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Behind the Curtain: Recording Musicians in Kathmandu for the Waterbone Project (Part 1)
Prologue: This is unlike any other story I’ve ever written here. Those of you who have followed my travails and triumphs here in our Behind the Curtain column — and I thank you for that — will recognize this as being different than what you’ve previously read. It is not a story about interviewing someone who plays guitar or writes songs or magazine articles or sitting in an office somewhere. It is musical in nature but only in a roundabout sort of way. It’s more an exploration, an uncovering, a discovery. I know that sounds cryptic or–and I shudder to use these descriptions because I despise them—spiritual or even New Age-y. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m writing this while crystals dangle from the ceiling and incense burns. That’s not what this is. At all. No, this is just a tale about a different world, a place so different than anything I have ever experienced that it is almost hard to imagine it exists. But I am so happy it does because it proves there is still magic in the world.
My first thought back in early August 1996 when my very best friend Jimmy Waldo told me he was going to Kathmandu, Nepal to record musicians there — and you probably had the same thought triggered as soon as you read the word — was about Bob Seger’s song. “K-k-k-k Katmandu,”
I remembered Seger stuttering, the melody swimming around in my head. I mused, “Cool. Bob had been there. He wrote a song about it. The place must be alright. Bob is a hip cat.” But then I focused in a little more clearly and realized, “Shit, Bob had never been there. He didn’t go there. The first line of the song was ‘I think I’m going to Katmandu’ as in he might go there or might not. In other words, he hadn’t bought the ticket and boarded the plane. Hell, if he held the place in such high reverence and awe then why couldn’t he have taken three seconds to correctly spell the name of the place? It was spelled Kathmandu — with an h — but he Anglicized it ostensibly for easier pronunciation. I didn’t think so.”
In fact, I thought he was just using the word because Kathmandu held more mystery and frisson than other geographic locales and as a songwriter that made sense. The place he was writing about had to end in an ooh sound to rhyme with to, which ended the following line [“That’s really, really where I’m going to”] and it’s hard to imagine Bob singing [choose one]:
“I think I’m going to T-t-t-t Timbuktu.”
“I think I’m going to K-k-k-k Kalamazoo.”
“I thing I’m going to San Ber’doo.”
“I think I’m going to Fontainebleau.”
“I think I’m going to Waterloo” [not a bad choice but Ray Davies had already popularized the London town in his wonderful song and Bob probably didn’t want to come across as a copycat].
“I think I’m going to Peek-a-boo Zoo” [I just made that up but you get the idea, right?].
I couldn’t get Seger out of my head after Jimmy [keyboardist/founder of New England, Alcatrazz and currently playing keys and producing for Graham Bonnet’s solo band] told me his plans for a trip to the exotic city in the Himalayas. He was going there with Donnie Jones, a super gifted classically-trained guitarist and composer, under the umbrella of Waterbone, a spectacularly inventive musical project the pair had divined. The duo fused electronica and beats with indigenous instruments and vocals, which is precisely why they were flying 7,695 miles to the capital of Nepal: to record the native musicians there and compose music for what would become Waterbone’s debut CD titled Tibet [the trip was originally planned for Lhasa, Tibet, which was the home of the predecessors of the Dalai Lama, but the Chinese presence there was too heavy and would have made a trip such as this impossible].
After the Seger song finally faded from memory, my next thought was, “I don’t want to go to K-k-k-k-k Kathmandu. There was nothing there I wanted to see.” Or so I thought. Frankly, I was a little terrified by the place. No, terrified was the wrong word. Spooked. Afraid. No, those weren’t accurate either. Mesmerized or transfixed were better descriptions of my emotional state. Spellbound. Entranced. Transported. Superstitiously cautious. Those worked. If ever there were a place where ghosts and unseen things and lurking shadows and forgotten memories lived, where wizards and spells and secrets resided, it was Kathmandu.
If you were ever going to run into a talking butterfly or experience time travel or meet a 1,000-year old man, it was going to be in Kathmandu. It was everything I didn’t know. It was strange, exotic, forbidden and removed from anything I ever experienced in my Western World Way of Life.
Looking back on it now these 22+ years later, I don’t know why I couldn’t immediately wrap myself around the idea of going. That kind of astonishing opportunity only comes along once in a lifetime. If I’m really honest in confronting the reason for my reaction, it’s because I was a chickenshit. I thought something bad would happen. Or not actually bad but weird or whacked out.
