30 January 2009

Updike at Rest

rabbitrunjohnupdikeDid he ever sleep? Just contemplating John Updike's extraordinary productivity - all to the highest standards - makes everyone else feel like a sloth: at least a novel a year, it seemed, and every few years a doorstop of collected reviews. And those reviews would take on all non-fiction topics, art, history and new fiction. Here are his rules-of-thumb for book reviewing, from 1975's Picked-Up Pieces:

My rules, shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.…

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never...try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

This from the New Yorker blog where many younger writers - including Jonathan Lethem, EL Doctorow, ZZ Packer, Richard Ford - pay tribute, and there is an hour-long interview.

It was 40 years ago today

A good little band, at its happiest, playing live, the final curtain in sight.

27 January 2009

Urewera Hero

Gerry Merito Because he wasn't the lead singer, Gerry Merito was the unsung hero of the Howard Morrison Quartet. But New Zealand's biggest entertainment phenomenon would have been unthinkable without his contribution. Merito, who died suddenly on the weekend aged 70, was the lynchpin of the group. He provided much of the humour and was the Quartet's only musician; he also wrote the lyrics to their biggest parodies, 'Battle of Waikato' and 'My Old Man's an All Black.'

But Merito stayed in the background, a much loved and respected figure to those who knew him. He was generous and gentle, big-hearted but humble. He had an irrepressible sense of humour, but life had never been easy. He grew up in a small village on the edge of the Ureweras, and lost his mother to TB when he was eight. For nearly 10 years as a child he suffered from a crippling bone disease that meant he spent several years in hospital a long way from home and relatives. He was left with a permanent limp but the nurses at the hospital gave him his first guitar. He listened to the radio - he loved hillbilly music for its chords, the Friendly Road Choir for their harmonies - and began playing.

There's a good case to be made for Merito being the most influential New Zealand guitarist of all; certainly, Dalvanius would agree. Wherever there is a singalong, wherever a New Zealander plays a few chords with an idiosyncratic strum - throwing in a tricky turnaround just to show you're no mug - there goes the spirit of Gerry Merito.

Life was difficult after New Zealand's Beatles came to an end in 1964. For 12 years Merito lived in Perth, supporting his family doing a lawn-mowing run. In a house fire three years ago he lost almost everything - including the guitar he'd used in the Quartet. But he always kept playing and entertaining and in recent years he has been doing one-man gigs around the Waikato; it was after one of these on the weekend - at the Waihou Hotel - that he suffered a heart attack.

It was a great privilege to interview him about 15 months ago for the book I'm currently writing. He was my youngest interviewee, and one of the best story tellers. It was one of those interviews that you treasure forever. He had never seen his Waikato compatriots, the Topp Twins, and it occurred to me they were the perfect match for a double bill. He was keen. Then I thought of the Flight of the Conchords, who call themselves New Zealand's third - or is it fourth - leading folk-comedy act. Well if they're third, the Topps are second, and Gerry Merito towers above everyone in the genre like a totara.

When I started this blog, it was just after the interview so he was one of the first people mentioned. One of his stories bears repeating, it captures so much about him:

potpourriBut 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 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!”

Pictures: top, Bruce Mercer/Waikato Times; on the HMQ's Pot-Pourri album Gerry Merito is standing at the stove.

26 January 2009

Et tu Bruce

RIU 0778 Springsteen It’s a public holiday today and the Boss is working on a dream. Bruce Springsteen has a new album out of that title and ... am I still interested? Well I’m at least intrigued, even if I think his last classic was 1987’s Tunnel of Love and I couldn’t get through more than a couple of listens to 2007’s bombastic Magic (the curse of over-compression did not make it easy). But sceptics would have to admit that this made a stunning spectacle, even if Archie at Word quipped drummer “Max Weinberg has let himself go, hasn’t he?”

When Springsteen finally made his visitation to New Zealand in 2003, I was asked to write a piece marking the occasion. After delivery the editor said, “Well I like it, though it’s a bit grown-up for us.” He had obviously been spared the agony of reading academics write about pop; treatises like The Dialectics of Bruce that always seem to miss out the music.

