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.

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