26 August 2008

5 x 5

1. Olympic Cleansing
As Beijing is left with the clean-up and the bill, the uglies can return and the city’s protest parks can once again fill with joyous folk going about their business, I was thinking of earlier Olympic protests. That image from the 1968 Mexico Olympics of the American athletes on the dais holding up Black Power salutes has been etched in my mind for 40 years. Tommie Smith and John Carlos had just won medals in the 200 metres, and made a statement, whereas this year’s winner made an exhibition. Then I ran into a Latin-American expert, who told me about the
Tlatelolco Massacre, which took place in Mexico just days before the 1968 Olympics. Protests against the oppressive government ended up in 200-300 people getting shot. If this was on the NZBC news, it was after my bedtime. “The Olympics must go on,” declared IOC dictator Avery Brundage, “This had nothing to do with the Games.” Curious fashion facts, from the days of black and white TV: Smith and Carlos wore one black glove each, from the same pair. Part of the reason was they thought they’d have to shake hands with Brundage, who had worked hard to get a segregated South African team into the Games. And in Tlatelolco, the government sent in two militia groups: the regular army, and the president’s own Battalion Olympia, disguised as civilians. So the army would be able to spot the others mingling with the unarmed protestors, each member of the Battalion wore a single white glove and white sock. As the bullets started to fly, the Battalion shot a general, so the army then blitzed everyone in sight. The Battalion dropped its cover, crying out “Don’t shoot – we’re the Battalion!” Any ruthlessness in Beijing didn’t happen in front of the cameras.

2. Life is a Hurricane
Next week it is three years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The Independent interviews the editor of local paper the Times-Picayune about its impact on the paper, and what happens when the world moves on and you’re the only ones left dealing with the mess. “Imagine how newspapers in this country would have reacted if 160,000 people – about the population of Brighton – had been homeless for three years, forced to find lodging in distant towns or to survive in trailer parks.”

3. The Godfather of Soul
Jerry Wexler’s impact has been so vast – on popular music, and my own take on it – that I’ve been reluctant to get started on it. Luckily, there have been a couple of great blogs with terrific music links, the Adios Lounge and the B-Side. The key points have been well covered everywhere – Aretha, Muscle Shoals, Dusty in Memphis – but still two pieces that moved me most I read back in 2000. Alex Halberstadt’s profile in Salon is excellent, but best of all was Austin, Texas writer Raoul Hernandez’s funny, thorough piece about Wexler’s often ignored impact on country music. Wexler produced two albums for Willie Nelson – Shotgun Willie and Phases & Stages – that sold poorly but led to his breakthrough, Red-Headed Stranger. I still think Phases & Stages is Nelson’s best: he could still be bothered to write songs, and this concept album about a breakup (from the male and female points-of-view) was simple, brilliant, and heart-breaking. And it was produced in Muscle Shoals. (Both albums also have unforgettable opening lines: “Well it’s a Bloody Mary morning, she left me without warning, sometime in the night” … and “Shotgun Willie, sits around in his underwear …”). Yes, ‘I Never Loved a Man’ is mind-blowing, and Dusty in Memphis is masterly. But Aretha’s Young Gifted and Black is her masterpiece (here’s ‘Oh Me Oh My’), and Phases & Stages is Willie’s. A few years ago Marty Duda interviewed Wexler and his former Atlantic colleague Ahmet Ertegun for a National Radio series. In separate conversations, both these ageing dynamos queried Marty’s American accent and in wistful asides said it must be great to move to New Zealand: to get away from the rat race. And now both have gone. (Here's an NPR interview with Wexler.) In his Salon piece Halberstadt describes Wexler as “a musical innovator, a brilliant producer, a shrewd businessman, a master manipulator and a shameless carpetbagger”. Wexler was so dogmatic that his autobiography The Rhythm and The Blues even quoted others who had a different perspective on events. Sam Moore, formerly of Sam & Dave – who got left high and dry by Wexler – gives an artist’s perspective, and also comments on how the Scientologists prevented him from saying goodbye to his friend who wrote ‘Soul Man,’ Isaac Hayes.

