25 September 2012

Tour de Farce

1. Dot Comedy of Errors

The D*tc*m saga seems destined to channel surf through the popular culture possibilities, from the Keystone Cops to SWAT. Now, it’s Austin Powers. Scriptwriters would turn away in horror from such a polyglot set up, in which a government (led by Mr Magoo) chases Pleasancefruitlessly after a baddie who looks like a Teletubby. So perhaps it is time to acknowledge the professionalism of someone who is more used to dealing in this spooky territory. Nicky Hager’s 2011 book Other People’s Wars (Craig Potton Publishing) is remarkably readable, considering the obfuscating jargon beloved by its characters: defence departments and spy agencies. Hager has taken an enormous amount of fresh research and built a compelling case out of unpromising material. Military acronyms and bureaucratic phrasemaking don’t trip up the narrative. Much of the material comes from reluctant, obstructive, leaked or anonymous internal sources, but Hager’s cross-checking and referencing is exemplary. Much of the criticism has been personal or politically driven, dismissing Hager rather than addressing his points. Hager was courageous to take on this topic, not just personally but to achieve some clarity out of the material. His strengths as a researcher are well-known, but his abilities as story teller and scene setter kept me captivated, against the odds. Other People’s Wars addresses issues of lasting importance to the community: how governments treat the truth, how bureaucrats and the military abuse language, and a relationship between the military and its politicians can veer between loyalty and manipulation.

2. Citizen Pope

In just 74 years, Jeremy Pope achieved an enormous amount: for New Zealand, and internationally. A lawyer, he spent much of his life campaigning for human rights and the environment, and against corruption. At Te Ara’s Signposts blog, Jock Phillips has posted a tribute that details much of it: his work on the Save Manapouri campaign, as a legal adviser to the 1975 Maori land march, and editing – with his wife Diana – the hugely successful Mobil travel guides to the North and South Islands, which ran to several updated editions. Pope left New Zealand in about 1981, one of many refugees from the reign of Muldoon (he had been involved with the “Citizens for Rowling” lobby). New Zealand’s temporary loss was the world’s gain: Pope co-founded the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International. A 2009 interview with him can be heard at Radio New Zealand below.


3. Hang on a Minute

crump I can’t imagine two more different characters stuck in a hut together than bushman-writer Barry Crump, and Alex Fry, an elegant if irascible essayist for the New Zealand Listener for over 30 years. While Crump acknowledged poet Kevin Ireland for encouraging him to start writing, it was Fry who knocked his manuscript into shape. Crump’s debut story collection A Good Keen Man went on to become one of New Zealand’s best-selling books ever. Fry was recruited by Reed’s editor Ray Richards after at least two other publishers had rejected the manuscript, which Richards described as arriving “grubby and single spaced but with a ‘magic’ about it”. After the book’s massive success, Fry was rewarded with a percentage of the royalties – and a punch in the nose from Crump. Victoria University’s Electronic Text Centre has a fascinating annotated index of material about A Good Keen Man’s publishing history. The bibliography reminded me of the cold sweat experienced when reading the chilling 1962 story ‘That Way’ (later published in Crump’s Warm Beer and Other Stories). James K Baxter described it as “a story by Barry Crump far more hard-hitting than anything he has turned out for money”.

4. Publish and Be Damned

OxAmHW An email arrives from Oxford American magazine in Alabama, saying its new editor is a Brooklyn, New York-based ex-editor of Harpers who grew up in Texas. I noted his trimmed beard, and wondered what happened to the founding editor Marc Smirnoff: for over 20 years he was the driving force behind the always troubled, occasionally pretentious, but deep-hearted and lively quarterly. Besides its generous website, the magazine’s award-winning annual music issue features a savvy CD compilation, alongside often inspirational editing, design and writing (except for the pieces that were all about the author rather than the music). Smirnoff could be verbose himself, and had a predilection for too much memoir-as-fiction from creative writing grads; it was also noticeable that the mag seemed to employ lots of interns with good teeth.  The Oxford American’s latest rescuer was new to publishing, and his puff pieces read like tone-deaf mission statements from an aspirant Republican candidate. Googling Smirnoff’s name, the computer instantly filled in another word": "Fired". Popular electronicsAn hour was quickly lost reading the results: sexual harrassment is alleged, and Smirnoff and his life/work partner – the magazine’s managing editor – were both sacked. Smirnoff has responded with a new website which features a massive document responding passionately to his accusers and employers, the OA board. Publishing this was perhaps unwise; calling the site Editors in Love certainly is. Perhaps this was a board waiting for its moment. Still there must be some other opportunities out there for experienced editors who are musically minded.

