30 April 2009

Gospel According to Keith

Keith Richards may never have to carry his belongings round in a supermarket bag, but he often talks like one who does. Until, that is, his bon mots - so often reminiscent of the last drunk at a party - are translated for you. The world thanks Jessica Pallington West, the codebreaker behind What Would Keith Richards Do? Daily Affirmations from a Rock'n'Roll Survivor. Here, then, is what she calls "the Tao of Keith":

11569943-11569949-slargeKeith the fatalist: “Altamont, it could only happen to the Stones, man. Let’s face it — it wouldn’t happen to the Bee Gees.”

Keith the strict constructionist: “There’s nothing wrong with the gun. It’s the people who are on the trigger. Guns are an inanimate object. A heroin needle’s an inanimate object. It’s what’s done with it that’s important.”

Keith the historian: “That Adolf. What a piece of work.”

Keith the nutritionist: “Cheese is very wrong.”

Keith the fantasist: “I’ve never turned blue in someone else’s bathroom. I consider that the height of bad manners.”

Keith the athlete: “When I was a junkie I used to be able to play tennis with Mick, go to the toilet for a quick fix and still beat him.”

Keith the scientist: “I looked upon myself as a laboratory.”

Keith the film critic (on Godard): “He was out of his depth in England. Like William the Conqueror.”

Keith the music critic (on the Beatles): “They were exactly what was needed. It was a great enema.”

Keith the fashionista: “I reckon our style came direct from the Three Stooges.”

Keith the contemplative: “Mine is a very nebulous spirituality.”

Keith the metaphysician: “It seems strange that we do the same thing with the same boys all these years later. But it’s like when you get drunk at a bar and wonder later how you got home. You know where you are — you’re home — but how did you get there? That’s the mystery.”

(Hat-tip to the NY Times' David Kelly.)

Addendum: by chance I came across this quote, that says more than any of the above ...

Keith the multi-tasker: “While I was a junkie, I learned to ski and I made Exile on Main Street.”

... and Phil K sends a link to a new Guardian interview in which he actually talks sense about music ...

29 April 2009


1. Double feature

scarecrow The Ronald Hugh Morrieson celebration that his champions – Sargeson, Stead, Shadbolt – had hoped for took place in the 1980s. After Goodbye Pork Pie, the fledgling New Zealand film industry knew what it needed in its scripts: humour, locally based. The 1982 film of The Scarecrow was disappointing, despite the cadaverous presence of John Carradine and the cute-as-a-button Tracy Mann. Three years later, Came a Hot Friday perfectly encapsulated Morrieson’s world, mainly thanks to bravura performances by Billy T James and expatriate-immigrant Peter Bland. Sadly, because of the production company Mirage going bust, Came a Hot Friday as a DVD reissue is lost somewhere in legal limbo. But its trailer can be viewed on the NZ Film Archive site, as well as The Scarecrow’s trailer.

2. Time, Gentlemen

In his 1971 Landfall essay, CK Stead did make a link between Morrieson and David Ballantyne, and he expanded on this in the introduction to his 2002 essay collection Kin of Place. The complete introduction is on-line, but this is the relevant passage, in which Stead looks back with no false modesty:

Both were writers whose work deserved serious attention and had not had it. In the case of Morrieson it needed only the double assault Frank Sargeson and I made in Landfall 98 (June 1971) to turn everything around in his favour. Morrieson the man was a ‘character’; his life story was picturesque; he was wild in his youth yet also frightened, home-bound, and soon a sad drunk; and his books were marvellously entertaining with flashes of genius. No threat to anyone, hugely talented but also manifestly flawed, he was, one might say unkindly, made for New Zealand, and has become (the more so because there is added piquancy in the recognition that it happened too late for the man himself to enjoy it) another of our literary icons.

