31 December 2008

Summer ear-worm

As much as I like melancholic music, I prefer my pop to come from the sunnier side of the street. I've been playing this song most days for the last couple of months: 'Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)' by Of Montreal. From their 2005 album The Sunlandic Twins, on this number Of Montreal are like the Scissor Sisters meet the Beach Boys, but musically they are all over the place. Led by Kevin Barnes, they were originally from Athens, Georgia. Turns out they're visiting New Zealand soon, playing the King's Arms in Auckland on February 25, and Wellington's San Francisco Bath House on February 26. This clip from a recent Letterman show may give an idea of what to expect.

The self-confidence man

Native Wit, by Hamish Keith (Random House, $45)

HKcover Reviewed by Chris Bourke

It is the Summer of Love, 1967, and Hamish Keith is passing through San Francisco on a fact-finding trip funded by the cultural arm of the CIA. He turns on, tunes in, and takes notes. A “witchy folksinger” introduces him to rock sloganeer Country Joe, famous for his Fish and other four-letter words. He asks Keith what he does for a living. Or rather: “What is your bag, man?”

“Art historian.”

“Jeez, man,” says Joe. “What a shit of a way to change the world.”

Keith returns from his four-month trip a changed man, though outwardly everything seemed the same: his job, his family, his ambitions. He has the title of a Colin McCahon painting going through his mind: Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is.

Had the “safe, comfortable and respectably smug art historian” become a hippie? Not quite, but Country Joe’s words were right – and wrong. Keith now realised that art had to “re-enlist” in the world, and he had to engage more effectively with the world using art and culture as his vehicle. As the title of his recent tour-de-force television series suggested, he could see The Big Picture.

His first step was to stand for Labour in the bluer-than-blue seat of Remuera in 1969, to put culture on the political agenda. The manifesto now seems prescient; co-written by ideas-tsunami Gordon Dryden, it championed tourism, electronic education and the “creative industries”.

At the ballot-box the campaign was a failure but it was flamboyant, challenging, good fun and talked a great deal of sense. The same words could describe this memoir, and there is no need for a re-count: Keith has emerged, of course, the winner. Native Wit captures him in full flight, at the dinner table and at the pulpit. One suspects that for this gifted raconteur, the dinner table has always been a pulpit, and we can sit back and enjoy the anecdotes, the aphorisms and the acerbic asides.

The title is just right, capturing his cheek and his nationalism. It comes from a school report, in which his Christ’s College teacher wrote, “Gets by on native wit unsupported by hard work.” It has got him this far, though Keith is self-aware enough to also the dedication to thank “Luck, Pluck and Impudence.”

He often talks about having “a conversation with art”; the good thing about art, or television, or a memoir, is that there is no one to interrupt the flow. Keith has been on the cultural stage a long time, and the solo show is his best format.

HKbeardBut there are walk-on roles for an extraordinary bunch of characters. Drinking partners range from Mama Cass – who helped keep sobriety at bay during an Atlantic crossing – to Colin MacInnes. The English writer of Absolute Beginners stumbled into Keith near Auckland’s Kiwi Hotel, 1960s watering hole to students and aesthetes. Did he know where he could find a drink, and some art? The evening finishes in Keith’s front yard, with the pair watering a lemon tree without a can, alongside Colin McCahon, Eric McCormick, Maurice Shadbolt and others. He hosts a soiree for Germaine Greer, gatecrashed by lesbians with Alsatians. At a London dinner party he pontificates about script-writing then, after a guest departs, asks who that was: he seemed knowledgeable. “Harold Pinter. He writes plays.”

There are scores settled, usually with humour, against bureaucrats, arts cant, vandals, philistinism and the occasional friend who let him down. Mostly he keeps his family out of it; of his first marriage he says, “Honesty is not a licence to wound anyone, but about my part in what happened I can be more forthcoming.” Early on his heart is badly broken, first by a Christchurch debutante who runs into him on her bicycle (“Sorry,” she says, “I was thinking in French”). Later, he is seduced by a flaky bohemian jazz singer: “I was a boy, I was in love”. They have a child, adopted out.

An alter ego emerges, the womanising Captain Macheath: “not a good role model for sustainability.” A hearty participant in the contemporary sexual mores, he rues the hurt caused while also looking back with languor: “I behaved wonderfully badly.”

