28 February 2008

Funky President

I feel a little uneasy about Barack Obama’s campaign for the US presidency, and I am trying to work out why. Ali G might ask, “Is it because I is black?” And I have to say, yes. Although if I had a vote at either the Democratic convention or the election itself, Obama would get it.

There are at least a couple of reasons for my apprehension. This is the ABBA election: anybody but Bush, already. Thankfully that isn’t an option, thanks to the 22nd amendment to the US constitution. Congress voted in 1947 to limit presidents to two terms, which had always happened anyway until Franklin Roosevelt was elected to his third – and then fourth – term during the Second World War. The war was probably more of a factor than FDR’s undoubted popularity, but the war in Iraq doesn’t mean anyone is asking Bush back for more.

So even John McCain is looking good in the current circumstances, although he would be older than Reagan was when he took office, and you never know which members of the Republican machinery would doggedly stay on as if nothing had changed. We thought they had left Cheney and Rumsfeld back in the 1970s along with Charley’s Angels and Whopper Choppers.

My hesitance about Obama isn’t due to the inexperience jibe hurled at him by Hillary Clinton, the backseat driver of the 1990s. As presidential historian William Lee Miller points out, another lawyer from Illinois had little track record when he took on the job. His name was Lincoln. (Someone cleverly responds to Miller: “I’m inexperienced too: does that mean I’m qualified?” And besides, George W was still wet behind the ears – and between them – despite time served as Texas governor.)

A sizable chunk of the US electorate may buy into the inexperience argument, combined with deep-seated stereotypes about the ability of African-American politicians to govern prudently. They ignore Bill Clinton’s behaviour in the Oval Office, but recall the black mayors who have erred. Going back to Apirana Ngata, there is a similar stereotype here in New Zealand, that “Maori can’t handle money”. We ignore the successes of Ngai Tahu, but remember Donna Awatere Huata or Alan Duff.

As we have also seen in New Zealand, a Hillary Clinton is eminently qualified for the job and would do it well, even if some couldn’t handle the autocratic style. Unfortunately, sexism still goes with the territory, and when combined with contemporary partisan politics (in both countries), it is seriously ugly and demeaning for all concerned. Pioneering feminist Robin Morgan has written a punchy attack on the double-standards that handicap Clinton in favour of Obama (thanks for the lead, Jolisa).

And, as usual, The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg has a succinct way of putting it: “Barack Obama is a phenomenon that comes along once in a lifetime. Unfortunately for Hillary, it’s her lifetime; fortunately for the rest of us, it’s ours.”

Whoever is finally the Democratic candidate, it is deeply unfortunate that the historic play-off between the first serious woman and black contenders may see a Republican slip back in, thanks to the combined deep-set prejudices of the electorate, be they sexist or racist. It’s the Ralph Nader syndrome writ large, like some PC nightmare.

A few commentators have said that watching Obama’s supporters on television is like witnessing any mass-movement rally, such as Nuremburg, and the New York Times’ Frank Rich makes reference to Jonestown and Kool-Aid. But that seems to be the way of modern campaigning, with viral marketing on the net taking the place of the door-knocking of keen, squeaky clean campaigners (think Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver). And when the converted get together (think Howard Dean) it’s a massive love-in, like that notorious clip of our Green Party doing the hokey-tokey. (Why isn't that on YouTube?)

The best analysis of Obama’s candidacy I’ve seen so far is by black writer Darryl Pinckney, earlier this month in the New York Review of Books. (Pinckney has also written for The New Yorker and an acclaimed novel about the black middle class, High Cotton.) As a peg he reviews conservative black essayist Shelby Steele’s book A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. He describes it as a “thin, unhappy meditation on what he considers Obama’s costly refusal to repudiate the Sixties and its false, politicised definition of blackness.”

Pinckney discusses Obama’s extraordinary background – his liberal white mother of course, but just as crucial is her father – as well as other key issues. Ideas of blackness, the black middle class, the benefits of affirmative action and understanding “identity”. Billy Paul wasn’t joking when he sang ‘Am I Black Enough For You?’: Obama faces criticism for being too assimilated.

