On the road with
: : I first came into contact with James Teitelbaum a few years ago through his Tiki Bar Review Pages . I was pleased to see that James had visited Montreal’s Jardin Tiki and so I provided him with some additional information about the biggest of our city’s Polynesian palaces. This short bit of info I provided for James’s site was also the basis and inspiration for the first issue of Mai Tai back in 1998. : :
: : Somewhere down the line, I had the pleasure of meeting James in person when he found himself in town again on a short stopover. We enjoyed a couple of drinks and partook in the buffet dinner at the Jardin Tiki before driving over to the soon-to-close-down Tiki Doré. : :
: : I’ve remained in contact with James since then and, through Mai Tai, continued to provide him with information on Montreal-area Tiki. : :
: : Early in 2003, James’s information and knowledge on Tiki bars and restaurants was compiled in the book Tiki Road Trip: A Guide to Tiki Culture in North America, published by Santa Monica Press. Amid the whirlwind of book signings and in-store appearances this past summer, James took some time to chat with me about the experience of putting the book together, as well as other Tiki-related matters. : :
John : : When we met in person to do a little Tiki bar hopping in Montreal a few years back, you were talking about a trip – probably the ultimate "Tiki Road Trip" – to Easter Island (which you've written about extensively on your web-site). This spring and summer have been another kind of Tiki Road Trip for you... with book signings at various spots across the U.S. I imagine this is a relatively new thing for you. What are your impressions of the whole process?
James : : Taking trips.. road trips… is not new for me. My idea of a good time is to get in the car and take a week or two to explore some part of the continent I haven't been to yet. Also, part of my job in the music business involves travel, so I have opportunities to do further exploration during downtime while on tour.
Driving out to Las Vegas, L.A., and San Francisco to sign books this summer was a blast – I got to meet a LOT of Tiki gods all over the west coast whom I had only been able to “meet” previously on the internet. And of course, I was able to visit some Tiki temples I hadn't previously been able to get to in person. This sort of road trip to the west coast from Chicago is something I love to do, and having a few dozen fellow followers of the Tiki waiting grouped in one place at the end of the road made it that much cooler. The great response and enthusiasm from these people towards the book was amazing. I wrote about the trip in detail on my web site …
John : : In addition to serving the purpose of promoting the book, have the book signings brought about any new ideas or info that you might be able to use in the future, either in updated editions of the book… or in something completely new?
James : : The best idea for a future edition came from a young lady who suggested that the book's pages be made of plastic, or laminated, so that they'd withstand getting soaked from spilled drinks at bars. People came up to me constantly at my book signing events with additions, corrections, updates... I already have a huge word processor file full of new information for a second edition. I am also slowly putting this data up on the Tiki Bar Review Pages, which will hopefully serve as a source of updates to the book until a second edition comes out.
I do have some other ideas for books. I'd like to do something with my various road trip adventures, Tiki or otherwise, and I am still knocking ideas around for that.
John : : How did you rely on getting info on many of the out-of-the-way places that are featured in the book but that you haven't visited yourself? And how did you check the reliability of this info, specifically with reference to the TiPSY (Tikis Per Square Yard) Factor, bar descriptions, and so on.
James : : I have been to just about all of the places that have TiPSY Factor rankings. Each of the ratings for the very few TiPSY-ranked places that are in countries I haven't been to, were derived via descriptions from at least three different sources for each place, all of whom also sent photos. I sort of triangulated the descriptions, looked for what was similar and different in each description, and came up with a review based on the parts of the various descriptions that corroborated. That said, I have been to England, Chile, Easter Island, etc. So even most of the overseas places in the book are ones that have withstood my scrutinizing gaze in person.
John : : Since I started putting out the Mai Tai newsletter, I've been contacted out of the blue, even by people who don't really have an interest in Tiki, to act as a sort of curator for their memories of Tiki experiences. Have you found that more people are now contacting you than before to tell their personal Tiki stories?
James : : People started emailing me about Tiki in about 1995. The flood of email has increased steadily since then. I get about a dozen messages a day now, and I try to answer as many as I can. Some of them are relevant or useful to me, and I very much appreciate people who are trying to help with my research. Many people offer to send me pictures, or other memorabilia. I am very much indebted to these people for taking the time to share. Others are people who have questions that are not answered in my book or on the web site, that I am sometimes able to help them with, and I am glad to do so whenever possible. If someone is a complete newbie to Tiki, I usually point them to on-line, and tell them to read The Book of Tiki, Tiki Road Trip, and as much of the as they can. Those four sources will get anyone up to speed!
