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December 19, 2007

Book Notes - Chuck Thompson ("Smile When You're Lying")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

I love to travel, and I love travel books. Unfortunately, most travel guides seem written for blue hairs more interested in tourist traps, bland food, and little interaction with local culture beyond the gift shop. Chuck Thompson has been writing about travel for years, and in Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer his honesty about the tourist industry, travelers, and the exotic locales he visits is refreshing in its candor. This book would make an excellent holiday gift for both the armchair and world traveler. For a preview of the book, check out the author's 10 most overrated U.S. tourist destinations.

In its review of the book, the New York Times wrote:

"The book is a savagely funny act of revenge for years spent servicing the travel fantasies of gullible readers, the kind who truly believe that acting like a local in London means, as one tourist guide urges, eating at one of the city’s 'few surviving pie ’n’ mash shops.'"

In his own words, here is Chuck Thompson's Book Notes essay for his book, Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer:

Since Smile When You're Lying is basically a memoir masquerading as a travel book, and since numerous songs are referenced throughout, it’s easy to come up with an accompanying “soundtrack” pegging songs to specific chapters. The trick will be keeping it concise. There’s a great moment in Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live in which Klosterman tries to decide what CDs to bring along on a (pre-iPod) road trip—after punishing rounds of cuts, and mindful of limited car space, he finally decides to pack a mere 500 CDs. No promises, but I’ll try to keep my list slightly more manageable.

Intro: You Deserve Better

“Li’l Darling” — Count Basie

A rare chapter that presents no obvious musical cues, so I’ll take the opportunity to list a transcendent ballad written by Neal Hefti, one of those sadly forgotten geniuses of American song (spanning generations, he later wrote the “Batman” theme). I was introduced to Count Basie by a high school band teacher named Stan Sells and have never stopped buying the Count’s records.

Chapter 1: “Welcome to Thailand, Ulysses S. Grant!”

“Tomorrow People” — Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers

This chapter deals with a trip to Thailand in 1988. You couldn’t go anywhere in Bangkok that summer without hearing Ziggy Marley or Tracy Chapman. I bought pirated cassettes of both and paid a cabbie to drive me around for an hour while I looked at the dysfunction out the window and listened to “Fast Car” and “Revolution” and “Tomorrow People.” This before all my cash was stolen and I could no longer afford to so brazenly laugh in the face of Peak Oil. (We’re all doomed, by the way.)

Chapter 2: Baked Alaska: How Drugs, Tourism, and Petroleum Tamed the Last Frontier

“Fight or Fall” — Thin Lizzy
“Black Market” — Weather Report
“After the Lovin’” — Engelbert Humeprdink

Thin Lizzy comes as tribute to everyone who ever sparked a doob in the woods outside Floyd Dryden Jr. High. As explained in the book, I wasn’t among the wool-encased hipster trendsetters in halibut jackets (you may have to be from Southeast Alaska to get that reference), but I did love their music.

I spent a large chunk of my early youth as an inveterate jazz snob; insufferable in a 15-year-old, but there you are. Weather Report represents 70s jazz fusion, the most unfairly maligned genre in music history. In high school, I obsessed over bands and musicians like Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Jeff Lorber, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, etc. Given that this period of pop music was dominated by the likes of Loverboy, Scorpions, AC/DC, and Pink Floyd, it might not surprise you to learn that I didn’t notch a single date in high school. Even so, as the inclusion here demonstrates, I hold no grudge against Joe Zawinul and Jaco Pastorius.

“After the Lovin’” because “adult contemporary” was the only type of music Juneau’s two identical radio stations played back in the day and, I don’t know, it’s either a cool sing or the repetition brainwashed me.

Chapter 3: Canned Hams, Kendo Beatdowns, and the Penis Olympics—The Education of an Accidental Ambassador in Japan

“Headstart for Happiness” — The Style Council

With a certain age group of British men, it’s possible to start a fight simply by walking into a London pub and declaring that The Style Council was in fact a better band than The Jam. (True, by the way.) Life in Japan fired my suicidal imagination like no other place and there were dark weekends there when only my discovery of Paul Weller’s new and improved incarnation pulled me through.

Chapter 4: Lost Among Expats: The Shiftless, Debauched, Tedious, and Necessary Existence of Americans Abroad

"Ain't That Lonely Yet" — Dwight Yaokam

There’s a story in the book about my buddy Shanghai Bob almost getting us killed in an Indonesian restaurant by demanding that the staff play this hillbilly wailing in ¾ time over their tinny stereo. As a side note, I once spent several hours interviewing Yoakam in his suite at the Austin Four Seasons, and he still strikes me as the brightest and loneliest celebrity I’ve ever encountered. Telling me that Yoakam’s This Time isn’t one of the greatest country albums ever recorded is like telling a drunk Mancunian (redundant?) that The Style Council kicked The Jam’s ass.

