28 January 2008

Roo burger

The Bulletin has been shut down. I’m gutted, mate. In the week it was to celebrate its 128th birthday, the staff was called together by its foreign owners, private equity firm PBL (does that rhyme with EMI?) and told to pack up their pencils. Magazines can’t survive on their historical laurels, but the Bulletin never tried to. (It celebrated its history, but not all of it: incredibly, up to the early 1960s, it had on its masthead the slogan “Australia for the White Man”.)

The magazine was as feisty in recent years as it had been when it began, or the in the 1970s and early 1980s when I read it a lot: brash but eloquent, intelligent and witty. Its columnists could be Aussie larrikins or sophisticates; it had a self-confidence we rarely managed to pull off. Sharp-eyed humorists such as Ross Campbell, Keith Dunstan (their man in Melbourne, nicknamed Batman), and Ron Saw. The latter wrote about all sort of things but his most unforgettable piece was about having a stroke in his 40s, and how he slowly recovered. They turned it into a book.

They had an excellent film reviewer, Sandra Hall, and columnist Phillip Adams who balanced the irresistible in-house snob David McNicol. The latter was an ACP grandee from the days of Frank Packer, and editor-in-chief of the whole organisation at one time. He had a waxed moustache, a bright red face and an indestructible liver, with the politics to match: he was an Aussie arch-Tory in the Menzies school, and could tell stories from Don Bradman to Dawn Fraser, anybody who shared his dinner table. The only one I ever met was the wonderfully named Dorian Wilde, who was briefly their gossip and food columnist: with a name like that, what else could he be?

The Bulletin was the Australian Time magazine, plus it had a long literary tradition going from Banjo Paterson to David Malouf. It still reflected that in summer specials; the final issue has pieces by Thomas Keneally and Frank Moorhouse, on “nationhood”. On Australian and Asian/Pacific politics, sport, cultural history, literature and the (high) arts, the Bulletin was unbeatable. It broke stories without ever needing to be a scandal sheet such as, for example, the wonderful but short-lived left-wing National Times.

But as we have witnessed with Time magazine, the need for a current-affairs weekly with strong literary and photographic values has been sorely tested since the arrival of CNN and the internet. Reinventing yourself is well-nigh impossible as the readership walks away, ages or literally dies. The Bulletin subscriptions department could surely have offered an insight into how things were going, as each week magazines would be returned, marked with: “Subscriber deceased. Please cancel.”

Because one area that the Bulletin never quite managed to get right was popular culture (for all that it gave birth to several generations of Australian cartoonists such as Petty or Oliphant, who went on to dominant newspaper cartooning internationally). The Bulletin could be stultifyingly serioso: that’s what happens when political journalists have the strongest editorial lobby. They think everyone is interested in what goes between Bowen and Molesworth streets. Not for nothing has Fairfax hired all those yoof bloggers for Stuff.

Magazines need to evolve with the zeitgeist to stay afloat. The New Yorker is better now than it was in 1980s, thanks to the sacreligious shake-up by Tina Brown which has evolved into the stable, intelligent editorship of David Remnick. Rolling Stone now makes more money than ever by kissing goodbye to its earnestness, and embracing fashion and bimbo acts. That’s what brings in the advertising, enables a magazine to survive, and journalists such as David Fricke and Rob Sheffield to keep their jobs. I may not like it, but I’m not its audience (and it is less embarrassing than the current NME). Jann Wenner knows he’s in the ruthless mass-market magazine business, and bimbos like Britney pay the bills and keep him in yachts.

It’s a shock to read that the Bulletin weekly circulation was around 55,000 on a subscriber base of 45,000: this in a country of 21 million. Which makes the Listener circulation of 69,300 in a population of 4 million respectable. Even with strong advertising, sending journalists around that massive country to break stories – and they did, right to the end – and supporting a gaggle of name columnists isn’t possible without a sugar daddy.

Until recently the Bulletin was kept alive by having a stroppy, wealthy owner, Kerry Packer. His firm ACP subsidised it to the tune of $AU 3 million a year, propping it up with the profits of the Australian Women’s Weekly and the tackier end of the magazine market. Once the Goanna croaked, his son James divested the firm of its media interests, preferring to gamble the family fortune on gambling. It’s a strange day that Rupert Murdoch is made to look good, but at least he has kept the (UK) Times and Sunday Times afloat. And it is Murdoch’s paper, the Australian, which has produced the most generous and informed coverage on why the Bulletin was so important, and why it failed.