4. Rainbow’s End
Harold Arlen’s classic ‘Stormy Weather’ is never far from my mind, especially this winter: songwriting perfection. Ted Barron at Boogie-Woogie Flu agrees; for a week or so he has just posted some wildly varying versions, including Arlen himself, Lena Horne, plus Memphis group the Reigning Sound’s garage-punk version from 2002. After that you’ll be looking for some more Arlen, but over the rainbow. So did Billy T James, and with the punchline of this clip he nails my nagging problem with Arlen’s other octave-leaping classic. (Includes cameo appearance by Max Cryer.)

5. Get Your Kicks
I recently had to give a talk on geography and music, a rich area. Distracting me from writing it was this addictive musical geographer’s toy from The Word. And afterwards I came across this 50 Songs for 50 States project by the Boston Phoenix. Many of the classics are better than you’d predict, and there’s a very high hit rate for recent visitations. By comparison, the Guardian’s Laura Barton takes a road to nowhere.

20 August 2008


Copying iconic images is old news for photographers covering the Olympics. So it was inevitable that someone would emulate the famous 1972 shot of Mark Spitz displaying his – count ’em – seven bits of bling against his hairless chest. (Out of shot are the stars-and-stripes budgie smugglers.)

Michael Phelps, of course, has earned his right to this pose. It’s just a shame that Beijing’s imposing medal ribbons have made it look like he is wearing a fetching halter-necked top borrowed from
J Lo. (Out of shot is the taffeta cocktail frock.)

13 August 2008

Going to Graceland

Staying with Memphis in the meantime, where it's Death Week in more ways than one. On August 17, 1977 I was on a bus going through Wellington when I noticed the Evening Post's billboard:

THE KING IS DEAD - Elvis Presley 1935-1977

The circumstances of his death meant that Elvis became a punchline for those with limited imagination, or fodder for semioticians who can't dance. Growing up in Wellington, the closest I got to an Elvis film were the trailers at the local fleapit. Just old enough to remember 'In the Ghetto' as a hit, in the early 1970s when NZBC-TV had a run of daytime movies -
Loving You, King Creole and Jailhouse Rock - I suddenly got it. Later, even the post-army years.

In 1988, I made a 24-hour visit to Memphis, my first, driving up from New Orleans with Mike Howie at the wheel of a car that died in Elvis's carpark. After the article below was published, a woman from Taranaki wrote to say that she thought I was mocking Elvis, which wasn't the intention. To the visitor, Graceland is presented as an irony-free zone, and is a fascinating insight into the man. Surreal and sad at the same time.

A House On Lonely Street

In the early 1970s the city of Memphis finally found something adequate to name after their most famous son: a highway. So the six‑lane Highway 51 South became Elvis Presley Boulevard, and at 3764 stands Graceland, the palace/mausoleum that ranks with the White House and Taj Mahal as an icon. The enigma that is Elvis comes clear when one visits his home.

The first surprise is how close Graceland is to the highway – only about 50 metres. The famous wrought-iron gates, showing Elvis as a young rocker surrounded by musical notes, still stand at the roadside. They’ve been open since daughter Lisa Marie made Graceland a tourist attraction in 1982, to cover the costs of maintenance, she said: the Presley estate remains in trust till she turns 25 in 1993.

The gates were one of the first things Elvis installed after he bought the mansion in 1957. Aspirant Elvises struggled to pass through. Early in his career, Bruce Springsteen could only rattle them, crying to the guards in his frustration, “But I was on the cover of Time!” Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter snuck through, like a glam rocker in Colditz, making it as far as the kitchen. Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t wait for an invitation: he just turned up in a limo late one night, drunkenly waving a derringer. Raised from his slumber, the King told his guards to ignore him.

It’s easier these days. Leave your car in Elvis’s parking lot across the road (US$1.00) and buy a ticket for the mansion tour ($7.50). Stroll around his two private planes, the Lisa Marie 707, and small jet Hound Dog II (these “airborne luxury apartments” can be inspected for $3.95), and within two‑and‑a­-half minutes a shuttle bus arrives to take a group of 16 pilgrims across the road and through the hallowed gates.