The 2003 concert was stunning, everything you’d hope for after a 25-year wait, despite the rain that bucketed down for hours beforehand. I don’t think that was the only reason the audience size was one quarter (25,000) what it would have been if it had taken place in 1985.

Using NPR’s “first listen” facility, Working on a Dream sounds like a return to form, with subtle gems I’ll keep returning to (the country shuffle of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ and the folkie ‘Last Carnival’), only one meat & spuds bash (‘My Lucky Day’), and some great lines, such as the title ‘Queen of the Supermarket’ and ‘The Wrestler’s weary “if you’ve ever seen a one-trick pony / then you’ve seen me.”


By Chris Bourke, 2003

bruce sprinsteen When Bruce Springsteen put his E Street Band back together in 1999, he was on a mission from God. In the 1970s, his concerts had climaxed with a rollicking “I’m just a prisoner of rock’n’roll” routine; now he returned older, wiser and a little battle-weary. He no longer leapt from the top of the grand piano, but stepped down cautiously. His limp is a war wound received not in Vietnam – though he has written movingly of his shell-shocked generation – but on stage.

Springsteen returned with a new closing persona: he was now a rock’n’roll preacher. While the band vamped on ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’, he paced the stage bent over, testifying, all but speaking in tongues. He cried, “Tonight I want to throw a rock’n’roll exorcism! A rock’n’roll baptism! A rock’n’roll bar mitzvah!”

Ten years earlier, Springsteen and the E Street Band had gone their separate ways; it was a rare example of a boss handing in his notice. They may have conquered the world during the reign of Ronald Reagan, but this gang of New Jersey wide-boys had bonded in the era of Richard Nixon.

It was a simpler world. Nixon opened up China, and Reagan quipped he would start bombing Russia in five minutes. In 1999, with the US economy booming under Clinton, and no overt enemies, offering a rock’n’roll salvation to all colours and creeds made sense, especially to an old ham like Bruce Frederick Springsteen, lapsed convent schoolboy of Freehold, NJ.

Two years into the reunion tour, though, things changed. Springsteen lives a couple of hours’ drive from Manhattan, but as the crow flies his New Jersey farm is only about 30 km from the site of the World Trade Centre. He used to see the Twin Towers peek through the haze while driving near his home, so the attacks literally altered his horizon; they also devastated his community. His farm is in Monmouth County, where 158 people lost their lives: the largest cluster of victims in New Jersey.

In his neighbourhood over the following weeks, he noticed the constant funerals taking place in local churches. There were candlelit vigils and benefits, and Springsteen took part in a few. In the communities of the eastern seaboard he is a virtual poet laureate; many of the obituaries mentioned the victims’ love of his music, so he telephoned their next-of-kin to offer condolences. His children and their classmates express their fears about terrorists, and Springsteen himself has compared the atmosphere to the Cuban missile crisis of his childhood.

Once, Springsteen worked in only one gear: full-throttle optimism. There may have been darkness on the edge of town, but those streetwise Johnnys flashing flick-knives on the boardwalk were really posers out of West Side Story. Life was a panoramic movie, and all the classics he caught in fleapit theatres seemed to inspire elegiac songs: ‘Prove It All Night’, ‘Badlands’, ‘Thunder Road”, ‘All That Heaven Will Allow’.

But during the Reagan years, the “runaway American dream” turned sour; the boardwalks were cluttered with the homeless huddling in cardboard boxes. He watched The Grapes of Wrath, listened to Woody Guthrie, and made connections with the streets that were getting meaner. The songs of Nebraska were cinema-verité documentaries, unrelentingly bleak-and-white.

Reagan misunderstood Born in the USA when he quoted it during the 1984 election campaign; on the album’s cover shot, Springsteen is either walking on the flag or urinating on it. But in the mid-1980s the aspirational fantasies of Springsteen’s songs came true for their author. Suddenly, after years as a cult bohemian waif from “Joisey” , he was Bruce Superstar; he may not have worn his Y-fronts outside his trousers, but his bandanas were in red, white and blue.

