Steve Taylor's Video Diary: The Flying Chicken, The Monkey Temple, and a Man Called Roland

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Cross Rhythms
October/November 1994, Issue 23
© 1994 Cornerstone House
Pages 24-26

In November Christendom's most radical alternative rocker Steve Taylor will be commencing a British tour with Guardian. In anticipation of this event, a video 'Squint: Movies From The Sound Track', directed by as well as starring Steve Taylor, has just been released. The making of the video was no ordinary pop promo story. Steve took the budget offered by Warner Bros for the video and instead of settling for a standard Hollywood shoot, spent the cash on equipment and air tickets. Then, with a small film crew, Steve set off for Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal, India and Turkey. The footage he came back with makes for (to quote the publicity blurb) "one of the most ambitious film shoots ever undertaken by a rock artist." During his sojourn around the world, Steve kept a diary. These are extracts from it.

Hong Kong
Wednesday, July 28th, 1993

I'm not sure this diary is such a good idea. For starters, I'm doing it knowing that other people will probably read parts of it in a magazine or something, so I can't make it too personal and tell about things that most people don't know, like the fact that every time I open my passport I'm reminded that my first name is really Roland, and that during this whole trip I'm going to have to sign all official documents Roland Stephen Taylor while I ponder in silence the Great Question of why my parents would name me Roland but call me Steve. (It could have been worse--my Dad's nickname was 'Roly'.)

Then there's the problem of talking into a little tape recorder, an act which makes the people around me very nervous, like I'm talking about them (which I usually am). Finally, I'm afraid that a mild case of dyslexia has me sometimes confusing the word 'diary' with the word 'dairy'. Since we've been warned in most countries to avoid dairy products at all costs, I think I'm subconsciously worrying about dysentery every time I push the 'record' button.

Take, for example, my first cab ride in Hong Kong. I honestly try to always be polite. But for some reason, every time I get into a foreign cab (and this includes all New York City taxis), I get suspicious that the cab driver is up to something funny, like maybe he's taking me around the same block five times. (This can all be traced to a particularly unpleasant incident nine years ago in Paris, but that's another diary.)

Do I really want everyone reading that to know that I argued loudly in front of our Hong Kong hotel with the cab driver about paying him another three dollars for every bag we're carrying, down to our shaving kits, and that he ended up cursing me in Chinese because I didn't tip him enough for his high-pitched shrieking? I think not, which is why I must remember to edit this part out when I get home.

Diary--it needs facts and feelings. And the fact of the matter is, I'm feeling pretty great right now. I'm on a round-the-world expedition to shoot music videos for my new album, 'Squint'. I'm going to exotic locales that I've always wanted to visit. I'm traveling with three friends disguised as a "film crew". And someone else is paying for it all.

If you'd dropped me in the middle of the city and asked me where I was, I would have guessed the set from Blade Runner. It's nighttime in Hong Kong. Everything is in neon. The streets are crowded with people. It's so hot I can barely breathe. And even though there's no rain, everything is dripping. Each time I get dripped on, I look up to make sure no one is spitting on me from their 18th floor balcony (this is a phobia I've carried since high school). No sign of spitters, but there are cats everywhere. They don't prowl the streets--they prowl above the streets, along balconies and atop neon signs, adding just the right touch of surrealism to make this place really spooky.

This is our first day of shooting, and our mission tonight is to get some documentary-style footage for "Bannerman". Russ Long, our soundman (and the engineer on my new album), is doing double duty--he also plays Bannerman and is forced to carry everywhere with him a black hooded cape the large gold letters "BM" emblazoned on the back, along with a big "John 3:16" banner that is the song's raison d'etre (I dig these foreign phrases). The idea behind this video is that Bannerman keeps popping up in unlikely places, proudly unfurling his banner, so I have Russ get in costume, and we walk the streets in search of inspiration. Evidently Hong Kong suffers from a glut of caped superheroes, because nobody in this city is giving Bannerman a second look. I tell Russ not to take it personally and assure him that he looks way more ridiculous than these Hong Kongers are willing to acknowledge.

Hanoi, Vietnam
Friday, July 30th

Two lessons from Vietnam: (1) The world is not the mall. (2) I would not want to be an Asian dog.