Besides the repertoire of outrageous stories, the book is dominated by his love affair with art. He shares his enthusiasms – Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Pat Hanly, Len Lye, Tony Fomison – and his passion is contagious. He speaks about art with such clarity, it is understandable that he has been so prominent as an advocate and agitator. The wilfully obscure arts apparatchiks may resent his high profile as gatekeeper and spokesman (chairman of the Arts Council in the 1970s, and of the futile “Heart of the Nation” exercise in 2000) but one of Keith’s main contributions has been his role as a plain-speaking devil’s advocate. He learnt to enjoy the pleasant sensation of having ideas that annoy people.

This is a life as a moveable feast, with a self-belief and cultural nationalism as its guide. During the journey he takes detours to expound on pet topics: heritage buildings, cars, committees, the vandalism towards Maori art (all that red paint), blockbuster exhibitions, sport as our national brand, state subsidies and also state miserliness. All accompanied by maxims, dropping like petals from a parade: Don’t get too attached to public art. Auckland teaches architecture but destroys it. When vision fails, process remains. Never let a good idea get in the hands of dumb people.

His current favourite epitaph is, “I told you it would happen but not in my lifetime.” Society hates a smart aleck, especially when they are right. Keith exhibits the self-assuredness of the self-made man (for years he has wanted to parody Ronald Hugh Morrieson with the line, “The day my father went bankrupt he enrolled me at Christ’s College”). But there is pathos to being a cultural early-warning system; at one point he asks, “Is anyone listening?”

A true conversation goes two ways, and now that this entertaining and provocative memoir has been produced, some may want a right of reply. That would be the response of a committee, and surely, Keith would argue, we are capable of something more creative.

(First published in the Sunday Star-Times, 14 September 2008. A transcript of Keith interviewing Pat Hanly in 1979 can be read at the Art New Zealand site.)

30 December 2008

Lost in music

charlie and billyThe New York Times edits an elegant sound montage of the musicians farewelled in 2008, and tells the story behind the most famous song by one of them. Lew Spence (below) composed ‘Nice ’n’ Easy,’ best known in its 1960 rendition by Frank Sinatra, although I prefer Charlie Rich's after-hours version from the late 1960s (Rich is seen here with the producer of it, Billy Sherrill). Spence's niece Toni Schulman described her uncle thus:

lew spence “He was very romantic. He loved women his whole life. He threw himself in over and over. When he met a woman he was attracted to, he was a goner. Once he met a woman wearing a green dress. There was no looking back. In the end, all he was left with was his song, ‘That Green Dress.’ My uncle had a very soft side to him, but he was not a cautious person. He was not nice ’n’ easy.”

20 December 2008

19 December 2008

Gentle Annie, 1931

GA1Something for those planning a motoring excursion this summer. Earlier this year came news that the notorious “Gentle Annie” road between Taihape and Napier would finally be sealed. In some ways this is a shame, though it has been a torturous, narrow, winding road since pioneering days, with 60km in gravel that doesn't make it any easier. But you are rewarded with wonderful views of the backblocks, where high country stations run to the tens of thousands of acres. And driving west to east - the best way to go - a panoramic vista of Hawke Bay opens up in front of you. Unfortunately some of the “tiger country” aspect of the trip has lost its adventurous feel, as bends get straightened out and plantations of pines at the Hawke's Bay end have covered the rugged, rocky ground where no sheep could ever get a feed. I just came across this account of a road trip from Auckland to Napier over the Gentle Annie in the week of the 1931 Napier earthquake; it's a shame the author is anonymous, and the make of motor vehicle.

A Trip to the ’Quake Area

When news of the Hawke’s Bay earthquake was received in Auckland last Tuesday, a friend of mine who has relatives in Napier telephoned me to say that he was setting out for the devastated area at once. Would I come? There was but one reply. I hurriedly packed a suit of pyjamas, a toothbrush, a bottle of whisky and a loaf of bread into my oldest suitcase, bundled a travelling rug under my arm, for we realised that we might have to sleep out, and off we went.

The whisky, I might explain, was not for the driver’s consumption. It was intended for sufferers in the earthquake area, as was the bread. None we found in Napier was in urgent need of either whisky or bread, but they were not wasted.

We left Auckland on Tuesday afternoon, making for Taupo. At that time no definite news had come through as to the state of the roads, and we hoped to get through the shortest way, by the direct route from Taupo.


