Spanning Cambodia, Thailand, New York and Norway, On the Night Joey Ramone Died is an exciting tale of rock and punk by Jim Algie. Review by Gary Rutland.
SIDE A: The Night Joey Ramone Died
For punk rockers of a certain age and persuasion, where they were the night Joey Ramone died can be as apocryphal as the Kennedy and Lennon shootings are for others of different persuasions; they’ll know where they were, who they were with and what they were doing.
That’s certainly the case for the hero/ anti-hero of Jim Algie’s riveting story about punk, rock’n’roll in general, relationships, the art of songwriting, the nature of fame, Cambodia’s Killing Fields and much more.
Algie skillfully juggles his multitude of subjects like a seasoned performer, and like a pro he never lets one drop.
He crams his pages with astute and often caustic observations, plenty of drugs and rock’n’roll and thankfully – or disappointingly – no real sex. It’s not that this is a puritanical read; it’s just that it’s sexy enough without it.
Shortly after the novel begins, there is the first of several wonderfully descriptive meanderings as the main character Lek Sukanyal – a middle-aged faded and jaded Thai punk-rock icon – looks forlornly out on the Bangkok skyline and sees desolation spread everywhere.
“The offices looked like rows and rows of crypts in a towering mausoleum for white collar workers. Everywhere he looked he saw devastation and death.”
Fear not. This may be a dark read but it’s a far from depressing experience, quite often the opposite.
Lek is at an age where he’s finally become aware and consequently ashamed of having been a poor father and realises that he needs to rectify this. “It was high time to make a start, or at least open up the channels of communication, on the night Joey Ramone died.”
This declaration leads to dialogues between father and son, allowing them to address a number of issues including youth versus middle-age, a consequence of which is son Dee Dee being gifted some classic put-downs invoking excruciating eviscerations of many of the all-time greats of the “rock” era, including a priceless line when he trashes several of Lek’s heroes as purveyors of “Jurassic rock”.
Algie also uses these exchanges to allow Lek to muse on the emotional impact of songs he grew up with and compare them to today’s moribund cookie-cutter “mainstream hits” that carry little or no emotional impact and sound as if they’re created by committee.
Later, musing on his own creative process, Lek wittily muses: “Writing (songs) always proceeds in fits and full stops.”
His descriptions of the creative process are as enjoyable as they are enlightening; experts and novices alike will enjoy the insider knowledge of music, the music biz, touring, writing and the rock’roll lifestyle.
This also opens the door for travel, party and drug stories that no self-respecting book about late 20th century music should be without and allows the tale to roam to New York and Death Valley where the spectacular Devils Golf Course provides the setting for a wry passage about Lek’s divorce which juxtaposes cleverly with the natural beauty of the setting.
SIDE B: Genocide Boys and Girls
The second novella moves Lek and Dee-Dee’s story along effortlessly. The introduction of an interesting if often infuriating Norwegian – possible femme fatale – English teacher with a strange fascination for dark subject matter moves the story into deeper, murky waters.
Here Algie cleverly meshes Norwegian Black Metal with commentary and historical detail on Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields, its notorious leader Pol Pot and his relationship with Thailand, as well as various forms of addiction, both chemical and societal.
Did you know Pol Pot had a holiday home in Pattaya? I didn’t, and this is just one of the tidbits that are revealed about this most harrowing of chapters in Cambodia’s history.
The father-son dynamic has altered nicely in the intervening years, allowing Dee Dee to mature and Lek to, well, you should find out for yourself.
The writing has a flow and intelligence that grips, informs, entertains and is loaded with winning turns of phrase, plenty of dry humour and metaphors to die for including: “Tourist boats leaving traces of techno in their wake”, and, “The raising of children and cremating of parents”.
It’s hard to imagine how this story could be more topical as 2016 – the singular most apocalyptic year in the history of rock – slowly recedes in the rear-view mirror.
But it’s more than just topical. Like the main characters this is a complex story cleverly told and I found it a refreshing change from so many of the novels written about or based in Southeast Asia.
It’s neither thriller nor noir, yet somehow this read manages to be both and so much more besides.
Published by Magic Bullet Press, 2016.Available at Amazon, $2.99 Kindle editior.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After spending a decade rocking and spinning around the subterranean circles of the music business, Jim Algie lived and worked in Barcelona, Berlin, Casablanca and Bangkok, where he began a full-fledged career writing journalism, fiction, travel guides and scripting documentaries. He now works in the communications department of an NGO headquartered in Bangkok that combats human and wildlife trafficking while moonlighting as a weirdsmith and freelance author.