26 October 2011


Real. : Bernardo Bertolucci
Robert De Niro
Dominique Sanda

Collection Christophel

In 1978, I experienced my first foreign epic, Bertolucci’s 1900 (Novacento). A propagandistic saga about class and coming of age, at a shortened 4.25 hours it was still a luxurious, grand folly. De Niro and Depardieu as childhood friends then competitors; the gorgeous Dominique Sanda; Burt Lancaster as a family patriarch; Donald Sutherland playing a Fascist as “only a very dedicated liberal” could: “hyperbolic … grotesque … curling of lips, baring of jagged teeth, and flashing of demented eyes …”

Next day, I found a copy of the New Yorker at the local library with “Hail, Folly!”, a review that praised Bertolucci’s “crazed utopian romanticism” while still being appalled by his vision, its flaws and the occasional horrific scene (one featuring Sutherland and a cat, hence that line above). The review was equally epic, flamboyant and unforgettable. The final lines were: “… a grand visionary folly. Next to it, all the other new movies are like something you hold up at the end of a toothpick.”

The critic was Pauline Kael, the issue was 31 October 1977, but the review is collected in her 70s anthology When the Lights Go Down. A new Kael collection and the first biography are about to be published, and the New Yorker has marked the occasion with an essay by Nathan Heller. The magazine’s astute sub-editor of its film reviews Richard Brody also blogs about Kael’s foibles, includes links to other tributes, and directs the reader to her collection of capsule reviews 5001 Nights at the Movies for the nearest she ever got to declaring her canon. When Kael died 10 years ago, Brody provided links to other tributes, at Salon and The Cooler; on her 80th birthday in 1999 Salon published “A Gift for Effrontery”, a profile of Kael, and they have just published a slideshow of their selections of great film books.

Without visiting the library though, we can spend half an hour in the company of the woman herself:

06 October 2011

Cannes without cant

It was probably in the dying days of one-channel NZBC-TV that I saw Lost in the Garden of the World, so it was unavoidable. But the 1975 documentary was unforgettable, because it was about New Zealand and the world, culture and identity. Most importantly it wasn’t about sport, the only other occasions New Zealand seemed Michael-Heath-Gallery-2.jpg.552x402to feature internationally (though the broadcast of ‘God Defend New Zealand’ – mistakenly performed as our national anthem at the 1972 Munich Olympics – was also a cultural watershed).

Lost in Garden of the World follows a small New Zealand film crew as it makes a DIY documentary about the Cannes film festival. Tony Williams, who made many legendary advertisements (eg, the Crunchie ad, and Dear John for BASF tape), is the director. But the star is the frontman and scriptwriter Michael Heath, who swans about like a hippie Bruce Mason, waxing lyrically about the relationship New Zealand writers and artists have with the Northern Hemisphere, three-quarters of the way through the 20th century.

There were other stars in the film, the people they came across as they spontaneously and cheekily asked for interviews. Filmmakers I’d never heard of until the night of that broadcast, late on Friday as the August school holidays began: a small, hyperactive, bearded Italian-New Yorker who’d just directed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese); a tall, young man who was about to release a film about a shark (Steven Spielberg); an apparently important German called Werner (seen here with Michael Heath on the right). Dustin Hoffman was charmed by the film crew’s chutzpah and offered to take messages for them on the phone at his outdoor cafe table.

About 15 years ago I went to the NZ Film Archive to see why the film had knocked me out so much at the age of 15. It turned out to be much more about “overseas” than New Zealand, and much more pretentious. But it was still an inspiring romp.

Lost in the Garden of the World can now be viewed in its entirety at the NZ On Screen site, which goes from strength to strength. They describe it as being about “Cannes is the town in France where Bergman meets bikinis, and the art of filmmaking meets the art of the deal.”

02 September 2011

A Less than Lovely War


Even in the playgrounds of Lower Hutt, Peter Watkins’s 1965 docudrama The War Game was discussed with alarm. And we had only heard the terrifying trailer. The film portrays Britain before, during and after a nuclear attack. Originally made by Watkins for BBC, the governors of the Beeb got the heebie-geebies. They said it was unsuitable for a mass audience and banned it from broadcast. After an outcry, it was released to cinemas.

Variety describes The War Game as “grim, gruesome, horrific and realistic … the most telling part is the aftermath of the bomb – the severely burned are killed off and their bodies burned, and looters face the firing squad.”

Even though there was no hope of seeing it mid-60s New Zealand, just knowing about it almost kept me awake. Now it can be viewed via the always-worthwhile site The Documentarian.

23 August 2011

05 August 2011

Life during Wartime

The Guardian has just published a piece in which musicians describe their "worst gig ever". Among them are these items from Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads,and Suzi Quatro. Weymouth describes the Sweetwaters festival of January 1984, and Quatro a New Zealand gig when she was peaking in 1975. Monitor: KW.

tina weymouthTina Weymouth

The absolute worst gig ever was the last Talking Heads show. We were headlining this tour in Australia and New Zealand. Opening for us were bands like Simple Minds, INXS, Eurythmics, B52's, Pretenders … It was a phenomenal lineup, and we were the headliners, and it was a fantastic opportunity. But we couldn't go on stage because David Byrne, without telling anyone, had let on a couple of crazy girls – who I suppose had their hearts in the right place – who were trying to promote this freedom for Maori people thing, but it was the wrong place and the wrong time. People were booing and throwing things at them, and that was difficult enough. Anyway, we finally got on stage and we were five songs into the show when David Byrne ran off and refused to come back on. He said: "I'm not going to play for a bunch of people dancing in the mud." Go figure. David had a lot of temper tantrums when he got to be a big star. He couldn't stop it; fame and the whole diva thing was just overwhelming for him.

There was meant to be a great big party afterwards and David didn't even show up. It was just this really sad, dismal affair where people got quietly drunk in the corner. The tour ended not with a bang but a whimper. It was awful that everything we'd been working towards ended like that.

Suzie Quatrosuzie quatro

We'd been in America with Alice Cooper as special guests on his Welcome to My Nightmare tour, that was 80 shows, then we went to Scandinavia, then we flew to Japan for some shows, then to Australia for a month, then we went to New Zealand – we were on the road for about six months non-stop. You're talking tired. New Zealand was the last port of call and we were flying through the night when I noticed a little spot on my leg – I thought I'd got bitten. Then I woke up and the spot was travelling up my leg in a line: it was blood-poisoning. This was the day of the gig. The doctor had to cut me, but I still went onstage with the poison pouring out, in all my leathers! It's called being a pro. The show must go on and all that. But this was the only time I ever thought I shouldn't have gone on. It was really painful. I was on painkillers and the dressing had to keep being changed.