People have been talking about the demonization of black youth since the introduction of harsh sentencing guidelines during the Reagan years, but it turns out that the nation had been absorbing another image of black people right alongside the lurid tales of gangs and guns. Because of affirmative action, the picture of America has changed. However unpopular it has been as public policy, affirmative action has succeeded in integrating the middle class. Obama is not exotic to white Americans. He is familiar, the really nice black guy who went to school with your son.

Though Obama has been praised by some for not making race an issue in his campaign, and for not coming off as the black candidate, his race most certainly is crucial to his broad appeal. Black people can appreciate as much as white people the inclusiveness of his mixed-race heritage and that his story is in part that of an immigrant. But this is not a color-blind election. People aren't voting for Obama in spite of the fact that he is black, or because he is only half-black, they are voting for him because he is black, and this is a whole new feeling in the country and in presidential politics. Forty years ago, Robert Kennedy was sharply criticized for saying that a black man probably could be elected president of the United States in fifty years' time.

Here is the other element to my unease. If the partisan and sexist response to Hillary Clinton has been so ugly, what will the nutters inflict on a charismatic, vulnerable black president? My own political coming of age was in the 1960s. I can just remember being sent over to the neighbours on November 23, 1963 (NZ time), to say that JFK wasn’t just wounded, he had died. In 1968 I was in Standard Two, and will never forget the assassination of Robert Kennedy being discussed earnestly in the playground of Waterloo School. This was just six weeks after Martin Luther King’s murder, and in between we had had images on the TV news each night of not just Vietnam, but the student riots in Paris. There was something happening there, and eight year olds may not have known what it was, but they were conscious of it. The lasting result was that the snuffing out of hope became a given, and some in the States are now expressing their concern in public.

Two books about the civil rights era are among the most compelling I have read in recent years. One is Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene, about racism and corruption in small-town Georgia: its an almost poetic study on the abuse and effects of power. The other is No Place Like Home, by Gary Younge, a black Briton who writes for the Guardian from the States. In the late 1990s he travelled the South following the route of the Freedom Riders in the civil rights era, and visited some of the key participants. (Ironically, until they realised he was black, many retired black activists didn’t want to talk with him.)

But also relevant is a book I’m currently reading: the first biography of Fats Domino, Blue Monday. Despite its determined chronological approach, it is a lucid, shocking story of brazen racism. Domino is usually unfairly caricatured – like Louis Armstrong – with a smiling, Happy Days image. But, like Armstrong, he was as subversive as Stokely Carmichael and a lot more effective at bringing about the world in which Obama now thrives. The early rock’n’roll riots weren’t about the frenzied response to the big beat, but about black teenagers dancing in the same rooms as whites.

After all the indignities, the book finishes with George W Bush’s other outrageous crime: the response to Hurricane Katrina. Reports of Domino’s death were exaggerated, but the sight of him being plucked from the grand home he built in his devastated childhood neighbourhood is just one more reminder of the abuse he has endured.

The song running through my head at the moment isn’t James Brown’s ‘Funky President’, because the sub-title is “People It’s Bad”. It’s by Johnnie Taylor, who was like the smooth Otis on Stax, or a black Robert Palmer. ‘Cheaper to Keep Her’ and ‘Who’s Making Love’ were two infidelitous big hits, and I suppose by the 1970s’ ‘Disco Lady’ he was back on the prowl.

But in 1972 he sang, ‘I Could Never Be President’, an ironic mix of politics and romance. He promises hope and good news and free apples for the children, but like those aforementioned stereotypes he would be a spendthrift and blow it all for the love of a good woman:

If I became President, I know I won’t last a day
I would lower all the taxes just to suit your taste
I’d bring home all the fellers from over in Viet Nam
Station them around your door so the world can’t do you no harm
I’d name every street in the city, Honey, after you (yeah yeah yeah)
In the fight against poverty, there`s no limit to what I’d do
I could never be President
Just as long as I’m lovin’ you
Recently I saw the film Talk To Me, a true story about the 1970s black radio shock-jock Petey Greene, and his more conservative “Mr Tibbs”-style producer, Dewey Hughes. It starts as a blaxploitation cartoon, but with the death of Martin Luther King – and Greene’s on-air response, calming down emotions – it suddenly turns into something more substantial (with a great soundtrack). It reminded me of 1968, and that shocking prediction by Robert Kennedy that in 50 years a black man might be elected president. Kennedy may just be 10 years out; after that, it is fingers crossed.

