14 October 2008

Three for the road

1. Attitude

do_the_right_thing I'll never forget being the only white guy in a rundown picture theatre in Astoria the summer of 1989 when the afrocentric Do the Right Thing came out. The papers - well, the Voice - were talking about nothing else (black critic Stanley Crouch panned it). There's an excellent profile of Spike Lee in the September 22 New Yorker which captures his still burning attitude, and how that has hindered his career. It closes with the writer John Colapinto asking Lee why he hasn't directed a TV ad for the Obama campaign: after all, the Obamas went to Do the Right Thing on their first date:

“You gotta be asked to do that stuff,” Lee said. “Look, if they need me, they know where I am. And in a lot of ways they might—” He paused. “You know, that shit could be used against them, too. ‘Spike Lee, the man who said so-and-so and so-and-so. Now he’s doing commercials for—’ ” He shrugged and smiled. “Sometimes you might be a liability,” he said finally. “Just got to lay in the cut.”

Elsewhere, he says that having a black president would change everything, people's psyche, and specifically African-Americans: “They don’t have to be shuckin’ and jivin’—doing the tap dance—to make a living. And I mean that ‘tap dancing’ figuratively, not literally, because no disrespect to the world’s greatest tap dancer, Savion Glover.”

I don't know Savion Glover, but the quote reminded me of a great black variety performer who grew up in the dying days of minstrelsy and ended up being patronised by Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack. A while back I came across this clip, in which Sammy Davis Jr paid tribute to a host of other performers, with Harold Arlen's timeless 'One for My Baby'. I must read Davis's autobiography ... that's odd, it was called Yes I Can. He achieved a lot in an era when he couldn't stay in the same Las Vegas hotels in which he was performing. What would he have done in this era?  

2. Mrs Brown's Daughter

The jury is still out on Tina Brown's new site The Daily Beast. Smartly designed, exuding that mix of brains and glitz, you can see why the investors went for it. But so far it feels a little corporate. The Huffington Post probably has similar backing and Rolodex of contacts, but has a guerilla madness about it that gives it an edge. The Huff's shrillness is off-putting, so maybe it's just a left alternative to Fox News; as a Hoboken friend pointed out to me in the 80s, yes the Village Voice has some good stuff in it, but so often it just seems like a smart, far-left answer to the (sensationalist, right-wing) New York Post. But this piece from The Daily Beast is an excellent use of the web: "How McCain Can Still Win". The design is so simple but clever: just by rolling your mouse over the image, you can read a precise of what several well-informed pundits think of McCain's chances. Despite what the polls say in the battleground states, hearing what the more rabid Republicans are saying - the ugly face of a more widespread, hidden racism - I'm not putting my share portfolio on an Obama victory. Oh that's right, I don't have one.

3. Type Cast

RFKset1-1x2_small helveticaMy first awareness of Helvetica was early in 1968 when a quasi-relative in the US sent out some buttons from RFK's doomed campaign. At the time the font seemed so fresh, so bold, so obviously from somewhere else than New Zealand in the era of Holyoake and one-channel TV. If you haven't seen it, the documentary Helvetica is fascinating. Here's a montage.

There are other viruses that we could eliminate first, but the use of Arial is certainly somewhere on the list. It's the rich man's Helvetica - Bill Gates is responsible - but the poor man's sans serif. Minnesota graphic artist and type designer Mark Simonson has an elegant site sharing his knowledge - and love - of classic type faces, and he has a great piece called "The Scourge of Arial":

Arial is everywhere. If you don’t know what it is, you don’t use a modern personal computer. Arial is a font that is familiar to anyone who uses Microsoft products, whether on a PC or a Mac. It has spread like a virus through the typographic landscape and illustrates the pervasiveness of Microsoft’s influence in the world. Arial’s ubiquity is not due to its beauty. It’s actually rather homely. Not that homeliness is necessarily a bad thing for a typeface. With typefaces, character and history are just as important. Arial, however, has a rather dubious history and not much character. In fact, Arial is little more than a shameless impostor.

Also worth checking out is his obsessive take on the errors film designers make when being lazy about the retro type faces they use. And recently he has cast his eye over the type in Mad Men: it must be very distracting looking at everything through a typographer's eye, sometimes you couldn't see the woodblock for the trees.

09 October 2008

07 October 2008

I read it in a magazine

1. Degrees of separation

At the New Yorker they talk about "church and state": the separation between the editorial and advertising departments. In its past life, the magazine kept those involved in the sordid task of paying for it on a separate floor of their building. Even in its current Conde Nast phase, interaction between the two areas is done with discretion and is always apparent to the reader. In an education into the inner workings of glossies I once - briefly - worked for an Australian publisher that almost required its editorial employees to ring the advertising dept to tip them off to product placement in any articles. And if there wasn't any mention of an interviewee's Louis Vuitton handbag, then why not?