I also encourage people to look at authentic oceanic art. This is where our kitsch-y American Tiki comes from, and I like to point people towards the beautiful and fascinating craftsmanship that has mutated into what we are having fun with.
I love hearing from old-timers who were into Tiki in the heyday. One guy in Florida started writing to me last spring, telling me about all of the great Tiki bars he used to go to in the 50's in Florida, and then he actually showed up at the Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale in June.
I do get a lot of knuckleheads e-mailing me too, and those are the ones I usually ignore. People write to me, almost every day, saying something like: "I just bought your book, it’s great. Can you recommend a good Tiki bar in Los Angeles?" What the hell are they talking about? Didn't they READ the damned book? Some people write to ask me to make dinner reservations for them. Whatever. You take the good with the bad.
John : : Have people told you that they have been planning Tiki Road Trips based specifically around the info in your book? Or at least consulting it in the hope of taking in some Tiki action when out on the road for other reasons?
James : : All the time. When I was signing books at the Hukilau (in Florida this past June), this couple bought their second copy of Tiki Road Trip from me – they had bought their first at Mondo Tiki (in Las Vegas in April), and had spent the intervening two months wearing it out, road tripping all over the place. Other people have related similar experiences to me. The book has only been out for like 4 months now [At the time of this interview – Ed.], and I already have heard dozens of stories from people who have stowed it in their luggage or their car, and put it to good use while traveling. That's the most gratifying thing in the world to me… That's so much more worthwhile than any amount of press exposure. Meeting people and knowing that they appreciate my hard work and are having a good time because of my research is what makes it all worth while (as corny as it sounds to say that!).
John : : What are your impressions of Neo-Tiki? Many neo-Tiki establishments are featured in your book, so I guess you are open to the idea. I started out with an interest in only the vintage aspects of Tiki (mainly, I guess, because of the snippets of Tiki-related memories I have from my childhood). But I guess I could be honest and say that I'm now open to all possibilities... the interest in Tiki is not a very elitist, clique-ish thing, since a good part of Tiki culture is about artificiality anyway...
James : : I like Neo-Tiki stuff, but I prefer the vintage. As far as going to Tiki bars is concerned, I will always choose to go to a vintage Tiki bar over a new one. I haven't been to a single neo-Tiki bar or restaurant that truly nailed the vibe. A few have come close, but they always drop the ball on one aspect or another. Taboo Cove in Las Vegas and Rock-A-Tiki in Chicago both look spectacular, but the loud dance club/rock n' roll environment and matching crowds completely turn me off. I go to both of these places early in the night and they're OK then.
I buy very little of the many mass produced neo-Tiki products that are coming out. But I do like to patronize friends who have been Tiki scene supporters from the early days... I will support these guys gleefully, especially since they all do great work. But there are a LOT of big, faceless companies mass-producing generic and usually low-quality Tiki stuff right now, and I won't buy into that at all, especially when I could be spending my time and money tracking down some elusive vintage custom Tiki Doré mug.
Now, all of that said, I was into authentic tribal and primitive art for years and years before I got into the retro-kitsch aspect of Tiki. So, ultimately, I try to find authentic artifacts from the Pacific islands whenever I can – but those get pricey.
John : : I know you're involved in a number of different projects but are there any more Tiki-related plans in the near future?
James : : I want to keep the Tiki Bar Review Pages going as long as I can, and I want to do a revised and expanded version of Tiki Road Trip at some point, perhaps for release in 2005. That's a matter of talking Santa Monica Press into it. They are very pleased with the response Tiki Road Trip has received, but they aren't convinced yet about a second edition. I may be involved in the creation of a mug in the near future, and Simian Productions, who do all of the statues and model kits of the Coop devil girls, have expressed interest in doing a limited edition, cold-cast resin Tiki that would be called "James Teitelbaum's Tiki Road Trip Companion". That's in the planning stages. The idea would be to keep it in your car, and it might come with accessories to facilitate it becoming the God of the Road.
But for the time being, all incoming Tiki data is being prepped for web-updates to Tiki Road Trip, so that you can check the web site before you hit the road to make sure everything is copacetic. Some of the info is up, I am adding tidbits as I have time.
Tiki Road Trip is now in its second printing and is available at book stores everywhere.
John Trivisonno © 2003