But to feel the quality, check out the Bulletin’s glorious back pages: the rise of the Holden, Edna Everage, Bob Hawke, Bondi Beach, Ian Botham and Peter Garrett.

24 January 2008

He's Not Here

I haven’t seen many Heath Ledger films but he was always the most memorable part of those that I have watched. My first – and I had to look this up – was the tense caper flick Two Hands (1999), in which Ledger played a naive crim in debt to a violent crim (Bryan Brown). He loses a stash of money on Bondi Beach while going for a swim – shirt-off alert – and then has to find it before Brown’s character finds him. Ledger was one of the few of his generation who never looked like he was acting, he didn’t need to brood or emote, he was just there, real.

And unlike the Hollywood brats of the same age – and I was surprised to learn he was just 28 – he never seemed desperate to be famous. He just did his job. (The same couldn’t be said of his compatriot Michael Hutchence, who was addicted to fame and sex. Whereas Ledger’s death appears to be a tragic accident, Hutchence’s demise was – he’d hate this – uncool.)

Now, Ledger is destined to be a pinup for those that love handsome heroes who never grow old, although with today’s voracious media I don’t think he’ll be wallpaper for as long as James Dean.

Ledger’s most recent great film role will also stand up longer than any of Dean’s. In Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007) he is one of six actors – among them Cate Blanchett and a young black boy – who play variations on a theme based on Bob Dylan. The film is a tour de force, with a risk-taking script that flits between “Dylans” (the character is never called that) at various stages of his career. The exquisite art direction also gets every period detail right, even the colour processing: the verite B&W of Don’t Look Back, or the rich, sun-drenched colour of Woodstock-era Dylan as captured in Elliot Landy’s famous photos.

It is a bio-pic, but not a bio-pic; like Dylan himself, the subject of the film is an invented, mercurial character. I’m Not There captures the chaotic, surreal lyrics of Dylan’s mid-60s heyday and flits sure-footedly between the six incarnations: a young Woody Guthrie, a retired gunslinger (Richard Gere), an amphetamined dandy in Cuban heels (Blanchett), etc.

Ledger plays a movie star, Robbie Clark, the straying, self-absorbed husband of a “Sarah”-like artist (played with compelling intensity by Charlotte Gainsbourg). They fall in love in Freewheelin’-era New York, enjoy a pastoral idyll in Woodstock, and fall apart with the inevitability – and architecture – of a 1970s Cheever short story, accompanied by Blood on the Tracks on the turntable.

The cinematic and Dylan references in I’m Not There are endless, and part of the fun. At one point the dialogue is from Nat Hentoff’s famous Dylan interview in Playboy from 1966; at another the soundtrack re-uses Dylan’s ‘Turkey Chase’ from his soundtrack for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. It’s a game that will be replayed often, like Cluedo.

But it’s not played for laughs; with its fastidious reconstructions and rewriting of a well-worn fable, this is The Rutles for Dylanologists. Whether it is for anyone else is a moot point: certainly the foppish Brit critic Anthony Lane missed the boat in The New Yorker. But Haynes captures the images evoked by the familiar songs; in the Richard Gere/Billy the Kid sequence, it’s like Fellini directing The Basement Tapes. And the music itself – most of it Dylan’s own versions, unlike the released soundtrack – segues and weaves with perfection and sensitivity. By ripping up the rules of the music biopic and throwing them on the ground before reassembly, Haynes has done justice to the sly chameleon who wrote Chronicles and created a classic of his own.

Stranger than Fiction

As part of the research for my current project I have been looking through 20 years of NZ Truth: 1943 to 1965.

It has been fascinating. The idea that nothing happened in New Zealand during the 1950s is a myth perpetrated by, I don’t know, Tim Shadbolt. It just happened behind closed doors after 6.00pm.

But Truth was there, looking through the tatty lace curtains for Reds under the bed, sly groggers, teenagers enjoying carnal knowledge (and many not), backstreet abortionists, petty bureaucrats and Cabinet ministers using government vehicles for their own purposes. (I love the one about the Minister of Transport’s young daughter using the Crown-supplied Zephyr to drive to work in Christchurch when there was a perfectly good bus service right outside her door.)

Cars were hard to get in those days, and so were houses. This is where Truth’s usefulness comes into play: bollocking the government for letting people sleep in car-cases, bollocking pub owners for refusing to serve Maori (take another bow, Christchurch). You didn’t get this in the Weekly News.