Apart from everything else, who would want the job of sorting out this mess? I can feel Karl Rove’s cohorts thinking, “Let Obama have a go, just so we can see a black man fail.”

18 February 2008

Milky Bar Kid

Fifty-one years ago today the last man sentenced to death in New Zealand was hanged. Walter Bolton was a 68-year-old Wanganui farmer who was convicted of slowly poisoning his wife by putting arsenic in her tea. Right until the end, he maintained his innocence. The defence claimed that sheep dip had accidentally entered the water system, and indeed traces of arsenic were not only found in the tea drunk by Mrs Bolton, but in Bolton himself and their daughter.
But when Bolton admitted to having an affair with his wife’s sister, it was all over. In just over two hours the jury emerged with the bad news. The judge placed a black cap over his wig and Bolton’s date with death was booked.
His execution didn’t go smoothly, however. It was claimed that instead of having his neck broken the instant the trapdoor snapped open, Bolton slowly strangled to death. Three years later, the death penalty was abolished (for the second time) by a Labour government.
This picture, from 1955, shows how Truth reported the sentencing of Fred Foster two years earlier. He was the first of four men to be hanged that year. Foster was the “milk-bar murderer”, who stepped inside Somervell’s Milk and Coffee Bar, Queen Street, Auckland, and fired a shotgun into the face of Sharon Skiffington. She had recently broken off their brief relationship, and Foster couldn’t let go. So he met Sharon at a 1950s den of inequity – a milk-bar – and took his gun with him.
Earlier this month Poneke wrote a thorough examination of New Zealand’s history of capital punishment, in response to a recent poll that had found – what with all the murders this summer – 42 percent of New Zealanders would be happy to see a return to the gallows. Just prior to the Foster execution, Truth had reported that there was no shortage of applicants to fill a vacancy for executioner.
One of the most gripping radio moments I can remember was in 2002 when law professor, poet and raconteur Bernard Brown described being in an English courtroom as a death sentence was handed out. The cadaverous face of the judge as he pulled out his deathly doily ... the accused collapsing in the dock ... his wife shrieking out “No! No!”
Redmer Yska’s fascinating 1993 book All Shook Up covered the rise of the delinquent in New Zealand during the 1950s, the arrival of the teenager, Red scares, moral panics, deviant comic books and the emergence of rock’n’roll. Discussing the hostility to bodgies and the last heyday of capital punishment, he quotes Truth’s account of Fred Foster’s sentencing.
The condemned man’s last words were delivered in a whisper ...
“Foster leaned forward and grasped the front of the dock with a grip that whitened his knuckles. It was then that he made his appeal to the press bench and said that, ‘Sharon was a very good girl.’ ”
Petitions were organised, his mother came out from England to plead with the government, but to no avail. She arrived the day after his appeal was dismissed. Meanwhile, our justice system showed compassion: he went into hospital and had an operation that removed his inflamed appendicitis. But Attorney-General “Gentleman” Jack Marshall – with the fortitude he showed four times that year – refused to show any executive mercy and Foster was xxxx-ed.

11 February 2008

Paint It Black

February 11, 1973: the Rolling Stones play Western Springs, Auckland, for the first time. Oddly, it was an afternoon gig because the primitive lighting equipment was too expensive to fly over from their shows in Australia.

Seven years on from their previous appearance here – when they wrote ‘Paint It Black’ in Auckland's Royal International Hotel, demolished in the 1980s – they were on a completely different plain. The Stones' personification of the dissolute, jet-setting rockstar was complete, and they had just peaked with their three best albums: Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. Mick Taylor was playing lead guitar, and Hello Sailor's Harry Lyon is one of many who remembers his solos that day. A 16 year old friend hitch-hiked down to Auckland, took acid, and went on to have an international career as a guitarist, so this was a concert that changed lives.