24 July 2011

Lost Soul

In early 2004 John Russell sent me the debut album of an unknown young talent. She looked certain to have a big future. This from Real Groove, April 2004.

Amy 2003There are no flies on Frank, the debut album by 20-year-old British diva Amy Winehouse (Island). Quite simply, it’s a knockout. It lifts the bar for her precocious compatriot Joss Stone and, with its risk-taking, self-assuredness and contemporary relevance, shows exactly what was missing from Norah Jones’ timid, soporific follow-up. Born in North London in the year Frankie went to Hollywood, Winehouse seems to have been breast-fed Sarah Vaughan and Anita O’Day. Add in a nurturing of urban grit, and her voice sounds like Erykah Badu or Macy Gray after years of paying dues in jazz clubs. With slinky contemporary beats behind her songs – almost all are sassy originals – this is where hip-hop meets swing and bossa nova, where torch is spelt with an E for erotic. The lyrics are Cole Porter having Sex in the City, particularly ‘F**k Me Pumps’ (about slappers on the pull), and the first single ‘Stronger Than Me’ (about the inadequacies of a “sensitive” older lover who takes “longer than frozen turkey”). She whoops, purrs and snaps effortlessly, quotes ‘Lullaby in Birdland’ almost without thinking (this most perfect of melodies isn’t credited), hints at the classic ‘Moody’s Mood’ in one song then tackles the real thing later on. Like Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation this is an almost perfect mix of soul-jazz through a filter of hip-hop. The depths of Frank unfold like layers of a mystery parcel, and Winehouse’s journey to maturity is going to be a ride worth catching.

22 July 2011

Behind the Stage Door

New Zealand has lost so much in the way of visual and aural archives. But I’m convinced that every sub-culture has an aspirant photographer and film-maker – in love with the possibilities – who captures the action. Sometimes the results never see the light of day. Occasionally they emerge from under a bed, decades later, to be the backbone of a great documentary.

The legendary Chants R&B from Christchurch luckily had an art student friend with a movie camera. Now we can all witness the scene at Christchurch’s Stage Door in the mid-1960s. Rumble & Bang is at a film festival near you soon. It was directed by Jeff Smith, former member of the Newmatics, and Simon Ogston.

My idea of Hell

Monitor: The Word

15 July 2011

F-Stop Fitzgerald

Haley-ElvisIn the 1950s a Cleveland radio DJ called Tommy Edwards – not the singer of ‘It’s All In the Game’ – took colour photographs of stars and aspirant stars who came to his station or gigs he promoted. At a time when there was no colour TV and very little colour printing in pop mags, they were of such interest that he used to have slide shows of his snaps between sets. Arlene-Fontana

The photographs have been collected in a book, 1950s Radio in Color. Many of them can be viewed at the Collector’s Weekly site, in a piece headlined “When Rock Lost its Innocence”. Though I don’t think there’s too much innocent about this shot of Elvis, seen here before he started dying his hair black, with Bill Haley, or the teen temptress Arlene Fontana (right).

More lost photos can be found here, of the Rolling Stones’ portrait sessions for Sticky Fingers, and here, of the Beatles’ US tours in 1965-66.

Monitor: Word

28 June 2011

It’s Madison time

When I say hit it, I want you to go two up and two back, with a big strong turn – and back to the Madison.

Hit it!

One of the biggest hits by the suave jazz-blues pianist Ray Bryant has had many revivals. ‘The Madison Time’ – an instructional dance tune – was already two years old when the Ray Bryant Combo recorded it in 1959, but his group’s cool, swinging version of it has proved irresistible.

In 1988 John Waters used it in his original film version of Hairspray, and since then Quentin Tarantino has referenced it in Pulp Fiction, and it is featured in a scene in The Go-Getter, a 2007 vehicle for Zooey Deschanel. Both scenes were tributes to yet another film, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 Bande a Part (Band of Outsiders). The famous dancing scene starring Anna Karina is stylish, although her technique is wooden, and the dance is not actually the Madison.

Godard later said of the Pulp Fiction tribute that he would have preferred Tarantino had just given him some money. We can’t blame Tarantino on the Madison’s influence on the robotic dance craze of the early 1990s, line dancing. ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ was as dumb as the movements it accompanied, but it has to be said the Madison was its forebear.

Bryant, who died earlier this month aged 79, had a piano style perfect for the cool jazz era of the late 1950s. As this Independent obituary notes, he wasn’t swayed by the frenetic bebop pianists of the period, instead he kept his roots in gospel and blues; among his mentors was the elegant Teddy Wilson. Here is the Ray Bryant Combo performing an instrumental version of ‘Madison Time’ in 1960. The lyrics – or rather, instructions – are here. Hit it!

27 June 2011

Collision on State Highway 1

Originally from SH1 forestry town Tokoroa, funk band Collision emigrated to Australia in 1976 and got a gig at Les Girls in Sydney's King's Cross district. In 1978 they recorded their only album - Collision - for the Infinity label in Sydney. The producer/engineer was Richard Batchens, house producer for Festival Records. Overlooking the production was Dalvanius Prime of 'Poi E' fame. Nick Bollinger's 100 Essential New Zealand Albums (Awa Press, 2009) revived interest in the album; he reports that Lionel Richie encouraged the group to move to New York, but that was a step too far.

Collision were Harry Morgan (vocals, sax), Ali Morgan (vocals, guitar), Charley Hikuroa (vocals, bass), Colin Henry (vocals, drums), Philip Whitcher (all keyboards) and Mike Booth (vocals, trumpet). These are the first three tracks of side one:

1. You Can Dance (A. Morgan)

2 You Give Me Love (Muggleton-Nobel)

3. Love Finds Its Own Way (Jim Weatherley)

24 June 2011

Minting new coin

Larkin libraryDid Philip Larkin ever worry about key performance indicators? In Britain, there are 4500 public libraries, and government budget cuts are likely to close 500 of them. In the Observer Magazine of 1 May 2011 (not online), Ian Stringer, a retired librarian in Barnsley, said:

“The council once asked us for an assessment of outcomes, not output. Output was how many books we’d stamped out, and outcome was something that had actually resulted from someone borrowing a book. So say someone took out a book on mending cars and then drove the car back, that’s an outcome; or made a batch of scones from a recipe book they had borrowed.