A recent comment on the NZBC site by poet Kevin Ireland – who made his own fun in the 1950s, much of it in Vulcan Lane's Occidental – seems apposite. He was discussing the current moves by Herald-owner APN to cut back the numbers of sub-editors on its periodicals. (Yes, it’s true. Soon Australians will be checking our spelling. Blame the Labor Party.)

Ireland points out that this has been going on for 40 years since offset printing first threatened the jobs of hot-metal typesetters. He saw it all happen in the 1960s and 70s, when Rupert Murdoch bought The Times, updated the presses and moved everything to Wapping. Ireland’s description of contemporary newspapers could be that of Truth in the 1950s, except there is very little entertainment coverage and most of the celebrities are British, such as the unlucky-in-love glamour-puss Princess Margaret:

“Fleet Street doesn’t exist any longer, says Ireland. The papers have gone and the whole bizarre Dickensian set-up with them. The miracle is that they lasted there so long. I got out just in time. What’s happening here with job cuts is what’s been going on just about everywhere else as newspapers have changed from being providers of hard news and political views to daily magazines of colour pictures decorated by shallow texts about murders, abductions, teenage drivers, dogs, fashions, personalities, entertainment, health issues, etc. Getting rid of the people who once maintained editorial standards is just another part of a certain-death process.”

More news as it happens from the files of Truth, a national treasure that never darkened the door of my parents’ house until one day in 1975, when it came wrapped around a cabbage. Meanwhile here is the paper’s editorial from 1953 after Hillary and Tenzing conquered Everest:

The Fitness of Things

A Press Association special message from London reports that when New Zealanders along the Coronation route cheered news of Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest ascent, the Prime Minister, Mr Holland, “leaned out of the window of his coach, waving and exchanging smiles with New Zealanders who called out to him. He clasped his hands together and held them above his head as a gesture of success.”

It is to be hoped, for the sake of New Zealand’s reputation and sense of the fitness of things, that this report is incorrect.

Clasping the hands above the head as a gesture of success is an American version of shaking hands with oneself. It is much more in place in the professional wrestling ring, where it originated, than in a Coronation procession.

It will also not have escaped notice that it was Sir Edmund Hillary, as a member of a British-sponsored-and-financed expedition, who reached the summit of Everest, and not Mr Holland.

The Acting Prime Minister, Mr Holyoake, also showed some disregard for the fitness of things when, in giving the news of the conquest of Everest to the crowd assembled in Parliament Building grounds for Wellington’s Coronation ceremony, he said, “What a magnificent Coronation present for the Queen! How proud we all are that it is from our loyal little New Zealand!”

Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing would be the first to point out that they were members of an expedition and that their success is shared with their comrades and, to a lesser extent, with those who made their expedition possible. It will have been noted that in cabling their congratulations, both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh congratulated the expedition and not individuals.

The conquest of Everest was not “a present from loyal little New Zealand.” If it was a present from anyone, it was from the members of the whole of Sir John Hunt’s expedition and their backers.

New Zealanders have every right to be proud of Hillary and of the fact that he has been one of the first two men to reach the top of the world. But the limelight belongs to the men who climbed Everest, not to the political announcers of the good news.

21 January 2008


Edfever is now epidemic in New Zealand. There are still 24 hours to go before the state funeral, and Her Majesty’s loyal subjects are feeling snubbed. Or so the papers here tell us. This from the Dominion-Post:

(Nice layout, surely inspired by the UK Independent.)

British Royal watchers, the Sunday Star-Times claims, say the royal family’s decision not to send anyone to Sir Edmund Hillary's state funeral on Tuesday is an “astonishing” snub.

“It’s astonishing that no one is going... he [Sir Edmund] played such a significant part in the early official life of the Queen,” the UK Daily Mail’s royal correspondent Richard Kay said yesterday. Although the Queen rarely attended funerals, a member of the royal family often went in her place.

Kay is described as “a senior royal correspondent who had a close relationship with the late Princess Diana”. Funny that. He says the Prince of Wales attended last year's funeral for the late US president Gerald Ford, who had held office for only two years. Hillary had been a “towering figure” in the Commonwealth for 50 years and “meant an awful lot to Brits”.

That may be true. He means a lot to us here too, and there will be a big turnout tomorrow with big digital video screens to keep those in jandals at arm’s length, and maybe Tina Cross singing the national anthem, and even ‘God Save the Queen’ as a bonus track. But there will be picnic baskets and blankets and it will be the first of, hopefully, many “funerals in the park”.