The sensitive reader may want to skip this next paragraph. My intention here is not to fuel stereotypes--I'm just telling it like I see it. On the way to Hanoi from the airport yesterday, I couldn't help but notice that the dogs along the road all looked a little nervous, like they weren't really secure in who they were as pets. This morning, as we make our way up a hill to a flower market on the edge of town, I find out why. A teenage boy is skinning a beagle, presumably for some sort of stir-fry.

We're here in Hanoi to film "The Finish Line". Why Hanoi? I'm not totally sure. I certainly have no political agenda in being here--when the Vietnam War was raging, I was just a kid. More than anything, I felt the song needed to be shot in a place few people have ever seen and I think we've found it. Unlike Hong Kong, this place has not even the faintest whiff of mall culture--no Gap, no McDonald's, no Coca-Cola. Tourists don't come to Hanoi, particularly American tourists. Neither do film crews, according to our guide, as she tells us "The Finish Line" is the first music video ever filmed in Vietnam.

We shoot various sequences throughout the city, and the while being watched by the locals. I'd assumed we'd be greeted with out-and-out hostility, but the people of Hanoi don't seem to hold grudges, which is surprising considering that 25 years ago American forces were bombing their city ("quite thoroughly", our guide reminds us) during what they call the "Aggressive War".

Crowds of kids show up wherever we shoot. It's all part of the fun-- they watch our every move while we setup and really come alive when the music starts blasting through the loudspeaker. Russ is especially good with the kids and his job as soundman gives him a bit more time to goof around. Some of the children can't believe the size of Russ's nose and they point at it and giggle. Russ, of course, confides to them in a stage whisper, "If you think my nose is big, wait till you see my boss."

Hoi An, Vietnam
Sunday, August 1st

Jesus shows up in some unlikely places.

We're in the city of Hoi An, a 15th century seaport right in the middle of Vietnam and things are getting a little chaotic. We're attracting lots of attention and even bigger crowds than in Hanoi, to the place where it's difficult keeping onlookers out of certain shots.

The towns people are equal parts cooperative and curious and seem especially amused by my height (6-foot-3), which is not surprising considering the average height here is seemingly about half that. (Yesterday, I had a Vietnamese man sneak up behind me and feel one of my knees in order to convince his friends that I wasn't on stilts. Maybe someone told him this is how Americans like to be greeted...)

Hoi An is so picturesque that my mind has been full of nothing but the next shot and my right eye is always looking through the eyepiece of my fancy little director's viewfinder (trust me--if you could see me wearing it around my neck, you'd be very impressed).

In fact, I'm so into what we're filming that I almost miss a real moment: We're on a short break and Russ and I are sitting just outside the courtyard of a small house, joking around some of the local kids. A woman in her late 30s, evidently the mother of one of the young boys hanging around, comes out of the house carrying something to show us. It is a small, well-worn Bible. She points to it, then points to the sky and says something like "Christo". We pause for a moment, as both of us have been taken by surprise. Then, almost in unison, we both point to our hearts and repeat the word, "Christo". The woman smiles.

It is Sunday. We may have missed church, but we have had communion.

Bangkok, Thailand
Monday, August 2nd

Let's start with the plane rides. Yesterday, lunch was served on Vietnam Airlines and it appeared to be some sort poultry loaf with two slices of white bread. I'm halfway through whatever it is I'm eating when Russ points out a bug in his loaf. Then he finds another one. Then he takes a look at what's left of my sandwich and points out a medium-sized bug head, starkly contrasted against the white of my bread. As I stare blankly at what's left of my name-that-meat sandwich, my mind drifts off to a certain beagle...

Our mission tonight is very specific: I want to film a sequence for "Bannerman" at the famed Flying Chicken Restaurant of Bangkok. This open- air eatery is notable primarily for the manner in which the chickens are served. A chef stands on a platform in the centre of the restaurant, places a whole chicken in a catapult, sets the chicken on fire, releases the catapult and the flaming chicken flies through the air just as a waiter on a unicycle pedals up a ramp to centre stage and catches said chicken on a platter, where he then spins around and delivers it to your table. (I am not making this up.)

Sadly, it's raining and we're informed by restaurant management that the wet surfaces make it too dangerous for waiters on unicycles. Disappointed but still hungry, we journey down the street to Bangkok's largest restaurant--the waiters here are merely on roller skates. As we're finishing a very fine meal with our very swell hosts from Youth With A Mission, I get an idea. The three-piece house band has been performing highly suspect versions of American standards from "Misty" to "Feelings" and I decide they're prefect for a filmed lip-sync performance of "Bannerman". Since the restaurant is approaching closing time, I ask the band through our interpreter if they'd be game. They seem eager and the pay is good, so we play the track a few times for them to get familiar enough with the song to fake it really badly.