The new, buffed-up Bruce worried the cultists: those bandanas seemed to push his eyes closer together and lower his brow. Now a rock star, he married a model; the liaison didn’t work out but the album from this period contains some of his finest writing. Unlike its predecessors, Tunnel of Love isn’t drunk with words; it’s low on dramatics but full of drama. The music is austere, and so is the imagery:

“Woke up this morning the house was cold

Checked the furnace she wasn’t burnin’

Went out and hopped in my old Ford

Hit the engine but she ain’t turnin’

We’ve given each other some hard lessons lately

But we ain’t learnin’ ” (‘One Step Up’)

He fell in love with his backing singer Patti Scialfa, a genuine “Jersey girl” who had infiltrated the boys’ gang. Springsteen, who adores his Italian mother but had a troubled relationship with his Irish-Dutch father – resolved before he died in 1998 – finally settled into family life. The 1992 album Lucky Town opened with a song called ‘Better Days’:

“These are better days baby

Better days with a girl like you …

Well I took a piss at fortune’s sweet kiss

It’s like eatin’ caviar and dirt

It’s a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending

A rich man in a poor man’s shirt”

The uncluttered writing revealed his influences, like footnotes in a self-education programme: the hard-boiled fiction of James M Cain, the Southern gothic stories of Flannery O’Connor, the working-man’s blues of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. His starkest album The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) took its name from The Grapes of Wrath hero, and its content connected with author John Steinbeck’s social activism.

Worthy, said the critics; dull, replied the common man. Tom Joad was folk music to which one couldn’t dance in the dark. Two touching songs from films restored him to the airwaves: ‘Streets of Philadelphia’, about the AIDS crisis, and the ballad ‘Secret Garden’. With the return to epic, switchblade rock on ‘Murder Incorporated’, the journey back to the E Street Band was underway.

bruce live In the Al Bundy-meets-Al Green preacher routine of the reunion tour, he suggested salvation would come not through God, or the afterlife, but from within – and from reaching out to those nearby. When September 11 occurred, he was in the right head space to cope with it in his writing. He has been closing recent shows not as a pentecostal preacher but with two songs written before the attacks: ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ and ‘My City of Ruins’. The latter is actually about the economic renewal of his beloved beach town Asbury Park, but it seemed more suitable to play for the victims’ telethon after September 11 than ‘Into the Fire’, one of the songs written as the horizon changed shape.

Springsteen describes ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ (which is pointedly followed in concert by a down-beat ‘Born in the USA’) and ‘My City of Ruins’ as “gospel songs”. And when he heard that the Italian translation of the hymn-like title of his new album The Rising was “La Resurrezionne”, the theme of redemption was in place. A priest friend of Martin Scorsese once allegedly said, “Marty – too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday!” But the Jesuits would be happy with the vocabulary of Springsteen’s song titles in recent years: ‘Souls of the Departed’, ‘My Beautiful Reward’ and now ‘Paradise’. You can kick a boy out of the convent, but you can’t kick the convent out of a boy.

A third of the songs in Springsteen’s recent shows come from The Rising (a strong album, if no classic). ‘Mary’s Place’ is the crowd-pleaser that most recalls the exuberant celebrations of the early E Street Band, where burlesque rhythms, a honking sax and suspended chords combine to tease the audience to ecstasy. A party is getting underway, the rug has been rolled back and the record player is up loud. But in the window burn seven candles, presumably for loved ones recently lost. “My heart’s dark but it’s risin’ / I’m pullin’ all the faith I can see.” This is no mindless celebration, but a resurrection of the soul.

© 2003

24 January 2009

Beat, Rhythm, Fashion

By Chris Bourke

ON THE ROAD: the Original Scroll, by Jack Kerouac (Penguin Classics); THE BEATS: From Kerouac to Kesey, an Illustrated Journey through the Beat Generation, by Mike Evans (Running Press).

