On A Slow Boat to China
Writer: Frank Loesser
Mark Bittner: vocals, acoustic rhythm guitar
Elliana Moayedi: ukulele
Roberta Fabiano: electric guitar
Bruce Kaphan: pedal steel guitar, keyboard
Paul Olguin: bass
John Hanes: drums
Most of my hitchhiking was done up and down Highway 1 along the California and Oregon coast. I often slept in the bushes at the side of the road. Mendocino is one of the towns along that highway, and I spent several days there. I’d sought it out because I loved the Doug Sahm song “Mendocino,” which tells the story of a hippie who falls in love with a local teenage girl. An old logging town, Mendocino was a mix of blue collar workers, liberal artists from San Francisco with weekend homes, and back-to-the-land hippies. The place was funky, poor, and somewhat rundown, but in a friendly, down-home way. I thought it was heaven. On Labor Day, I was walking around town when I came upon a piano sitting on the porch of the Mendocino Hotel. I asked if I could play it, and they said yes. I sang some songs and then passed the hat. One of the people who stopped to listen to me was a 16-year-old girl who invited me to a dance being held that evening at the hotel there. The band that night was the Mark LeVine Review, a hippie swing band. They did a particularly wonderful version of “On a Slow Boat to China,” a song from my parents’ era. I fell in love with the girl while we were dancing to the song. It’s a story in my book that I won’t give away the details to here.
Adding the song to the “soundtrack album” presented me with a challenge. I’ve always been, first and foremost, a folk-rocker. I’d never played any swing music. In recent years though, I’ve been trying to expand my musical palette and improve as a musician. I bought a book on swing guitar and worked out a rhythm guitar part for the song. A year earlier I’d met the immensely likable Elliana Moayedi, who was a big fan of the parrot movie. She was just 11, quite shy, but magical, and her father, Ali Moayedi, had told me she was studying ukulele. I had no idea whether she was any good or not, but I decided a ukulele played by Ellie would be a nice addition. I asked her if she was willing to learn the song, and she was. I warned her that it was more complicated than what she’d been studying, that she’d have to practice hard. She did and she pulled it off nicely. The other players are Paul Olguin on bass, John Hanes on drums, Bruce Kaphan on pedal steel guitar and piano, and my friend Roberta Fabiano on electric guitar. They were the ones who made sure the song actually swung. I’d met Roberta 15 or so years earlier when she escorted me around Long Island for a couple of days when I gave a talk at the pet parrot owners club that she’s a member of. She’s a professional musician who’s been working in a society orchestra for decades. She also writes songs and records them, and she’s a fantastic singer. One night during my two days on Long Island, she and I and two of her friends stayed up until 4 am drinking and playing Beatles songs. We still talk about that night.
Although I like the song and have a fond memory of that Labor Day dance, “On a Slow Boat to China” is not my kind of music. I’m not a crooner. But I don’t think I embarrassed myself. It was supposed to be a hippie band playing some kind of amateur swing, and the vocal succeeds at that level. The stars of the show are Roberta and Bruce, both of whom take fine, expert solos.