15 November 2009

Cultural Crusader

The history of music magazines in New Zealand goes back to colonial times, and of course became more complex from the late 1970s. Triad’s connection with Rip It Up is provided by Charles Baeyertz’s grandson Simon, who was a key supporter while at Festival Records, and a Cha-Cha contributor; his brother Paul briefly played keyboards in Space Waltz and taught me acoustics at university.

FACING THE MUSIC: Charles Baeyertz and the Triad, by Joanna Woods (Otago University Press, Dunedin: 2008)

baeyertz cover Charles Baeyertz was New Zealand’s critic-at-large, and larger than life. As founder and editor of the Triad, for more than 30 years he championed and excoriated New Zealand culture like a megalomaniacal polymath. He was a crusader for the arts, indefatigably travelling the country in pursuit of excellence. If he found it, no practitioner could have a more enthusiastic advocate. But if his standards weren’t met – especially by professionals – he wasted no breath on politesse in his disapproval. His criticism was delivered with a swashbuckling relish. Late-Victorian New Zealand is usually portrayed as being dominated by pragmatic pioneers and philistines, and a small society in which feelings and reputations could so easily be bruised that discretion was a synonym for discourse. Publish and be damned could have been his motto: he did, and he often was.

Caution was never likely. Baeyertz was born in Melbourne in 1866 to parents who had alienated their families: his father for marrying a Jewish bride, his mother for marrying a non-Jew. Charles senior was the bank manager in a rural settlement, quickly becoming a big man in a small town. But at the age of 28 he died in a hunting accident; his widow Emilia had little family support to raise two children under five. Having half-heartedly converted to Christianity on her marriage, the grieving widow now embraced her new faith with a dramatic intensity. Putting the precocious Charles into boarding school, she became internationally renowned as an evangelical preacher.

In a biography of scrupulous accuracy, Joanna Woods only alludes to the paternal influence on Baeyertz. With little evidence as to his father’s character, Woods makes no more than a suggestion that he may have inherited his father’s risk-taking and flamboyance. Discussing the influence of Baeyertz’s mother, however, she is on more certain ground:

[The] lasting impact of Emilia’s intensity, and the extent to which Charles followed her example, are demonstrated by the ‘Apostolic fire’ which imbued his cultural mission to New Zealand and prompted him to found his critical magazine, the Triad. Strains of his mother’s evangelism resound through its pages, not only in his exacting musical and literary reviews, but also in this many pronouncements on the moral dangers of ‘a prevalence of bad English’ and his dire warnings on the evils of faulty diction. (pp21-22)

Friends say that Baeyertz was ‘maddeningly good at everything’. He had a formidable memory, vast expertise in music and was conversant in many languages. Boarding school is where he made his debut as a journalist and publisher, in a style to which his followers would become accustomed.

Baeyertz launched a school magazine, the Collegian Herald, and edited it with ‘a ready wit and scant regard for the feelings of others.’ In a parody of a court report he mocked the school’s German master, especially for his lapses in hygiene. The headmaster responded with wisdom: the idea of a school magazine was worthwhile, but it would be produced by the school (which it is to this day).

Largely self-educated, but with a sense of humour that owed little to his earnest upbringing, Baeyertz had few career ambitions other than a desire to be involved in music. His German name helped, and he became a church choirmaster and organist. He was lucky to be a young adult in the 1880s, when Melbourne was at a cultural peak and booming economically. Many overseas performers were visiting, and there was a wide variety of light opera, theatre and vaudeville on offer; Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were especially popular.

Property speculation was also rife, and when the bust occurred, Baeyertz was an early victim. With a young wife and three children, he decided to start again in Dunedin, a city enjoying the cultural after-effects of the 1889-1890 New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition. He was determined to establish himself in a career that would make use of his love and knowledge of music. Although his talents – in an era when much social interaction revolved around music – were not exceptional, and he had no formal qualifications, he had a profound understanding of music, especially the technical aspects of performance.

Dunedin had a surfeit of music teachers, however, and Baeyertz didn’t have the gravitas to suit the university, so he decided to promote himself through music journalism. A series of wide-ranging, well-informed articles for the Otago Witness led to his appointment as a music and theatre critic of the Otago Daily Times. He quickly picked a fight with a prominent columnist, showing off his superior technical knowledge of music.

Baeyertz saw a gap in the market for an arts magazine, concentrating especially on music. His timing was good: New Zealand was enjoying a period of prosperity under the Liberals, and was about to receive many visits from international opera companies and musicians. His only competition was the ‘dignified’ New Zealand Music Monthly published out of Balclutha, which concentrated on brass bands – and failed after three years.