Jack Kerouac is one writer who could truthfully say “a dog ate my notes”. The tail-end of On the Road: the Original Scroll attests to it: the last 10 pages of Kerouac’s manuscript were chewed by Potchky, the dog of Beat Generation footnote Lucien Carr, and have been reconstructed here by editors using various drafts.

scrollThe scroll in question is not some mythical Biblical object, but the legendary first version of Kerouac’s classic novel. This 120-foot roll of taped-together tracing paper was bought at auction six years ago by the owner of an American football team (who also owns one of Elvis’s guitars). He paid $2.3 million in non-mythical US dollars, and immediately sent the scroll on the road for public exhibitions. (Right click here for a larger image.)

On the Road was published 50 years ago, hence this long-awaited unrolling of The Scroll, presented as Kerouac originally typed it, without a single paragraph break and only a few commas to draw breath. This is the uncensored manuscript, with references to sex and drugs, women who enjoy both, and even boy-on-boy action, all faithfully retained, along with the participants’ real names. Any similarities with people living or dead were purely intentional. Libel lawyers balked, even if hedonistic show-offs such as William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were happy to sign releases.

Its genesis actually dates to the late 1940s, when Kerouac first hitchhiked across the US, constantly scribbling in notebooks. The scroll was the first complete version, written in three teeth-grinding weeks in March 1951. That part of the legend is true, though Kerouac was fuelled by coffee, not Benzedrine. Late nights and sweaty T-shirts, yes, but hardly spontaneous improvised bop prose: he wrote from notes, draft passages and his exceptional memory. After all, most of what he wrote actually took place. Truman Capote – who surprisingly turns up in a drunken cameo in the scroll – may have sneered that On the Road was “typing, not writing”, but it can also be seen as an early non-fiction novel, years before In Cold Blood.

So even though it came out after Rebel Without a Cause, the arrival of rock’n’roll and the building of the interstate highways, On the Road describes the immediate post-war period 10 years earlier, when a desire for stability was more the zeitgeist than subversive tumult. Kerouac rides shotgun as he and his frenzied road-buddy Neal Cassady relentlessly criss-cross the United States, pushing social mores as much as the speed limit, although an unspoken goal is settling down. On the surface, this is the ultimate male-bonding novel; any women along for the ride were strictly in back seat roles.

kerouac_picAs eventually published, On the Road was an adrenalin rush of cross-continental travel (to no eventual purpose). But the use of real names and incidents add a gritty urgency to the original. This is a coherent travelogue/memoir rather than a dazzling jazz novel, and the key scenes are already present: the failed first hitch-hike on a provincial highway, when Kerouac gives up, drenched after receiving no lifts in the rain. The senorita he meets on a Greyhound bus, leading to a romantic idyll in a Steinbeckian labour camp. The constant fleecing of hitch-hikers for gas money. The mad parties on both coasts, with a stolen car outside, its engine still running. The inevitable return home to Mom’s cooking and a hot bath.                 Above: Kerouac (left) with Cassady (right).

After 100 pages of academic preamble, some of it useful – though words like coterminous stall readers as surely as dirt in a carburettor – the novel’s famous opening passage introduces Kerouac’s lead character, his friend and inspiration, Neal Cassady. Obsessed with chasing women and stealing fast cars, Cassady comes across like Springsteen if he were possessed by the Devil.

Oddly, after we first meet him, he is hardly mentioned for another 100 pages, and this period – when Kerouac is travelling alone – is the most satisfying in the book. Once Cassady is behind the wheel, after a few journeys leaving behind many girlfriends, marriages and abandoned babies in his wake, Kerouac, his prose and our patience all seem to weary of Cassady: we’re beat. Towards the end Kerouac writes, “I was beginning to cross and re-cross towns in America as though I was a travelling salesman.”

