021692 The Hippodrome, Bangkok, Thailand

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The following story doesn’t at all fall into the usual parameters of these ticket stub memories but I would feel remiss in excluding this.  It was really important in my personal musical development and in my growth as a person, really.  And it unquestionably involved me seeing a lot of live music, so I include it here:

Halfway through my music degree I took a break from school and travelled to Asia with my good friend and roommate Jojo.  We went to Seoul, Korea first and got lost and confused for a few days before continuing on to Thailand, where we found the backpacking vibe much more amicable to our style.

It was February of 1992 and we would go on to spend almost four months in Thailand, most of it living with a family on a small, remote island in the south.  We landed in Bangkok knowing we had lots of time and ended up staying in the city a solid two weeks before venturing further into the country.  

I had my electric guitar with me, and a small battery-powered Pignose amp.  Though I had successfully completed my first two years as a guitar major I didn’t feel at all confident as a guitar player, and rightfully so.  Sure I could throw out a solid Wish You Were Here and even a few short classical pieces learned under much duress and the threat of expulsion, but I couldn’t confidently play you a Gmaj7 chord, not one.  

Oh sure, I could write any chord on paper – I was pretty good with my theory – but none of my knowledge had worked it’s way onto the fretboard yet.

Anyway, one afternoon Jojo and I were sitting in the Hello guesthouse bar on Kho San Road and a couple of Thais walked in handing out flyers.  Turned out there was an open jam session at a bar around the corner.  I spoke to a few friends we had made, turned out one of them played the bass and another played guitar and sang in a band back in England.  With nothing else going on that night we decided to go.  

The Hippodrome was small, dark and empty.  About six or eight of us took a table near the bar and ordered a mile of drinks.  One side of the bar was the ‘stage’.  A few red lights pointing at a beat up drum kit and a handful of amplifiers.  Soon the bar owner sat on the kit and a crazy man named Venus picked up the guitar and started jamming.  These were the two guys who had handed us the flyers earlier in the day and I would come to know them both very well.

My bass player friend got up and joined them.  Eventually the guitar was pried from Venus’ hands and offered up to the crowd.  I shrugged and stood up.

I actually remember; I started by playing an A chord off of the 3rd fret G note on the E string, sort of like a backwards You Really Got Me.  My bass buddy joined in, the drummer did the right thing and we were off.

Up to this point in my musical career I had played a couple hundred gigs but all of them on bass, and none of them involved any improvisation (at least not on purpose).  Though there were literally only ten people in the room (the three of us onstage included), with no vocals and only one guitar I felt I had a lot of space to fill and I tried my very best.

Now here’s a story: I was pretty much sober, I wouldn’t have been legal to drive or anything but I wasn’t drunk by any means.  I remember us jamming, me looking at the smiling, bearded bass player in his hippie-vest and turning to lock in with the solid, stoic drummer/bar owner…and then I remember nothing.

It was like I had gone into a coma: I was unconscious and everything was dark.  I wasn’t there anymore,  I could hear a sound, way off in the distance, “Weee-owww…weee-owww” over and over.  Something inside of me sparked; I realized I was a human being, and I was alive.  The sound kept getting louder and louder.  Finally it ‘woke’ me and I was able to open my eyes.

And I swear to you (remember, I consider myself sober for this), I was absolutely astounded to find myself on my knees in front of the amplifier pulling back on the floating vibrato bar and making the most glorious, majestic feedback squeal – weee-owww…weee-owww – just like I was Jimi Hendrix.

I literally felt like I was just waking up, and I initially had no idea where I was.  When I got over the shock of finding that it was in fact me that was making all this noise I slowly turned to look over my shoulder, and I swear I was equally shocked to see that I was in a bar and that people were sitting there watching me.  

I stood up and tore into a dorian mode the best I could and soon wrapped things up.  

In a daze I put down the guitar and walked towards my friends at the table.  Jojo rose to meet me, his jaw slack.  “That was incredible,” he said.

“How did you do that?”

I could only shake my head.  I met Jojo the first day I moved to Ottawa to start university, and we had been dorm-mates or roommates ever since.  He knew my playing as well as I did, and neither of us had ever heard me play anything like that before.

Now, I’m not saying I went out there and Van Halen-ed everybody, but to me it was the first indication that I might actually be getting this guitar thing.  We went back the next night and the next.  Soon the owner was giving me free drinks, offering me a free place to stay and I was running the jam session.

Believe it or not I have some humility…enough that I hesitate to relate this next tidbit, but it was a pivotal moment for me as a musician, so I feel compelled.

About a week into my tenure at The Hippodrome Jojo and I were walking to the club for the evening’s jam.  Along the way a couple of farang’s (foreigners/tourists) asked us if we knew where The Hippodrome was.  We said sure, we were going there and they could walk with us.

Then they said that someone had told them there was some hotshot guitar player playing there every night that they had to go check out.

I can’t tell you what that did to my self-esteem.

More importantly, before long the bar was packed every night.  People would be lined up outside and watching from the door.  Keep in mind that there was virtually no live entertainment to be had in the area, and if you did manage to find some live music it would invariably be local music.  So, again, I was no Jimmy Page but I was the only rock and roll within reach of thousands of young, Western tourists.

I played there for the next two weeks, and it was during that time that I decided unequivocally that I was going to be a guitar player.  I had spent the first two years of my university career concentrating on theory and analysis in hopes of going into composition, but really that was just my way of letting myself off the hook as a performer, and most importantly as a practiser.  

When I got home I switched guitar teachers and found myself under the tutelage of the great Wayne Eagles and I worked my butt off.  I started a band as a guitar player and never looked back.  I’ve played a million gigs, had a million laughs and continue to enjoy life immaculately.  One thing I never have to do is wonder what would have happened if I had actually worked to be a serious musician.  I did, and this is what happened.  And continues to happen.

And I can seriously say it is all thanks to the confidence I picked up at The Hippodrome.

After we went up to northern Thailand we stopped back in Bangkok for a week or so before heading south and discovering our little island paradise.  I spent that week back at the Hippodrome and had just as much fun.  Unfortunately, when I returned to the city a few months later Bangkok was embroiled in a major protest of some kind.  The area that Hippodrome was in was pretty much inaccessible and when I did see the owner he said they were closed and his windows had all been smashed, or something like that.

I’ve never returned to Thailand.  I’m not sure I feel like I need to.

One comment

  1. I heard the story before and it brings back a memory from when I was about 13 or so. We were at a cottage in Shediac and my aunt and uncle were playing guitar and mouth organ. I got my hands on the mouth organ and I swear I was able to play it along with the guitar. Later I tried again but it did not happen not ever again but the memory never left me.

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