Ballantyne also became a disappointed drunk, but one who kept up appearances, stayed employed as a journalist, and kept writing. No one (least of all Ballantyne himself) thought of his Maori grandmother as a ‘feature’ to be exploited. There was nothing to attract public attention except the novels themselves, whose only appeal was their peculiar honest homespun excellence - like the ragamuffin poor kid who wins the sprints almost unnoticed because he doesn’t have the gear and never behaves like a champion. Patrick Evans made a brave case for Ballantyne in Islands 31-32, even arguing (beyond anything I would have claimed for him) that his contribution to New Zealand literature was ‘at least the equal of Frame’s’; and Peter Simpson, who also wrote enthusiastically about Morrieson, has argued for more attention to Ballantyne’s work. But these appeals, it seems, have been ineffective, and the novels, unlike Morrieson’s, at the present date (2001) are long since out of print. It is to be hoped that a biography currently being written by Bryan Reid may bring at least Sydney Bridge Upside Down out of retirement.

3. Wild Westies

Billy T James Another passage in Stead's 1971 essay leapt out, about the character Billy T James later played in the film Came a Hot Friday:

“The Te Whakinga Kid is a grotesque. He wears a cowboy suit, carries a cap gun, lives by the fantasy that he is a Mexican bandit, and speaks accordingly … (Can one dismiss the Kid simply as an unreal comic device? After completing this note I read of a young Maori convicted of armed robbery who, it was explained to the Court, lived by the fantasy that he was New Zealand’s Ned Kelly.)”

This reminded me of a couple of things. Years ago in the Rotorua paper I read a court report of a young Maori up before a magistrate in Ohakune. His first name was Elvis, and he was getting busted for pot. Where, the judge asked, did he get the marijuana? Elvis replied: “I was walking along the street and came across these ski turkeys. They said, Do you want some pot? So these ski turkeys gave it to me.”

Johnny Cooper cropI hadn't thought of the stoned, Ohakune Elvis for a while, but the Te Whakinga Kid has crossed my mind a lot recently, as I've explored early country music here. He is the archetype of the country-and-western obsessed provincial youths who, inspired by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies, went down to their small town haberdashers, got Mum to sew on some fringes, grabbed a guitar and started yodelling. Not just Johnny Cooper, our first prominent rock’n’roller, whose original incarnation was as “the Maori Cowboy”. But a whole posse of them, all Pakeha. And, the evidence suggests, the dressing up was more important than the singing: there's something beyond fantasy going on here. Cooper of course is one exception; there are others, but more who made better photographs.

4. Desolation Throat

dylan hat new A couple of albums back I wrote that Dylan – his trademark whine reduced to a gargle – was singing like Bing Crosby with throat cancer. Attending a concert this week in London, Fraser Lewry says it now sounds like he’s trying to cough up his own blood. Listening to the new album Together Through Life, that’s about right. The album is an entertaining throwaway, and all the better for it: like an EP that Al Swearengen and some cohorts out of Deadwood have knocked off in the back room of a brothel. The funniest line so far is in the song with the tune borrowed from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters: “I just want to say that Hell’s my wife’s home town.

A friend has mentioned that he finds Dylan’s interviews gnomic. That’s true: the interviews are a rarefied level of Dylanology, inhabited by ageing academics and people on day-release. There’s even a whole webpage devoted to the subject: “The 10 most incomprehensible Bob Dylan interviews.”

And he has long since turned into the Duluth Kid.

28 April 2009

Yesterday’s Papers

1. Sliver of hope

IF Stone New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd compares this gloomy era in journalism to the film Sunset Boulevard, rewriting the famous quote of aging actress Norma Desmond: “Papers are still big. It’s the screens that got small.” She asks Phil Bronstein, editor of the troubled San Francisco Chronicle, to take her on a “justify your existence” tour. Bronstein drives her past the journalists’ bar, now empty, the police headquarters where they uncovered corruption, the SF General Hospital, once teeming with Aids patients. In magazines, when the circulation department receives its returns marked “Subscriber deceased: please cancel,” it’s a stark reminder that one’s readership is aging. But this is now a good thing, reasons Bronstein:

His tour ended with cold comfort, as he observed that longer life expectancies may keep us on life support. “For people who still love print, who like to hold it, feel it, rustle it, tear stuff out, do their I. F. Stone thing, it’s important to remember that people are living longer,” he said. “That’s the most hopeful thing you can say about print journalism, that old people are living longer.”