There are increasing references to Cassady’s mania: “I suddenly realised that Neal was becoming The Idiot” … “Neal gets crazier every year” … “I knew Neal had gone mad again” … As “Dean Moriarty” in On the Road, Cassady seemed spontaneous, wilful, irresponsible (but great fun at a party). The scroll’s veracity portrays him more as bi-polar, desperate not for company but for medication.

cassady Cassady’s next appearance in history was in 1965 behind the wheel of Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus, tripping across America on LSD. The influence of the Beats is well explained by the images in Mike Evans’s pictorial account, although the text itself is not so much beat as lacking a pulse. Here are quick biographies of the key Beats, plus the pop culture links, all spelt out in iconic pictures: Kesey and Cassady, Ginsberg and Dylan, The Subterraneans and the Velvet Underground, Lenny Bruce and the once-ubiquitous satirical images of beatniks. Even The Flintstones featured an episode that was all goatees, sandals and bongo drums, man. Above: Cassady (right) with Timothy Leary.

The Beat phenomenon inspired almost as many bad novels as great road journeys, but if you feel tempted to read The Scroll itself, get on board. It’s safer than hitchhiking.

(First published in the  Sunday Star-Times, January 2008)

23 January 2009

How many roads


And we'll walk down the avenue in style

And we'll walk down the avenue and we'll smile

And we'll say baby ain't it all worthwhile

When the healing has begun

(Picture editor: Hendrik Hertzberg; pics by Don Hunstein, 1963, and Doug Mills, 2009; song by Van Morrison; pic below, MAD).

barack virgin Postscript: if the messianic euphoria is starting to be a worry, a reality check is at the always-brilliant radio programme This American Life. The show just on the eve of the inauguration was thoughtful and all-inclusive, capturing voices from around the US and their attitudes as the new administration was about to start. It began at a climate-change conference, stunned by Obama's emphatic embrace of the issue. They talked to young Marines back from three tours to Iraq and still Bush supporters, then the Veteran's Administration who were stunned to get phone call from the transition team asking what they needed and offering full funding for the first time. Customers in a New Orleans bar, and a button factory where business has gone gang-busters making Obama badges ... and also a retired 93-year-old journalist from small-town Florida, where he had covered Ku Klux Klan meetings in the 1930s only to see 20,000 supporters of all races turn out for a Obama rally there last year. You can listen to it here, free for how long I don't know but even from the archive for 95c US it's a bargain and they need the money.

21 January 2009

George passes the baton


"Chocolate City" by George Clinton (Parliament, 1975)

Music: right click

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

To each his reach
And if I don't cop, it ain't mine to have
But I'll be reachin' for ya
'Cause I love ya, CC.
Right on.

There's a lot of chocolate cities, around
We've got Newark, we've got Gary
Somebody told me we got L.A.
And we're working on Atlanta
But you're the capital, CC

Gainin' on ya!
Get down
Gainin' on ya!
Movin' in and on ya
Gainin' on ya!
Can't you feel my breath, heh
Gainin' on ya!
All up around your neck, heh heh

Hey, CC!
They say your jivin' game, it can't be changed
But on the positive side,
You're my piece of the rock
And I love you, CC.
Can you dig it?

Hey, uh, we didn't get our forty acres and a mule
But we did get you, CC, heh, yeah
Gainin' on ya
Movin' in and around ya
God bless CC and its vanilla suburbs

Gainin' on ya!
Gainin' on ya!
Gainin' on ya! (heh!)
Gainin' on ya!
Gainin' on ya!
What's happening, blood?
Gainin' on ya!
Gainin' on ya!
Gainin' on ya!

What's happening, black?
Brother black, blood even
Yeah-ahh, just funnin'

Gettin' down

Ah, blood to blood
Ah, players to ladies
The last percentage count was eighty
You don't need the bullet when you got the ballot
Are you up for the downstroke, CC?
Chocolate city
Are you with me out there?

And when they come to march on ya
Tell 'em to make sure they got their James Brown pass
And don't be surprised if Ali is in the White House
Reverend Ike, Secretary of the Treasure
Richard Pryor, Minister of Education
Stevie Wonder, Secretary of FINE arts
And Miss Aretha Franklin, the First Lady
Are you out there, CC?
A chocolate city is no dream
It's my piece of the rock and I dig you, CC
God bless Chocolate City and its (gainin' on ya!) vanilla suburbs
Can y'all get to that?