21 September 2012

The Maori-Memphis connection

The New Zealand Trading Company actually only traded in the United States. The band evolved out of the Maori Hi-Quins and other Maori showbands of the 1960s. The most prominent member was bass guitarist Thomas Kini, who left New Zealand in 1959 aged 16 to play with the Hi-Quins. At the time of his death aged 61 in 2004, he had become a prominent musician based in the Chicago area. (Many Maori showband musicians settled in the US after their cabaret heyday was over.) Kini worked with artists such as Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Minnie Ripperton and Herbie Hancock.

The New Zealand Trading Company released just one album, in 1970, on the Memphis label. Most of the songs are co-written by Thomas Kini, plus two by Alberto Carrion. But the song  which keeps getting requested on specialist programmes in New Zealand is their cover of “Hey Jude”. 

Update: now I’ve got my copy back again, the sparse credits say that the album was produced by N Rosenberg, and engineered by Steve Stepanian. It doesn’t say where it was recorded but in November 1970 the album was re-mixed at Universal Recording Studios, Memphis TN. Its catalogue number was MS1001, and Memphis Records was part of the Memphis Corporation, at 261 Chelsea Building, Memphis – probably an office up a few flights of stairs.

19 September 2012

Please Mr President

"I'm dreaming of a white president," says the character in Randy Newman's new song, 'I'm Dreaming'. The song name-checks many of the other great presidents in US history whose administrations were malignant on either the intelligence or corruption front. The New Yorker's blog puts the song in context with Newman's 1974 'Rednecks', while at Nonesuch's site, Newman explains:
"No other Western industrialized nation would’ve elected a black president. I’m proud of this country for having elected Obama in 2008. But from the beginning of his term, I noticed a particular heat to conversations that wouldn’t ordinarily generate that kind of passion: The budget, appointments, health care.” He continues, “I think there are a lot of people who find it jarring to have a black man in the White House and they want him out. They just can’t believe that there’s not a more qualified white man. You won’t get anyone, and I do mean anyone, to admit it.  
“I often write songs in character. You can’t always trust or believe the narrators in my songs. So why listen? Good question.
“Anyway the guy in this song may exist somewhere. Let’s hope not. Vote in November.” 
'I'm Dreaming' is available as a free download at the site of his record label Nonesuch.