NATURE-MAGAZINE-largeBut it is unwise to stay aloof from the advertising dept, even though they - accurately - just see editorial as the stuff in between their work. Last week's pulping of the Star-Times' Sunday magazine is a case in point: "themed advertising and editorial about breast cancer awareness month" does not sit well with a cover story about that burning issue, sunbeds. The answer is a simple mock layout of the magazine's contents with pencilled-in notes of what advertising sits where, before placing the editorial in the grid. But probably go-betweens with pencils don't exist anymore. Still, the Star-Times sensibly quit while they were ahead, so they didn't feel like the publishers of Nature magazine when eating their cornflakes, and spread their mag out to use as a placemat.

2. Raban parses Palin

After his excellent 1992 essay on Bill Clinton's language shifts during that election, I have been hoping that Jonathan Raban would turn his linguistic ear to the Palin phenomenon. He has just done it: in a recent London Review of Books Raban contributes "Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill". He is perfectly placed to do so, having lived in Seattle for nearly 20 years. In that time he has seen the dot-com boom come and go, and witnessed the societal shifts since 9/11, writing two excellent novels based there around those topics. He has perhaps despaired about the Bush administration as only an informed English intellectual in exile could do. From "Cut, Kill":

What is most striking about [Palin] is that she seems perfectly untroubled by either curiosity or the usual processes of thought. When answering questions, both Obama and Joe Biden have an unfortunate tendency to think on their feet and thereby tie themselves in knots: Palin never thinks. Instead, she relies on a limited stock of facts, bright generalities and pokerwork maxims, all as familiar and well-worn as old pennies. Given any question, she reaches into her bag for the readymade sentence that sounds most nearly proximate to an answer, and, rather than speaking it, recites it, in the upsy-downsy voice of a middle-schooler pronouncing the letters of a word in a spelling bee. She then fixes her lips in a terminal smile.

This was written, of course, before the vice-presidential debate, and Tina Fey's parody, which now blurs with the real thing. Negative reaction to the extraordinary governor of Alaska may be past media burnout already, and there could be a backlash at the electoral box-office, though ratings appear to solidifying in this easy-to-understand guide to the battleground states.

3. Cover lines

New-YorkBCThere's something deeply satisfying about picking up a magazine that knows what its doing, when all the elements fall into place: the perfect mix of light and dark, the surprise extra effort that rewards readers for their loyalty. This is one reason The Word continues to give so much pleasure: there is so much thought put into it, right down to its picture captions. And its extremely funny podcasts - basically raves between veteran editors David Hepworth and Mark Ellen - are an "added value" idea that keeps people coming back. (This one, about Ellen accidentally taking Lucinda Williams out to dinner on Valentine's Night, is a classic). There's a great display of the year's best magazine covers up for an award to be decided this week. Although this example (right) perhaps doesn't have instant impact for New Zealand readers - very view of whom would recognise disgraced governor Eliot "Ness" Spitzer - the simplicity of it catches the eye immediately, and for its intended audience, it's perfect.

4. Cooke's Tour

A few months ago I mentioned the impact of reading, 11 years after the event, Alistair Cooke's account of being in the room when Robert F Kennedy was shot. The Guardian has just published a selection of his classic talks: the showdown over Cuba, the revulsion over Joseph McCarthy, the cost of the Vietnam War, plus Ronald Reagan v Darth Vader (oh, and Bill and Monica, by which stage it was getting brutally obvious that it was time for the 90-year-old Cooke to close his correspondence). A friend of mine once had the job of editing Cooke for print, and it was the highlight of his week revelling in Cooke's prose to make it suit the written word, in the space available. The Guardian also offers archive audio of Cooke's deeply moving Letter From America just after JFK was assassinated, which explains the shock, and also what was lost when the New Frontier was shut down. In a succinct introduction, David Dimbleby considers the master's idiosyncratic style:

He would almost invariably open his Letter from America for the BBC with an anecdote or a description of the seasons or perhaps a reference to jazz or his favourite game, golf, "the Scottish Torture" or to the World Series. Sometimes these opening passages would last so long they reminded me of langorous days at school studying the similes in Matthew Arnold's epic poem Sohrab and Rustum and wondering, as with Arnold's long passages, where they would lead. They never disappointed, always, however circuitous the journey, finishing at some pertinent point which illustrated and so enhanced one's grasp of how the political system or culture of the United States worked.

5. On the good foot

If Bill Clinton thought he was Elvis - remember his Raybans and sax solo, like a bad Tom Cruise movie - then is Obama channelling Muhammad Ali or James Brown here? Is he showing admirable restraint for a man in a suit? I think the Obama campaign has missed the boat on its campaign song, though: all those earnest wimpy new-folkie types like Jack Johnston and Ben Harper and, who knows, Gwyneth Paltrow and other impact players blending the world into one big melting pot. Sounds like an old Coke ad. With such a perfect slogan, why not get on the good foot with the guy who - as his producer Allen Toussaint said - always sang with a smile on his face. Here's Lee Dorsey, backed by the Meters, with the title track of his great album Yes We Can. It inspired the Band to use horns on Rock of Ages.

01 October 2008

Singing! Shooting! Hypnotism!