Gainin' on ya!
Gainin' on ya!
Easin' in
Gainin' on ya!
In yo' stuff
Gainin' on ya!
Huh, can't get enough
Gainin' on ya!
Gainin' on ya!
Be mo' funk, be mo' funk
Gainin' on ya!
Can we funk you too
Gainin' on ya!
Right on, chocolate city!

Yeah, get deep
Real deep
Be mo' funk
Mmmph, heh
Get deep
Unh, heh
Just got New York, I'm told

14 January 2009

Dancing Gershwin's blues

Rhapsody_in_Blue_cover In the 1920s, if New Zealand newspapers reviewed records they were usually opera, classical or the light classics. I'm surprised the New Zealand Herald covered Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue at all, so can forgive the reviewer for hedging his bets:
Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is almost a new art form - a sort of symphonic jazz. Stravinsky and some of the French "six" have attempted something of the kind; but their compositions are far too self-conscious to be successful, and their knowledge of the peculiar kind of scoring needed, inadequate. The medium is of far greater interest than Mr Gershwin's music, which is extremely derivative. Rimsky-Korsakoff is drawn upon in the opening section, Debussy and Grieg toward the end. There are also many pure and captandum* effects. But something undoubtedly individual emerges. The composer plays the piano brilliantly; the whole thing has the air of an improvisation. The saxophones would prove useful as ordinary members of the orchestra. The tenor instrument is very similar in tone to a clarinet, only more supple; the baritone to a cello, but full and rounder. However, the orchestra of the future will perhaps be no settled body. Instead, we shall have chamber orchestras of varying content. This example may well be a portent. It is well recorded and of peculiar interest.
- New Zealand Herald, 24 July 1926. * captandum: 'a specious argument "for capturing" the gullibility of the naive among the listeners"
Here is what the New York Times' reviewer said of Rhapsody in Blue the day after its premiere, performed by Gershwin at the piano, with Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra on 12 February 1924:
This composition shows extraordinary talent, as it shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk, struggling with a form of which he is far from being master ... His first theme ... Paul Whiteman advert 080928is no mere dance-tune ... it is an idea, or several ideas, correlated and combined in varying and contrasting rhythms that immediately intrigue the listener. The second theme is more after the manner of some of Mr Gershwin's colleagues. Tuttis are too long, cadenzas are too long, the peroration at the end loses a large measure of the wildness and magnificence it could easily have had if it were more broadly prepared, and, for all that, the audience was stirred and many a hardened concertgoer excited with the sensation of a new talent finding its voice ... There was tumultuous applause for Gershwin's composition. [the edits are Wikipedia's]
Right-click to hear Gershwin performing it with an orchestra or, for better audio, on a piano roll. Above right: an advertisement for Whiteman's records from the New Zealand Herald in September 1928.

13 January 2009

Village person

Hentoff NYC

Legendary journalist Nat Hentoff has been sacked by the Village Voice after 50 years. He doesn't seem bothered; he'll keep on writing. "See you somewhere else," he says. Hentoff is 83.

For decades Hentoff's writing has concentrated on his passion for civil rights and the freedom of speech. But he first became known as a music journalist in the 1950s. When I started reading about rock'n'roll, there were hardly any books in the libraries, just Hunter Davies' book on the Beatles, Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop (one of the first pop histories, written in six weeks in 1969 and still brilliant). But there were plenty of books on jazz and blues, and many of them had Hentoff's name on them. Oral histories, straight reportage: Hentoff's music writing was about the musicians themselves, rather than what went on in the listener's head. He sat in on sessions by Ellington, Armstrong, Mingus and Davis. Later, he wrote the liner notes for Bob Dylan's first albums, and conducted the myth-making 1966 Playboy interview with him ("A candid conversation with the iconoclastic idol of the folk-rock set").

Hentoff approached his advocacy journalism with courage and an intellectual rigour; he has never been afraid to challenge the left as well as the right, and to take unfashionable positions. He doesn't overburden his music writing with the cerebal analysis of his political work, but the connection is the concern for humanity that comes through both. You don't always get that in music writing.