The reference to crusading journalist I.F. Stone (pictured above) was heartening - the Seymour Hersh of his day, for years he ran his own I.F. Stone's Weekly - and intriguing. I don't think he was a relative of Bronstein's short-term wife, Sharon Stone.

2. Cold beer, hot type

Ballantyne There are few books written about New Zealand novelists, but even fewer about its journalists. After the Fireworks is both, a biography of novelist and Auckland Star leader writer David Ballantyne, who died in 1986. It’s an evocative portrait of the loneliness of a writer in a hostile culture, diverted by the hard-drinking, hard-bitten but strongly bonded world of newspapermen in the 1940s and 1950s. Ballantyne’s first novel The Cunninghams was written when he was just 23, in 1947, and published in the US; it would be another 15 years before he published another.

Long sessions at the Occidental in Vulcan Lane were part of the reason, but he managed to get off the bottle in 1973 and produce a late flurry of work. After the Fireworks captures the smoky newsrooms, the pride and wisdom of the long-serving reporters and sub-editors, the daily post-deadline binges, the hidden subcultures such as the rundown flat at 301 Willis Street, Wellington, where journalists, poets, novelists (and even Douglas Lilburn) would come and go, knowing they could get a beer after six o’clock closing. Under the circumstances, the Aucklanders’ productivity is extraordinary:

“… visits to Willis Street were sporadic and impulsive excursions, usually involving drinking in Auckland on a Friday after work, catching the overnight train to Wellington, drinking at various Wellington watering-holes … partying on at 301, then catching the Sunday night train back to Auckland in time for work at the Star on Monday morning.”

The biography was written by Ballantyne’s friend Bryan Reid; the pair started at the Star on the same day in 1943. The book slipped under my radar when it came out in 2004 but – like Ballantyne’s best, Sydney Bridge Upside Down, from 1968 – is recommended.

3. Quality of Mercer

dom1 The Dominion Post runs the country’s best obituaries, but didn't quite get the tone right with a recent tribute to the former Dominion editor, Jack Kelleher. Portraying him as a cardigan-wearing conservative – and concentrating on the brief tabloid folly of Rupert Murdoch – doesn’t tell the whole story. A quick glance at Kelleher's journalism suggests he moved in a broad circle. His ghost-writing of forensic pathologist PP Lynch’s memoir No Remedy For Death is mentioned; erudite, stubborn, patrician, Lynch did not suffer fools. Kelleher could work the public bar as well: he was close enough to the “hermit of Hawera,” novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson, to be a key source for Julia Millen’s biography. His history of Upper Hutt reveals a rapport with Wellington’s hippest post-war bandleader, Fred Gore. And his sensitive obituary of Ruru Karaitiana in 1970 – the only one the ‘Blue Smoke’ songwriter received – indicates a newspaperman who never stopped working his beat (in this case, Wellington’s inner-city music precinct of the late 1940s: Mercer, Willis, Manners and Bond streets). Maybe not Clark Kent, but a very effective mild-mannered reporter.

4. A comic sign of health

The same week of Kelleher's death, I found Ballantyne's biography in a small town sale bin. Both reminded me of Julia Millen's biography of Morrieson, from 1996, which also hasn't reached the audience it deserves. The pair had quite a bit in common: their era, their profession, their obscurity, and their alcoholism. Unlike Ballantyne, Morrieson didn't leave a swag of diaries, letters and manuscripts, which made Millen's task more difficult. But by weaving in anecdotes from his fiction, and putting in plenty of leg work, she captured his drive and his demons, in that closed Taranaki world.