“It lasted until one of the librarians told the council they’d had someone in borrowing a book on suicide, but that they’d never brought it back. The council stopped asking after that.”

The headline above comes from Larkin: 

Library Ode

New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new books,too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin.

Philip Larkin

21 May 2011


From the back pages, for the 70th birthday this week: a 1991 reconsideration after the often desultory 1980s. (from Rip It Up)

dylan c1964BOB DYLAN: The Bootleg Series, Vol 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) (Columbia)

IT HAS often been said that Bob Dylan is a man of many masks. After this year’s bizarre Grammy performance, many must have thought, who was that masked man? In the 80s, Dylan devotees became Dylan apologists - for his lazy recordings, his perfunctory performances, his lousy voice and, of course, his flirtation with Christianity. New generations, con­fronted with this legend who didn't have the grace to die dramatically, or at least fade away, wondered what all the fuss was about. The Bootleg Series answers all their questions. It strips away the masks and re-establishes his credibility.

In the arts of the 20th century there are only a few people whose stature compares with Bob Dylan. I can think of only four: James Brown, Miles Davis, Picasso and Stravinsky. All astounded their peers with their precocious talent and their early mastery of classic forms. All were provocative, caused riots even. All never stood still, kept changing their styles throughout lengthy careers and yet were always at the cutting edge of what­ever form they chose. And none of them were wunderkind: all fulfilled their early promise.

On The Bootleg Series, over 50 unreleased tracks, Bob Dylan stands naked. The recordings range from an early session in a New York hotel room to a slick Oh Mercy out-take. They follow all the stylistic shifts in his career, and collect many of the rarities Dylanologists have been reverently swap­ping for decades. Coffee bar folk nights; publishing demos; the unreleased live album from ’64; sessions with the Band, the Rolling Thunder Revue; George Harrison (pictured below, at Woodstock, 1968); the Muscle Shoals crew; rehearsals, out-takes and leftovers from all the albums. It gives box-set archaeology a good name, not only because it re-assesses Dylan's career but because it is richly rewarding listening for its own sake.

bobdylandylan_harrisonMillions of words have been written about Dylan's way with words. And certain­ly, he deserved the adulation. Before he was anywhere near 25 he'd coined dozens of phrases that had entered the colloquial vocabulary. But there are so many unac­knowledged facets to Dylan's talent. It's easy to forget just how funny he can be, in the early talking blues and shaggy dog sto­ries, the apocalyptic nightmares and even the harrowing sagas from Blood on the Tracks or the chilling Old Testament sce­narios. His comic liming is pure Charlie Chaplin by way of Woody Guthrie. Even in a song like the tortured ‘Idiot Wind’: “They say I shot a man named Gray, look his wife to It-ill-ay / She inherited a million bucks, and when she died it came to me / I can’t help it ... if I'm luck-y”.

Take a verse out of any of the classic songs and it encapsulates all his talents. Besides his humour, there's his melodic sense: as hook-filled as Lennon-McCartney's but more creative with it. Add to that the passion and personality of his singing, which often recalls Hank Williams or Robert Johnson, plus his idiosyncratic use of metre and phrasing - and you've got a ground-breaking artist to stand beside Charlie Parker. Many of his songs are capa­ble of becoming standards for all to inter­pret, though some work for Dylan alone.

Dylan has often been criticised for his casualness in the studio, but that's a mixture of his perverse need for unpredictability and his old folkie attitude that every perfor­mance is a fresh statement. This interpreta­tion is the core of Paul Williams’s analysis of Dylan's early work, Performing Artist (Underwood Miller, 1991), an entertaining rave full of coherent insights.

But throwing caution to the wind is what rock’n’roll has always been about. Dylan's carefree attitude to recording has given us many of rock's most incendiary moments. He heard the Animals obliterate his version of "Rising Sun", then hired the best musi­cians he could, told them to turn it up - and let it rip. The resulting noise brought a sar­donic literacy to rock that made Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson's adept pen­manship look effete. It was a dandy's blues stomped out with Cuban heels; Ferlinghetti through a Fender Twin Reverb on 10.

The last time I got excited listen­ing to Dylan, he was still an agnos­tic. But it wasn't turning Christian that put me off – no one had been born again like Dylan since St Paul, no glazed eyes and beatific grin for this iconoclast – although the hec­toring damnation had a muddled concept of evil. Besides, I grew up on Mahalia, and Dylan had always used the Bible when it suited. Could anyone else have kick-started a song, “God said to Abraham, kill me your son / Abe said man, you must be putting me on / God said no, Abe said what? Where you want this killing done? / God said out on Highway... 61!”

No, it was the voice itself that lost me: many of the songs still have the edge. But his unique instrument, that inimitable, mal­leable whine had become a ragged wreck, ravaged after years of abuse. Untrained singing takes its toll, combined with smok­ing, alcohol, whatever else plus the Never-ending Tour.

Of the three discs, it’s the middle period that I keep going back to, from the early electric years, when you can hear Dylan re­inventing rock’n’roll on the spot, through to the blistering self-exposure of Blood on the Tracks. But there's something in this set from every period to stimulate a re­appraisal, be it for unreconstructed Guthrie-ites or latter day Infidels. So here's a docu­ment for those one enthralled by Dylan who later became bored. Maybe a bit much for the uninitiated – for them, any of the dozen seminal albums, or the Biograph set, would be preferable – but not only for closet Dylanologists either. After all, it’s brought it all back home for this doubting thomas.

05 May 2011

Fabulous Freak Brothers

Little Richard on his former employee:

Also at The Documentarian: a complete 85 minute copy of The London Rock’n’Roll Show, showing a 1972 revival gig starring Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis et al. A revelation when I saw it in Wellington circa 1974, it was also pivotal in Rip It Up magazine getting its name.

07 April 2011

Little Richard’s First Rule of Rock’n’Roll

Little Richard“You got what you wanted, but you lost what you had.”

1957: ‘ “Lu-CILLE! You won't do your sister's will!” came blaring through the house like a pack of rabid dogs. It was as if a Martian had landed.’

1987: John Waters finally meets Little Richard. It doesn't go well, but it’s entertaining. “What about the future?” I lamely ask, hoping for a few more minutes. “I was just offered a role with Gary Coleman. They wanted me to be his father. And they wanted me to weigh 300lb.”