(Of course, as the writer of 'King of the Road', Roger Miller, once said, "It doesn't matter how big you get. The size of your funeral depends on the weather.")

Most of us are still in languid post-silly season mode to really get excited about a “snub”. Nobody thinks the old girl should hop on a BA 777 and it would seem a little old-school to be sent a remittance man such as her idle eldest son. A survey of Snubtalk at the NZ Herald suggests that it is the usual talkback radio mix of 50/50 between those with an axe to grind (the republicans) and those who should grow up.

But the absence of any significant gesture from the other living person on our banknotes is itself a significant moment. (A wake held in one's own castle hardly touches the common folk and taxpayers 12,000 miles away.) If the royals can’t be arsed, then the royals have read the mood correctly: the feeling is mutual. To most people in New Zealand, the monarchy is about as relevant as religion (Sunday shopping is the new church). It will be a brave government that cuts the stick because it means saying goodbye to the nostalgic connections we enjoy, not matter what any of us think of the monarchy (the Windsors front up to a lot of functions, and the Queen has a lovely smile, but really the concept they represent is institutionalised apartheid, where blacks and whites are left out in favour of blue-bloods touched by fairy dust 1000 years ago). Say goodbye to working visas for our OE hoards, although Eurotrash has been getting the fast-lane at immigration for decades.

Beat-ups aside, the slippery slope of separatism has been given a grease and oil. But the daftest of all reports on Hillary’s death has to be the Guardian’s editorial that Tenzing Norgay was permanently left out of the Everest bash. Not on this side of the world.

20 January 2008

Endangered Species

January 13, 2008

Mr Ed

Sir Edmund Hillary died on Friday. There has been wall-to-wall coverage on the wireless and this is how just one of the local weekend papers recorded his death.

New Zealand is a small town of a country, where six degrees of separation are unnecessary because usually one is more than enough. I never knew “Ed” but two journalist friends who became mates of his have been widely quoted over the weekend (one saying that Ed was occasionally depressed about the way New Zealand was going, but the success of The Lord of the Rings made him think we might be alright, after all).

There has simply been nobody in our short post-colonial history that has won and kept the respect and love of the public to the same extent. We were taught the legend of Ed with our mother’s full-cream milk. For 15 years his unshaven face has been on our lowest-denomination bank note, $5 or about £2.

I can just remember Churchill's funeral on television, but even “the century’s greatest Briton” was often a divisive character in his career. Colin Meads is respected by everyone in New Zealand except misanthropes and subversives, such as Springbok tour protestors with long memories. Charles Upham VC & Bar is hugely respected but we all kind of suspect he had to be insane to pull off his feats of courage on the battlefield. Be it the Hun or the Bok, extreme prejudice is the only response under pressure. And Bruno Lawrence had the casting couch all to himself.

But Ed Hillary was the Mt Rushmore of New Zealand heroes: courageous, laconic, generous, modest. He could also be cheeky, an important trait to an insecure nation. Take the case of the Upstairs, Downstairs race for the South Pole against Sir Vivian Fuchs in 1958. Apart from conquering Everest for Britain and its Dominions, Hillary just kicked that farm tractor in the guts and got it to the South Pole while Viv was still passing the port back in the gentleman’s club.

Today social historian Tony Simpson (The Sugarbag Years) has written a typically thoughtful essay on what it takes to be a hero in New Zealand.

But even more moving is this morning’s on-the-spot story about the two Australians who conquered the Tasman Sea (about 1200 miles) in their kayak for the first time. They hit the west coast a month later than they expected, after tides and winds sent them around in circles. In the words of another New Zealand hero, they were buggered. The nation has been following this story closely for weeks, maybe because a year ago a solo kayaker almost made it but perished just a day away from success. But their welcome today by the small city of New Plymouth is like reading of some event in the 1950s, when All Blacks scored tries without triumphant high-fiving, men were men and women cooked roast mutton. The most extraordinary thing about this account is the old-fashioned generosity to our neighbours in Australia; this was an Anzac event, whereas our sports journalists have hyped NZ/Aus encounters into Coliseum cock-fights (ever since the underarm bowling incident is my theory, and the boofheads have needed little encouragement).

