|..........................................Steve Allen goes to Hong Kong
Entry 1: Ive arrived at the boarding gate for my cross Pacific flight on a grand Cathay Pacific 747. To get to this point, I came into LAX on Friday 11/10 afternoon on American after connecting in Dallas yesterday morning from my starting point, Shreveport. With me I have my rolling road case containing my alto and tenor saxes and accessories, my green plastic Samsonite suitcase with silver duct tape identifying doodads, my trusty old carry on bag, which has my flute in it, a small leather backpack containing my laptop computer, and my vintage curved soprano sax in its ancient case. This may seem like a lot, but the whole kitnkaboodle rides easily on the road case and its well-oiled casters, and sailing through the airports I go. The 2 big items have been checked, wiped, weighted, inspected, taped and handled, and are now meditating in the planes luggage hold, preparing themselves as best they can for the crossing.
My mission: The Macau Grand Prix and its accompanying festivities, specifically two rehearsals and three concerts with my good friend Anders Nelssons band Infinity, playing for 3 parties for the giant Hong Kong company, Watsons, which itself is a division of the mammoth Chinese company Hutchison Wampoa, which is owned by the very richest guy in China, the 4th richest person in the world, Li Ka-Shing. I dont expect to be hanging out with him. But the reason I get to make this glory ride trip is because a fellow thats a big boss in Watsons, named Ian Wade. Ian and I hit it off before, both on stage and doing the social hang, which is part of the kick for the company folks and international circle of friends during events like this, rubbing elbows and having some laughs with the artists. So when Anders mentioned me a few months back, Ian said lets get Steve over here, too! And hes the boss.
Our shows will be fairly casual, and like a review, with a magician, Swedish dancing girls (Oh, by the way, Anders is Swedish), surprise guests, and featuring Gerry Marsden, of Gerry and the Pacemakers, a group that made a lot of noise during the Beatles era,who will be perhaps the featured name well have. Remember Ferry Cross the Mersey, and Dont Let The Sun Catch You Cryin? How about Youll Never Walk Alone? Thats Gerry. . Ill get to sing a couple of songs. And there will be a pair of beautiful Asian chanteuses (chanteusi?) oozing out some crowd-pleasing standards. Another featured sax man is coming in from Australia, Andrew Oh. I havent met him, but I will in about 3 hours, as soon as this 16-hour plane ride on Cathay Pacific finally ends.
Andrew is working the Smooth Jazz market with some success in this region with giant potential based on his great sound and the 1.3 billion citizens of China, just the finest sliver of which as a fan base can make a man a king. Hes been around, including a 5 year period in Rome, as a teacher and performer, and in spite of his tall Chinese appearance, hes a Singaporian, he is a typical no bull, sarcastic and funny Westerner, a totally known type of personality that I can be completely myself around, like kids who grew up on the same block. Hes an old gigging buddy of Anders from back in the day in Hong Kong.
I first met and connected with Anders when I was in Rita Coolidges band and we came to play during this same Macau Grand Prix race, in 1987. We played for the sponsors, drivers, pit crew, and special guests. We dont play outside to the noisy cars. The City of Macau is blocked off and turned into a race course, the whole thing a giant publicity event sponsored by the Macau Government, their biggest of the year. BMW and Watsons have a car in the race. It's formula 3, which is just like the Indianapolis race cars, except scaled down to about 3/5s the size. And they are covered in company logos, like Watsons Water. During my first trip, I went right down in the pits and the company grandstands during the race. They dont so much roar as buzz by, these junior sized racers. Very loudly. Earplug time. Anyway, that first trip to Hong Kong and Macau was great fun. Ritas band back then felt like a traveling private club, and we were dedicated to having as much fun as possible all the time. It was a total setup, a band full of L.A. ringer players, Rita with enough star power to get the royal treatment including great hotels, and tour schedules with plenty of free time to explore the locale of the moment, wherever that might take us. These were great times that we still talk about.
I was on the wagon on this first trip, inspired by several good friends in Los Angeles coming to the conclusion that they were alcoholics and joining AA. I myself hadnt graduated to that point, and I never wanted to, so I was just instituting Steves Poison Cycle, which is 40 days of abstinence punctuated by little Mardi Gras indulgent cycles, going back and forth like this, year in, year out. At this point Ive been doing it about 19 years, but when I was first in Hong Kong, I had just discovered it. So there were scenes and company publicity photo ops with Rita, the band, and the people from Watsons are all toasting each other. And theres Steve with his ubiquitous bottle of Watsons water, partying hard just the same. Product placement, but it wasnt planned that way, hey, I was thirsty.