The driveway winds past mature trees – cypresses and elms – to deposit the party beneath the portico of the Southern mansion. But despite the imposing columns, the antebellum architecture, the trimmed hedges, the Romanesque statues and vases, the effect is not so much Gone With the Wind as built­-without‑a‑permit.

While hardly humble, Graceland would be overshadowed by many homes in the more exclusive areas of Remuera or Fendleton, though the plans would never get past the residents’ protection group.

The front door is carved oak, its size as unremarkable as the attached metal fly screen. Before anyone enters, however, the “Graceland Guest Rules” are explained: no touching, no smoking, no exploring, no noisy children, no pets. Most important, no cameras with flashes: “Your respect of this rule will help preserve Graceland mansion and artefacts from the deteriorating effects of flash photography.’’

Is the decor as delicate as treasures from King Tut’s tomb? No. Even Presley’s interior decorator was aghast at his taste: “I would see it, and swallow hard,” he said. “There was really no way I could say, ‘Oh Elvis, you have made an abortion!’“ Or as one of Presley’s hangers-on said, “That house is filled with everything you’d walk into a furniture stare and not buy.’’

The crass splendour that is Graceland explains all about its owner. Elvis simply had no idea – of how to handle his fame or his money, let alone his talent. The feeling evoked is one of loneliness. It’s a house but not a home; the image is not one of roaring parties, or Lisa Marie toddling about in naps, but of Elvis, padding about alone, looking for his next banana split.

There are no books, no pictures other than motel room art – and nothing old. Elvis hated antiques. They reminded him of being poor. No, everything inside Graceland is new. I was prepared for tackiness – indeed that word quickly becomes inadequate – but what is surprising about the interior is that it’s all cheap tack.

The internal tour is limited to the ground floor. To visit the bedroom would be bad manners, to visit the upstairs bathroom where Elvis died (reading a book on the Shroud of Turin), bad taste. The visitors, mainly couples in their late 30s, are subdued and serious, as are the guides. With the vacant enthusiasm of doorstep evangelists, the guides shunt the visitors through the rooms with a rapid-fire patter. Their clean-cut demeanour barely hides their boredom, though they’re still buzzing that the heavy metal band Poison has just been through. “They all come here to pay homage,” said one guide.

The guides keep the myth intact. Presley’s divorce from Priscilla is conveniently forgotten; the TV cameras in every room were installed because “Elvis liked to look after his guests, to see what they were up to and what they needed.”

To the left of the foyer, carpeted in white shag-pile, is the dining room. A large smoked mirror glass table is surrounded by gold leaf baroque chairs, with velour upholstery. The drapes are turquoise, the walls white with gold scalloped trim. Glass cabinets are crammed with cheap knick‑knacks, statuettes, porcelain, vases.

On the right are two living rooms, smaller than one would expect, with low ceilings. Dividing them is an archway, flanked by peacocks in stained glass windows. One room is for a grand piano, dipped in gold.

Down a steep, narrow staircase, with walls and ceiling covered in mirrors. To one side is the TV room, with mirrored ceiling and bright-yellow vinyl furniture. Opposite is the pool room, so over-upholstered it’s like a womb. Heavy brown drapes cover all the walls and the ceiling, the fabric fanning out from the chandelier in widening pleats. The pool table is electric blue.

But the piece de resistance is at the back of the house: the Jungle Room. Elvis furnished his favourite room himself after seeing an ad on television for a local furniture store. He went straight down there, and in 30 minutes had what he wanted: a den with a Hawaiian theme. The intention may be Hollywood voodoo out of Blue Hawaii, but the result is more like a Dr­ Caligari nightmare. Bright green shagpile carpet, chairs with leopard-skin covers and dark wooden arms, roughly carved into gargoyles. A coffee table hewn from a tree trunk, voluminous curtains in M*A*S*H camouflage fabric, porcelain figurines of tigers, tikis and watermelons. Elvis liked it so much he recorded his last two albums right here, say the guides.

Out the back door, and viewed from behind, Graceland’s grandeur seems as superficial as a Hollywood film set, propping up the plantation-mansion facade. Across a lawn is a squash court, rapidly jerry-built in 1975 when Elvis wanted a game. He only used it twice, though the lounge room’s brown vinyl couches and upright piano are worn, one imagines from singalongs.