Reading about the spontaneity of their welcome gave me goose-flesh, and I suppose the death of “Ed” on Friday had something to do with their welcome. People actually left their TVs to go down to see the boat come in. One last frontier has been conquered and any decent bloke would have to admit that, even if they were Aussies.

December 30, 2007

You talkin’ to me?

I have just stumbled upon Dick Cavett’s blog on the New York Times. It’s a treasure chest of anecdote, now freely available – along with columns by Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd – as the Times has abandoned its subscription system for “premium content”.

Here is Cavett reminiscing after the recent death of Stormin’ Norman Mailer, about a walk on the wild side with the pugnacious writer one night in New York in the early 1970s:

One night, after a heavily fuelled party brimming with literati at George Plimpton’s salon/apartment, Norman said to me, “Let’s walk.” … Mailer was smartly clad in a belted Burberry. It was past midnight and a misty ground fog gave the few lighted windows and street lamps — and our aimless strolling — a sort of imitation-London aura. As we wandered among East Side brownstones and townhouses, chatting civilly, ever and anon Norman would pop into a phone booth only to soon emerge looking displeased.

“I know a couple of places we might be offered a drink,” he would explain, putting his little number book back in his pocket. We resumed our walk. Glad that he kept failing to score another drink that neither of us needed, and aware that drink had loosened my tongue, I launched into a now-forgotten and very long narration about something or other. Maybe it was a sudden realization that I was with a master wordsmith who hadn’t spoken for several blocks that made me offer: “Norman, shall I drop the rest of this lengthy tale?” “No, no,” he said convincingly, brows tightly knitted in concentration, “I’m learning how to tell a story.”

December 17, 2007

Endangered Species Dept

TV3 News, 17 December 2005, 6.25pm

“Auckland Zoo has announced a new arrival. It’s a zebra, weighing in at 30kg. The Zoo reports that it was bouncing around in moments.”

TV1 News, 17 December 2005, 6.25pm

“Buckingham Palace has announced that the Countess of Wessex, Prince Edward’s wife, has just given birth to a baby girl. No name has been announced. “We wanted to see what it was first,” said Prince Edward. “We had no idea. And it takes a few days to decide on a name that is suitable for this human person you have brought into the world.”

December 2, 2007

Crosses to Bear

A friend is visiting when she gets a call to quickly switch on the six o’clock news. She once worked at the Army War Museum, in Waiouru, an army training base in the bleak, isolated centre of the North Island. Early in the morning the museum was broken into and 96 war medals were stolen, among them nine Victoria Crosses awarded to New Zealanders. Most significantly, the VC & Bar awarded to Charles Upham is one of them.

Like most of the country, we are stunned. This is more than the theft of our Crown jewels, it is like the desecration of a grave, an insult to those who fought and those who died. It is the act, rather than the objects themselves, that really offends the national mood, so delicate is our sense of ourselves.

Outside of the rugby world cup and our involvement with the America's Cup, New Zealand is not a place that flies its flag with promiscuity: we’re a little subtler about our jingoism, preferring actions to symbols. But we need our heroes, and they should preferably be underdogs, punching above their weight.

In national legend – especially to schoolboys who grew up reading imperialistic comics – Upham is like Colin Meads meets Rambo. But unlike the heroes in the Victor, Upham was real. As he got older, his discomfort at what he did (though he never forgave the Germans) and especially the adulation afterwards, could be read on his face as he carried the unwanted fame and mana for the rest of his life.

The trail for the burglars quickly goes as cold as Waiouru on a winter’s night. For a heist, the location couldn’t be bettered. The museum is on the main highway, but set out on its own, outside a remote, inward-looking camp. There are three directions in which one could make a quick getaway, with only long-distance trucks and dead possums for company. (This was the rationale 35 years ago, when a small town bank 50 miles down the road was robbed. A cousin working as a teller was locked in the vault with his colleagues.)

Six weeks later, the police decide to offer a reward of about $800,000 NZD, with a quarter of that offered by an overseas medal collector. The medals are possibly with a mad, selfish collector who (one imagines) fondles them in his library overlooked by stuffed dead animals and militaria, like a villain out of an early James Bond flick. It is more likely that they are buried in the back garden of some opportunists who haven’t got a clue what to do next. Drop them in the post, maybe. Call 0800 VALOUR if you can help.

Oddly, I can’t help but think of the prime minister at the end of a long year of bad news out of her control. There have been endless inquiries into allegations of rape by police officers; one Cabinet minister faces court action for alleged “favours”, while another was in court on a vexatious assault charge for a silly schoolyard tumble.