“Herbert had told me on the quiet that he reckoned Uncle Athol had got his teeth from Mr Dabney, the undertaker.” (The Scarecrow)

Landfall 98 hanly“What is this thing called gothic?” asked Morrieson, after a rare literary review during his lifetime. Just months before Morrieson died - yes, “another one of those buggers” who only became famous afterwards - Robin Dudding published two “appreciations” in Landfall 98 (June, 1971). Morrieson's champions were Frank Sargeson and CK Stead, and the issue had a cover design by Pat Hanly. Sargeson wrote:

We hear sometimes of somebody who intends a march on Parliament in order to emphasise some fact of human nature or human society. It would be a comic sign of health in the community (not to mention an immense compliment to Mr Morrieson, and his skill in revealing to us much about the inner nature of human life in our country), if Parliament were to march upon him and his home town.

20 April 2009

Hits and misses

1. Bob Dylan on old music

jellyroll In the recent interview plugging his new album Together Through Life, Dylan was asked about the song 'Life is Hard.' Introducing his question, music journalist Bill Flanagan said, "It comes from a tradition that got pretty much wiped out by the popularity of swing and blues and rock 'n' roll. I remember Leon Redbone said once that the big break in 20th century music was not in the '50s when rock came in; it was when swing and jazz knocked off parlor piano ballads in the late '20s and early '30s. Do you ever wish that old style had stuck around a little longer?"

"Today," replied Dylan, "the mad rush of the world would trample over delicate music like that. Even if it had survived swing and jazz it would never make it past Dr. Dre. Things changed economically and socially. Two world wars, the stock market crash, the depression, the sexual revolution, huge sound systems, techno-pop. How could anything survive that? You can't imagine parlor ballads drifting out of high-rise multi-towered buildings. That kind of music existed in a more timeless state of life. I love those old piano ballads. In my hometown walking down dark streets on quiet summer nights you would sometimes hear parlor tunes coming out of doorways and open windows. Somebody's mother or sister playing 'A Bird in a Gilded Cage' off of sheet music. I actually tried to conjure up that feeling once in a song I did [on Shot of Love] called 'In the Summertime'."

2. Dylan on Randy Newman

"Randy. What can you say? I like his early songs, 'Sail Away,' 'Burn Down the Cornfield,' 'Louisiana,' where he kept it simple. Bordello songs. I think of him as the Crown Prince, the heir apparent to Jelly Roll Morton [pictured above]. His style is deceiving. He's so laid back that you kind of forget he's saying important things. Randy's sort of tied to a different era like I am."Madonna 1985

3. Some loser on new music

"Pop picking is a fast and furious business these days," said the liner notes on the Beatles' first album. In 1985, writing about the marketing of hit records, I commented on Madonna's presence in New Zealand:

[This year] her image seemed ubiquitous: clones wandered down Queen Street and haunted Manners Mall wearing lace gloves, corselettes and rosary beads, as the seamless melody of 'Into the Groove' flowed from boutique to boutique. Madonna was just this year's model. A new product to be promoted, sold, used, and - inevitably - abandoned.

I was today reacquainted with this prescient piece of tipsterology in A Foreign Egg in Our Nest?, Geoff Lealand's 1988 book on American popular culture in New Zealand. Unlike me, he had the wisdom to hedge his bets: "A year or so on, however, this prophecy has yet to be fulfilled for Madonna's records still make the New Zealand Top 20 and her fitful film career and personal life continue to be newsworthy. It is possible, however, that her light will dim in another year or two as the possibilities to ring changes on her persona (the Virginal Tart) become more and more limited; to be yet another half-remembered personality of the past. So far, however, she has persisted."

4. Stick to your knitting

In global headline news today, 24 years later, Madonna fell off her horse. I think I'll stick to better bets than pop picking, such as the new horse-racing phenomenon, the four-year-old Overdose. He has just won 12 races out of 12 starts; I'm on him for the second leg of the double at Budapest. “We didn’t expect anything from the horse when he arrived,” Sandor Ribarszki, the horse’s trainer, told the New York Times. The paper described Ribarszki as “a quick-witted joker who has called Overdose 'short' and 'kind of ugly.' Now Mr Ribarszki said he had trouble sleeping at night, wondering if anything had happened to the horse.”