Chapter 5: Why Latin America Isn’t the World’s Number One Tourist Destination and Probably Never Will Be

“A Matter of Time” — Los Lobos

One of those songs you love for about fifteen years before actually listening to the words. Los Lobos released a slower version a few years ago and when I finally understood the lyrics—about a Mexican man saying goodbye to his family as he prepares to cross the border to find work in the states—I was absolutely crushed. A decade and a half wasted without knowing how heartbreakingly beautiful this song is. Sort of like turning thirty, wiping the last of the snot from your nose, and realizing how selfless and big-hearted your parents actually were.

Chapter 6: Am I the Only One Who Can’t Stand the Caribbean

“High Mas I” — David Rudder
“Running Out of Time” — Climax Blues Band

Although I spent 25 pages laying out the case for the massive tourist trap that is the Carib, I have to admit that Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago is possibly the world’s single greatest party. The year I went, this Rudder song was one of the big hits. It’s so uplifting that I put it on mixed CDs to this day.

This is also the part of the book where I prove that Eric Clapton is the most overrated musician in history (lots of bile in this chapter; I can’t recall exactly what was going on in my life when I wrote it) and recommend this CBB track, with amazing guitar solos by the criminally unappreciated Peter Haycock. The intent was to shovel some dirt on the grave of Clapton’s reputation. Has Peter Haycock been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet? I ain’t walking through their door till a gold bust of him is there to smile back at me.

Chapter 7: What Lazy Writers, Lonely Planet, and Your Favorite Travel Magazine Don’t Want You to Know

“Corpus Christi Bay” — Robert Earl Keen

I worked as an editor for two magazines in Dallas (American Way, Travelocity) and spend time in the book running down that unfortunate burg. I did, however, meet many good people there, one of whom introduced me to music of inimitable Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen. “Corpus Christi Bay” is one of his best, but picking a favorite Robert Earl song for me is as impossible as it was to carve out a literary existence in a town where Bush/Cheney bumper stickers were given away at the front counters of bookstores, next to displays of Left Behind DVDs and other apocalypse merchandise.

Chapter 8: The Curse of Chinatown: And Other Updated Wisdom For the Modern Traveler

“The Caves of Altamira” — Steely Dan

A chapter without an obvious musical hook, so a good spot to toss in something from one of the world’s Top Five bands. Not my personal Top Five. The world’s. I have no control over these things.

Chapter 9: Boys Gone Wild: How the Philippines Became the Friendliest Country in the World Despite/Because of the U.S. Military

“Sweet Child O’ Mine” — Guns N’ Roses

In the late 80s and early 90s, you couldn’t walk within ten miles of Subic Bay without being assaulted by peeler-bar music blasting from the rows of clubs. GNR’s classic remains the all-time stripper anthem.

Chapter 10: Is it OK to Miss the Cold War? The Philosophical Dilemma of the Cold War

“On the Horizon” — Melanie C

I’m a sucker for ultra-happy pop songs and this one from the former Spice Girl dominated Euro radio a few years ago, accompanying me wherever I went in pursuit of sites where the Nazis and Soviets helped tear apart each other’s massively oppressive political systems. Imagine Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly suddenly deciding they need to battle to the death over air time; how ugly yet satisfying that might be to watch from the sidelines. Now imagine Limbaugh making such frightening gains in the struggle that the possibility of him taking control of every piece of network and cable airtime available becomes a genuine threat—and you have to step in and start helping O'Reilly beat this guy, because he's slightly less of an asshole and maybe when the dust settles you can fill him with booze and keep him at bay for forty years. You think it was all Big Band music, victory parades, and kisses from horny French partisans for the Greatest Generation? Thank God all we have to deal with is AIDS, global warming, oil wars, a trigger-happy vice president, and over-complicated analogies from snarky writers.

I’d been wondering why I liked the ex-Sporty Spice song so much, then found out it was written and produced by Gregg Alexander, the guy who did the one and only New Radicals CD, definitely one of the best pop records of the 90s. If you listen to “On the Horizon” you’ll hear the unmistakable cousin of “Get What You Give.” Alexander also wrote and produced the pepster nugget “Game of Love” by Santana and Michelle Branch. If I had one-tenth of Alexander’s musical brilliance I sure as hell wouldn’t be sitting here cranking out blog copy no one will ever get this far into.

Chapter 11: Not-So-Ugly Americans and the Road of Good Intentions

“Digital Love” — Daft Punk

The obvious choice here is any track from Sweet’s mighty Desolation Boulevard (which Quentin Tarantino will use to accompany the Torino-GTO chase when he films this chapter), but given that the end of the book is as much about the future as it is the past, it feels better to include a track from the coolest album of the century (so far).

Chuck Thompson and Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer links:

the author's website
the books's site
an excerpt from the book
the author's blog

Entertainment Weekly review
New York Times review
Rambling Traveler review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Time Out Chicago review
The Travel Cooler review

the author's guest posts at Powell's blog
the author at Writers Read

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)