26 September 2008

Bail Out

The New York Times quote of the day:

"The situation is like that movie trailer where a guy with a deep, scary voice says, 'In a world where credit markets are frozen, where banks refuse to lend to each other at any price, only one man, with one plan can save us'."

Jared Bernstein, of the Economic Policy Institute, on the push for a financial bailout.

23 September 2008

Comic hero

1. Ponsonby Graphic
I had heard murmurings of legendary comic artist Barry Linton's magnum opus - a science fiction epic, apparently - so it was good to read of progress, and an explanation, in the latest Listener (27 Sept). It's called Lucky Aki in the New Stone Age, and excerpts will first appear in a Christchurch art gallery. It isn't science fiction, but a "fictional prehistoric geography in which to explore humanity's (and his own) search for understanding the world," beginning 5500 years ago in what became Iraq. Comic historian Tim Bollinger's warm tribute to Linton mentions the sense of place that has always been apparent in Linton's work, especially its portrayal of a Pacific Auckland, and a gritty Ponsonby before it was gentrified. Dylan Horrocks has often championed Linton, who is regarded as a godfather of graphic story-telling by the comix community. He's a national treasure who should get one of those Icon medals, and some cash. Meanwhile, it's worth seeking out the most autobiographical strip that Linton has ever done, in Landfall #180 (December 1991). It's the centrepiece of a special Hamilton issue, guest edited by Alan Brunton, in which Linton looks with humour and wistfulness at his 1950s and 60s Waikato childhood. Horrocks has written his own profile of Linton - graphically, of course, in the anthology Look This Way: New Zealand Writers on New Zealand Artists. (The exhibition is at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Christchurch, until October 12.)

2. Channel Surfing
I am on a D-Day kick. It started with The Big Show, Alison Parr's collection of oral histories of New Zealanders involved in the invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. That these are the war stories our fathers never told us goes without saying - they never did - but there is another reason. New Zealand soldiers weren't involved in D-Day: they were too busy in Italy and the Pacific. But here we have first-hand accounts from New Zealand airmen and sailors: farm boys who became pilots dropping parachutists to almost certain death, a radar engineer stranded on the dreaded Omaha Beach, a bomber who survived the Dambusters raid now miles from the action, precisely dropping tinfoil as a diversion. To a man, they are deeply moving. Because they're not men: they're all about 21. To be so young, and watch the doors of the landing craft open, and your peers dive straight into an onslaught ... Parr edits the interviews expertly - some will have required a lot of work to make them flow - and as she says, print cannot convey the emotion of hearing the voices. The stuttering, the pauses. (Related web feature with interview transcripts and audio here.)

3. Dawn Chorus
The next port of call of course was not Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day, but The World at War, which I re-watched five years ago for the first time since its original screening here in 1974. The fact New Zealand had only one TV channel, and no videos, weren't the only reasons the nation stopped and watched together. This compelling series is still the ultimate example of documentary making, letting the pictures do most of the talking, Larry Olivier providing context in his sparse narration (he made suggestions when he should shut up, though there is the odd camp moment when he should have). The D-Day episode is called Morning and it starts with a shot of an empty Normandy beach, with archival audio from Winston Churchill. He is speaking to the French people in 1940, post-Dunkirk, promising they will be back: "Goodnight then: sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come." The World at War should be re-run every few years on taxpayer television, but meanwhile it is available cheaply as a boxset from overseas suppliers, with lots of episodes we never saw. Watching it again was another reminder of the travesty that was the mid-1990s series New Zealanders at War: ignorant and sensationalist, even for the arrogant larrikin producer/director Neil Roberts. I hope they kept all the raw interview footage so someone can do a decent job with it one day; the interviewees are almost all gone now.

4. You're Nicked
Staying with the 1970s golden age of television, I was given an episode of The Sweeney. Cultural gatekeepers may be namechecking The Wire, which is indeed excellent: Sopranos without the humour, Deadwood without the swearing, and less violence than both, just credible character and scripts. But what a delight to see John Thaw and Dennis Waterman taking on the crims of the dirty old town in a hotted-up Austin Allegro; the big collars, bad rugs, East End chancers and posh totty. This era has been recently revisited by Roger Donaldson in his entertaining caper flick, The Bank Job. But today I was reading the obit of Harry Challenor, who sounded like a real-life version of Thaw's character, Jack Regan. Challenor was a wartime SAS hero later nicked for being a corrupt cop in Soho (planting evidence). Being a paranoid schizophrenic seems to have had something to do with his courage, and his poor decisions. "I accept I'm mad," he once said. I don't say mentally ill, that's a bloody silly expression. I'm mad and I get on with it."