My 43rd birthday would be spent there and I thought for sure on that day I’d disappear in a wisp of smoke or be reincarnated as the first drop of falling rain in a monsoon or become the Yeti’s luncheon companion. I didn’t know what dark fantasy might befall me but I was damn sure one would. Here is a list of the other hexes, jinxes, whammies and spells I was certain awaited me:
- I’d become sick by contracting some lethal water-borne disease [tap water there is undrinkable] and even though I’d brought my own bottled water — yes, I did! — I was certain it too would become tainted and render me a shaking, quaking mess.
- I’d be bitten by a King Cobra the size of a small horse [they have them] when it slithered, hissed and sidled its slippery way into my hotel room, crawled under my bed, and waited for me there to return from a day of recording musicians. When I fell asleep, this reptilian nightmare would rear up, hover over me and inject me with enough lethal venom to render me a shaking, quaking mess.
- I’d be caught in some monsoonal deluge [they do have monsoons … monster monsoons], my lungs would fill in the Nepali downpour and I’d be left a shaking … well, you know the rest.
- Some howling, yowling, growling Yeti would cruise down from the Himalayas, get in my face — no one else’s of course — make a drumstick out of my left tibia, drag me off to his — or her, I don’t discriminate — mountain retreat and turn me into a … you fill in the rest.
- Or, and I was positive this might happen, some ancient shaman, ghost, holy creature, supernatural being, reincarnated relic of a different time or Asian alien would visit me via the ethereal express, zap me between the eyes with a curse as old as dinosaurs and dragons and transform me into:
- A dandelion spore dancing on a dolphin’s snout.
- The straw that broke the camel’s back.
- An unfinished thought.
- A raincoat for a raindrop.
- An unused guitar string.
- A broken guitar string.
- A guitar string that only played bad notes.
- An unfulfilled potential.
- A broken promise.
- A terrible secret.
- Last potato chip in the bag
- First kid out in dodgeball.
- Or (shudder) a poorly-written sentence.
I didn’t believe any of that would happen to me. Not really. But I couldn’t get rid of the niggling notion, “What if maybe … ?” Then Jimmy said something that totally changed my mind. He recognized my hesitancy and tried to address my concerns with these words: “Steve, they have these brownouts there and the whole city falls into a sort of half-light and there is a strange and beautiful patina to everything. You will be safe there ‘neath the shadow of the eternal Himalayas.”
He didn’t say that. Who talks like that? Nobody. I’ve romanticized his words, but the gist of what he uttered is there in my poetic rendering.
Somehow the idea of a city unplugged appealed to me as oddly inviting. I was going to accompany Waterbone as a sort of documentarian, scribbling notes about what we saw, heard and felt. A Dharma diary. A Nepali notebook. Kathmandu confessions. I’d eventually take these writings and assemble the liner copy for the Waterbone album. I was psyched, pumped, energized. My anticipation threshold was running on 10, adrenalin levels at a Spinal Tap-ish 11 and my nervousness RPMs were red-lined at 9,000.
Jimmy and I flew out of LAX — Los Angeles International Airport — where we met Gordon Wiltsie, an official photographer for National Geographic and our lifeline to all things Nepali. Gordon had lived in Kathmandu for a year previously and knew all there was to know about the city. He had been hired by Northword Press, Waterbone’s record label, to shoot photos and take video of our time there.
Wired into everything from the best hotels and restaurants to the customs and unique rituals practiced by the local population, Wiltsie was indispensible in the success of the trip. Not forgetting to mention that he was one of the most insanely creative photographers I’d ever seen. I mean National Geographic for fuck’s sake!
The flight, all 7,695 miles of it, was interminable. Hour after hour plodded by in molten slow motion. It felt like the farther we flew, the further away our destination became, as if we were never meant to arrive. Like that bad dream you have where you’re running after something but can never quite catch it. After ten lifetimes had passed, we landed in Frankfurt, Germany for a connecting flight to Bangkok, Thailand where we stayed the night.
At long last, we landed in Kathmandu, Nepal at the Tribhuvan Airport. When I asked Jimmy about first setting foot in the airport he said, “The smells were pretty strong, of what I don’t know. Sort of organic and not jet fuel.” Organic is probably as good a word as any to describe the aroma, the scent, the perfume of the place. It was as if the air was as old as the world. As if it had traveled for a long time to be there. It was suffused with strains of yak breath, monkey fur, dragon scales and distant deserts. It wasn’t offensive just ancient. Jimmy also said, “The airport was clean and well organized. I remember seeing 40-year old military helicopters used for rescues in the Himalayas.” I hoped I wouldn’t end up in one.
Here ends Part I of the Kathmandu Chronicles. Come back for Part II where we record our first musicians, hang out with enlightened priests, and get high as the Himalayas on Nepali hash.