The Life and Times of Smokin’ Kenny Smith – Part 2

Riding The Rails: The Extreme Ups and Downs of the Cambodian
Musical Roller Coaster

By Smokin’ Kenny Smith

[Read Part One Here]


I promised myself and my friends
that this article would start off on a positive note, but as the day’s events
unfolded I had to slightly modify the promise.
Today I received some rather
disappointing budget-altering news. This morning the phone rings and it’s my
boss where I have the closest thing to what could be called a “steady gig” – that’s
my open mic at the Sundance bar every Tuesday night. Today being Tuesday the 15th
October, it just happens to be a Khmer holiday in honour of their deceased King.
Blaring out loud music apparently may show a form of disrespect in the ears of
nearby residents. I’m thinking perhaps my boss is correct and I have no problem
with the cancellation of tonight’s open mic. However, a quick look through my
wallet, which spends most of its time right next to my ass, does not reveal
good news. It seems the money I had counted on from tonight’s gig has already
been slated for basic living expenses. Drab things such as rent, food and water.
Even if I didn’t treat myself to those fifty cent beers the other day – it is
what it is. Flat broke.
Well, I won’t panic. I can’t blame
anyone, as the saying goes: shit just happens. So the quick plan is to call a
friend, swallow my pride and ask for a loan, then put up my camera and two of
my guitars for sale at fire-sale prices. 
Perhaps I can get out and hustle up some guitar playing gigs or guitar
teaching jobs in the mean time. That being said, I’m not worried, today was
just another unexpected turn. I just wish I could have seen it coming and
prepared better.
The reason I said two of my guitars
is that I own five. When things are good and I have a few extra bucks in my
pocket, a hobby of mine is to seek out quality but neglected, truly old ‘vintage’
instruments. My passion is to repair, clean or repaint, restring, and work on
precision intonation and what untrained eyes see as junk in the corner of music
stores. The guitars are transformed into works of art that anyone would be
proud to own. Since it’s my hobby it isn’t really work, I love every minute of
time I put into a project.


I believe I have paid my Musical Dues
by spending year after year learning to express my emotions through my guitar
playing. As a kid, I’ve hopped aboard trains to ride in box cars, pretending I
was Roger Miller and “King Of The Road”. I played my first dime-store acoustic
guitar on street corners while singing my heart out.  I have spent many hours borrowing (stealing?)
riff after riff from my favourite artist’s guitar solos to put into a style I can
hopefully call my own. I’ve worn out countless record albums moving the needle
stylus back and forth across the jet-black vinyl. I stopped short of “selling
my soul to the devil”, but given half a chance I may have gone for that as
We’ve all been through times in our
lives when we had our hearts broken, and felt down and out. Tears in your eyes,
dwelling on how life and how people we counted on can seem so unfair and
uncaring. Music can be the conduit that connects us, enables us to share our
emotions and comfort one another. The Blues, contrary to what non-music
aficionados may think, isn’t meant to drag you down. When you hear B.B. King
sing “I’ve got a cold-hearted-wrong-doin’ woman and a slave drivin’ boss”, he doesn’t
mean to depress you. Usually accompanying his beautifully crafted lyrics is a
well executed emotional guitar solo to drive home the hard-felt pain being
expressed. It’s meant to make you think “Wow, he has worse problems than me, my
life isn’t so bad after all!”
I love The Blues. The true legends
of The Blues are gone now and the following generation of players are old
and tired. I worry for the future of the Blues genre. Are there enough young
people around today to carry on the legacy of those great musicians? Could this
be a dying art form that may eventually become so obsolete it doesn’t merit
mention in future musical history catalogs? OK – so maybe I’m stretching a bit,
but you never know. Let’s just say I’m a bit concerned.


I’ll pick up my Cambodian musical
adventure where my first piece ended. That was when the Route 66 band was just
kicking off and things had finally started to pay off. I thought I had finally
hit The Big Time!
My number one musical partner Tommy
was a real go-getter when it came to getting gigs. He and I had a steady one
night a week job down in Sihanoukville playing as a duo. I’d play guitar and
sing a bit, Tom would take time to blare out a harmonica solo, we’d switch off
as the night progressed… too much fun. The audience liked it. Nowhere near as
scary as being on stage alone – like a goldfish in a bowl with a room full of
drunkards judging you. Tom and I were two fish sharing a bowl, taking it as it
came, sharing the compliments and/or criticisms equally. I suppose it’s called
musical bonding.
‘Route 66’ was a real blues-rock band that I
immensely enjoyed working in. We were getting sporadic weekend gigs in
Sihanoukville and I made enough money to rent my own apartment. I found a small
studio room in a brand new complex with a kitchen to boot. About a ten minute
walk from the beach, I could cook, sleep, relax, learn songs. It had ALMOST
everything I needed.
The music scene in Phnom Penh was
beginning to change. Big changes in fact.  First we got our foot in the door at Sharky Bar.
We played there Friday and Saturday on the last weekend of every month. At that
time, around 2008, there were very few live bands in Cambodia. I remember Bum N
Draze being around, and Curtis King would come to town now and then. A Filipino
band or two. I’m sure a few others as well, but not many.
Following the opportunity to play at
Sharky’s we began to make a name for ourselves. Tom went to work hustling our
act around Phnom Penh.  He managed to
book us at just about every venue with a sound system.  We were shuffling back and forth between the
beach and Phnom Penh almost every weekend. I guess that’s what you call “life
on the road”. Well, Cambodian style anyway.
WOW. The moneys coming in, I’m playing
the music I like, I have a room to call my home. I’m not a rock star, that was
never my Cambodian intention, but I’m definitely doing just fine! …for now.