Inside the cordon: 2

A Passion for Jazz coverAt least one aspect of Christchurch’s cultural history is safe: pictorial evidence of its thriving jazz scene from the 1920s to the present day. About 18 months ago I was in the central city on photo research and wandered into the great Scorpio bookshop on Hereford St (soon to re-open in Riccarton) and there was a gem of book, just published. A Passion for Jazz is a visual history of “the Christchurch scene then and now”. That means the jazz scene, and it’s the kind of book I hope that some Cantabrian will produce about the city’s rock’n’roll scene, from Max Merritt to, ah, Zed.

The wonderful photos show big bands led by the likes of Brian Marston and Martin Winiata, small combos, glamorous chanteuse, goateed 1950s hipsters, guitar heroes such as the Kahi brothers, stars such as Doug Caldwell, Harry Voice, and Stu Buchanan, satirist Rod Derrett when he was still a jazz guitarist, and more recent stalwarts such as Paul Dyne, Neill Pickard and Malcolm McNeill. They are accompanied by short biographical pieces, and photos that also show the musicians who are still living in their current environs. Many of them still playing.

A Passion for Jazz was put together by Jo Jules, under the auspices of Christchurch Polytechnic’s School of Performing Arts, which Pickard was instrumental in  founding in 1991. (There’s a great shot of him playing guitar in 1963 – wearing fetching swimming trunks – with the Undergrads at Caroline Bay, Timaru.) The School’s address  is PO Box 540, Christchurch.

There are many photos that I would love to have featured in Blue Smoke, but I wanted to avoid double-ups. Among them is this charming cover portrait of, from left, Nick Nicolson, Doug Caldwell, Harry Voice and George Campbell (the classy tuxes are for their role as Gale Garnett’s backing band, 1961). One we both feature is the shot of Martin Winiata’s 3YA big band in the late 1940s (p168 in Blue Smoke).  A Passion for Jazz got every name, no easy task. They are, from left: Wally Ransom, Bill Bailey, Lloyd Hunter, Ron McKay, Lou Warren, Bernard Winfield, Barry Warren, Cliff Inns, Bob Bradford, Ross Floyd, Brian Marston, Martin Winiata, vocalist Coral Cummins and a 3YA announcer. 

23 March 2011

Inside the cordon: 1

The 1970s are often sneered at as a dire period for New Zealand music, when covers bands played beer barns and dodgy nightclubs. Yes, that was the world that dominated live, local music – but many great musicians served their apprenticeships in those scenes.

Shannon band adIf Chants R&B are now heralded as the great Christchurch 1960s beat band after Max and Ray left town with their Fenders, who took over in the 1970s?

For evidence we can turn to a wonderful photo archive that has just been put up on the web. Kevin Hill was a music fan and tireless photographer who covered the band scene in Christchurch right through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Among those he captured before they started shaving are Barry Saunders of the Warratahs, Steve Gilpin and Kevin Stanton of Fragments of Time (evolving into Misex), Brent Parlane, Jim Hall, Rob Winch and Sharon O’Neill. Bands included such lost names as Beech, Link, the In Betweens, Shannon, Inspiration and the Newz.

The pictures of Dave Kennedy remind me of the Invercargill scrapbook music history 45 South in Concert that Neil McKelvie put together for the Southland Musicians’ Club in 2006. A few years back I suggested an equivalent was needed for Christchurch.

Have a look at Kevin Hill’s photos and wonder at the high-waisted jeans, the loon flares, the tight T-shirts and all that long, greasy hair. This advertisement is just a teaser to the Aladdin’s cave that is Hill’s photo collection

03 March 2011

Trouble in River City

There’s a case to be made for Christchurch being the most influential city in New Zealand music. In pop music, the American servicemen who passed through as part of Operation Deep Freeze provided R&B 45s to bands such as Max Merritt and the Meteors (Max is on the left in this picture), and Ray Columbus and the Invaders. In turn they influenced bands throughout the country. Max and MeteorsEarlier, guitarist Tommy Kahi taught hundreds of pupils, among them Billy Karaitiana (third from left) and Kevin Bayley (Rockinghorse). With his brother Mark, Kahi held court at the North Beach surf club, while beat bands competed for audiences at the Spencer St and Hibernian dances. In jazz, the Bailey-Marston big band hired the city’s best swing musicians, apart from Martin Winiata, whose own big band held down a residency at the Union Rowing Club featuring glamorous singer Coral Cummins (she can be seen here with the 3ZB Brian Marston band, and heard here with Winiata’s Quintette, along with several other Christchurch radio swing bands from the 1950s). Winiata also backed Peter Lewis on the local rockabilly classic ‘Four City Rock’. From the 1950s, musicians such as Doug Caldwell, Harry Voice and Stu Buchanan passed on their skills to countless young musicians. Caldwell backed All Black Pat Vincent on an excellent EP on local label Peak in 1960. Now in his 80s, was still teaching at the Christchurch Polytechnic jazz school the last I heard.

Also to emerge in the beat boom of the 1960s was Diane Jacobs, originally from Waimate, who performed with Phil Garland in Christchurch combos the Saints and the Playboys. She went on to become Dinah Lee; he became New Zealand’s leading folk-song collector and performer. Really, the names from Christchurch are endless: Chants R&B, the Hip Singles, Pop Mechanix, the Dance Exponents, the Gordons, the Androidss, the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, the Narcs, the Feelers, Jody Lloyd’s Dark Tower … right through to Bic Runga, Anika Moa and Scribe. (Many of these acts were featured on a great double-CD compilation produced in 2005 by the Narcs’ bassist Tony Waine, Christchurch The Music, on EMI.)

Much earlier, and on the other side of the tracks – in classical and contemporary art music – professors such as Vernon Griffith shaped the way music is taught in this country, following a strictly British model. Among those who passed through the portals of the University of Canterbury school of music are Frederick Page and Douglas Lilburn. The latter two went on to found Victoria University’s school of music in Wellington in the late 1940s, emphasising original composition far more than Christchurch.

Still, it was Christchurch where Lilburn got his first significant formal training, while in 1930s Christchurch alongside artists in other disciplines, such as Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Allen Curnow and Denis Glover. This review of the award-winning Douglas Lilburn biography by Philip Norman is from the Sunday Star-Times in 2006.

Fanfare for an Uncommon Man

By Chris Bourke

DOUGLAS LILBURN: His Life and Music, by Philip Norman (Canterbury University Press, $55).