Into the trophy room, a concrete‑block museum that holds countless gold records and much more besides. Costumes from the Vegas period, with monumental belt buckles and high collars and smothered in rhinestones. On a mannequin, they seem small: Elvis, a quarter-inch over six feet, wore lifted heels. In frames are dozens of certificates proclaiming Elvis a sheriff in countless small towns, plus a blue police badge with accompanying letter from Richard Nixon appointing the King an undercover detective for the Bureau of Narcotics. Glass cases display Elvis’s guns: magnums, .38s, rifles, revolvers, derringers. “Elvis liked guns,” says the guide.

Outside is a kidney-shaped swimming pool (“Please Do Not Throw Coins in the Pool”) and beside it is the “Meditation Garden”. Less than 20 paces from the house, Elvis lies buried beneath a full-length bronze plaque alongside his mother, father and aunt. A small plaque remembers Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’s twin brother who died at birth. An eternal flame has an inscription listing Elvis’s friends, including Dr Nichopolous, who prescribed the pills that Presley consumed in his final years.

Overlooking the scene is a full-sized statue of Jesus, arms outstretched, and two kneeling angels. Dotted about are wreaths and mementos from fans (“Always On Our Minds – Elvis followers of Malta”). Elvis’s epitaph is written by his father: “He had a God‑given talent that he shared with the world ... God saw that he needed some rest and called him home to be with Him.”

One is given a few moments of contemplation before the shuttle bus arrives to whisk the tour party back across the road. Another museum houses Elvis’s cars and motorbikes, including a Harley Davidson Electra Glide and a pink jeep, battered from Elvis playing dodgems. Pride of place is given to the fabled 1955 pink Cadillac that Elvis bought with his first flush of success, the ostentatious symbol that said he’d arrived.

Behind glass cases is more Elvis memorabilia: his first pay cheque ($54), some books (Kahil Gibran, Esoteric Psychology, The Legend of Bruce Lee, The Omen), LPs (Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas, Ray Charles The Man and His Soul) and videos (The Pink Panther, Monty Python episodes). In a mock drive‑in cinema plays a compilation of clips from Elvis films, called Follow That Dream. Six gift shops offer take-home memories of Elvis. The souvenirs – teddy bears, miniature juke boxes, ashtrays, snowies – follow the Graceland theme, tawdry workmanship at premium prices. In the heart of the South’s cotton growing district, the T‑shirts – Elvis in pink glitter – are made of polyester.

© Chris Bourke 1988

11 August 2008

Black Moses

Who’s the black politician who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?

Damn right.

Whether the estate of Isaac Hayes will let his biggest hit be rewritten as a campaign song remains to be seen, but having a black contender would be unthinkable without the breakthroughs of Mr Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes.

The high-hat triplets; the wah-wah guitar; the long, brown leather coat; the ’fro; the mo. John Shaft – a bad mother – is the mythical father of Obama’s success thus far. However the fictional villains in ‘Stagolee,’ Shaft and all the other blaxploitation films – and recurring role models such as the just resigned mayor of Detroit – could be the reason that the White House won’t get its makeover just yet.

Uh, what’s happening CC?
They still call it the White House
But that’s a temporary condition, too.
Can you dig it, CC
‘Chocolate City,’ Parliament

George Clinton was referring to the black majority in inner-city Washington DC as a positive response to white flight to the suburbs, and thanking the city’s fans for their support, but Isaac Hayes made his political statements on the Billboard charts.

Shaft wasn’t the first blaxploitation film, but it was the most successful, crossing over into the mainstream market. I’ll never forget seeing Hayes receive his “best song” Oscar on NZBC-TV. He confronted middle-America in their living rooms with a hard-funk rendition of the song, resplendent in gold chains, shades and shaved head – and not much else. A fashion statement for the cultural theorists in the audience. Sammy Davis Jr handed him his Oscar with the wisecrack that he’d been dressed by a local hardware store. How many Oscar moments from 2008 will we remember in 36 years?

In 1968, when Martin Luther King was murdered at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Hayes was one of the leading songwriters at Stax Studios a couple of miles away. At that moment, Hayes was on driving to the motel to pick up a musician: in the fading days of segregation, the Lorraine was where the black folk stayed.