The powerful car left mile after mile behind her. We maintained a high average speed, as was necessary if, as we proposed, we were to go right through that night. To Taupo in six hours was good going, especially as the Atiamuri road, which we took, is not in the best order. The inevitable stoppages for benzene, oil, and one stop for puncture near Tirau, slowed the rate of speed.

At Taupo the only news from outside regarding the earthquake was coming over the air. We encountered one distracted woman who, while going to dinner at her hotel in Rotorua, had heard the radio announcement of the death of her daughter, a nurse in the Napier hospital. She, like ourselves, was making for Napier but there was no telephone communication beyond Tarawera and advices at Taupo were strongly against attempting the road. As we were debating whether or not to “give it a go,” a Baby Austin pulled into the hotel. Its driver had turned back from Te Pohue. Beyond that point, he said, was chaos. As it happened, he could, as we later found, have got through by way of Rissington side road, but had not known of its existence. We assumed that this, too, was blocked, and decided to attempt the little known Taihape-Napier road, one of the steepest and most picturesque motor runs in the country.


After supper and a cup of stimulating tea, we pushed on from Taupo. The change in the route was to add many miles to our journey. From Taupo, the way led round the lake to Tokaanu, across to Waiouru by way of the lonely back road, and on past Hihitahi to the Moawhango turnoff.

A bright moon made driving easier, but it was nevertheless a great strain, as we were making all possible speed. Some parts of the Taupo-Tokaanu road are difficult. Notably the winding descent of the steep-sided fissure known at Earthquake Gully. Owing to the  fords at the southern end of the lake, we decided to wait till daylight, and pulled into the scrub for three hours of fitful sleep (interspersed with vicious slaps at mosquitoes).

In the daylight the driving was easier, but we were a a crumpled and dishevelled looking band when we alighted from the car at Tokaanu. The road on to Waiouru has been much improved of recent years, but here again there are several river crossings, and for several miles out from Tokaanu the roads wind continuously. Near Waiouru some long flat stretches across the lonely, arid countryside allowed us to make up time. On the main road from Waiouru we could at times touch 60 miles an hour, but the turn off to Moawhango, where a heavily-laden signpost showed us the direction to be taken, took us again into the hills.


We were now heading eastward for Napier. The country was fairly lofty, but good sheep land. The road continuously twisted and turned. On our left was the 10,000 acre sheep run of TC Lowry, the New Zealand cricket captain. AT length we reached Erewhon station, a very pretty place, and began the descent into the deep valley of the Rangitikei, which is crossed by a modern concrete suspension bridge. We had been rather ga2worried about the bridge, as we feared the earthquake might have brought it down. From the river the road ascends on to the lonely Otupae plateau, consisting of very elevated tussock country. Looking back from one of the many gates, there was a glorious view of Mount Ruapehu, a long line of peaks. The sides of the undulating plateau, several miles away, fell into dark valleys, whence rose steeply-scarped peaks.

Coming off the plateau, the road runs on top of a high saddle, sloping to a river one each side. This river, the Taruarau, joins the Ngaruroro lower down. Winding down the spur, we at length crossed a crazy old bridge, followed grass tracks across a paddock, and immediately rose into the hills again. All this is great deer-stalking country, steep, lonely, and bleak.


Through a pretty glen we reached a dangerous looking ford, with a terrific gradient on the other side. A few more miles of this brought us to the crest of Gentle Annie, commanding a wonderful view over the upper Ngaruroro, with the hamlet of Kuripapango down below us. The descent of Gentle Annie, by a corkscrew road round slopes hundreds of feet in depth, was a hair-raising experience. Crossing the Ngaruroro on a bridge high above the water, we stopped for a few minutes at Snelling’s accommodation house, with its wonderful collection of deer heads, and then pushed on over the last of the main ranges.

In the old days Studholme, GP Donnelly, Birch brothers, and others of the old-time squatters packed their wool out by this route. Now it is becoming a passable road for motorists, though not commended for nervous people. After descending the Blowhard, the last big hill, another hour or so took us into Napier. Careful driving was necessary, as the roads were cracked and fissured.

In Napier were many Auckland motorists. We formed a camp with some others in a swaying garage at what had once been one of Napier’s finest private residences. The whisky came in useful, for whenever a marine or other sentry stopped us from traversing a road along which we wanted to go, we simply produced the whisky bottle and it acted as a talisman.