My plan is to perform with the sheet music on a stand in front of me, and to sing the song using the same microphone technique I learned as a youngster watching a certain TV show about a family pop band which travels around in a painted school bus (ie, look stiff, act cheerful and never vary the distance from the mike to the mouth). The problem is that about a hundred young restaurant employees have somehow heard that an American rock singer is filming an MTV video and they're crowding around the stage to watch.

As the song is run a few times for the band, they seem to really be getting into it. Unfortunately, once I start lip-syncing for the cameras, the audience's energy is immediately sucked out of the room and all one hundred disappointed employees quietly slink away, no doubt thinking to themselves, "I could perform better than the Yankee."

Kathmandu, Nepal
Wednesday, August 4th

It doesn't get much more exotic than Kathmandu. How exotic? When we entered Nepalese airspace, we were told by the pilot to set our clocks ahead one hour and 15 minutes. Why? I don't know, but I suspect it's somehow connected with the free-range cows that roam the city at will.

Everywhere we look in Kathmandu, there are eyes watching us. We're here in the Monkey Temple on a hill above the city and Mark has just confided to me that this place gives him the creeps. Massive eyes have been painted onto the sides of the temple and they follow us like the Mona Lisa's. Nasty little monkeys stare at us, waiting to pounce on any food we might toss their direction--one of them actually sneaked up on our guide and stole a bag of cookies out of his hand. Dogs lurk in corners and fight the monkeys for bread crumbs--apparently no one told them the monkeys themselves would be more nutritional. Many of the children have their eyes painted to resemble the eyes on the temple and they stare at us like we were foreigners or something.

New Delhi, India
Saturday, August 7th

We've just been informed that we'll be stranded at New Delhi International Airport for the next 20 hours or so.

On first glance, this place looks like a suburban galleria--lots of shops, a few eateries, benches, piped-in music, sunshine streaming through the skylights. Now, after only a few hours, it still seems like a suburban galleria--the kind with rats running around, bathrooms where they charge you in a foreign currency you don't own for each time you need to relieve yourself, nonstop Indian Muzak that's enough to make me wish I was back at the dentist's office and a senile, flea-bitten house cat with great patches of fur missing who prowls the terminal at will, spreading parasites and bad vibes everywhere with no regard to race, creed, color or the number of times you whisper, "Go away, kitty!"

If this were Vietnam, he wouldn't act so cocky...

Pamukkale, Turkey
Wednesday, August 11th

When I was a kid, I didn't realize I had lousy vision. I was always squinting to try and see things more clearly. Now I'm on the trip of a lifetime and even though I've got a contact lens on each eyeball, I keep catching myself squinting, trying to see everything from a different perspective, trying to get a better depth of field, trying to imagine how it's going to look on film when we get home.

I still have lousy vision. Maybe that's why we're shooting these videos in such exotic locales--perfect vision isn't half as important as looking at the right thing. Each time we get to a new location, I have a little conference with Ben, my director of photography and co-producer. We look around at this place we've never seen before and then try to make sure when it's time to roll film that we're looking at the right thing.

But there's always those first few minutes of silence, when we first get out of whatever vehicle we've been traveling in and just look around, trying to take it all in. It's 3am and after driving all night, we've just pulled up to what is easily the most amazing panorama I've ever seen in all God's creation--the "Cotton Castle" of Pamukkale, Turkey. It's a shimmering white cascade of limestone-laden hot springs, glistening in the moonlight, almost as if Carlsbad Caverns had been turned inside out and painted white. We won't be filming until dawn, which is good, because right now we are awestruck.

"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him." (1 Corinthians 2:9)

I'm feeling very... I can't think of a better word than "blessed". I've felt that way a lot this year. I start thinking of all the potential disasters that could have happened thus far on the trip, from monsoons to malaria, from equipment being confiscated to film being ruined by X-rays, from all the stupid stuff we've done on location trying to get a more dramatic shot--and virtually nothing has gone wrong. No van wrecks, no food poisoning, no falling off cliffs.

I think of the scores of people back home who are praying for us. I think of the insignificance of our little music video expedition compared with the wonder of creation and how despite all I've seen and heard, my mind can't even conceive what God has prepared for those who love him. I think how good it is to have someone to thank when things go right.