Tex Morton book 1. Anzac Country

Tex Morton had more lives than a cat, and was about as cunning. You couldn't make it up: the godfather of country music in New Zealand and Australia was also a sharp-shooter and hypnotist, and would combine all three skills in his stage shows. Born Robert Lane in Nelson, he wandered the backroads of New Zealand in the early 1930s - finding his name on the side of a shed in Waihi - before shifting to Australia. He became a hobo and busker who reached Darwin before getting in trouble with the law. During his decade in the US, he befriended Errol Flynn and Gene Autry, went on tour with Hank Williams and got a PhD (possibly mail-order). Gordon Spittle has been researching the life of Tex for years, and has just published the results in The Tex Morton Songbook. It's actually more biography than songbook, with splendid archive photos that capture - along with the wry, colourful text - what a rich life Morton led. You can read the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entry on Morton, and order The Tex Morton Songbook here. While there grab a copy of Spittle's 1997 book Counting the Beat: the stories behind New Zealand's most loved popular songs, going from 'On the Ball' all the way to the Muttonbirds. It even includes the chord charts. It's one of the best written and useful books on New Zealand music.

2. Paeroa's other export

Lew edited A friend wrote this week to tell me of the death in May of Lew Campbell, one of New Zealand's most respected jazz musicians. A trumpeter and pianist, he was the kind of unsung hero that remained beneath the radar, probably because he was based in Sydney since the early 1960s. Campbell was one of three Maori brothers from Paeroa who were regarded with awe by their peers and audiences. Phil, the oldest, was regarded as the finest jazz trumpeter we ever produced, and George, a double-bass player, is probably best known for his part in the famous 'Geddes the Dentist' advert. Both George and Lew played behind Dizzy Gillespie when he came to New Zealand in the early 1960s, not a happy experience as there were no real rehearsals and no charts. All three Campbells were in the band of the Kiwi Concert Party, a stellar outfit that entertained the frontline troops in World War II, but tragically Phil was killed by a German shell in Italy towards the end of the war. Afterwards, Lew played in and wrote arrangements for radio bands, on tour with international visitors and in cabarets; he was briefly in the NZSO and spent more than two decades teaching at the Sydney Conservatorium. George and Lew Campbell were profiled, along with other 1950s Maori musicians in Auckland, in an evocative piece by John Berry in the January 1959 Te Ao Hou. (This photo is from there; every issue of Te Ao Hou has been put on-line by the National Library).

3. Bible basher

woody editAuckland, 1 October - MP George Hawkins has a bruised hand after fending off a large Bible which was hurled at him by a man in the audience at a church-run election meeting on Sunday night. The incident shocked about 160 people at the meet-the-candidates event organised by Manurewa Baptist Church. A local man in his 60s was quickly wrestled off the stage by two church members, who escorted him outside ... Mr Hawkins said his assailant's Bible was an 1860s edition and weighed 5kg.

Reading the above story today I couldn't help think of Woody Allen's routine "Bullet in my breast pocket" from his mid-1960s album Woody Allen: Standup Comic. The whole album is on YouTube, in several chunks. Or you can read the text of each piece on-line. In its entirety, "Bullet in my breast pocket" goes:

Years ago, my mother gave me a bullet...a bullet, and I put it in my breast pocket. Two years after that, I was walking down the street, when a berserk evangelist heaved a Gideon bible out a hotel room window, hitting me in the chest. That Bible would have gone through my heart if it wasn't for the bullet.

4. Subterranean blues

Doons editThis week between 60 and 70 jobs were cut from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age, many of them sub-editors due to the new fashion for out-sourcing. Recently Evolving Newsroom's Julie Starr linked to a "survival guide for sub-editors," originally in the Telegraph. It's full of smart ideas of how to keep the role relevant and your job necessary in the e-news era. Coincidentally a well-known US daily comic strip is dealing with this issue right now, and the lost, betrayed look of the senior journalist made redundant while banalities bombard him is very believable. You can subscribe to this and many other daily comic-strips through your email using the free ArcaMax service; it comes in handy when your local paper doesn't carry a personal favourite. Speaking of beleaguered subs, the punch-drunk look of these subs down in the bunker hiding from Giles Coren also rings true.

5. Grease and oil

Who would have thought: Sha Na Na re-wrote history. I hadn't thought about the late-60s doo-wop parodists for, oh, several decades until a certain broadcaster turned up talking sport with his mouth open. Then a friend sent me this recent think-piece from the Columbia University alumnae mag: "Sha Na Na and the Invention of the Fifties". The group were students from Columbia who just happened to get their act together in time for the Woodstock festival. But wait, there's more: Sha Na Na were actually "meta-historians, theoreticians of cultural history itself". Who would have thought? (Certainly it took the pointy-headed ex-Sha Na Na member who wrote the essay by surprise.) Before them, it was referred to as "the haunted 50s", all McCarthyism and grey-flannel-suits. After them, American Graffiti and Happy Days. Eric Hobsbawm named the concept "the invention of tradition" - it says here - and apparently the Scottish kilt was invented by a fellow who just wanted to sell tartans, and Sir Walter Scott was his ad-man. Next thing they'll be telling me Santa Claus was invented by Coca-Cola.