Lilburn biographyDouglas Lilburn was a man alone, and he felt it. His reputation is now secure as the “father of New Zealand composition” but it was a lonely, courageous path he chose. He had no mentors – predecessor Alfred Hill of “Waiata Poi” fame mostly lived in Australia – and when Lilburn won his first prize, for composing a symphonic tone poem, he had never heard an orchestra perform live.

The prizes came quickly, but respect came slowly. In the 1940s, the New Zealand music establishment was unused to having a composer in its midst (“meeting a composer then was like meeting a polar bear in Lambton Quay,” said Richard Campion). Some local orchestral players were reluctant to give premiere performances; when confronted with a hand-written manuscript, one musician asked, “How do we know if it’s any good?”

Eventually, Lilburn would receive every honour this society can offer: the rare Order of New Zealand, an honorary doctorate (though he never completed a music degree), a bronze plaque on his student flat in Christchurch, his Wellington home revitalised as a residence for visiting composers. Before he died in 2001, Lilburn established a trust that has hugely assisted New Zealand’s musical heritage. Now composer and musicologist Philip Norman has returned the gesture. This extraordinary biography ensures that Lilburn’s achievements are properly acknowledged. Scholarly yet compelling, with a rare mix of honesty and affection it portrays the complexities of its subject.

Lilburn was intensely private, almost a hermit in his last two decades. “Biographers,” he wrote, “are maggots on the meat of reputation.” Yet he ensured his legacy was preserved for posterity, keeping a diary for years, getting his papers in order, creating an archive. Norman, whose PhD thesis was on Lilburn’s music, has picked over the bones thoroughly, but with fairness and flair. He has resisted being cowed by his subject, or swamped by his material.

Lilburn’s isolation started early. He was born in 1915, the seventh and last child of a Scots-born farmer with vast holdings near Wanganui. His upbringing was Presbyterian-staunch and lonely, but also idyllic: the 8000-acre farm had four waterfalls and Mt Ruapehu on the horizon. A Quaker primary school gave him a Thoreau-like respect for the environment and the disposition of a gentleman and scholar. Boarding school at the other end of New Zealand – Waitaki Boys High, during the legendary regime of Frank Milner – was “utterly barbarous” but ultimately beneficial. Milner passed on a reverence for language, another teacher brought out his musical talents, and Lilburn credited the experience with giving him survival skills.

Canterbury University College did more than nourish the shortcomings in his musical education; it introduced him to a supportive artistic circle. His friends became giants in New Zealand’s cultural awakening: Rita Angus, Denis Glover, Allen Curnow, Ursula Bethell. Travelling to London he studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams, befriended Robin Hyde, and won more awards. Prodigal Country was an early prizewinner, and he returned home to become a wartime shepherd on a Taihape farm.

He resettled in Christchurch to become a freelance composer and, briefly, a critic and conductor. The book’s major surprise comes from this period. Lilburn, already aware of his homosexuality, had a relationship with Rita Angus, who miscarried their child. Lilburn’s archive contained 400 letters from Angus.

In the late 1940s, as a tutor at the summer music schools in Cambridge, Waikato, Lilburn found his musical isolation was evaporating. He was already an inspiration to a new generation: David Farquhar, Larry Pruden, Dorothea Franchi. An early champion, Frederick Page, recruited him to Victoria University’s fledgling music department, and the institution’s emphasis on composition was in place. “Conditions for a composer in New Zealand were bleak,” Lilburn recalled later, but he had no shortage of offers, or well-meaning advice. Angus scolded him for becoming an academic, thinking it would stifle his art; architect Ernst Plishke advised against taking a job as the National Film Unit’s composer: hack films would kill him.

Instead, Lilburn’s creative path was not dissimilar to Stravinsky’s. He was drawn to experimentation; by his third symphony (1961) he was using the mathematical constructions of the modernists, rather then conventional harmony. Owen Jensen wrote that the angular symphony “may never be popular, but … it represents a new and even more mature Lilburn.” Within a small circle, his music – and success – caused controversy and envy.

Lilburn electronic 2Exploration into even more unknown territory followed: the new medium of electro-acoustic music. Lilburn wanted to “exorcise the demon by meeting it on friendly terms.” Twenty years after his famous orchestral collaboration with Curnow, Landfall in Unknown Seas, in 1965 an electronic treatment of Alistair Campbell’s The Return was equally groundbreaking.

Norman captures the contradictions of Lilburn: he was given many accolades, but felt undervalued. He was a visionary intellectual, generous and erudite, but could be touchy and acerbic. He had many devoted and supportive friends, but was not beyond a feud (his professional relationship with the less-adventurous composer Edwin Carr is “worthy of a roman à clef,” says Norman).

Lilburn abandoned composition after his retirement, and spent 20 years putting his papers in order. Deafness and alcoholism hastened his natural tendency to solitude, but anonymously he was a champion and benefactor of young composers and many causes.

One of the great New Zealand lives has now been rewarded with a great biography. Norman’s dedicated scholarship is balanced by an easy narrative style, and the picture research is simply astonishing (the pedestrian use of an Angus watercolour portrait for the cover doesn’t reflect the treasure inside). Lilburn’s impact on New Zealand culture went beyond music; this biography shows that in all the arts, he was a crucial figure in a young country finding its own voice.

18 February 2011

Here Comes the Sun

Sun Ra by Chris Bourke 1989My encounter with Sun Ra was so fleeting it was like a shooting star crossed my path. He had just finished a stunning set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival in 1989. It was like experiencing a psychedelic Fletcher Henderson big band, with Ra’s Arkestra dressed in luridly coloured, sequinned KKK hooded caftans. But it had its own irresistible, mad groove, and turned into a parade that was the highlight of the day. Afterwards I ran into Ra backstage and he obliged with this picture; note the way his pet cobra is captured by his symbolic baton.

I was reminded of this while watching the 1974 documentary Space is the Place. It can be injested in several excerpts on YouTube. A newish site called The Documentarian provides a one-stop noticeboard for documentaries streaming on the web, many of them on roots music by people such as Les Blank. Included is the hour-long Sun Ra – a Joyful Noise by Robert Mugge. Space is the Place shows Ra had at least one foot on terra firma: watch him patiently parrying the ripostes of these sceptical soul sistahs.  The clip below shows the Arkestra at its most accessible.

