Bangkok Beat by Kevin Cummings
Bangkok Beat ebook and POD editions available at Amazon.
Reviewed by Christopher G. Moore
The Bangkok artistic scene is a puzzle locked in a box, inside a room, no windows or doors. Four blank walls and a party has been going on inside. Kevin Cummings arrives with a jackhammer and cuts through the wall. After a lot of dust and debris, Cummings sticks his head in. What he reports from those visitations is found in Bangkok Beat. He doesn’t steal the silverware. His tour inside is like the first version of the Lonely Planet; a first-hand, on the ground, description of the expats and locals bonded through creativity, artistic expression, the bliss that comes from following your own demons and angels through the layers of heaven and hell.
Cummings does this like all good literary anthropologists who squatted down beside one of the natives and lulls them into his confidence—that’s interview style and it is a good one, the artistic types opened like oysters in a month with an ‘R’ in it. We have the words of authors, poets, painters, photographers, and musicians. He’s undercover the underground Bangkok noir movement that has been gradually building over the last five years. Why hadn’t this movement come together earlier? I have a theory. Any movement needs a meeting place, a place where people can hang out, talk, interact, gossip, complain and relax. Without such a place artists are atomized individuals. They thrive in colonies where the bees bring back the nectar. Bangkok noir needed a venue to play out the dark musings, images, and sounds. The honeycomb and field of flowers turned out to be the CheckInn99, following the vision of artistically inclined owner Chris Catto-Smith, who turned the club into a meeting place. The rest is, as they say, history.
If your interest includes a roundup of the expat artistic side of Bangkok, you’ll want to read the interviews and articles found in Bangkok Beat. There you’ll find the card carrying, full membership holders such as: Jerry Hopkins, John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan, Colin Coterrill, James Newman, Ralf Tooten, William Wait, Chris Coles, Christopher Minko, Dr. Penguin, John Gartland, along with a lot of others. Here’s the part where I disclose that I am one of the locals Kevin Cummings approached. Let me explain.
It must have been the bone in my nose and I was holding a stick with a rat on it over open fire. It was lunchtime after all. Kevin Cummings approached me for an interview. In the noir parts of the world cultural anthropologists are at their best in a large pot over a well-tended fire. That way, they turn out quiet tender. The meat of my interview, as stringy and wild tasting as a wild boar, also appears in Bangkok Beat. If you asked one of the natives from Somoa about what he thought about Margret Mead’s book Coming of Age, in which he featured as a character, he’d probably aim one of those cool bamboo poison dart weapons at your liver. I never got the hang of using one of those weapons. It’s just practice so I am told. Kevin Cummings is relatively safe. So far. The crew inside that room isn’t always that stable. New people come and go. Old people do what old people do best—they die.
Bangkok Beat is a celebration of a movement, a group of irregulars who have taken a different path. Henry Miller, one of Kevin Cummings’ heroes, would have fit right in to one of the Sunday improve Jazz sessions. When Barney Rosset used to come to Bangkok we’d talk about Henry, and wonder how his life and writing would have changed had he taken the boat not to France but to Thailand. I wished Barney (he died in 2012) had lived longer. Bangkok Beat inspired a thought I’d have liked to have shared with him. It’s about a couple of places I would have liked to have shown him. A back alley and upstairs series of short-time rooms abandoned, and filled with dust and broken furniture.
There is a back entrance to the CheckInn99, which lead to back alley you look around. You don’t need for anyone to describe ‘noir’ to you; just have a look around and you see the characters who live, breath, work and die in the world of noir. Go up the stairs and look at those rooms. The ghosts of the past still walk and talk and make love up there. Barney would have looked at it, taken it in, and understood that something fundamental in Henry Miller’s world view would have shifted, anyone’s perception would change, standing in the old short-time rooms or in the back alley—do it around midnight as the saxophone filters into your consciousness. Of course Henry Miller would have been a changed man. All of us who share our lives in this place have changed through such experience which, Kevin Cummings so richly captures.