At Stax, Hayes and his lyricist partner Dave Porter wrote for everyone on the label. It was Sam and Dave who turned their gospel testifying into pop hits. Their trademark song ‘Soul Man’ was a statement of black consciousness as powerful as any by Muhammad Ali or Nina Simone, with a better backbeat. On the piano, leading the band, was Isaac Hayes.

Hayes was driven more by the pop charts than politics; in 1968 he was yet to become a black icon, but he was hip to the catchphrases coming out of the civil rights movement. When Martin Luther King declared “I have a dream” he wasn’t talking about romance, but Hayes and Porter were:

I had a dream last night, love is worryin’ me
I claim the only woman that I’ve ever loved
Don’t you know she turned her back on me ...
‘I Had a Dream,’ sung by Johnnie Taylor

Taylor’s dreamer works the graveyard shift five nights a week, comes home sick one time to find his “baby ain’t there”:

I shouldn’t let this worry me, it all happened in my sleep ... but I got to stop from eleven to seven next week.

A hit record was political statement enough for Hayes, who was still printing money with Sam & Dave. On a follow-up single with them, ‘I Thank You,’ he played clavinette and asked the drummer to imitate a trotting horse.

Perhaps Isaac Hayes knew his dream run with Memphis soul was coming to an end. Otis Redding was dead, followed four months later by Martin Luther King; the civil rights movement began to splinter. But Hayes had enough power to take artistic control of his music, with him out front. He had an accidental hit with his own album Hot Buttered Soul. It was a very odd record: here was a great songwriter singing other people’s songs. He would meander for 20 minutes with ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ or ‘Walk On By’ – and the audience just said, take your time.

Hot Buttered Soul led to Shaft, and Hayes was the biggest thing in showbiz. He drove a gold-plated Cadillac, wore suits of gold chain mail and purred in his deepest voice about the power of love.

Shaft and Isaac Hayes’s outrageous experiments paved the way for Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye – and now Barack Osama (even if the 1960s civil rights leaders have been hesitant with their endorsements).

Sir Isaac Hayes applies for an English passport.

Hayes was the 70s Duke Ellington, the sophisticate who got his inspiration from the street. His bank balance suffered from extravagance, and he disappeared into Scientology. Then the TV show South Park wanted his deep voice for the animated character of Chef, which worked well, until the South Park scriptwriters satirised Scientology.

When rap music arrived it was tailor-made for an Ike Hayes revival. Here were African-American males strutting their stuff. Hayes himself chose Public Enemy’s Chuck D to revisit a song off the classic album Hot Buttered Soul. Its name: ‘Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic’.

Can you dig it?

Links: a great profile of Hayes from Memphis magazine; thorough obit at the Independent; watch him perform ‘Shaft’ live in the studio; Shaft meets Shane here; and below, the dynamic duo Sam & Dave perform two of his songs live: it’s a slow starter, but a big finisher.

10 August 2008

Dead Famous People

New Zealand had its own Marilyn Monroe, though I’m yet to read about her in our newspapers. More on that in a moment. Thinking about yesterday’s post it occurred to me that journalism is, in fact, in good heart. New Zealand is one place without a plagiarism problem; the occasional case of it is quickly spotted in this small pond. And there’s never been a time when so much good journalism has been so easily available. My main concern is that the content providers aren’t reaping the rewards; if there is a way to fill a newspaper cheaply, the proprietors will do it. But, inspired by Jules Starr’s posts on her Evolving Newsroom site – a place to keep up with how technology affects media – and the sunny brilliance of Johnny Mercer, it’s time to accentuate the positive.

I am addicted to obituaries. It’s a growth area in journalism, thanks to the genre’s revival by the British Independent and Telegraph. In the late 1980s their obituaries moved on from the respectful Who’s Who style of brief CV entry, that told “just the facts, ma’am.” Instead they became witty, stylish features about colourful characters whose fascinating lives never made the news pages. They can often be the best-written profile a person ever receives (I’m thinking of the Independent’s obit of the taciturn Irving Berlin; 101 when he died, his obituarist had plenty of time to polish a piece that was like a primer in how to write the popular song). It helps that England is so richly populated by eccentrics and rogues, but a surprising number of them have New Zealand links. Like the engrossing Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, the inclusiveness beyond the worthy citizens who sit on boards and get QSOs is a big part of the attraction.