17 February 2011

God's empty chair

George Shearing, the great jazz pianist, has just passed away, aged 91. He was born British and born blind; from 1947 he was based in the United States. His New Zealand connection came through Julian Lee, the blind multi-instrumentalist born in Dunedin and now living in Australia. In the 1960s Shearing – along with another music legend – was instrumental in getting work for Lee in Los Angeles. Lee took quite a bit of persuading, he recalled in a 2000 interview with Radio New Zealand’s Haydn Sherley:

In 1960 George Shearing came over [to Sydney], and he worked at Channel 7 where I was staff arranger. And he being in a similar position – he doesn’t look where he’s going either – we got talking, went to lunch, and I played him a few of my arrangements. He said, ‘You gotta come over to the States man, you’re wasting your time.’ I said, ‘Not on your life, thanks, I’m doing fine.’ So I didn’t do anything about it.

But in ’62 Sinatra came over and I went to a cocktail party because I was doing some writing for what was then Coronet Records, the Australian record company, which later on became CBS. Frank said, I’d like to have a chat with you, so if you could come back stage this evening before the show, while the support act is we can spend the first hour having a talk.

So I did. I had to borrow Alan Nash’s trumpet – he was the lead trumpet player – so I could get into the place, into the back door, through the security. And Frank says, ‘I’ve heard some of your things, I want you to come over to the States, in fact you have to do that because you’re a talent we want to foster.’ So I said, Well, what senor commands I must do – so I did, in ’63, I went over.

Once in the US, Shearing sponsored Lee with the immigration department, and got him to write arrangements and Braille his parts. “Nobody else could do that, and it was easily proved.” Lee arranged tracks on the 1960s Shearing albums Deep Velvet and Here & Now! Shearing also helped Lee into production work. “And Frank opened the door to all sorts of people for me, said Lee. “I didn’t do any actual work for him but I met a lot of very influential people, like Johnny Burke and oh Nelson Riddle.”

Here, Lee is pictured in 1976 with a stellar New Zealand rhythm section, Frank Gibson Jr and Andy Brown. In 2000 he was asked what the standard of LA session musicians was like. “Frightening,” he replied. “I can remember the first session I did for George. I thought I’d go down early to do this session, because I’m a new chum. And when I got down to the studio at 9.15am for a 10.00am recording session, the whole band was there warming up. What is this? … Then, we did the first 3 hours, and they all applauded me. Then they left, before I could say goodbye: the string players had gone to another!

George Shearing’s biggest hit was probably ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ (1952), a swing tune so perfect it seems to have written itself. On paper it looks quite challenging, with plenty of 9ths, but playing it on the piano in E minor, your hands just seem to fall into the right chords and voicings: just as they must have when Shearing wrote it. Singers also relish the song, as this clip of Ella Fitzgerald performing it shows.

Another who celebrated George Shearing’s delicate mastery was Jack Kerouac in On the Road (written in the late 40s, published 1957). His famous description of Shearing playing in a nightclub is a classic piece of bop prosody:

Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o'clock. Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer's-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass-player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that's all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you'd think the man wouldn't have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to "Go!" Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. "There he is! That's him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!" And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean's gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn't see. "That's right!" Dean said. "Yes!" Shearing smiled, he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. "God's empty chair," he said. On the piano a horn sat; its golden shadow made a strange reflection along the desert caravan painted on the wall behind the drums. God was gone; it was the silence of his departure. It was a rainy night. It was the myth of the rainy night. Dean was popeyed with awe. This madness would lead nowhere.

Chocolate City

HitsvilleObama bringing Motown to the White House

WASHINGTON, Feb 17 – President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will mark Black History Month at the White House with a celebration of Motown music.

The White House says performers will include Smokey Robinson, Sheryl Crow and John Legend. The Feb. 24 event will be taped and broadcast on PBS March 1. The Motown event is the latest in the music series "In Performance at the White House." The Obamas have hosted musical tributes to several genres, including jazz, country and Broadway. (AP)

The ubiquitous and inevitable Sheryl Crow, I can almost understand. After all, she got her career break in the 1980s, singing BVs for Michael Jackson. But where’s Michael McDonald and Jimmy Barnes? As George Clinton would say, “What’s happening, CC?” Who the White House social secretary chose as jazz, country and Broadway musicians is intriguing, though.

26 January 2011

Read ’em and Weep

Pilgrim’s Progress
The Return of Robbie Robertson, 1987
“Robbie Robertson found himself soon after he dropped Jaime from his name. As a guitar player, he ranks high among the world’s top dozen. As a songwriter, he’s more of a storyteller than a poet. He narrates the changing times, the soul of history. But it’s more as a producer that Robertson’s full range of curious talent will ultimately be expressed. Whether in music or in films, or a combination of both, you can bet that Robbie will someday produce a masterpiece all his own.”
(Emmett Grogan, “The Band’s Perfect Goodbye,” Oui, May 1977.)
In the early days of the Band, Robbie Robertson wrote a song called ‘Get Up Jake’. It told the story of a man so lazy that the whole town would show up to watch him get out of bed. In 1970 came Stage Fright with ‘Sleeping’, a song Robertson wrote with Richard Manuel: “To be called before noon / is to be called too soon … I spend my whole life sleeping.

Since the Band called it quits with the Last Waltz concert on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, Robbie Robertson has been hibernating.

In the past decade, only the occasional soundtrack compilation and a cult film Carny have shown that one of the finest songwriters in rock music was still active.
Robertson promoBut late last year, Robertson repaid those who kept faith in him with the appearance of his first solo album. Robbie Robertson is a powerful album that updates his music with the Band. The album’s heartland adventures and fables on the American condition with a sound as contemporary as a silicon chip. It could be the work that Emmett Grogan predicted a decade ago.
However speaking from Los Angeles last month, Robertson says his first solo album wasn’t like an albatross hanging over him all the time: “It wasn’t like the album, the album … the songs just weren’t there. But slowly they started to emerge and I thought, hey – there’s an album here.”

He grudgingly admits that this album is a return. “But I never thought of it like that. I just had the opportunity to not have to make a record, to get out of the album/tour syndrome. A lot of people from my generation continued making records, and a lot of them sounded very medium to me. And I thought, if you just don’t have an opportunity to recharge your battery or re-shuffle the deck, it’s harder to just keep pounding the them out.”

Record making, he says, had stopped being “a creative process” for him – and that’s understandable. After years scuffling round the bar band circuit as the Hawks, then going through trial-by-fire supporting Dylan as he went electric, the Band began recording in 1968. The quickly produced two certified masterpieces – Music From Big Pink and particularly The Band (though I’d argue that the smoother Stage Fright warrants consideration). These albums said, really, all they wanted to say.
But from 1970 on, the Band trod water, sustained by the efforts of Robertson, who by then had become the group’s sole songwriter. “I don’t know why the others weren’t writing,” he says. “I would try and harp on at them, but didn’t get anywhere.”