The recent series of engrossing oral histories about New Zealanders’ experiences in the Second World War exists because of the PM's direct support. But few people know that. The national psyche is wounded and angry, about this and a lot of things. And we're about to enter election year. Another call for 0800 VALOUR, perhaps.

18 January 2008

Do the Hustle

December 1, 2007

Only having free-to-air TV frees you up to just use the set as a monitor for DVDs. I’ve been catching up on some films I missed. Two blaxploitation flicks, 33 years apart: Across 110th Street, set in New York (1972), and Hustle & Flow, set in Memphis (2005).

Across 110th Street is a true blaxploitation flick in only one sense: it was made by whites, and most of the baddies are blacks. With TV it’s often advisable to turn the sound off, and leave the images flickering. With blaxploitation films, it’s the images to turn off – all that violence in polyester – leaving the soundtrack going. But the surprise with 110th Street is that the music by Bobby Womack is limited to the songs, and not many of them (the title track is a classic, revived in Jackie Brown), unlike Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly or James Brown’s Black Caesar soundtracks.

The plot is like In the Heat of the Night meets Softly Softly, with nods to The Godfather and Superfly for contemporary 1972 context. Mafia and Harlem hoods are at war; grizzled, corrupt but well-meaning old (white) cop is being usurped by strait-laced young (black) cop. Everyone dies but the latter, and he ain’t funky.

But the sets don’t wobble as much as in Blacula.

Hustle & Flow is set in the rap world of contemporary Memphis. Djay, a black pimp in Memphis with three hookers on the go (two black, the pregnant Shug and the lippy Lexus, plus the other stroppy and white Nola) wants to get into the music business. When local hood-made-good, the rap star Skinny comes back to town (played by Ludacris), Djay sees his opp to carpe his f’n diem. His pimp hustle is just right to get his hip hop flow going.

Despite the rap soundtrack – Al Kapone and Three 6 Mafia – and the misogynism, Hustle & Flow is surprisingly old-fashioned. (The director’s more recent Black Snake Moan was equally unsettling, at having its cake and eating it.) It is sentimental (if violent) showbiz movie of a wannabe beating the odds and taking the stairway to the stars. Still, it gets Memphis right, and Taraji Henson (as Shug) provides the musical highlight with a smokey Mavis Staples-style vocal cameo on Djay’s breakthrough hit. Next stop, Soul Train.

November 30, 2007

The public broadcasting charter at work.

From the TVNZ News website:

Entertainment headlines
  • Princess Diana Saw Lover Dying
  • Amy Winehouse Cancels Tour
  • Doco Shows Kylie Collapsing

Which gives me an opportunity to dig out:

James K Baxter (writing in Fernfire, #13, December 1965)

I don’t have a TV in the house. One winter I tried it out for a month to keep the kids entertained. It’s a powerful monster. I wouldn’t have it again.


(a) One can’t yarn with the neighbours who visit.
(b) Even the best TV programmes have a certain intellectual ceiling. One gets accustomed to thinking at that level. They also leave out a lot – the coarse, the bizarre, the primitive – and one gets gradually accustomed to leaving that out of one’s thinking. (c) It would fog up my mind and destroy the power of meditation on events.
(d) Its effect is basically a drugging one. If I want a drug I’d prefer marihuana.

(e) It extends the hideous modern invasion of privacy by advertisers.

(f) It gives children square eyes and keeps them off the streets or out of the bush, eyes glued to the screen like little leeches sucking in the sludge.

(g) It costs more than it’s worth. I like the Laramie series and Steptoe and Son, but I'm prepared to do without them.

November 28, 2007

I just got back from a five-day bush walk across the top of the South Island, the Heaphy Track. I have been wanting to do it for years. 85 kilometres, five hours walking a day, 900m at its height. And this at the end.