5. Give the Drummer Some
When a lightbulb blows, you always know that a bunch more will expire within a few days. It's odd, this roll call of R&B legends that have died recently, it's like their batteries just ran out. Two more last week: Norman Whitfield, who wrote 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone' and 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine', and Earl Palmer, the engine room of R&B. Palmer was the drummer on all the early hits that came out of New Orleans, and helped turn R&B into rock'n'roll. His biography was apparently disappointing, but it had the perfect title, Backbeat. He played on 'Tutti Frutti', 'Tipitina', 'Long Tall Sally', 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy', 'I'm Walkin' and countless others. After moving to LA - like many New Orleans musicians, after Harry Connick's dad closed down the clubs - he became a top session drummer, with 'You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling' among his many contributions. His specialty was the shuffle, a primal rhythm that is deceptively difficult to play. The best place to read about him is in The Big Beat, Max Weinberg's fascinating collection of interviews with top drummers. I saw Palmer play once, an old man in a tuxedo, dominating a room full of legends. Also present at the 1994 gig, in an old theatre on Canal Street, was a stunning R&B pianist from the 1950s, Edward Frank. Allen Toussaint put his arm round Frank's shoulders and said, "this is the pianist we all looked up to." He was still playing boogie brilliantly, like four hands taking on 88 keys. The extraordinary thing was, even in his 1950s heyday, Frank was paralysed and could only play with one hand.

15 September 2008

Godfather 4

CUE: music (right click)

The heads of four families met on Sunday to discuss a crisis that affects them all. Besides the code of Omerta, there is the brotherhood: all for one, and one for all. When all of you are in trouble, that is.

Wall Street is imploding; with one powerful investment group company filing for bankruptcy, and another selling for a mere $US50 billion, half its value. It makes the Bada Bing look like a pizza parlour.

From their Sunday golf games, barbecues and children’s birthday parties, they came in their leather-upholstered limos.

Like the Feds on a stake-out, the New York Times was there to snap them as they assembled for the war summit. Clockwise from top left: Steve Black (JPMorgan), Peter Kraus (Merrill Lynch), Vikram Pandit (Citigroup) and Robert Wolf (UBS).

Fade to black.

14 September 2008

Book ’em Danno

1. Peter’s Pence
This 1977 book leapt off the shelf at the library during the week. A curious specimen, as it admits in the blurb, “not an easy book to classify. Some of it is fiction, set partly in the near future; there are also many exciting, factual episodes …” Adrian Hayter was ex-career Army, and an accomplished international yachtsman (I feel a conspiracy coming on), who ended up working at Outward Bound (very useful, when you’re outward bound).

A page falls open at random (honest). Deciphering it may be difficult. The scene: a National Party meeting, only about 15 elderly people out of the 800 party members in the valley. Someone takes the floor:

‘National has entered the competition with Labour of buying votes with the promise of material rewards, what they call free benefits. National still shouts about free enterprise and individual freedom, but in fact it has left us with neither a check on advancing socialism nor an alternative to it.’

Okay, let’s turn the page:

‘It would take too long to pass the one copy around,’ continued the president. ‘But I’ll read out the main items.’ The income from subscriptions and donations came to about $2200 (in modern jargon). ‘Expenditure,’ he continued, ‘goes under the usual heading of hire of halls, postage, travelling expenses of executive members, salaries, and a few casual items under sundries.’

The salary of the paid party organiser, which is was rumoured took most of the income, was not mentioned or requested. He was a touchy individual who always threatened to resign when annoyed, and no one else was prepared to take on his job.