The second time I went to Hong Kong was a year or so after Rita had scaled her band back, leaving me out of that sweet job after 11 great years. But when Watsons hired her to come do some other event, Ian still remembered me, and insisted that Steve be part of the show. So Steve did a one nighter in Hong Kong. Rita was nonplussed by this, and we had fun with it. She and her band went on to a tour in Japan, and I went back to L.A. I was out of my home bed 4 nights.
And now Im back. I must say, the 20 years of added body age Im carrying now is quite an annoyance, just in lost stamina and no consequences when youre wide awake at 4 AM, and theres a city out there lit bright as day embedded with strangeness and mystery and insights waiting around any corner youve got the nerve to turn. I feel comfortable in Hong Kong, a sort of rude world port, like New Orleans, and a lot of it is downright hilarious, but youve got to have that ticket: boundless energy and a sense of humor, and a mate to get the joke with you.
And now this time, its ole me on tour all by myself.
Entry: Riding in from the airport to the Eaton Hotel, Anders took some detours for my benefit. Andrew rode with us too as we got a bit lost in the forests of high-rise buildings, light shows, harbour views and tunnels from Hong Kong Island to the solid cityscape of Kowloon. It is a sensory overload panorama, sailing on an elevated throughway amid constant construction, demolition, construction. It was that way when I was here in 87, but a lot humbler with skyscrapers being built within frames of bamboo scaffolding all the way up, 20 floors, 40, 80. Ancient met modern out in the harbor too, with Chinese junks threading their way down the huge harbor expanse, skirting ocean gong sea vessels with high stacks of shipping containers stacked on their decks. And ad to that plenty of completely unorthodox and unlikely open boats of endless description, some ratty, some colored and lacquered like unusual jewelry boxes that could contain rare and precious gifts. They all rock fore and aft and somehow progress along avoiding each other, with little effort and no fear. Such a nonverbal nonstop game of brinkmanship, full speed ahead, very seemingly causal, missing by inches.
It reminds me of Manila, Philippines, where theyve taken the road version of this non-system to yet another, and by Western standards, impossible level. You know you are going to die or have to be taken to a hospital at every turn: There are no lane strips. It is more like the arena of bumper cars at the fair without the boarders, and its the entire city. But, somehow there are NEVER any contacts among this hellbound legion of vehicles. It is a marvel to behold. Very fun, if you just release you old live or die concerns, just until you arrive at your destination. Its invigorating. Youve literally faced death totally out of your control and lived, and with all you baggage and body parts intact. If that does give you a sense of self as some indestructible being and acutely aware that you are supposed to be here, I down know what would. I would say that yes, this is a higher high that any drug could provide.
Hong Kong was ancient meets modern 19 years ago, and now it looks more like modern meets space age. We finally corkscrewed down from the overpasses to the vintage underbelly of old Hong Kong, the shops and street life that I remember, lit as bright as day yet nearly midnight, with selling and shops and eating and policemen and endless energy. Not a single detail suggests the unseen hand of Communist China. The government allows Hong Kong to keep on doing what its doing, which is all about making money. The city feels free and open, and even coming in at the airport, after my passport was checked, I was shocked to find zero baggage inspection. I wondered if Id taken a wrong turn, but no, the City is saying come on, we couldnt care less what youre carrying, just bring it on in. And as we arrive at the hotel, the constant commerce and energy is buzzing around us, with no sign of slowing down. For them anyway. I had the sense finally to head to my room, my little cave, and a shower and tell my body its time to rest. My Ambien sleeping pill worked for a few hours, but then I popped back to life like a bare light bulb clicking on. As I write this the time is around 3 AM. I must rest and try to time sync my body and get ready for rehearsal tomorrow.
Entry 3: I am sitting high above the harbor at the panoramic picture window of the China Clipper, which on a regular day or evening is the ultra-elegant waiting room for private helicopter tours that originate here, the top of the 6 star Peninsula Hotel. Tonight is reserved for a private party of Ian Wade and his friends from around the world that have come for the race. The panorama before me must truly be one of THE most spectacular sights in the world: Hong Kong Harbor from the Kowloon side. Perhaps a thousand high-rise hotels, condos and industrial headquarters buildings, each grander that the next are crowding along the waterfront, as wide as the eye can see in both directions. They are adorned with high tech light shows that outline them or cover them or shoot off into space in colorful patterns, with corporate logos triumphantly displayed at their tops.
In the wide harbor, scores of ferries, ocean liners, cruise ships, private yachts, a few remaining junks, mainly as tourist attractions at this point, police boats, this, that; all constantly moving towards numberless destinations. As darkness is descending, the swanky buildings take on more prominence, competing, trying to out-dazzle each other.