NZ Observer, 12 February 1931

(Maps from the top: Philips' New Comparative Dominion Atlas, 1932; Atlantic Union Oil map, 1932; AARD Motor Services Association, 1932 - the latter two are details from Map New Zealand: 100 Magnificent Maps from the Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library (Godwit, Auckland: 2006) which is indeed magnificent.)

09 December 2008

Annals of Journalism

1. Playboy Jazz Festival

From today's Associated Press:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Playboy Enterprises says Christie Hefner, the daughter of founder Hugh Hefner, is stepping down as chairman and chief executive. Playboy Enterprises Inc has named director Jerome Kern to serve as interim non-executive chairman while it looks for a replacement.

And, in a radical move for Playboy, Cole Porter has been announced its first gay CEO.

2. Creative writing

"To Kill a Songbird," by the NZ Herald's award-winning columnist Paul Holmes.

Please help. Is this satire, or was that a jazz cigarette?

3. Fortune teller

Why the Times Literary Supplement doesn't have a business page:

"Iceland is a success story, even by Scandinavian standards. It was
ranked first in the world in the most recent table of the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index rankings and regularly appears in lists of the world's happiest countries. The abundant geothermal energy and buoyant economic conditions go hand in hand with a well-balanced society whose cultural output belies its small size and population."

- Lucy Dallas, 'Hopelandic glory,' TLS, 11 July 2008

08 December 2008

A love that lasts forever

Graham Reid talks to Yoko Ono and reviews Philip Norman's new biography; Kim Hill talks to the author.

Meanwhile, the dream is over ...

07 December 2008


Gimme_Shelter_poster1. Just a kiss away
I hadn't heard of Baird Bryant but he was responsible for one of the most gripping images in a documentary. There were 20 cameramen at Altamont, but he was the one who filmed Meredith Hunter being murdered by the Hell's Angels. Bryant's footage captured a moment that revealed Hunter was carrying a pistol. In a brilliant idea - which would give a PR agent conniptions now - the editor of Gimme Shelter Charlotte Zwerin suggested they show the clip to Mick Jagger, and film him while he watched it. When the violence broke out at Altamont, Jagger limply said to the crowd, "Who's fighting and what for?" The Angels, who looked like extras from Planet of the Apes on PCP, didn't take a damn bit of notice of the camp limey. Still one of the greatest music documentaries - it has a real, edgy narrative that builds to a climax, and terrific music - Gimme Shelter was the Maysles brothers' masterpiece, and not equalled until Dig. But Bryant, who died recently aged 81, did more than just hold a camera on that day: he shot the folk-rock doco Celebration at Big Sur and also the trippy New Orleans sequence in Easy Rider. In the 1950s he hung out with Ginsberg and Burroughs in Paris, drafted an early translation of The Story of O and wrote erotica. Celebration at Big Sur captures the sun setting on California hippies at a festival in 1969, with early footage of Joni Mitchell and CSNY, plus John Sebastian and Joan Baez; it's cut up into bite-sized portions on YouTube. But here is Bryant's most famous moment ...

2. Standing in the shadows

Elvis at a last supper with greaseball apostles, Little Richard as circus act, Jerry Lee Lewis in all manner of sleazy incarnations, the Beatles taking tea with the Queen ... these unforgettable images were by Guy Peellaert, the illustrator of the classic Rock Dreams, who died recently. His air-brushed, hallucinogenic portraits of the rock'n'roll pioneers said more than 1000 verbose rock critics. The captions were by the master of the one-liner, Nik Cohn, Bob Dylan Guy Peellaert Rock Dreamsand as Paul Rambali said, they were "a reminder that brevity is the soul of pop." A sample: "Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke, shot dead in a motel, was black but dressed up white, sang Soul but wrote Teendreams, wagged his ass but gently, with a certain deference." Peellaert spent three years on the drawings, Cohn just a fortnight on the captions, and it sold a million copies. (What took Cohn so long? His timeless rock history Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom only took six weeks.) Jagger hired Peellaert to paint the cover of It's Only Rock'n'Roll, Bowie for Diamond Dogs (the dog/man's testicles were later painted out), Scorsese for the poster of Taxi Driver, Wim Wenders for Paris, Texas. Michael Herr (Dispatches) wrote the foreward to a Rock Dreams reissue. For a salon of cynicism, Peellaert was court portraitist. All the images from Rock Dreams are on his website, along with his other books.