Recently there was international convocation of obituarists in Little Las Vegas (New Mexico) and the Independent summed up their views in “Working the Dead Beat,” with plenty of excerpts of favourite examples:

The third Lord Moynihan “provided through his character and career ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle. His chief occupations were bongo drummer, confidence trickster, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informer …” (Telegraph)

Spin-doctor to the evil, Edward Von Kloberg embraced the slogan “Shame is for sissies”, as well as an unabashedly Edwardian style of living. He arrived at balls and galas wearing black capes, and he travelled with steamer trunks … Washington is a city of advocates and image enhancers, but only a few have staked their reputations as representatives of despots, dictators and human-rights violators. For Von Kloberg, the job was a social exercise as well as an all-consuming effort.” (Washington Post)

Selma Koch, a Manhattan brassiere maven “who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday … She was 95 and a 34B.” (NY Times)

In New Zealand the master of the obituary is Peter Kitchin of the Dominion-Post, who goes to great trouble to research well-written obits of colourful, but often unknown, local characters. Recently they have offered insights into men who were controversial in their day – police chief Bob Walton, soccer manager Charlie Dempsey – but also others below the radar: teachers who have devoted their lives to inspiring students, immigrants who threw themselves at life with gusto, a market gardener, a bootmaker and hit songwriter, and a Maori kuia.

These are easily accessible on the Dom-Post website, and really add something substantial to the newspaper itself. The New Zealand Herald seems embarrassed by death, or celebrating life. You’ve got to really hunt for their obits: who would think of looking for a feature on Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the inside-back-page of the sports section? New Zealanders are rarely covered; the paper has syndication rights to the Independent’s obits, and while that paper’s offerings are prominently used elsewhere in the Herald – too prominently, some of the in-house writers probably feel – the obits are hidden. Understandably the syndicated obits aren’t on the Herald’s website, but why are their occasional New Zealand obits virtually impossible to find, on line or in print?

Now, New Zealand’s Marilyn Monroe. It’s a tenuous connection, but I’d never heard of the 1950s bombshell Jill Adams (pictured above), who spent her childhood here and died recently aged 78. She sounds like a classier version of Diana Dors – her face was used on a recruiting poster for the Wrens – but she couldn’t break out of B-movies such as Carry On Constable.

But for triumph over prosperity, take Joan Campbell, recently dead at 96, “the gruff cookery writer who put Australian food on the map.”

Her giddy life as a Brisbane débutante was marred, when she was 20, by the death of her first sweetheart in an accident involving the crank handle of a tractor.

Campbell went on to marry the heir of a squattocracy dynasty, who wouldn’t allow her to do anything useful. “She spent her days, wrote her friend, the distinguished Australian food writer Cherry Ripe – did Ian Fleming invent that name? – in a “social round of polo picnics, race meetings and beach houses.”

Joan was not allowed in the kitchen by diktat of her mother-in-law, so had a sub-kitchen built behind the house, in which she confined herself to making jams and chutney. When her in-laws learned that she had ordered an Aga cooker without seeking their permission, they supposedly docked Henry's legacy by 3,640 hectares.

Of course, it couldn’t last, and Campbell said hooray to Henry and took up with a penniless, one-armed journalist. At first, she “used a little family money to buy two uninsured crop-dusting aeroplanes. They crashed.” In her 60s, she successfully reinvented herself as a food writer, stylist and editor for glossy magazines. The Campbells loved entertaining. “Though of course he was useless with only one arm,” she said. “All he could do was raise a glass.”

09 August 2008

Thieves Like Us

The hippest book in our high school library was Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. It was funny, anarchic and full of subversive advice about how to get free petrol, food or even land in late 1960s Amerika. It also had great illustrations by Robert Crumb. Like Tim Shadbolt’s Bullshit & Jellybeans it is a classic of the counter-cultural era. It was well read at school – its philosophical contradictions didn’t occur to 14 year olds – and, for some strange reason, no one seemed to steal it.

