Bangkok After Dark!!!
an introduction to maurice rocco and cold war global nightlife
First, thank you for signing up for this weekly newsletter, which I will do my best to send each Monday. This is a time-limited feature that will continue for about a year, until (I expect) the book manuscript is finished.
It serves a few ends, including:
updating friends and family on my stuff;
telling a (quite fascinating) story about how popular music circulated at the fringes of the Cold War;
giving students and anyone else who wants to think about the craft of writing a book an open view of the process;
c̶e̶n̶t̶e̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ acknowledging people who are not often acknowledged in the history of the U.S. war in Vietnam.
The working title of the book is Bangkok After Dark: Maurice Rocco and Cold War Global Nightlife. It tells the history of an intimate relationship between Thailand and the United States during the Cold War. But rather than being set in spaces of executive or military power, most of the story unfolds in bars and clubs. The everyday history of Thailand’s relationship with the west has everything to do with music, and musical intimacies.
Here is the image from which the book takes the first part of its title (minus the exclamation points):
This is the cover of a pamphlet printed in 1967, and made available to American soldiers when they took five days of leave from fighting in Vietnam. These brief stints were called R&R. “Rest and recuperation” is the most polite of what that acronym can stand for. Bangkok was the most popular destination for R&R, among ten different global options. The cover of the pamphlet tells us exactly what the city offered; beauty and sacrality, largely serving as a cover for hedonistic pleasure — “Bangkok After Dark” is promised to be, without a trace of subtlety, BAD.
Things are rarely so simple.
The “Bangkok After Dark” pamphlet is one of the first material objects I found back in 2019, when starting to dig for this research project. I’d begun with some open-ended questions about contemporary Thai popular music (more about genres in a future post). Specifically, where did its tones, especially those that listeners tend to call “psychedelic,” come from? I knew that there were histories of encounter dating to the U.S. war in Vietnam that might hold some clues. The pamphlet gave a first snapshot of that moment, of the texture of its everyday encounters. It is full of ads for Bangkok clubs, hotels, and bars, all marketed to westerners:
The pamphlet trades in certain ideas about the world that I had expected, but which gave me pause anyway. This includes the absolute difference between “east” and “west,” the troubling, racist portrayal of Asian women, and the array of technologies and foods and sounds that the ads suggested should count as cosmopolitan. And then there are the musicians: how did Gert Steffens, an Austrian bandleader, end up in Bangkok? How and why was this world of “intimate” “comfort” manufactured? What was a night at the President Hotel in 1967 like? What was it like for (and what did it mean to??) the band, the staff, the bar girls, the soldiers? I could sense already that colonialism, in one form or another, was haunting this historical moment.
Next I read the tiny listing that ultimately led to the second part of the book’s title:
I searched every single one of the names of individual musicians listed in the pamphlet. Notably, there were many Filipino artists along with a handful of Europeans. Both of those details suggested later lines of inquiry. But Maurice Rocco was one of the very few American musicians named in the pamphlet. Reflexively, as one does, I searched him on Wikipedia, if nothing else to see if he was relevant enough to merit mention. He did have a page, which was quite brief, although it suggested more to the story:
At once the broad outlines implied by “Bangkok After Dark” began to fill in with detail. My questions multiplied. How did a Black American jazz pianist end up in Bangkok in the 1960s? What were his nights at the Windsor Coffee House like? How was his music heard in Thailand? What did the experience mean to him, and to his audiences? How and why was he murdered? And why does no one in the twenty-first century seem to have heard of him? I could not yet have imagined the depth and complexity of Rocco’s story. I could not yet know how much his story would say about early rock and roll, about the global circulation of jazz, about Black-Asian Cold War engagements, about global queerness, and about U.S.-Thai political intimacy.
More about Rocco in next week’s letter.