(* a nod to the tune of the same name by the late, brilliant songsmith Kevin Ayers)
As the calendar advances to what is perhaps the most ominous new year of my lifetime to date, a look back at my musical activities over the past few years reveals a somewhat unsettling trend: namely, that I seem to have a penchant for landing myself in right places at wrong times. Or is it wrong places at right times?
To wit: While ostensibly an account of my adventures playing music in the Far East in the 1980s and ’90s, readers of my Blue Ear Books title Live at the Forbidden City are aware that the book’s centerpiece is its detailed eyewitness report of the bloody civil uprising that wracked the Chinese city of Chengdu at the same time as the better-publicized events in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. My presence in Chengdu at that fraught moment was purely an accident of fate, for I had moved to China not for my own reasons but to follow my fiancée Anne, who had taken a job there. The (literally) outlandish musical adventures that followed are still reverberating in my life today, and the root causes of the 1989 tragedy sadly have yet to be ameliorated.
But Live at the Forbidden City also dwelt at length on another place where I’d lived: Taiwan. This “once-sleepy island of pineapple and sugarcane plantations,” as I described it in the book, is suddenly grabbing headlines everywhere due to President-erect Trump’s reckless attempt to use Taiwan as a pawn in his pissing-match with mainland China, a contest of wills that will likely end in sorrow for this stalwart but overmatched bastion of democracy, where I still have numerous friends and erstwhile musical collaborators. (See my previous blog “Poking the Dragon” for more on this.)
Fast-forward to 2014 and ’15, when I took part in two extensive concert tours of Russia. Once again, it wasn’t an opportunity I was seeking but one that simply dropped into my lap. While the tours themselves were marvelous experiences, relations between Russia and the U.S. were growing alarmingly frosty right at that time; Russia had recently annexed Crimea by force and was essentially at war with the Ukraine, partly as a result of U.S. provocation. With the Cold War, er, heating back up, I wondered if it was wise for an American musician to invade the Siberian hinterlands just then. In the event, all turned out well, though we had a bit of an oh-shit moment when (apparently) the Russians shot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger flight over the Ukraine in mid-tour. In light of incidents like this, I’d never have foreseen the exceedingly weird, globe-rattling bromance between Putin and Trump that would dominate the news a year later.
Speaking of the Boy King, summer 2016 found me in England to play a concert – the same week Trump was over there stirring up the Brits. As usual, the timing of my visit was purely accidental, but my week-long stay was punctuated not only by Trump’s ubiquitous presence (I got strafed with anxious questions about the guy), but also by the shocking assassination of Member of Parliament Jo Cox and the momentous Brexit vote that took place the day after my departure. To top things off, later that summer while in Mexico for concerts with my band Moraine, my departing flight was delayed on the tarmac of the Mexico City airport – to clear room for the arriving Donald Trump. WTF?
Is there some deeper significance to all these collisions of music-making and world events? I rather doubt it, but feel privileged to not only share my music with people in faraway places, but also bear witness to some of the defining moments of our times in the bargain. As Seattle Times writer Bruce Ramsey once remarked about my book, with unintentional humor, “Even a musician can be an important witness to history.”