There were soon claims – of course – that Hoffman himself had stolen the book from other authors. An anniversary edition gave co-credit to a writer/researcher, Izak Haber. Perhaps Hoffman was just ahead of his time; the “liberation of resources” concept of the book has spawned an imitator on the net, Steal This Wiki, and of course is now rife in music.

When it comes to plagiarism, the thieves will always get caught out. Unless you’re a politician pretending to be Jackson Pollock, though, it’s usually not something that makes the front pages. Academics have seen so many essays re-written they probably know some classics by heart. And good lines in journalism tend to stay in the brain, so when they crop up again without attribution, they get attached to the line in the memory, like a footnote. But those who spot it don’t need long memories any more, now that we have Google.

I have just read a convincing “gotcha” on this topic by Slate writer Jody Rosen: “Dude, You Stole My Article”. With meticulous research, he dissects the persistent plagiarism by a staff writer on a small (circulation: 20,000) “alternative” Texas weekly, The Bulletin. Also the disinterest from the editor when the claims and evidence were put before him.

Plagiarism isn’t a hanging matter, except perhaps in academia. Compared to some non-violent crimes, such as investment companies swindling their customers, or property developers and councils letting shoddy workmanship send people into debt and misery, stealing words doesn’t really steal the food out of the mouths of children.

But it does stick in the craw. Also in Slate, Jack Shafer lists “Eight Reasons Plagiarism Sucks”. It rips off the readers as well as other writers, undermines the credibility of journalism, and sees the thieves get promoted for the work of others (and five other reasons).

Music journalism is not one of the most respected areas of the trade, with good reason. But still, there are readers and advertisers paying for the work, and they expect some kind of honesty: in opinions and in methodology. I always remember my disappointment when I found out a line, ostensibly written by a trusted critic, came from somewhere else. Referring to the prevalance of “Astral Weeks helped pull me through” stories is a good line, and US writer John Grissim deserves credit for using it first, in 1972. Comparing Bono’s singing to the sound made by a “constipated stoat” was childish enough when the late Tony Tyler used it in his entertaining 1984 rant I Hate Rock and Roll, but why you’d steal it later rather than think up a fresh insult is unfathomable.

When new editors settle into a job, they get inundated with offers from freelancers who weren’t used by the previous incumbent. The new editors also often find themselves with an “empty cupboard,” so quickly over-commission to keep things moving, and deal with the consequences (of those eager freelancers) later. I once noticed that the new editor of a magazine was using a lot of book reviewers with unfamiliar names, and their bylines were about as believable as spam emailers. Their copy read like puff pieces, with meaningless adjectives a real critic would never use. So I got onto Google, and searched some of these phrases. They all lead directly to publishers’ websites.

When I called the editor about it he said, “Oh, I’ll have a word with those writers.” The magazine went on to win an award in its category, which shows how flaky awards can be, although it did reflect the hard work of the previous editor who had turned it into a magazine of substance. But an “award-winning editor” was on his way: thankfully, overseas.

06 August 2008

Five-ring circus

I could boycott the Olympics, but I don’t think the Chinese would notice. At least it is now safe to watch on New Zealand television again, with the Bowzer of the TVNZ sports department finally out of our living rooms.

The last Olympics I actually cared about were those in Munich in 1972, before I was old enough to realise that politics and sport are always intertwined, no matter what sports administrators claim. (Recent example: the IRB saying that New Zealand shouldn’t host the rugby world cup, as that will only be preaching to the converted rather than evangelising the cult to new territories.)

But the Black September terrorists changed that, and the compelling documentary One Day in September brilliantly shows how the world suddenly lost any vestiges of post-war naiveté. Then the tit-for-tat Olympic boycotts started, and the IOC greed became even more vulgar Рwhich is saying something after the dictatorial dominance of IOC head Avery Brundage - and it all seemed like a giant propaganda exercise.

So I thought I’d do some homework, and watching the 1993 documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl seemed a good place to start. Because one thing these Olympics will have in common with those in Berlin of 1936 is that they will be spectacularly visual. China is a nation whose art direction knows no bounds: even Cecil B DeMille wouldn’t have tried to alter the actual atmosphere to get a better shot. The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles missed a grand opportunity, even with the sensibility of an actor in the White House; all I remember is Stevie Wonder at the nadir of his career, closing the show.

