Paying homage to a friend and trailblazing musician on the anniversary ceremony to commemorate his passing
At Thai funerals the deceased are not only honoured but treated as revered guests when family and friends gather each night at the temple, beside the coffin and the person’s portrait, where the monks chant in drones and the loved ones offer food, drink, and solace to the person’s spirit, which is believed to linger on this earthy plane until the body is cremated. For the passing of indie rock stalwart Wasit ‘Ooh’ Mukdavijitr last year, his kin put a musical spin on this tradition with a friend setting up a turntable next to the coffin to play Ooh’s favorite records by The Smiths, David Bowie, The Clash and Leonard Cohen.
The ceremony to mark the first anniversary of his passing—on Sunday, June 4th 2017, at Wat Lat Bua Khao in Bangkok, where his ashes are interred—was a more solemn ceremony with family, friends, and a few fans offering food to the monks in his honour on that morning.
Despite his premature passing at the age of 47, his spectre continues to hover over the realm of Thai indie rock, which he helped to galvanize as the singer and main songwriter with the band Crub. Released in 1994, the group’s debut album, View, has been hailed as the first full-length record of Thai alternative rock. The album’s staying power was loudly attested to earlier this year when a white vinyl version of View—released by Cat Radio at its annual alternative music festival and marketed with the tagline “Thailand’s Brit Pop Pioneer”—sold out in two days. Meanwhile, 10 test pressings of View, retailing for B9,999 and packaged along with a tote bag featuring Ooh’s face and a new biography of him, Sweet and Tender Hooligan, written by his girlfriend, Lasa Sakdadej, sold out within a few hours after being announced on Facebook. All the proceeds from the latter sale were donated to the Baanpabrak Suratthani Foundation, which provides palliative care for cancer-stricken patients without means.
Crub’s only album, like many debut records, is a patchwork of different influences, except that the musical references they were riffing on, like the Jam, the Stone Roses and Echo and the Bunnymen, had rarely ever been heard in Southeast Asia at that time. What would further distinguish them from the herd of hopefuls waiting in the wings to try and upstage them was Wasit’s ability to write and sing in the most eloquent English. He also spoke English with a Cockney accent and used British slang terms he’d picked up from albums and a couple of ex-girlfriends.
As bad luck or poor timing would have it, just as Crub was splintering, Modern Dog was unleashing their first album. Possessing stagecraft beyond their peers, Modern Dog put on a wild show opening for Radiohead in a hall above the MBK mall in late 1994, quickly establishing themselves as Thailand’s premier alt-rock outfit, a title they have never relinquished.
After Crub came Day Tripper, formed with lead guitarist and sometimes singer Tuantong ‘Tuan’ Niyomchart. The band went on to make three highly regarded albums. The second record, to my ears anyway, sounds like Wasit’s magnum opus. It is an album that leaps genres, skirts boundary lines, and defies pigeonholing by wandering all over the musical map—from low-key ballads sung in Thai, to lo-fi noise rock in the vein of Pavement, from spoken word poems in English recited over guitar feedback, to a Brit-pop stomper called “End of the Day”.
Like a lot of musical pioneers, Wasit never reaped many much in the way of financial rewards for his efforts, but music ran too deeply in his bloodline for him to ever consider quitting. His mother, Saowanee Rattanataya, studied opera at Chulalongkorn University and performed in public as a soprano, whereas his father sang Elvis songs at family karaoke sessions. Since his mom gave in to family pressure to give up her musical career, spending much of her life (cut short by leukemia in 1999) with the ground crew for Thai Airways, she was more encouraging of her son’s aspirations, giving him his first alternative rock album, the debut by Aztec Camera, High Land, Hard Rain, which would be one of the musical compasses that guided the future direction of his music.
In 2011 he released what was essentially a solo album under the name Ooh and the Ballyhoo, on which his Beatles and Smiths roots still showed. He then formed Blue’s Bar (named after a long-gone, alt-rock lair on Lang Suan Road) with guitarist and producer Prawetch Nopnirapath, which recorded one album of more straight up alternative fare.
That was the final entry in his discography, but it was not the last chapter of his life story. That tragic turn of events began in early 2015 with the diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. Then came the chemo and radiation treatments, then the desperate measures of meditation retreats and his girlfriend ordaining as a Buddhist nun. Through all these upheavals and setbacks he bore the brunt of his illness with the same stoical determination in which he faced the disappointments of the music business.
On what turned out to be my final hospital visit, I asked Lasa if he had any last requests. She said that, in the delirium caused by the painkillers, he kept babbling about leaving the hospital to go shopping for vinyl at an indie record store. By then the cancer had eaten into his spine and rendered his legs useless, so that simple wish had become an impossible dream.
When she asked me to contribute the only English-language part of his biography, which is on sale for B250 at the indie music shops Nong Taphrachan and Fat Black Records, I recalled that he is the only man in my adult life who has ever given me a Valentine’s Day card—actually a postcard with a cartoon of an alien smoking a joint on the front next to the line “Lost It In Space”. On the back, he had scribbled some lines from William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch—“Rock and roll adolescent hoodlums storm the streets of all nations. They burst into the Louvre and throw acid in the Mona Lisa’s face.”—and said that he had never had a real brother but thought of me as his “spiritual brother,” signing it off with, “Your punky lil’ bro”.
While working on that tribute I decided to dedicate my new book, On the Night Joey Ramone Died: Tales of rock and punk from Bangkok, New York, Cambodia and Norway, to him for being “a cornerstone of Thai indie rock and a dear old friend.” But that inscription could hardly convey the breadth of his career and our 20-year friendship.
To frame the tribute in his biography I tried to document his last performance, which took place at the Rock Against Cancer benefit show on March 13, 2016 in Bangkok. Crippled by cancer and bloated by chemotherapy, he somehow summoned the strength to get on stage one last time with the help of a cane. Most of us were just happy to see him again, reunited with Tuan, the lead guitarist of Day Tripper, to play a rendition of their biggest hit, with the crowd sharing the vocal duties.
For a swan-song performance, he could not have bowed out on a higher or more heroic note, basking in the adulation of the crowd and some of the younger musicians he had inspired.
Thanks to the video-maker Ratthapoom WPD that performance has been immortalized on Youtube. www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_SIvJgeZ8o