Their 70s work had its moments though: Rock of Ages caught them blazing at their performing peak, aided by New Orleans horns. Moondog Matinee, a personal jukebox of tunes they’d cut their teeth on as teenage rock’n’rollers, has more verve and depth than most such projects, and Robertson always managed the odd song (‘It Makes No Difference’, ‘Ophelia’, ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight’) that approached the halcyon days of ‘The Weight,’ ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘King Harvest’ and ‘The Rumor’.

The songs were vignettes of American history, frontier legends filled with characters, with music full of character: the swagger of rock’n’roll, rollicking R&B, the earthy funk of Southern soul, the stories and heartache of country … all mixed together with a bubbling spontaneity, each member whooping out interjections with exuberance. This was group music, played exquisitely by musicians who, as Ed Ward has written, had earned the right to be known simply as the Band.

Band Big Pink portraitThe Band, at the time of Music from Big Pink, upstate New York, 1968. From left: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson.

Since Dylan’s motorbike accident in mid-1966, the group had been holed up like the James Gang in the wooded hills of upstate New York, writing songs and playing together in sessions that would eventually appear as The Basement Tapes. When Big Pink came out, word quickly spread about the Band by a buzz of musicians and critics rather than a publicist’s blitz (though in 1970 they somehow made the cover of Time).

Among the converts were George Harrison and Eric Clapton who, sick of psychedelic indulgence, wrote the mellow ‘Badge’ together. Harrison visited the Band in late 1968 and came home raving about them to his fellow Beatles, who were going through their own rootsy ‘Get Back’ phase.
“Ringo would go down a bomb,” Harrison can be heard exhorting the others on Let it Be outtakes. “Their favourite track on the [White] album was his, because that’s their scene, living up in the woods, just singing their songs. The reason all those people are singing different lines is they all want to be the singer. They’re all singing together, but it gets like discipline, where nobody is crowding anybody else out. You dig, baby?”

Replies Paul: “Looks like rain, doesn’t it?”

But that’s history, and one thing Robertson didn’t want to make was a Band LP. “I couldn’t without the Band,” he says. “So I just did what comes natural to me now. I didn’t try to make a modern record – there are no Fairlights or Synclaviers on it, mainly guitars - this is just the way I’m making music now, the way I’m hearing it now. I hope it’s like some of the other work I’ve done, I hope it’s as timeless, that it doesn’t matter when it came out.”

Robbie Robertson is a record that has been crafted for the CD age. Robertson enlisted Daniel Lanois to co-produce, and not only is the influence of the man behind Peter Gabriel and U2’s recent albums crucial, but those two artists make distinctive contributions to several songs.

Apart from the Gabriel/U2 flavour to some tracks, and cameos by ex-Band colleagues Rick Danko and Garth Hudson on a couple, the musicians on the album are chosen for their unique styles rather than their high profiles. “I didn’t want to get in the usual bunch of sessioneers that would make everybody say ho-hum,” says Robertson. “I like musicians who bring something new and of themselves to the project, who help you get the sounds you want.”

Among them was fellow Canadian Bill Dillon who, like Robertson, spent his apprenticeship playing for rockabilly roustabout Ronnie Hawkins. Manu Katche is a French drummer whose subtle style complements bassist Tony Levin; both have played for Peter Gabriel. Contributing backing vocals are the BoDeans, Ivan Neville from the first family of New Orleans funk, and Lone Justice’s Maria McKee.

The dominant voice however is Robertson’s though the melodies are itching for some of the Band’s carefree vocal banter. Although he wrote the bulk of the Band’s songs, Robertson had only sung lead twice during their heyday. Everybody had their own job to do in that group, he explains. “If I had been writing the songs, playing lead guitar and doing the singing, it wouldn’t have been a band anymore. Now that I don’t have those guys around all the time, I don’t have nay choice but to sing my songs.”

Robertson has always regarded himself as a storyteller, avoiding writing songs from a personal point of view. “I never felt I’d experienced enough,” he says. “I thought I was too young to be writing about myself.”

On Robbie Robertson the evocative mythology of his earlier writing remains, but with a difference: for the first time Robertson reveals his Indian background. His mother was Iroquois, his father a Jewish professional gambler. The summers of his childhood Robertson spent on the Six Nations Indian reservation above Lake Erie, where from relatives playing mandolins, fiddles and guitars he heard his first music.

“It didn’t seem appropriate to write about my Indian background with the band,” he says. “I didn’t feel I could take a song to them and say, ‘Hey guys, this is the theme that’s running through the album – it’s about an Indian …’

“Now I’m making my own records I can say what I like.”

With the confused draftee in ‘Hell’s Half Acre’, the symbolism of ‘Broken Arrow’ and the spiritual outlook towards the nuclear threat in ‘Showdown at Big Sky’, Robbie Robertson paints panoramic images of the Indian in the 20th century. What’s happened to the Indian is a tragedy for us all, he says.

“There was something in that lifestyle, the simplicity and beauty of it – so right in tune with nature – that was priceless. On ‘Big Sky’ I was thinking about the simplicity of that Indian life- true to the earth, to the sky and to the elements – and here we are playing with it, rolling the dice every day.”
TheBandbrownThe maternal link between humanity and the land has been a constant theme in Robertson’s writing, however, and that’s why his songs have always seemed as apt to New Zealand’s rural culture as the folklore of novelists Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Barry Crump or John Mulgan. Take The Band’s ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’, a powerful Grapes of Wrath saga about dustbowl farming and union corruption. ‘Dixie Down,’ while a three-minute history of the Civil War, has a line that seems to reflect the Indian attitude to the land: “I spent my life chopping wood … You take what you need and you leave the rest / But they should never have taken the very best.”

A personal digression to stretch the point. After growing up to The Band, one summer while revelling in Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train – which features a masterly critique of their work – I took a job at an abattoir. In my locker I found Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the gripping study of Indian oppression. An elderly Maori slaughterman asked me what I was reading. A history of the American Indian, I said, how the land was like a mother to them, that they never exploited but always respected, they just took what they needed to stay alive. Then the settlers and soldiers came in, decimated the tribes and devastated the land.

“Just like us,” he replied.