At the time I was in my first week at secondary school 400 miles away, so there was no way I could have been there even if I was inclined. I do remember Wellington’s only pop station 2ZM was thrashing two songs that week, the Hollies’ ‘Air That You Breathe’ and ‘Magic Woman Touch,' and I was still in awe of the Beatles after finally hearing them in stereo on the Pye we got for Christmas.

The 35th anniversary of the gig is an excuse to share this timeless poster by Australian designer Ian McCausland – who is selling reprints from the original negs – and reflect on other connections the Stones have with New Zealand. They are the music story that never fades away; just yesterday the Sunday Star-Times told the exclusive story of the Auckland surgeon who put Keith Richards’ brain back together.

Thinking of that 1973 Auckland gig reminded me of ‘Best Intentions,’ a deliciously squalid short story by Bill Payne in his book Poor Behaviour (1994). Payne's first book was Staunch, a pictorial study of New Zealand gang life; he had started to write while he was in prison on drugs charges, and died in 2005 aged 53.

Pop culture journalist and researcher Andrew Schmidt includes Poor Behaviour in his list of the 10 best New Zealand rock books. He describes the story as a “barely fictionalised” account of a journey to the concert from Wellington, in which “Payne and his gang of junkie Stones’ fans burgle a chemist, OD, and get caught with a motel full of hard drugs, and make the concert. At least most of them do.”

Schmidt’s blog Mysterex is a treasure chest of underground Kiwi rock’n’roll history. It shows his flair for mixing deep research, his knowledge of garage and punk, and his love of gritty after-hours anecdotes from the wrong side of town. All these qualities were displayed in the two magazines he has been involved with publishing, Social End Product and Mysterex, and he shares much of the content from these collectors’ items on his blog. (The second Social End Product was never printed.) Like his friend John Baker, who was also behind Social End Product, he shows remarkable energy at tracking people down and recording their untold stories.

An example is his fascinating profile of Dave Hogan, who for years has been a leading blues harp player in Melbourne. But he grew up in Invercargill, and was a key member of the local R&B band the Unknown Blues, who got their name from a Pretty Things song after the UK band had passed through town. Shortly before the Prettys shocked Invercargill in 1965, the Stones had visited and Keith Richards famously described it as "the arsehole of the world”, which for some reason the city fathers have never taken up as a slogan. By a strange twist of fate, Hogan now plays in a Melbourne group with ex-Pretty Things bassist John Stax.

In 1965 Hogan was at the Invercargill airport in his school uniform to greet the Stones, with his mum as chaperone. This photo shows Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts coming off the NAC plane (the uncropped version also shows Ray Columbus's Invaders disembarking). It comes from another recent gem of New Zealand music history, 45 South In Concert, published by the Southland Musicians Club.

45 South is a very thorough scrapbook history of music from the deeper Deep South: Invercargill. It is in the style of Roger Watkins's When Rock Got Rolling (Wellington 1960s pop) and Hostage to the Beat (Auckland), but even more completist, going right back to dance bands of the 1920s. (With Gordon Spittle’s Beat Groups and Courtyard Parties evocatively covering 1960s Dunedin, Christchurch is letting its history down: a job for Jim Wilson?)

I have wanted to know more about the Pretty Things’ notorious visit to New Zealand since Ken Williams revived the story in the short-lived magazine Rock Express (like an amateur Mojo wanting to take on Rip It Up, it lasted five issues in 1979). In 2006 the hilarious book of the Pretty Things' tour arrived, Don’t Bring Me Down … Under, and it makes Spinal Tap look like the Osmonds.

Left: Pretty Thing reprobate Viv Prince burning down the house in New Plymouth, 1965.

But for a diverting few hours, check out Mysterex. The Sunday Star-Times may think it got a scoop with its catty story about the alleged bad debts of magazine magnate Barry Colman’s new girlfriend, but Mysterex got the real scoop: the story of Colman’s 1960s’ Rotorua R&B band the Plague.

I had always wondered what lay behind his quick decision to buy Rip It Up off Murray Cammick in 1994, when the magazine was still strong creatively but in trouble financially. A mix of business, generosity and romance, obviously.

