18 January 2008

Do the Hustle

December 1, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 30, 2007

The public broadcasting charter at work.

From the TVNZ News website:

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

Which gives me an opportunity to dig out:

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

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


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

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

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

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

November 28, 2007

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

November 18, 2007

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

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

November 6, 2007

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

Ron Morrieson (with guitar) jamming with some mates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, what’s the good news, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

November 2, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, looking forward to the book. It's a brilliant idea. I was tickled to see the picture of RHM on your blog. Ronald Hugh Morrieson has always been a favourite New Zealand character of mine, and I've always wondered about his jazz playing days. Julia Millen's biography seemed to sweep a bit too easily over that part of his life. Morrieson himself doesn't mention them much in his novels either. Whereas his music seems to be at the core of his life and personality to me. I have a new Mysterex (from late last year) and a short novel in which Morrieson is a character which I'd like to send you. Could you send me your mailing address (to mysterex@xtra.co.nz) so I can slip them in the post. I'm also setting up a blogspot at the moment to make available online all my 1960s, punk and post-punk, and critical writing at mysterex.blogspot. Am presently on myspace. I'm now living in Hamilton studying for my Masters in New Zealand Cultural History. A bit of a shock to the system after being in the wilderness for two decades.

hope the words are flowing, and all the best, Andrew Schmidt