Riefenstahl was 91 when the documentary was made: feisty, defensive, and as unpleasant as a witch-like version of Winston Peters. She was still in denial about the political motives behind her film-making, claiming that she was just an artist, and besides, she believed in the rise of Hitler because he promised peace and security. But her film-making is still breathtaking, be it in the Tyrol mountains or her balletic, slow-mo shots of high-divers.

During this year’s Olympic torch relay fiasco, many people made the point that it was all a Nazi construct invented for the 1936 Olympics, rather than something that dated back to Greece. At that point no links had been made with Riefenstahl’s Olympia but I’m sure they’ll come thick and fast after a billion flags get waved in unison later this week. (Riefenstahl claimed that Hitler wasn’t behind her film, in fact he wasn’t even into the Olympics at all, as it meant that other nations would have to be portrayed as being occasionally victorious over the master race.)

Years ago Susan Sontag – writing of Riefenstahl’s “fascist aesthetics” – made a connection that rings true: how the German director’s work paralleled that of Busby Berkeley, working at the same time over in Hollywood on his mad, epic musicals. As Dave Kehr, reviewing Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will – about the Nazis’ Nuremburg rallies – summarised,

Berkeley’s abstract musical numbers, with their own geometric patterns and tendency to absorb individuals into standardized, idealized groups, seem to apply the characteristics Sontag listed in her essay “Fascinating Fascism”: situations of control, submissive behaviour, endurance of pain, domination through pageantry, turning people into things, multiplications and “orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets.” Rather than smartly tailored military uniforms, Berkeley placed his performers in scanty costumes that emphasized the symmetry of legs and bosoms; the uniform platinum wigs that many of his chorines wore invite comparison with the caps and helmets of Hitler’s massed forces at the Nuremberg rallies filmed by Riefenstahl in 1934 (filmed one year after Berkeley’s best film for Warner Brothers, Footlight Parade).

Yesterday in his New Yorker blog, George Packer made a different connection between Berlin and Beijing. He is currently reading Victor Klemperer’s I Shall Bear Witness, the diaries of a Jewish academic living in Dresden during the rise of the Nazis. The New Yorker excerpted these 10 years ago, in its 27 April 1998 issue, and it was deeply moving because of its very mundanity. Day by day, bit by bit, another element of human rights was withdrawn for Jews. For me, the most unforgettable image was the moment when Klemperer, elderly and starving, spotted a tiny piece of salami that had been left on a table. Just as he reached out to pick it up and eat it, a cat leapt up and got there first. (Later, the Nazis decreed that all pets belonging to Jews had to be put down: not given away, put down.)

Here is Klemperer writing in his diary on August 13, 1936:

I find the Olympics so odious because they are not about sport—in this country, I mean—but are an entirely political enterprise. “German renaissance through Hitler,” I read recently. It’s constantly being drummed into the country and into foreigners that here one is witnessing the revival, the flowering, the new spirit, the unity, steadfastness, and magnificence, pacific too, of course, spirit of the Third Reich, which lovingly embraces the whole world. The chanted slogans on the streets have been banned (for the duration of the Olympics), Jew-baiting, bellicose sentiments, everything offensive has disappeared from the papers until August 16, and the swastika flags are hanging everywhere day and night until then too.

Packer emphasises that he’s not equating the Chinese with the Nazis, he is making the point that the IOC’s decision to award them the Olympics is a reminder that it’s all politics, and that the Chinese leadership want it both ways: quick to criticise others for commenting on their sovereign affairs, while “eager to cash in on all the geo-political benefits that the Olympics will bring. China didn’t even bother to abstain last month but instead vetoed sanctions against Robert Mugabe at the U.N. Unlike Germany in 1936, China is prettifying its streets without pretending to prettify its foreign policy.”

If you can’t stomach The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl there are plenty of excerpts of her work on YouTube, or this insightful obit from the New York Times. At 180 minutes, Horrible Life includes a lot of Aryan posturing and self-denial, but it’s still well short of the 220 minutes of the original Olympia. And probably the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.