Mile High Club

Speaking of romance, congratulations to Flight of the Conchords for taking out the Grammy today for the best comedy album of 2007. One person who will be happy is Polly Vernon, who was beside herself with excitement interviewing them in Los Angeles for yesterday’s Observer.

“Jet-lagged and sweaty-palmed, she wrote, I enter the room of the hotel in West Hollywood, where the Conchords are waiting …” But Vernon realised that to go any further would have been unprofessional and risk angering the duo’s chic hometown chaperones:

While I was loitering in the hotel lobby, waiting for my allotted slot with Clement and McKenzie, I spotted two girls. Two good-looking, hipster girls, with excellent haircuts, sharp coats - and New Zealand accents. Two girls who, it transpires, are McKenzie and Clement's fiancées.
Roll over Isabella Blow and tell Versace the news.

07 February 2008

Karma Chameleon

The Maharishi has left the building.

New Zealand discovered the Maharishi long before the Beatles. He visited here in March 1962 and it has to be said reactions were sceptical. Truth’s reporter walked out of the lecture in the Wellington town hall. The yogi said that meditation can release tension, he scoffed. The yogi said that tension is the cause of all diseases. And, said the yogi, to meditate a person had to have the word.

To get the “word,’ the Maharishi told us, one has to see him privately. Because everybody needs a different word. “Ridiculous,” somebody muttered. I agreed and left. So did others in the audience.
Next day, overcome by curiosity, I telephoned to find out how much it costs to get the “word”. “A week’s wages,” one of the Maharishi’s assistants told me.

Nevertheless the reporter, shoeless and gazing, fronts up to a personal session with the Maharishi:

I felt I should say something and asked if he used the Tantric system. “Do not speak to me of the Tantric system.” I asked him to tell me about the “word.” He pierced me with a look as sharp as a quaint oriental dagger and asked did I, or did I not, want to be initiated? “You come to my lecture tonight and hear me more,” he said. I didn’t get the word. But I got the message.

Just in case their readers didn’t get the message, Truth placed the story underneath another about a hairy recluse who had gone missing in the Coromandel:

The Maharishi also fronted up to a parliament of Wellington students. David McGill, then a student teacher, mentions the occasion in last year’s eccentric memoir The Treadmill Tapes: Confessions of a Compulsive Pop Picker:

I [was] one of the students packed into the Victoria University Little Theatre to hear him enlighten us. Instead, he was asking for money. One of us explained that we had none. “Ask your parents,” he chuckled.

Couldn’t they take out a student loan?

John Lennon was looking in some kaleidoscope mirror when he sang that the transcendental meditation guru “made a fool out of everyone.” I suspect that was why he wrote ‘Sexy Sadie’, about the Beatles’ time in India, rather than outrage at the twinkling Indian’s alleged groping of Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence.

Ringo left early because he didn’t like the food, although he had brought a suitcase full of baked beans with him.

The others brought their acoustic guitars – and probably suitcases full of jazz cigarettes – so they got a lot more out of the 1968 sojourn in Rishikesh, at least in the material world.

Lennon and McCartney composed many of the songs on “White Album” there. Among them was ‘Dear Prudence’ (“won’t you come out and play”), written about Miss Farrow when she wouldn’t come out of her ashram to join the celebrity karmathon: all four Beatles, Donovan, Patti Boyd and sister Jenny, Cynthia Lennon and Mike (Give Me) Love of the Beach Boys. Also in that batch of songs were ‘Julia’, ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ and ‘Blackbird’ (the latter written with Diana Ross in mind).

As it turns out the alleged groping of Farrow was a rumour spread by hippie opportunist Alexis Mardas, the in-house “inventor” at Apple Records, who wanted to undermine the Maharishi’s influence on the Beatles. I can hear “Magic Alex” manipulating his patrons: Why leave London, when I have a machine to make you levitate? Sadly, there were four vulnerable fools on the hill.

Left: the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi descends with Mia Farrow.

The Beatles – and especially Harrison’s – interest in India had a huge effect on future generations, in lifestyles, attitudes to Eastern religions and what became “world music”. For everything but chicken tikka, we can give thanks to George.