The Voice at least did the right thing by not just showing him the door with a security guard, struggling with cardboard boxes. (Looking at his desk in the above NY Times pic, I'm pleased to see that it is messier than mine at its worst.) He got the chance to write a gracious farewell column, and the paper printed a lengthy selection of his "greatest hits". Voice colleague Alan Barra penned a tribute, "50 Years of Pissing People Off." As Hentoff himself says, "I'll be putting on my skunk suit at other garden parties, now that I've been excessed from the Voice."

The Voice has a long, distinguished and disreputable history, which Louis Menand details - in a flat-footed kind of way - in the January 5 New Yorker (not on-line). He doesn't concentrate too much on the present but - like so many other inkies - the Voice is in trouble. However pointing the finger at the internet as the sole cause is just publishers shifting the blame; in case after case, proprietors have bought venerable titles and saddled them with debt. They saw golden geese, bought them, then killed them. Marc Cooper's lengthy report behind-the-scenes at the LA Weekly - a recent stable mate of the Voice - indicates some of the problems. At the Voice there has been a revolving door for several years, with long serving staffers either sacked or walking. The magazine survived Rupert Murdoch's ownership, but perhaps won't survive its purchase by New Times Media (which promptly changed its name to Village Voice Media: it liked the cachet of the name, if not the paper). Almost three years ago the New York Observer wrote:

As the dissident Voice staff tells it, the new management is a bunch of out-of-town bean counters bent on dismantling a precious 50-year-old journalistic institution. The new management, in turn, depicts the paper as a haven for thumb-suckers, with a staff so self-satisfied that it refuses to stop writing left-leaning commentary and go out and do some reporting.

The Voice isn't without its faults: its partisanship can be as wrong-headed as the New York Post's, just from the other side. But its influence has been enormous. It created the template for a feisty, useful "city mag" now seen in every city. Its arts criticism could be among the best anywhere, and some of the worst: pretentious and incoherent. Its "Press Clippings" column has been widely copied, as has former music editor Robert Christgau's long-running "Consumer Guide" and his annual critics' poll. The Voice's "Rock Music Quarterly" is the father of the (London) Observer's excellent Observer Music Monthly.

Although Menand concentrates on the Voice's far-distant past - its 1950s beginnings with Norman Mailer and cartoonist Jules Feiffer - in his stolid way, he summed up the issues:

Of course, the paper will share the fate of every other print medium in the digital age, whatever fate that is. Still, more than other magazines and newspapers, the Voice was doing what the Internet does now long before there was an Internet. The Voice was the blogosphere - whose motto might be "Every man his own Norman Mailer" - and Craigslist fifty years before their time. The Voice also helped to create the romance of the journalistic vocation by making journalism seem a calling, a means of self-expression, a creative medium. It opened up an insecure and defensively self-important profession. Until its own success made it irresistible to buyers who imagined that they could do better with a business plan than its founders had done from desperation and instinct, it had the courage to live by its wits.

12 January 2009

Bend it like bouzouki

I mentioned my friend who said that witnessing Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash sing together in the Auckland Town Hall was the most erotic thing he'd ever seen on a stage. That was before he saw Dave Dee in the same venue, later that year. Dee's rendition of his hit 'Bend It' was shocking; forget Mick Jagger at the Civic in 1965, he recalled, this was positively lewd.

At the time (c1970) I felt it was an achievement to rattle off the splendid name of Dee's band: Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. Dee, who died last week aged 65, had a career before he became the nudge-nudge guy of '60s pop: he was a policeman. The Independent reminded me of the accidental role he'd played in early rock'n'roll history:

[Dee] felt privileged to see Buddy Holly at the Salisbury Gaumont in 1958. He became a police cadet and was called to the car accident which killed Eddie Cochran in Chippenham in April 1960. "I was a big Eddie Cochran fan and we took his guitar back to the station," he recalled. "It was there for two months and I used to play it from time to time."

Here is 'Bend It' in full, lurid, living colour. And, one more time for Mick (the only drummer with an excuse to speed up) ... filmed in B&W more clearly showing the undeniable influence of Zorba the Greek on rock'n'roll.