How did Robertson react to Greil Marcus’s interpretation of his music – did he think it was accurate?
“When I read it, I thought it was brilliantly written and very entertaining. Often I’d think, ‘Yes, that’s it – he’s got to the heart of it.’ But sometimes I didn’t know what he was talking about. You read what some people put onto your music and it bears very little relation to what you wrote.”

The element of mystery has always been important to Robertson. Years ago he said, “I learnt the words to Little Richard’s songs the best I could. What I couldn’t figure out, didn’t matter.”

Now, he talks about the Shadowland. “It’s just a name I have for the place where the stories come from,” he explains. “I got this idea that I could see this place, and I was playing the part of the storyteller … and as this picture because clearer, the music started to come to me. Then I got real serious about writing the songs.”

‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River’ is a Chandler-esque fable about coming-of-age inspired by Robertson’s first visit to the Mississippi Delta as a 16-year-old. ‘Broken Arrow’, the album’s most effecting moment, is an earthy love song that relates to his Indian upbringing. ‘Fallen Angel’, the celestial opening track with Gabriel’s ethereal vocal, started out as a song about good and evil.
But as the prayer-like quality of ‘Fallen Angel’ evolved, so too it emerged to Robertson that he was writing about Richard Manuel, the Band’s tortured pianist with the huge heart and heavenly voice (‘I Shall Be Released,’ ‘Whispering Pines’) who hanged himself in 1986.

“I had this mood going in it, this heartbeat and crying vocal sound, and it was a little reminiscent of things Richard would do,” Robertson says. “It became more and more personal, and very apparent that I was writing the song for Richard. It made me feel good that I could do this, but it was hard – sometimes I’d be fine working on it, sometimes it tore me apart.”

Another constant thread through Robertson’s work has been his Biblical references: the frontier evangelism of ‘Caledonia Mission’ and ‘To Kingdom Come,’ the Faustian walking-with-the-Devil of ‘The Weight’ and soul-selling fo ‘Daniel and the Sacred Harp’. The religious imagery continues on Robbie Robertson:

“The Bible is such a wonderful book, full of great stories,” he says. “It’s very well written – a great resource. I’ve always been a sucker for that stuff, and always will.”

What of the 80s’ puritans, taking the name of the Bible in vain? “I never think about them. They’re clowns.”

During his decade-long hibernation, Robertson dabbled with the film world. The success of The Last Waltz – Martin Scorsese’s film of the farewell show that is the concert movie by which all others are judged – led to several other projects. In Carny Robertson indulged his love of the travelling carnival world, producing, writing, scoring and acting. As a child, he worked in a carnival, and indeed his language is still dotted with the hustler’s colourful jargon.

But that was his only acting role; soundtracks for Scorsese’s Raging Bull, King of Comedy and The Colour of Money followed. Even before The Last Waltz Scorsese knew the Band’s work intimately; afterwards, he and Robertson became firm friends. (They are pictured here at the time of King of Comedy.)

“I thought it was fantastic the way [Scorsese] used music in his movies. It runs right through his work, the film Elvis on Tour he did, Woodstock he edited, then Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. That’s why I asked him to do The Last Waltz – I felt this guy really knows, he understands what music is all about.”

Robertson expresses some ambivalence to music videos, disliking the artificiality of directors such as George Miller (Mad Max, The Witches of Eastwick) in favour of a more realistic approach. (His favourite music film is the classic The Girl Can’t Help It; his favourite score, Alex North’s for A Streetcar Named Desire.)

But Scorsese, who filmed Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ video, has just completed a “brilliant” clip for ‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River’, says Robertson. It stars Maria McKee. “As long as videos are done properly, great,” he says. “But so often they’re done cheaply, or indulgently – as if someone’s just got a camera, and they want to use every trick they can. Then you get away from the music.”
Having got the urge to make another album in 1983, Robertson worked on it at his usual snail’s pace. Once started, production stretched to 18 months – and costs to a million dollars. The music industry was starting to make Heaven’s Gate allusions. Consequently, the promotion machinery is in full gear and Robertson’s profile is high. He has played live on The David Letterman Show and Saturday Night Life, and now a tour is planned with musicians who played on the album.

Now that the urge to write has returned – how long until the next album?

“I’m on a roll now,” he says. “Once I get the tour out of the way, I’ll start thinking about it. It won’t be long.” As he sings on ‘Testimony’: “Bear witness, I’m wailing like the wind. Come, bear witness, the half-breed rides again.

© Chris Bourke - first published in Rip It Up (New Zealand), April 1988.

2011: I have been a little hesitant to post this as 23 years on I feel a little suckered in by the son of a professional gambler. A big Band fan since childhood, I have never been so excited before a phone interview as this one. At the time, the album was state of the art and seemed to have some heart. Robertson’s portentousness was forgiven by those of us so pleased to see him back with something new. Much of the press, Greil Marcus observed, was fawning, and perhaps this is an example. (He then went on to say Robertson’s follow-up, Storyville, was better: something I’ve never agreed with, outside the great ‘Soap Box Preacher’). This interview was less than two years after the tragic suicide of Richard Manuel; the revelations of how Robertson (and Albert Grossman) allegedly manoeuvred the song publishing of the Band, shutting the others out, were still to come. The evidence of self-importance is certainly there in The Last Waltz, though it continues to deliver. But when people accuse a bandleader of poaching the songwriting credits, I always think: where are the songs you’ve written since? None of the others came up with much new material in the 33 years after Islands, the group’s patchy, contract-fulfilling last album. 

After his 1987 return, Robertson became comparatively prolific, with two albums around Native American themes. They weren’t especially successful as music or merchandise, and his collaborators may have been left feeling that they’d been carpetbagged by a “charming hustler”. That’s the way I referred to Robertson in a 1994 interview – and first-hand anecdotes support this view –but his shtick doesn’t take away from the enduring rewards of the Band’s classics. Also, he has Scorsese’s imprimatur. A few days ago word came of a new Robertson solo album due in April, and by the sound of this advance song, released on the net, it’s a return to basic songwriting (with paint by numbers lyrics). How to Become Clairvoyant may feature a tribe of celebrity cohorts (Clapton, Winwood, Trent Reznor), but lacks the cathedral-scale sonics that contradicted the Band’s ethos. To lighten things up, here’s a pic from the excellent roots/country rock/Americana website When You Awake:

Manuel Robertson 1974
Richard Manuel checks his fly, while Robbie Robertson checks his hair. A scene in the men’s room in Denver during the Bob Dylan tour of 1974, photographed by Barry Feinstein.