs were over in twenty minutes. The local joke in the music scene was, “I would have walked out on them but the show was finished before I had the chance.”
Don’t worry about all the negative assholes. You said “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” is your favorite song of all time. Last week at a gig in Baltimore I dedicated the song to you. Then I changed the last chorus to “Lek is a punk rocker.” Anything for our biggest fan in Asia!!!!!
Really hope we can make it out to Bangkok for a show some time. Gotta say I’m not real interested in being your hero or idol. That isn’t what our band is about. That ain’t what punk rock is about. No stars, no limos, no bullshit. So I hope that makes me…
Read Part 1 here.