The amount of wealth represented by the buildings facing Hong Kong Harbour (lets go with the English spelling) is beyond my comprehension. There are, Im told, a small number of people who run things on this planet, and the exhalted bosses of these buildings and companies are just their little people, scuffling to hustle a meager kings ransom. That places me, and everybody I know, so far down on this food chain its pitiful. And, lest we forget, I, and everyone I know, are so rich and well off compared to the overwhelming majority of human beings in this world that it is likewise pitiful. Pathetic, more like it. The point of this I dont really know, but at times like this, in the presence of such industry and achievement I guess my mind tries to see the BIG PICTURE. Yet I know I cant really see it.
I and the rest of the band, which I dub the China Clipper House Band, have been up here sound checking and running through and then waiting for the special people that inhabit rich settings like this to arrive. There is tension and anticipation, but I have already decided earlier in the afternoon to try and stop taking things seriously and have fun.
The show itself was to be of a freewheeling style, with Anders Emceeing and generally arranging the order of our stars by the seat of his pants. He welcomed the crowd, who sat at 2 long tables sideways and right in front of us, as a cocktail party became a dinner party. The close quarters of our large band, guests, servers and sound guys was kind of ridiculous, but everyone was very courteous and when everything settled we proceeded to entertain. A pretty Asian girl sang first, then it was my time to be featured. Anders got choked up telling the crowd about New Orleans sorrows and the 8 feet of water that stood in my neighborhood for weeks. Then he did a verbal handoff to me and at that point I was also getting a little blubbery, but carry on we must, so I introduced Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans and launched off into it. I was a modest hit, bit at least now they knew who I was. Then Anders told me to do the blues song, which we had rehearsed, Who Drank My Beer, a rockin fun number, during which a truly incredible oversized Filipino guy named Danny Diaz joined in from out of the audience imitating a trombone solo by buzzing his lips. This guy was all the way live. When he took over the jam at the end of the night, and went into Saints Go Marchin In, it made me feel so good. We tore it to pieces and the crowd ate it up. The night was a happy blurr, the whole thing a rousing success full of fun and good cheer. I met new people and some from before, Gerry was hilarious and happy with our backing, Ian the boss was very cordial to me, and when it was finally over, Andrew and I rode home in a taxi in sweaty, satisfied exhaustion.
Entry4: Right now we are riding on the TurboJet, which is a jet powered hydrofoil boat holding about 200 passengers. We are cruising south along the China coast toward Macau, smooth as silk riding above the choppy waves. I dont have a big revelation at this point; I just couldnt resist pulling out my laptop and typing while riding on this thing. We arrive in Macau in maybe another 25 minutes, and will be met by a delegation of BMW and Watsons company people and car racing fanatics. Tonights job will be more formal and a much larger venue, big stage, lighting, all that. Not intimate. Im glad, it seems lower pressure that way, and I dont feel I have to represent the City of New Orleans tonight. Just another shulb in the band, sweet anonymity. I think that, but well see how it plays out.
My band brothers for the week are: Blaine on tenor sax, an Australian, Joseph on trombone, from Hong Kong (hes also the helicopter dispatcher at the Peninsula Hotel), Will Smith on trumpet, newly arrived from England, Andrew Oh, my brother, on alto sax, Flynn, large American black man, now of Hong Kong on bass, Carey Abrams, New Yorker who lived in L.A. in the 80s, now of Hong Kong on guitar, and Chris the power drummer, freshly arrived from Australia, now of Hong Kong at the behest of his Asian wife. And Bo, the Filipino pianist and arranger who spoke too softly in an accent that was nearly impossible to pin down, who seemed a little burnt out, yet is possibly the most evolved musician of the group, a pure player that I really enjoyed. And of course Anders, who sang a bit and played rhythm guitar. Ladies and Gentlemen, the former China Clipper House Band!
Entry 5: Im back in my office aboard the TurboJet, finally having time to collect my thoughts and recollections of the 2 days and nights in Macau. The first night was the big dinner in Macau Tower, a spectacular industrial style event hall. This one was the full blown Anders show and review: First up were the wonderful French cover band Dom something, that featured 2 black soul singers plus the statuesque blond Sabrina, a great black guitarist that sounded straight out of a New Orleans church, the very French looking keyboardist, Renee, and a young strong drummer and bass player. Oh and they had a boss/manager who did one kinda Placebo Domingo number. More about this character later. Next was a funny and dangerous magician from Chicago. His finale was an electric lawnmower balanced on his chin that his assistant threw cabbages into, trying to knock it over. Next were the amazingly near adequate trio of Swedish cheesecake babes in skimpy costumes that pranced to loud bad euro disco grooves. A difficult act to get, unless one is inordinately impressed with plastic surgery.