November 18, 2007

An Auckland gig I couldn’t make. John Baker worked for years on putting this together. But Trevor Reekie emails me the next day:

The "Wild Things" gig was like a 60-year-old punk gig!
I met up and hung out with Nigel Russell [his former cohort in Car Crash Set]. Chris Knox walked past and said, “Hey, its the 2 guys from Supergroove.”
The best act by far was the Chants R&B. They were so obviously the real deal. The drummer rocked. And have still got it. Attitude at late 50s is alive and well. Even tho one of the guys is so fat Mike Rudd refers to him as more a “territory” rather than a person.
Second place had to go to Ray Columbus if for no other reason that Billy Kristian is a powerhouse bass player and Dave Russell on guitar was stonking: Steve Cropper stuff with tone and precision. They included ‘Kick Me’ and ‘Give us a Beat’.
Midge [Marsden, of the Breakaways] was real good and Dave Hurley was getting a great sound but they didn’t have the danger that the Chants exhibit.
But for me personally, even tho they were more blues than R&B, the night went to the Underdogs with the original line up except Martin Winch instead of Harvey Mann ... They just nailed it. Even ‘Sitting in the Rain’. Murray Grindlay was funny and has such a great commercial ear. He can sing a Muddy Waters song and make it sound like a Toyota jingle ...

November 6, 2007

I got home today from a long road trip doing some of the final interviews for my next book, which is a history of popular music in New Zealand in the days before rock’n’roll. I went to Taranaki and spoke with musicians who had played with notorious novelist/musician/drinker/womaniser Ronald Hugh Morrieson. (He was kicked out of their band for drinking on stage, out of bottles stashed in his guitar case.)

Ron Morrieson (with guitar) jamming with some mates.

I spoke with Pat McMinn who in the 1950s was our equivalent of Doris Day or Dinah Shore (‘Opo the Crazy Dolphin’ was an uncharacteristic novelty hit), and to my surprise started out as a Shirley Temple-style child dancer in 1930s vaudeville.

But a real highlight was a long interview with Gerry Merito. As sole guitarist and humorist and songwriter, in the early 1960s he was the cornerstone of New Zealand’s massively popular Howard Morrison Quartet (Dave Clark’s Rule #1 of show business: name your band after yourself, and you are unlikely to get kicked out. But it has happened.)

Gerry remembered the emotional moment – and huge party – when the Maori Battalion soldiers came home to his village in the bush after the Second World War. And a great Benny Levin story I hadn’t heard before.

Benny Levin (RIP 1992) was an Auckland promoter and manager, in the Larry Parnes mould. A Jewish impresario, amiable, straight, but conscious of the bottom line, he began as a danceband musician then discovered or managed Bunny Walters, Larry Morris, Golden Harvest, among many others. He also had his toupee whipped off his head by Rod Stewart.

But Gerry told me of the time a legendary rugby player asked Benny to provide the entertainment for a small town rugby club evening, which was to feature Danie Craven (the powerful Godfather of Springbok rugby in the apartheid era). Gerry Merito said yes and ended up playing all night, as Craven never turned up. Protestors at his hotel prevented him from leaving Auckland.

At the end of the evening, the rugby legend came up and said, “Gerry, thanks so much for playing for so long. But I have some good news and some bad news.”

Gerry says, “Uh, what’s the bad news?”

“We don’t have any money to pay you …”

“Well, what’s the good news, then?”

“I have a couple of pigs that have just been killed. Open up your van and I’ll put them in the back.”

Gerry was thrilled. Two whole pigs, freshly slaughtered? There would be bacon for Africa. Much better than his normal fee.

But he had to ring Benny to offer the agent his share. “Benny. I have good news and bad news about that gig. The bad news is that there wasn’t any money to pay me. The good news was they gave me a couple of pigs they had just killed. And one of them is for you.”

Benny was momentarily speechless. But then he spluttered, “Gerry! You know where you can stick that pig!”

Gerry Merito at the stove, back row, with the Howard Morrison Quartet.

November 2, 2007

On Wednesday I emerged from my rural retreat to see Crowded House at the Events Centre on Wellington’s waterfront. This is a shed that can fit about 3000 but in no way is it a music venue: high, tin ceiling, tin walls, no acoustic cladding within. It’s best suited to basketball. Still, on my third attempt (after 1998 and 2003) I finally saw a great Bob Dylan gig there in August: they got the mix right, and the rhythm section in particular were prominent. (Although the Dylan gig a couple of weeks later at Auckland’s last movie palace, the Civic, was more comfortable, I enjoyed Wellington just as much. And the John Fogerty gig I saw at the shed in late 2005 was one of the all-time great shows by a “dinosaur”, full of energy and every song a hit.)

Opening act Pluto was a non-event: it’s all about the singer and he struggled in a cavernous venue that was only slowly filling up, due to ridiculous hold-ups at the front door. The first thing I’d do is encourage the bassist to play some runs rather than just repeating the same note in demisemiquavers for a bar or three before changing to another note. Mate, get a copy of Rubber Soul and twiddle the balance knob.

