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Bangkok on Everything

Terry Allen's lost post-Vietnam-era soundtrack re-emerges decades later

In his 1975 travelogue The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote, "Bangkok smells of sex, but this sexual aroma is mingled with the sharper whiffs of death and money." Terry Allen, already a renowned artist in several mediums, spent six weeks in Bangkok in 1984 composing the score for Amerasia, a documentary examining post-Vietnam American expatriates living in Thailand by German director Wolf-Eckart Bühler. Like all of Allen's recordings, the music is intelligent, iconoclastic, pointed and eclectic.

Recalling the film project from his studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Allen remembers it as somewhat ill-fated.

"Bühler came at the film from such a dogmatic Marxist view. His vision was of Yankee imperialists running amok in this beautiful, idyllic country, these American expats all mixed up in prostitution and drugs."

Allen (second from left) Thais up some studio time with the Panhandle Mystery Band.
Allen (second from left) Thais up some studio time with the Panhandle Mystery Band.

More than 10,000 Americans lived in Thailand at the time, but Bühler had a difficult time finding Americans who fit the image he intended to portray.

"We kept meeting these guys, and most had been in Vietnam. But instead of being pimps and dope dealers, they were married to Thai women, had a couple of kids and a job, just living fairly normal lives. So the whole premise of the film began to fall apart."

Allen was occasionally at odds with Bühler.

"One night in Pattaya he shot footage of these burly guys manhandling these little Thai prostitutes. It was a real ugly scene, and the script was that this is how these ugly Americans act in Thailand. I knew these guys in fact weren't Americans, they were Germans, and I told Bühler about it." The scene was eventually left out of the final cut.

"For Germans, Thailand was kinda like Hawaii is for us, and they wanted to portray how America was spoiling this paradise. But the reality was the Thais didn't hate us."

Another aspect of the film was the Amerasian orphans, a particularly tragic by-product of the war. Treated as pariahs in Vietnam, most lived on the streets, and many eventually ended up in Thailand.

"Lots of Vietnamese Amerasian kids were being brought out about then, and it commanded a lot of worldwide attention. Bühler documented all that in the refugee camps."

Bühler also arranged for Allen to work with Caravan, a legendary Asian band. Laotians by birth, they had come to Bangkok during the Vietnam era and created the "songs for life" genre, something akin to our folk music. It addressed the lives of common people and often had political overtones. Banned by the Thai government for supporting communist causes, Caravan lived in the jungle with the rebels along the Thai-Laotian border for a number of years before a general amnesty allowed them to return to Bangkok.

"I met them my first day," Allen says. "None of them spoke any English, but through music and sign language and drawings, we were able to communicate.

"I went to several of their gigs and never saw them play for fewer than 15,000 to 20,000 people. They were huge." Allen even went into the jungle to jam with the band.

One of Bühler's scenes was an ideological "song duel" between Allen -- dressed as the ghost of an American soldier, "kind of costumed like Dennis Hopper was in Apocalypse Now" -- and Caravan's Surachai Jantimatorn, dressed in the black pajamas of the Vietcong. As Allen sang lines like "My country 'tis of thee," Jantimatorn was to counter with patriotic lines from the Asian point of view. But Bühler's confrontation evolved into a moving cross-cultural collaboration that is the highlight of the album.

"I knew I was going to do 'America' as soon as Bühler said he wanted me to sing a classic American patriotic song to collide with Surachai doing a classic Morlam song. But when Surachai and Caravan heard me sing the song, they really liked it. We began to play it in this kind of off-key Thai way and he worked on his lyrics for several weeks off and on right up until the night we filmed it. I didn't know what his lyrics translated to until right before we did the scene. I thought it was brilliant. I'm very proud and honored to have done that song with him."

Even though they aren't singing the same song, it turned out that Jantimatorn's part not only fit the meter, amazingly it matched phonetically. So instead of a duel, the piece has this feeling of friendship and community.

Once filming and the Bangkok recording sessions were completed, Allen returned to Lubbock to finish the score.

"I took the tape back to Lubbock with me, and Lloyd Maines and I mixed it. It pretty much blew his mind. Mine was already blown."

Working with the Panhandle Mystery Band (the Maines brothers, Richard Bowden and Don Caldwell), Allen recorded six more songs. They contain the usual brutal Allen savvy and insights such as "each bears his own burden / the truth and the lies / from the blood on his hands / to the look in his eyes." In "Back Out of the World," a vet "still carries his pride on the American side from that Asian war / but knows he gave up his youth to this ruthless truth just like a two-bit whore." Instead of returning to the States, he decides to make Southeast Asia his permanent home. Allen's jaunty tale of an expatriate Christmas in a bar/brothel, "Lucy's Tiger Den," is at once hilarious and pathetic: "They're serving turkey and dressing / get some Ah-Ah too / all tied up with ribbon / with the red, white, and blue."

Allen wrote the raunchy "Display Woman/Displaced Man" after a visit to the world's largest brothel, where women sat on bleachers behind a window. Each had a number. The place was so big customers used binoculars to get a better view. The customer would say a certain number and that woman would be brought out.

"That was the only song I wrote specifically for a scene. Bühler asked if I could do kind of a disco tune for bar scenes. I had the title and the tune but actually wrote most of the lyrics while we were recording it in Lubbock." Allen's lyric neatly sums up the scene: "Display woman behind the glass / show your number, shake your ass / displaced man outta control / got money in his hand, love fear in his soul."

Bühler never got a sufficiently good translation of all the Thai dialogue in his movie to make presentation in the United States viable, so except for German television and a few public screenings, the film just faded away. But where Bühler's effort is now little more than celluloid in limbo, like one of his celebrated sculptures or screenplays Allen's music has retained its integrity, relevance and vigor. Allen's entire out-of-print Fate Records catalog is being reissued by Sugar Hill Records and even though Amerasia wasn't his earliest work, he decided it should be released first.

"I was going to release Juarez first, but when this latest adventure into the desert seemed to be the same one we stepped into in the jungle earlier, the release made sense." Quoting lyrics from the album, Allen says, "'Nobody's going home.' Lot of dead kids and the same ol' rock and roll."

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