Then Danny Diaz got up, solo with a guitar and just worked the crowd. He is such master at this clowning, drawing them in and getting even the most staid, throat clearing Brit to crack a smile and start singing along. At Anders urging (it doesnt take that much), I jumped myself up there on tenor sax with Danny, my main man, and we went slightly nuts on them, having WAY more fun than the audience. Hey, thats their problem, know what I mean? While that was going on, the stage evolved into Gerry Marsdens setup, full horn section and rhythm section filling in, there were yelled announcements and jokes from Anders and Phillip Chan, another Hong Kong celebrity, actor- producer guy. Then boom, heres Gerry Marsden! This guy is adorable, funny, irreverent, a total cockney showman. The planned arrangement of the show was guaranteed to come off the rails with Gerry, and was rollicking great fun.
So fine, big finish with Never Walk Alone, and 3 bring-him-back vamps, and on with the night, lawnmower guys cabbage pieces were everywhere underfoot, the room starting to tilt. The French band got back up and took over. Again at Anders behest, I was on stage playing all of their pop and soul covers with them, busting a gut on my curved soprano, we were a hit. Also this talented other black singer, Dino, whos got a club in Gang Ziouh (sp) and wont quit till hes a star jumped, did the splits, kicked the microphone, clowned, sang his ass off, but still somehow came off a little too over the top. But who cares, it gave me a chance to step off and rub elbows with the charming Elaine Wade, and any other big shots that I found myself in the company of for the night.
Entry 6: Now Im killing an hour at the L.A. airport in a bar by the American Airlines gates. People, OK, girls are very nice to look at here. I lived here for 18 years and I still miss a lot about it. But anyway, the second night in Macau was in the Sands casino. Turns out, Macau has just surpassed Vegas as a cash making machine. Macau is a pit; really, with air pollution so bad that the sun never came out and I was expecting acid rain. Not sure where all that cash is going, but it aint goin to Macau, thats for sure. I found a 24 hour internet joint, just a dingy room on a side street full of slightly sticky computers. At this point I was dying to reach the outside world, my wife, my kids, people in Shreveport that Im working with, anybody. I emailed my family for 3 days and never heard anything back, which I didnt like cause I was getting lonesome. But it doesnt matter now as I write this, Ill be home tomorrow morning.
The Sands casino was packed to the rafters with gambling Chinese people. It has this interior style straight of 60s Vegas, with wood panels, curved overhead lights all over the casino floor, cheesy Playboy After Hours swank. And it was gigantic. The band arrived and threaded our way through and up 2 sweeping escalators to this semi open-air restaurant, which is where the Watsons party was happening that night. Stage was small, Anders was overly stressed out, I was still jetlagged, but the show goes on. Back stage during the bimbo show or the lawnmower guy, Danny and the charming French singer Sabrina did an impromptu number for the few of us who were back there. Hands down, this was the most amazing musical moment of the week. I cant remember how they started into it, but one of them vamped some sung words off the top of their head and the other one came right back. Instant comic operetta. I mean really, with the stage voices, rapid-fire timing back and forth, silly and wonderful and incredible. Danny brought her out during his segment of the show to reprise it for the paying guests but the best was what Bo and I got back stage. Show folk. A breed unto themselves. The other highlight of my night was seeing the tyrannical boss of the French band running for a block trying to catch the bus as we were leaving. He had the group booked for a Monday night show in London, probably less than 24 hours from that moment. And I bet the puffed bastard was paying them by the week, too. Such high level musicianship and talent, and theres always a swifty like this taking them for a ride and keeping most of the money. Guy should have a long black bullwhip and horns growing out of his head.
This morning (wait a minute, what day is this?) Danny and I got to hang out for a final meal together. We talked about his next big step, selling his home of 30 years in Ontario, and resettling in the Hong Kong area with his wife, now that his kids have grown and gone. The path leads on, right? Im so happy to have met this unbelievably talented and spiritual guy.
A special note here to Andrew Oh. He so knows the ropes, and the way these type of spontaneous events go. He was my main hangin buddy, and a complete gentleman, making sure I didnt make any false moves in this strange environment. Logistics, inside info, consideration. This guy is a total pro and did I mention he plays his ass off? And Brett and Chris, the young Chinese assistants, where cute and helpful to me on this trip. Im not the kid I used to be, jumping on planes and playing shows, and jumping up and doing all over again. Sorry, Im whining, because I still wont be home till tomorrow morning. This is the second time Ive been waiting to board a redeye flight that lands tomorrow. The second time today, which I know makes no sense. My body seems to be ageing, but Im still that same big kid on the inside. Hungry for adventure! Just as soon as I get some rest.