04 September 2012

Sleepin’ on the Job

San jose1. Royalty
Sinatra lyricist Sammy Cahn was often asked, Which came first – the words or the lyrics? His answer: “The phone call”. As a listener, for me it’s always the melody, but Paul Hester once pointed out how that’s not so for everyone (particularly women). “There’s a reason lyricists get half the royalties.” With the passing of Hal David late last week,  we farewell a certain style of lyricist whose smarts never elbowed out accessibility. The team of Bacharach and David was an anomaly in the so-called Swinging Sixties: Burt Bacharach may have looked ready for the Playboy mansion, while David dressed for the golf club. But on over 700 songs David’s skill with a lyric harked back to Johnny Mercer, yet touched millions unmoved by psychedelics but by pure human emotions. A testimony to David’s breadth is the number of different songs that obit headline writers have used. Every song has a surprise that makes them unforgettable: an everyday image, an unexpected metre or rhyme. ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ sees the female singer rushing to her day job, putting on her makeup, running for the bus; ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’ rhymes pneumonia with phone yer. In ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’, a casual guy’s feet are too big for his bed; nothing seems to fit. Davis makes a clever segue from “cryin’s not for me” to the internal rhymes of “nothing’s gonna stop the rain by complainin’”, and “the blues he sends to meet me won’t defeat me”. In the middle eight of ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’ David seems to take the baton from Roger Miller’s ‘King of the Road’ – “LA is a great big freeway / put a hundred down and buy a car” – and pass it to Guy Clark: “If I get off of this LA freeway / without getting killed or caught.” But ‘Jose’ also shows how teamwork was essential to their craft: where the emphasis falls in “and parking cars and pumping gas” is crucial to making simple imagery profound.
2. Prodigal
statueJesus Christ was found last week in Taranaki, after more than 10 years in the wilderness. Jim Allen’s mahogany sculpture of Christ was the centrepiece of John Scott’s 1961 design of the Futuna Chapel in Wellington, which is regarded as one of New Zealand’s architectural masterpieces. A mention on RNZ’s Saturday Morning programme by architect David Mitchell led one listener to recall seeing it in someone’s lounge. This week the Wellington detective who discreetly explored the lead drove up to Taranaki to bring the statue back. In a perfect world, a film crew would follow him on the journey, Christ sitting up in the back of a convertible; the soundtrack playing is from Jim White’s doco Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.
3. Show time
vikings showbandThe much-missed Word magazine offered a weekly podcast in which the editors told anecdotes, reflected on music and modern life, and interviewed the occasional guest. It was a great way of connecting with their readers, far more genuine than some gimmick thought up by a marketing department. The Word didn’t have one of those, nor did it have enough paying advertisers. A podcast earlier this year was a gem: their guests were the authors Paul Charles and Stanley Booth. Charles has worked in the UK music business and written a series of mystery novels, but his new bookThe Last Dance (New Island) is different. It’s a novelised history of the 1960s’ Irish showband phenomenon, told as a fictional biography of an invented band, the Playboys of Castlemartin. These showbands are often spoken of with derision by the rock star children whose parents may have met at their dances: I have heard Bono and Bob Geldof almost bust blood vessels describing their naffness and their place in an earlier, oppressed Ireland. We invented hipness is the message, ignoring that without the Irish showbands, there would be no Van Morrison, who served his time in the Monarchs (where he learnt his chops arranging brass). What was intriguing about the podcast was the way Charles’s description suggested connections between the Irish and Maori showbands. Both were prominent simultaneously in the early 1960s, and both shared an eclectic approach to music that emphasised humour, dancing and musicianship over originality. The Last Dance is flawed: for a novel it desperately needs a fact checker, Charles too often places the important clause of a sentence right at the very end, and the plot often veers into soap opera. But in its own naive way it captures a lost world, and is great craic. Pictured are the Vikings from Dundalk.
4. Pop sociology
Pat Long’s History of the NME (Portico) sketches out the roller-coaster tale of what was once the world’s most influential pop paper. Long is no stylist, but his book is more interesting that the solipsistic recent memoir of the paper’s 1970s junkie star, Nick Kent (Apathy for the Devil).  From its NME_FC-661x1024beginnings championing Vera Lynn through to the troubled post-Britpop digital era, the NME has had many periods of boom, and never quite succumbed to bust. But Long, a recent staff writer, captures well the era in which the paper lost its way: the early 1980s, when NME writers Ian Penman and Paul Morley made up for their ignorance about music, history, earlier rock journalism and satisfying readers by
“… attempting to write in a way that was alternately brave and baffling, employing punctuation like a weapon, conjuring images that were abstract and evocative and occasionally downright meaningless. It was gloriously provocative but at times very long-winded and egocentric writing, inspired by French philosophers Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida and the work of the Frankfurt School of dissident Marxist social theoreticians. Whether this approach had any place in a weekly music paper is a moot point, but suddenly the pages of NME assumed something of the atmosphere of the staff common room of the philosophy department of a small provincial university.”
5. Warped
Part of the NME’s success - especially in the mid to late 1970s - was that it covered more than music. This undoubtedly influenced The Word, whose editor Mark Ellen and co-founder David Hepworth both worked the NME under the editorships of Nick Logan and Neil Spencer. Perhaps the only positive to come from the demise of The Word is that David Hepworth is finding more time to update his reflective blog, which covers not just music but sport, literature, history, media, publishing and parenting (from the perspective of someone who came of age in the era of Harold Wilson). Here are his Ten Laws of Record Collecting.