So the dark clouds of poverty that
hung over my head for so long had finally dissipated. We all know that feeling
when a huge weight has been lifted off your shoulders. I felt happy, I looked
happy, but I learned long ago never to take it for granted and become
complacent.  For me it’s a curse and the
plunge can often be right around the corner.
When I rented my apartment I said I
had ALMOST everything I need. Since I had so much public exposure and bucks in
my pocket, I started meeting women. A few came home with me. There is a very
old Khmer expression that when translated goes something like this: “Where
there is water, you find fish. Where there is money, you find women.” I suppose
we have similar expressions in the West?
Quite naturally one woman became my
“steady”; she seemed different from the others and we easily bonded. She was
Khmer, spoke English well.  She would
often bring over a deck of cards and show me simple card games the Khmer people
enjoy passing their time with. We felt so comfortable just being in each
other’s presence. I had thoughts of her being “The One”. They say love is
blind, and I knew I better keep my guard up. She was as hard to hold onto as a
handful of bees. But who cares, this is just for fun right? She has her Mekong
whiskey and I have my beer, we can just hang on to each other and enjoy the
ride …until reality kicks in.


Time moves quickly and nothing stays
the same. Route 66’s other side-kick Larry had to go back to California. The
group splintered. I joined a short-lived band called “Angkor Waves”, but it
never achieved any notoriety. Tom was putting together a new band called “Lost
Somehow I got a bit lazy and sat by watching my regular music gigs
dry up. The steady paychecks grew thinner and thinner. So did my wallet. I felt
those nasty clouds of poverty forming over my head, and try as I might, I
couldn’t stop the brewing storm.
It really wasn’t that big of a
surprise to me. I had ridden life’s ups and downs before, and now I was heading
down slope. I had been quite comfortable working the music scene for over two
years, and totally settled in Sihanoukville. The small handful of bands in
Phnom Penh had by this time grown to over thirty, which meant fierce
competition for steady gigs. Route 66 happened to be lucky enough to be in the
right place at the right time. We had ridden it for all it was worth. 


Why is it when the money is gone,
the women disappear also? Something about “No Money, No Honey”. Now I was down
to only one job per week, which was just enough for rent and almost enough for
food. Maybe I wasn’t as much fun to be around anymore. I suppose I get a bit
depressed when I am constantly broke. Fair enough. But my steady gal made a
move that still hurts to this day – she moved in with the guy next door. At
least she could have chosen somebody living a bit further away! Was I angry?
Your guess. Like rubbing salt into an open wound, I often heard her voice
chatting to people outside my window. And of course I often ran into her coming
and going.



After a month of torturing no one
but myself, I woke up one day with a brand new attitude. I thought I would try
something totally unexpected. The very next time I saw her I smiled. A huge
expression of shock appeared on her face. The next day I managed to smile and
said “Hello”. Soon we were talking and laughing. As it turned out, her new boyfriend, Mr “I could get my own girlfriend but I’ll
take Kenny’s instead”, went to work every evening at 7pm. She then
started knocking on my door at about 7:05 without fail. She would stay for a “visit”
after raiding my neighbour’s refrigerator and bringing me food. We would just
hang out as we had done so many times before. It was just like old times. Looking
back, waking up that day and turning negative into positive really does pay off
in the universal scheme of things, within you and without you.
Sihanoukville adventures were coming
to a close. It was clear that the beach adventure had run it’s time and place
in my life. The winds of change told me that it was time to move on. Tommy had
already moved on and had relocated to Siem Reap. He was meeting new and
interesting people, networking as much as he could, and of course lining up
jobs for his new band. A band that included me! What luck, lets go! I packed up
my guitar and the few meager possessions I had in my small room, and grabbed
the cheapest bus I could find headed for Siem Reap. I never turned to look back
as the bus headed East on Highway 4. I was too excited about what might lay
ahead in life’s next chapter.
Reflecting back on the girl I was
leaving behind in Sihanoukville, I confirmed once again that one must keep
one’s head up, retain self respect and dignity, and continue down the road by
putting one foot in front of the other. With you or without you, my dear. 

Smokin’ Kenny Smith