‘How much under sundries?’ I asked. Immediately a party stalwart leapt to his feet. ‘Mr Chairman, I’m sure we have sufficient confidence in the executive to accept the accounts as read. Discussion can be endless on this subject …’

2. The Living Daylights
Writer’s block? Isn’t that something that happens when there are no distractions? The Independent has a piece this weekend asking various people if they’ve ever suffered from it. In 1977 Time magazine ran a humorous essay on this, and suggested that one of the cures was to bail out of the office and take yourself to a James Bond movie, they’re so full of mad ideas. James Bond at the time was played by teak-in-a-safari-suit, Roger Moore. The screenwriter who worked on the Bond flicks in the 1970s wrote back to Time and said, thanks for the compliment. But what do I do when I get blocked?

Here’s what war historian Anthony Beevor told the Independent, which seems recognisable:
It’s certainly different between historians and novelists. Novelists have an excuse, whereas historians don’t. There’s always other work to be getting on with. There are moments when structure, say, can present a problem, but you just have to get on with something else, and the solution will come to you in an alternative moment. There can be times when the material you’re working on seems so appalling that you become psychologically depressed, but when it’s going well you have to follow the winning streak, often working very late to make up for the times when it isn’t going so well.

3. Remainders
Publishing in the golden age, before they banned the long lunches … now it’s not so much Mad Men as Marketing Men (or women). In the New York Times Book Review Bruce Jay Friedman considers The Time of Their Lives, Al Silverman’s memoir of US publishing in the 1950s and ’60s. When WH Auden turned up at Random House in carpet slippers, manuscript in hand, and said, “I’d like to have my money right now.” When the founder of Doubleday suffered from flatulence, so none of the characters in Doubleday books were allowed to fart. When sexism ruled:

Jane Friedman, who became president of HarperCollins, began as an assistant at Random House in 1967. “Bennett Cerf . . . would come over and pull my ponytail,” she recalled. As a board member at Harper, Ursula Nordstrom, a noted children’s book editor, was asked at an all-male meeting to make coffee and said she didn’t know how. Despite the roadblocks, women made their mark. Judith Jones, a secretary at Doubleday’s Paris bureau, was asked to write rejection letters for a pile of manuscripts. One caught her attention. In tears, she mailed it off to Doubleday in Manhattan. The Diary of Anne Frank was published in 1952.

And there are also The Ones That Got Away:

In turning down The Godfather, all three editors at Atheneum concurred: “The Mafia is coming out of our ears.” What was Mike Bessie of Harper thinking when he found his interest “flagging” and rejected Lolita? Still, one feels some sympathy for New American Library’s Victor Weybright when he learns that he might lose the reprint rights to The Catcher in the Rye and “breaks into a cold sweat.”

08 September 2008

Delta dawn

IN SEARCH OF THE BLUES: Black Voices, White Visions

By Marybeth Hamilton (Jonathan Cape)

Marybeth Hamilton did not go down to the crossroads in search of the blues. She went there to turn clich├ęs upside down. Her groundbreaking book doesn’t pretend to be a history of the genre; instead Hamilton goes in search of those who originally went in search of the blues. She describes the early song-collectors, ethnomusicologists and record obsessives, and examines how their work evolved into an accepted, party line on how the blues came down from the Delta. All had different agendas but one thing in common: they were after an authentic voice, one that existed before sheet music or the wax cylinder.

Her earliest Livingston to explore the unmapped Southern musical jungle is white sociologist Howard Odum who in 1906 ventured out to record “coon songs”. He accidentally recorded the blues in a condition regarded by collectors as the Holy Grail: in its natural state, before record companies got to it. But, appalled by the licentiousness and degradation he witnessed, Odum transcribed his cylinders then threw them away.

Twenty years later, Dorothy Scarborough followed in Odum’s footsteps. She was a daughter of the Confederacy, nostalgic for the days when the plantation was allegedly a source of transcendent singing. She was much more comfortable transcribing the memories of elderly whites who had learnt to sing and dance from their beloved black mammies. Scarborough was appalled by WC Handy – he commercialised the blues – and turned down the opportunity to be the first musicologist to hear Leadbelly.

Instead, John Lomax exposed Leadbelly’s “pure” blues outside the prison walls, and with his son Alan – who discovered Muddy Waters – the Lomaxes became the century’s most famous ethnomusicologists. But for all the good they achieved, their methods are now regarded with scepticism. Lomax senior was paternalistic and wanted to keep Leadbelly’s music uncontaminated (no Gene Autry songs, please). Lomax junior was more of a political activist – he fled the US during McCarthyism, the FBI on his tail – but he still gave himself the copyrights to traditional songs.