06 February 2008

Bars and barbers

For most of the country Waitangi Day is a holiday that comes at the perfect time, when we are in denial about returning to work. The action at Waitangi itself has become theatre of the absurd. This year, TVNZ is footing the bill by paying Tame Iti’s expenses. The reasoning is sound if not the ethics: he is good box-office and great visual talent. And by making the news rather than just covering it, those extra ratings bring in more advertising so that we can see more quality television. And, like Shortland Street, it lifts the numbers of Maori on our screens.

Writing about the demise of The Bulletin I mentioned my surprise at how long the slogan “Australia for the White Man” had stayed underneath its masthead: until the early 1960s. Even now you could expect to hear that line expressed along with a belch somewhere west of Alice. Maybe not in an “Abo bar”, but to see it in the hip ’60s, in a magazine that was helping to bring civilisation to the white Australian? No wonder Robert Hughes, Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer were shooting through to London.

Poneke emailed to say that the official White Australia policy wasn’t abandoned until 1973, by prime minister Gough Whitlam, and pointed to his blog about this, which detailed the overt racism in New Zealand within living memory. One legendary example was how difficult it was for a Maori to get his hair cut in Pukekohe in the early 1960s.

By coincidence, I had just come across this incident in the back pages of NZ Truth. It was in June 1961, a year after 150,000 New Zealanders had signed the No Maoris No Tour petition. (The All Blacks went ahead and toured South Africa without any Maori players, but for the last time. In 1970 Maori were included but as "honorary whites": Danie Craven needed Sid Going at the box-office.)

Pukekohe, declared Truth, “is a town with a colour bar.” Maori comprised one in seven people of the 5700 citizens in the market-gardening town just south of Auckland. Indians and Chinese were a good proportion as well, but the colour bar applied only to Maori. If you had the misfortune to be the tangata whenua of Pukekohe:

You cannot sit upstairs at one of the local picture theatres. You can go to only two of the town’s half-dozen barbers with the certainty that you won’t be subject to the humiliation of being refused service. Even some beauty salons have refused Maori women admission.

One young Maori truck-driver from nearby Waiuku told me that he went to the pictures in Pukekohe with two pakeha mates.

His two mates were told they could go upstairs but that he would have to sit downstairs. This has happened to dozens of Maori people.

A couple of years earlier, the cinema distributed upstairs tickets to some “selected Maori”. They didn’t like being singled out for special treatment, so sat downstairs with their friends.

Until recently, reported Truth, Maori men had also been barred from one of the local hotel’s two bars, while Maori women could drink only in the section next to the hotel (and then only if their husbands brought them out their drinks). And another cinema had opened up, in which Maori were welcome to sit upstairs.

Pukekohe’s Maori leaders have done their best to fight the colour bar that rends their town. But the fight seems hopeless. The Maoris have pocketed their pride and resignedly accepted the discrimination …

But imagine the shock and humiliation of an out-of-town Maori passing through Pukekohe who stops for a haircut. He walks into a barbershop, sits down, picks up a magazine to wait his turn. Then someone tapes him on the shoulder and tells him: “They don’t cut Maoris’ hair here, mate.”

For all the mud the paper slung at Maori on other issues, racism towards them was one cause that Truth didn’t mind campaigning about. (I suppose it made up for the “pai gorry Hori” jokes they ran into the 1970s.)

In 1954 the paper reported that at least one of Rotorua’s four licensed hotels wouldn’t let Maori drink in the lounge bar. A Maori returned serviceman was their example. He entered the bar on crutches and was meeting a European friend and his wife. The two men hadn’t seen each other since the war, where the Maori had been injured fighting for King and country in the desert. The publican said Sorry: your friends can stay, but you’ll have to leave …

“Admittedly,” [said Truth, letting itself down somewhat] “there are Maoris in Rotorua still more suited to an indolent, generous and carefree life that Polynesians are natural heirs to.

“Whether this gives any one race the right to discriminate against them or the thousands of others who are useful and sometimes talented citizens, is a question that should be very quickly answered by the conscience.”

The events at Waitangi may seem like posturing, on all sides, but it doesn’t take much digging to see why it’s a necessary annual ritual. Some may be promising – or threatening – that the Maori seats are about to become history. But history isn’t even history yet.