Joe Cummings is cool. Anyone who doesn’t wear a red MAGA cap can figure that out. Of course, that brings out the haters as well as the appreciators. We live in a binary, polarized world much of the time. I was in the Joe C hater camp, once. I had read that the Louisiana born and Army brat Cummings, best known for his pioneer days writing at Lonely Planet and Ronnie Wood lifestyle, didn’t like many things about Americans or maybe it was America? Well, fuck him, right? I am an American. So let me not like Joe, first, even if I had never met the guy at the time.
I’ve changed camps, now, with the help of a quote from Voltaire:
“Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”
Let’s face it, grudgingly if it makes you feel better, Joe Cummings does a lot of things well and worse yet he’s made a good living and a good life for himself during his lengthy one-man show. Who does he think he is, making money from writing? No one does that anymore or so it seems. Joe’s a self-admitted 1%er when it comes to writing – I’m less sure about his portfolio. On top of that the guy wanders all over the planet he helped emancipate and never gets lost. There was a time when I used to think that, with a break here or a chance meeting there, Joe Cummings could have been Anthony Bourdain – all whiskey wishes and raw ant-egg salad dreams. Like so many times in my life I got it ass-backwards. With a few different decisions made, perhaps Tony could have traveled a more content and longer path? We’ll never know. Game Over for Bourdain. Joe’s and Keith Richards’ lives keep streaming on, with a few tolerable demons along for the ride.
I’ve read a fair amount of Joe Cummings’ work. Who hasn’t picked up one of his many over-priced coffee table books in a bookstore and perused it for a good-long while before setting it back down and then moving on? My favorite is, Sacred Tattoos of Thailand – Exploring the Magic, Masters and Mystery of Sak Yant. Joe did the writing and Dan White, who died too soon in 2012, created the photographs. I was too cheap to buy the book but it gave me a lot of pleasure. Mainly because it was so superior to the competition out there. You can also watch Joe do a TedX talk, filmed in Chiang Mai titled Spells & Sigils: The Magic & Mastery of Thai Sacred Tattoos. Joe explains that tattoos, once the domain of sailors, circus performers, and gangsters, have a very spiritual, protective nature in Thailand. They’ve also moved upstream into HiSo/Celebrity territory.
Joe Cummings receiving a protective tattoo in the same placement he later recommended to Anthony Bourdain
My regular reading of Joe Cummings includes his monthly column in Bangkok 101 Magazine, appropriately titled Joe’s Bangkok. Joe’s writing often times reminds me of a professional baseball umpire calling a perfect game. Joe’s great at what he does. He calls the balls and strikes of any story flawlessly, and as he sees them, yet at the end of the game or in his case the article or book, you haven’t noticed that he was there. He rarely becomes an integral part of the story. The reason you don’t notice him is because he never makes a mistake. It is what I think makes him that rarest of things in the scribe world – an in demand writer. His latest book, which I have not read is, The Hunt Bangkok . It’s a book that helps you experience the sprawling metropolis of Bangkok the way the locals do.
I’ve come to believe that while Joe C is no regular Joe his spirit and mine have a lot in common besides our surname. In fact it’s eerie, the amount of commonalities we share. Almost in a Lincoln/Kennedy kind of way. Here are just a few:
Joe Cummings holds a Master’s degree from Cal Berkeley.
I was born in Berkeley, California.
Joe Cummings speaks and reads Thai language fluently.
My wife speaks and reads Thai fluently.
Joe Cummings is beanpole thin.
I used to be beanpole thin.
Joe’s dad was a Golden Gloves boxer with an undefeated record.
My dad took me to a Golden Gloves boxing match once.
Joe Cummings plays regularly in a band at live music venues.
I listen to bands regularly at live music venues.
I could go on but you get the idea. Like most people we are more alike than we are different.
I did finally meet Joe long after becoming Facebook friends, at a live music pub run by an amiable Brit. Prior to that chance meeting our chats were always cordial and Joe was always helpful when I needed help. I respect our similarities and our differences. Our musical tastes don’t always align but even here Joe comes across accommodating enough. On the subject of music he wrote recently, “Critics be damned. You like what you like. ” It’s a good attitude and I suspect it applies to Joe for critics of all kinds.
One of the subjects I chatted with Joe about was interviews. He’s on record as stating that he doesn’t do many. And that seems to be the case. For a guy who has shown the Bangkok ropes to the likes of Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler and tailored those threads accordingly, Joe would make anybody’s interview A list in Southeast Asia. I thought of asking Joe for an interview but concluded that that would put him in a position of having to say, yes or no. And thoughtful guy that I am, I decided to spare him that choice.
It hasn’t kept me from coming up with some questions I would like to ask Joe, however, so here goes. My phantom interview with Joe C.:
KC: Your father was Colonel Cummings in the Army. You were a free spirit during the Vietnam War. How were you similar to your dad and how were you different? Tell me a poignant father/son story about conflict. Tell another father/son story about bonding, please.
KC: When you graduated from Berkeley you were said to have had at least two job offers: one from the CIA and one from Lonely Planet. Tell us why we shouldn’t believe that you accepted both simultaneously? It worked for the Paris Review after all.
KC: Name your three favorite guitar players whom are living and your three favorite that have died and what you like, specifically, about each, musically or personality wise.
KC: Who is your tailor in Bangkok and where do buy your shoes? What was the occasion for your last tailored suit?
KC: Where, if anywhere, did Anthony Bourdain go wrong? What were your thoughts and feelings when you heard the news?
KC: What exercise do you do besides walking? Alone, I mean. What’s your best tip on how to drink alcohol and remain thin?
KC: Do you ever regret picking up the cigarette/whisky combo habit or do you wax philosophical like Christopher Hitchens used to?
KC: What were your last meals under $3.00 and over $100.00 and where were you?
KC: Do you prefer asking questions or answering questions? Why?
KC: Musicians or chefs in Bangkok. Who are the bigger rock stars? Name a maestro or two.
KC: What music streaming service do you use and recommend?
KC: What’s your favorite live music venue in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Jakarta, Rangoon, and Bali?
KC: What’s the dumbest question you’ve ever been asked in an interview, this question and this interview excluded.
KC: Heaven, reincarnation, or, this is it? Choose one and tell me why it’s preferable to the others.
KC: Who were your mentors and/or idols in life during Act I, Act II, and Act III?
Thanks, Joe. Lets do this again sometime. I’d ask you a question about why you don’t like America, but your answer would make too much sense.
This, of course, is not the greatest Joe C interview ever. That was to get the attention of your eyeballs. That interview was done by Joe’s longtime friend and fellow All-Star musician, Keith Nolan in 2016, It’s part of Keith’s Beyond the Lines series found on YouTube and aired in the past on cable television in Bangkok. Truth be told, I like to interview authors but I don’t always enjoy or even watch the Beyond the Lines interviews. Listening to authors talk about their books can be a drag. I prefer their written words. However, this is my favorite interview in the series. It comes across as two friends, musicians, and adventurers having a good time.
Dizzy Dean is credited with saying, “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s the truth.” Satchel Paige, another baseball player, famously said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you”. I like Joe Cummings for a lot of reasons. Mostly because he tells the truth and doesn’t look back. They are good rules for living. While others, including me, are arguing the merits or demerits of an inconsequential person or moment, Joe is just as likely to be flying into a Chiang Rai airport in a 12-seater prop plane in order to visit a biker-buddy at his bar. Joe knows. He knows what’s important and what’s not important. To him. And I think that is way cool. Stick around and enjoy the best Joe Cummings interview – ever. By his friend, Keith Nolan.