3. Woke up this morning

… and wondered who is killing the graphic artists of rock’n’roll? The third to go to the great inkwell in the sky is the NME cartoonist Ray Lowry. Over many years he took the michael out of solipsistic rock musicians and their fans, and thought up endless variations on the opening line of Robert Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’. But his most famous piece of artwork is the cover of the Clash’s London Calling, for which he took a Pennie Smith photo of Paul Simonon smashing his guitar and turned it into an update of Elvis’s first album.

06 December 2008

Talking Blues

1. New Zild Spoke Here

The Dominion Post's official curmudgeon Karl Du Fresne recently wrote an impassioned post about the decline of the
New Zealand accent. Apparently it is happening very quickly - too fast - and being driven mostly by young women. A few years ago TVNZ made one of those cheap, quickie compilation programmes looking at "The 80s". The most surprising thing about it was the over-elocuted way of speaking used by our public broadcasters such a short time ago. They sounded like aliens from another planet, their speech completely at odds with the population at the time. Much of what Du Fresne says is hard to argue with - TV sports broadcasters in particular make me grimace - but I have a problem with the phrase "misguided egalitarianism". I think I prefer that to the spurious elitism conveyed by those of a previous generation, often from the so-called "better schools". As Du Fresne and I both attended the same Dickensian asylum, 10 years apart, there is no class struggle in my comments. But the argument that broadcasters should reflect their community has been kicked around for a while, as this 1954 piece from Truth shows. It was written just after the first QE2 roadshow; obviously there weren't too many Irish accents on air back then.

accents 5

This last comment [Truth continues] is usually based upon the choice of YA announcers' accents (all emphatically, but not always authentic, BBC). The BBC is a well-regarded institution in New Zealand and, as it has already demonstrated most convincingly during the Coronation, it records and describes British national spectacles most convincingly.
     Critics of NBS announcing accents want to know why more typically New Zealand voices cannot be used when the setting of the spectacle is in New Zealand. The typical New Zealand voice - if there is such a thing - is most definitely not that of most YA announcers.
     If the pronounced New Zealand accent does not come well over the air, there are many varieties of it that do.
     Another criticism is that too many ecstatic adjective were used by some of the NBS announcers. There is no doubt whatever about the enthusiasm of New Zealand crowds and their admiration for her Majesty and the Duke.

     Critics think that fewer adjectives and a more factual description of the scenes of enthusiasm would have emphasised this point instead of conveying a faint suggestion of being forced and overdone.
     For instance, it is argued, the best way to demonstrate the enthusiasm of a crowd is not merely to keep on repeating that it is enthusiastic in tones of mounting frenzy, but to describe some of the examples immediately in front of the observer.
     This is a recognised BBC technique and the NBS could copy this, possibly with more effect than by copying the BBC accent.
     But, on the whole, the consensus of opinion is that the NBS is doing well, if according to an orthodox pattern.
2. Having a blow

DR jitterbug headlineA three-day
jazz festival in Wellington next March offers a very approachable but credible line-up, with recent stars the Brad Mehldau Quartet and the acclaimed 14-piece Mingus Big Band from New York, along with bluesmen Otis Taylor and Eric Bibb, vibraphonist Roy Ayers, and some chap called Tomasz Stanko, who is known as the Polish Miles Davis.
     It seemed odd that they are billing this as Wellington's inaugural jazz festival, after the very successful 11-year run of the Wellington International Jazz Festival (I can understand they are unaware of the groundbreaking 1950s jazz festivals). What's in a word? Meanwhile, this crossed my desk, from Wellington's Evening Post in 1966:
The wail of a sad blue note would be the true Wellington jazzman's reply to thoughts on the tenor of the trade here today.
     The city's sound of '66 is the roaring whang of the hirsute breed in their Carnaby-offshoot clothing. Gear that's fab, mod, and the electronic oomph hold domination of the scene.
     Jazz, or what there is of it, has been driven off Main Street. It has slipped itself into the coffee-and-cream costume for the candle-lit environs of the wine and dine, where white-cloaked waiters hover in the background ...
     True jazz, then, in the Capital is currently down. But it's not out. It will come again. This is the way it has always been, for Wellington jazz is one long chapter of rise and decline.