Supergroove was a sensation, so energetic I wouldn’t have been surprised if they ended in a puff of smoke. Che Fu, of course, is the star singer, but Karl Stevens in particular provides a mad, angular, frenetic focal point, like something from the heyday of Two-Tone ska. And the bassist – couldn’t he have given the Pluto guy some tips? – flung his long hair about like a heavy metal poodle. And the crowd just roared, like a Mexican wave: these guys were massive stars when many in the audience were still teenagers.

So Crowded House had a hard act to follow. Their audience is now so across the board in New Zealand, and far bigger than it ever was before the band split up in 1996. It was 21 years ago that I saw them in their first New Zealand gig, playing at a party in an Auckland living room. (I remember looking at the lavish smorgasbord, while standing beside Paul Hester. His first words to me were, “Man. Imagine this on acid.”)

A year later they returned as pop stars, playing the Logan Campbell Centre after ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ made #2 in the US. But as far as New Zealand was concerned, that was it. The venues got smaller, and most people still saw them as a spin-off of Split Enz. Even after Something So Strong was published, people would still say to me, “Didn’t you write a book on Split Enz?” But for those who stayed interested, there were great gigs at the Power Station, Wellington’s Town Hall, double-billed with REM at Western Springs, at the intimate Founders Theatre in Hamilton and even outdoors at a racetrack in Palmerston North (where Neil encouraged a running race, and improvised a commentary from the stage, while the band played the theme from Bonanza).

Then the band broke up and after Recurring Dream was out, suddenly they were all over classic hits radio and on the muzak in every supermarket. It wasn’t just the idiot commercial radio programmers of the 1980s and 1990s, and an audience that took them for granted, partly it was the band’s fault. They were based in Melbourne, but were looking north to conquer the world. They came down here to tour with each album, but didn’t do much more. With our small population and a steady fanbase, who can blame them?

At the Events Centre, I needn’t have worried about the Supergroove effect. Apart from having a set list chock-full of hits, Crowded House were punchier live than I can remember. (Though Hester, besides his anarchic humour, had a touch of Keith Moon about his drumming, and I liked the steady R&B grooves that his replacement Peter Jones achieved; so did Nick Seymour.) It’s not just new drummer Matt Sherrod, they play as if asserting their relevance.

Time On Earth is a strong album, hampered by being too long and having too many songs at the same easy tempo. (Mitchell Froom always thought Woodface was too long, so people missed out on ‘She Goes On’ and ‘How Will You Go’; he wouldn’t have been the only one to have dropped ‘Chocolate Cake’ and made ‘It’s Only Natural’ the opener.) But the one I avoid playing is the brash Johnny Marr co-write ‘Even a Child’, which tries far to hard to be radio friendly and poptastic.

I think Neil Finn’s second solo album in particular was under-rated: having mostly been written out at Piha on Auckland’s wild West Coast, it is the great New Zealand beach album. It could have been called Barefoot and Pohutukawa Christmas, which would have really confused things in the States. Check out the coda to ‘Into the Sunset’ in particular: never has the soaring flight of a seagull been evoked so well in music.

Stand-outs in the long concert were a surprise ‘Whispers and Moans’ (always a favourite from Woodface), ‘Silent House’ (which works so much better on Time On Earth than on the Dixie Chicks album) and the first TOE single ‘Don’t Stop Now’, which is one of the great car radio songs of 2007. Oddly they didn’t do the second single ‘She Called Up’, which has such a great groove and Wurlitzer piano (though the chipmunks’ hook would be better with some uncharacteristic Crowdie touch, like a horn section). ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ came early in the set, and the best songs from TOE were highlights (‘Pour Le Monde’, ‘Heaven That I’m Making’) that earned their place alongside evergreens such as ‘Distant Sun’ and ‘Private Universe’.

Humour is just as essential to a Crowded House show as those songs, and jamming, though I could have done with a lot more of the former than the latter. Their musical references are always great fun – ‘You Sexy Thing’ and ‘Puppet On a String’ made an appearance – but pointless “wigging out” in outros seems to be a way of showing that the band is edgier than its small, perfectly formed, highly crafted and accessible songs may suggest.

It was getting close to midnight when Neil said it was bedtime with ‘Better Be Home Soon’. But no one could have gone home dissatisfied, or that Crowded House is genuinely revived as a band. I certainly needed the long drive back to the country to wind down.