09 January 2009

Get a room

At Rip It Up in the 1980s a regular advertiser used to be a local clothing retailer. Their ads always featured the manager and her boyfriend in different outfits from the store, looking very coy. Each month our accountant - a blonde bombshell herself - would cash the cheque, re-apply her lippy, roll her eyes and say: "Fucking in public. Is that a good look?" For some reason I thought of this when I came across the above clip of Kris Kristofferson and then-wife Rita Coolidge, both leather clad, singing his 'Help Me Make It Through the Night.'

A friend who worked at the New Zealand entertainment magazine Playdate in the late 1960s saw Johnny Cash and his (at last!) wife June Carter perform together in the Auckland Town Hall stage circa 1970. He said it was the sexiest thing he had ever witnessed on a stage. (I think he was referring to 'Jackson'.) This clip is from about that era; June helped Johnny make it through the night, though she always reminds me of some kind of eccentric aunt ... 

I got to these via the great website When You Awake, devoted to all things country-rock. Especially check out their "twang" mixtapes of (mostly) country singers covering songwriters like the Stones, Dylan, the Band and Gene Clark. The eclectic, country-fried rock reminds me of Rip It Up's neighbours in the Elliot Street building, Snake Studios: screenprinters to the stars and 1970s gentlemen who loved sharing their great vinyl collections, etc. Take a bow, Dave Perkins (RIP), Hal Chapman and Greg Cobb.

06 January 2009

Do the morris

Car advert NZT 110663p13

1. A world without morris

Twenty-five years ago Rick Bryant said to me that the very mention of the curiously British activity "morris dancing" was guaranteed to make you laugh. He then started chortling, and kept chortling until he had to wipe tears from his eyes. You should try everything once, Edwardian conductor Thomas Beecham is credited with saying, "except morris dancing and incest."

Although still legal among consenting adults, morris dancing is under threat. The UK Morris Association says the practice is on the verge of extinction: "young people are too embarrassed to take part." While other exponents of centuries-old British folk traditions have managed to update their art while still reflecting the past - such as Eliza Carthy with Dreams of Breathing Underwater, which is my album of the year - morris dancing is now "carried out by an ever-dwindling stalwart band of enthusiasts".

I have never danced the morris. Nor have I forgotten Rick's line: the memory, and the activity, always brings a smile. But looking at this clip I think that without the gallant dancers of the morris, there would be no Monty Python. No knotted handkerchiefs shielding pink pates from the sun.

2. Cuppa tea, lie-downs

Also in today's Guardian, a report on the demise of another Anglo-Irish institution that could have a significant impact on New Zealand. After 250 years, the crystal and china company Waterford Wedgwood has gone "into administration," threatening 2700 jobs in the UK and Ireland. Among the brands produced by the company are Waterford crystal - which always seems to belong in the over-stuffed parlours of Dublin's elite, as portrayed by James Joyce in The Dead - Wedgwood porcelain and Royal Doulton bone china.

Let them eat cake, the callous might say, but the ramifications for New Zealand are significant. Irish tomato soup and media tycoon Anthony O'Reilly owns, with his brother-in-law, about 60 percent of the shares in Waterford Wedgwood and has poured about £375m into the company in recent years. O'Reilly may have to cash up his 39.1 percent investment in APN News & Media, the media company which owns the New Zealand Herald and the Listener, among other publications. These are more important to this country than the mere vessels produced by Waterford Wedgwood. Whatever one's opinion of APN's handling of these titles, and although O'Reilly has allegedly received offers for his stake, it's hard to conceive of a suitable - rather than just suited - investor able to front up, especially after the experience of US tycoon Sam Zell borrowing big to buy the Chicago Tribune.

03 January 2009

Sgt Kosher's Jewish Hearts Club Band


From memory, Brian Epstein wanted the Beatles to use a plain
brown-paper wrapper for the cover of Sgt Pepper's. Maybe this version would have persuaded him ... or, with Gene Simmons comparing tongues with Einstein, maybe not. It's from the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, and I found it at Harry's Place. Click here for a larger image.