Hamilton portrays John McKune as the original record-collecting misanthrope, always looking for a 78 that was primeval, authentic and preferably unknown. McKune championed Charley Patton over the romanticised Robert Johnson but, like the latter, he died mysteriously: his body was found gagged, bound and naked, his legendary record collection nowhere to be found.

Hamilton describes how McKune’s acolytes – the 1960s “blues mafia” – lead to the Delta blues enjoying its “most authentic” status, despite the evidence that 1940s Delta jukeboxes were playing 78s by Count Basie and Fats Waller rather than local bluesmen.

Scratch a folkie in search of the authentic and a feud quickly rises to the surface. Hamilton shows the Delta blues became far more popular long after its 1930s heyday, thanks to the white evangelists – although their uncompromising, hypocritical attitudes would have banished blacks to reservations, as long as the music stayed pure. In just 200 dense, fascinating pages, Hamilton’s intellectual rigour causes us to reconsider the evolution of the 20th century’s most influential musical style. - Chris Bourke

04 September 2008

Gone up North for a while

1. Juno to Juneau
Sometimes the obvious headline is the best one, until it gets over used. That’s already happened with J2J: the director of Juno, Jason Reitman, doesn’t even want to talk about it.
But he did admit this much: “You’ve got a 17-year-old pregnant teenager, and Juneau is the capital of Alaska. The coincidence is cute.”

2. Northern exposure
The Juneau connection made me think of the first time I’d heard of the place: Jonathan Raban’s 1999 book Passage to Juneau, in which he takes a solo sea voyage through the Northwest Passage from Seattle, Washington, to Juneau, Alaska. As with his first sea voyage, Coasting, it was the personal journey that resonated most. But it reminded me that in the 1992 election Raban wrote a brilliant piece in the Los Angeles Times Magazine analysing the change in Bill Clinton’s use of language as that year
s campaign progressed. He started out with complex, intellectual, vocab-challenging verbosities. He finished using Good Ol’ Boy aphorisms. Earlier this year Raban considered how the language Rev Jeremiah Wright – the bogey man of black evangelism – had influenced that of his most famous parishoner, Barack Obama. Raban’s occasional journalism is available on-line. He has lived in Seattle since 1990, and this Englishman abroad is always good on US politics. I’d love to hear his take on what’s going on in Juneau.

3. When You’re Hot, You’re Hot
Jerry Reed, who died this week in Nashville,
had a breakthrough when Chet Atkins told him to put more of his own personality in his songwriting. ‘US Male’ and ‘Guitar Man’ quickly followed and they were instant hits for Elvis in his allegedly moribund post-army period. The songs were autobiographical of both men: ‘Guitar Man’ is a redneck road-song to match Chuck Berry’s ‘Promised Land’. Reed’s picker quits his job at the carwash, writes his mama a goodbye note and leaves town by sundown, his guitar hidden under his coat. He drifts South, bums a ride to Macon, Georgia, and finds a job as a swingin’ guitar man in Mobile. It was perfect for the big finale of Elvis’s comeback special, but here’s a leather-clad version from elsewhere in the 1968 show. Reed was no fool; he courageously told the Colonel he was keeping the publishing on his two songs. But he didn’t rest on his laurels collecting royalties. Like Roger Miller, he just had fun following his instincts. He starred in the Smokey and the Bandit series, had other hits like ‘When You’re Hot, You’re Hot’ and the great swamp-rocker, ‘Amos Moses’. One of his last hits was ‘She’s Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)’. Which brings me to …

4. When You’re Not, You’re Not

A high-profile broadcasting personality. A stoush with the missus. Warrants for an arrest. A career in tatters. Andy Kershaw, this is your life.

5. Yellow Man

Okay, last connection to Elvis. What will Rodney Hide’s next unwise fashion statement be: wearing his Y-fronts outside his trousers? With his obsessive blitzing of Winston recently, trying every which way to tie the man they call Luigi in knots, Rockin’ Rod may feel he is now dancing with the stars. But I don’t think he’s quite pulled this one off yet: here is how a man in a yellow jacket dances with a star.