He may have had worthy aspirations for improving the quality of the arts in New Zealand, but in contrast to many others driven by their passion, Baeyertz was a businessman: above all, he wanted his magazine to sell. Unlike the recent, short-lived, Zealandia – or Australia’s successful Bulletin ­– Baeyertz didn’t pander to the nationalistic sentiments of his readers. His magazine would be international in its outlook, and to this end he quoted liberally from overseas magazines.

Triad Launched in 1893, the Triad was an arts magazine, not a literary journal, with an emphasis on music in particular. Baeyertz was a critic interested mostly in lifting standards, rather than promoting cultural nationalism in a fledgling colony. He enjoyed being a judge, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the amateur speech and music competitions beginning to flourish on both sides of the Tasman. Being an adjudicator was the perfect secondary career: he could reward effort, promote standards – and himself – and people were forced to listen. When it came to professional performers, even international stars such as Nellie Melba, Baeyertz took delight in socialising with them but didn’t pull his punches when the time came to cast judgement. His manifesto shared his mother’ crusading spirit:

The critic who [n]ever expresses outright satisfaction with anything but the best in art fails in his duty to himself, to the artist and the art concerned, and to the public ... The highest standards are the only true criteria of intelligent and honest criticism. The critic should judge always as though he heard the artist for the first time in his life, in some city in which he was a stranger. It is not for him to inquire who Mr Noodle’s relatives are, or who taught Miss Shrill to make such offensive noises. He is to judge the artist, as a craftsman judges a machine, by comparison with the best of its kind. (p86)

Baeyertz was proud that he (almost) never accepted reviewer’s tickets to a concert. That way, his freedom of speech was uncompromised. He especially enjoyed deflating the pompous and over-hyped, a famous example being the 1908 tour by the statuesque Australian contralto Clara Butt. She came supported – financially and on the stage – by her wealthy jeweller husband, the baritone Kennerly Rumford. Baeyertz was offended by their commercialism and exploitation of the family angle, and ranted as if confronted by Posh and Becks singing ‘Nessun Dorma’: ‘The masses, the philistine, the satiated bourgeois were prepared: and for them everything was arranged. No feeling of disgust was awakened by this display of home and family life, exhibited as a draw for the populace, not even when the latest baby was put on the placards’ (p123). If the pre-publicity was repellent, the actual music turned him almost apoplectic:

The whole programme was a concession to the bourgeois. A snack of Schumann, a gout of Gluck, and happy handful of Handel [... and then] the joy-filled audience paddled in the shallow water of English drawing-room songs. [...] Mrs Rumford owns a big voice, organ-like in quality, but inferiorly played. There is a bad break in the voice. Her notes are coarse and lack polish and roundness. There is no continuous flow of sound [...] she makes mincemeat of a song. (p124)

The uproar that followed saw the Triad’s sales boom, but inevitably a policy of outspokenness would bring trouble. The magazine’s most famous day in court was in 1913 after the singer and vaudeville promoter John Fuller was accused of having a voice like a ‘pig’s whistle’. The courtroom scene could have been from Gilbert and Sullivan: Fuller appeared in the witness box with a tuning fork and some sheet music. Observing was the complete cast of Pink Dandies, and the room ‘rocked with laughter’ for three hours. Baeyertz’s main defence – that a ‘pig’s whistle’ was defined as merely meaning ‘a low whisper’ – won him the case, and the Triad received wonderful publicity.

The writer of the ‘pig’s whistle’ line was Frank Morton, a hard-drinking, Australian womaniser who happened to craft stylish prose. Baeyertz first came across Morton criticising the Triad, and saw the possibility of ‘a splendid enemy’. Soon, Morton would become the magazine’s star writer, boosting circulation just as Baeyertz’s energy was flagging. Morton was prolific, versatile and outrageous. He brought a more literary quality to the magazine, in his writing and the topics he chose to cover. Women readers in particular loved the persona portrayed by Morton (and his many pseudonyms), and he wasn’t shy of using his fame.

Understandably, Woods has concentrated on the Baeyertz that emerges from the Triad, which is where he left a paper trail. His vigorous, unfettered writing displays his passions, but little about the man himself. But thanks to Woods’s determined research, Baeyertz the person is shown to be as colourful as his prose: tragedy, drama and romance were all set to a grandiose soundtrack, though destructive to his family. Woods writes with wry humour, though her discretion occasionally undersells the narrative. An example is when Baeyertz, his first marriage over, sets off on a voyage to the United States with the love of his life. The year is 1919, the influenza pandemic has just peaked. Although he and Mildred Carey-Wallace never married – and scandalously had a child out of wedlock – the trip was to be like an extended honeymoon. It was also an opportunity for Baeyertz, like Charles Foster Kane, to further his de facto wife’s musical career. They would have been in high spirits, writes Woods ...

Their feelings, however, are not recorded. Instead, all that remains is a terse entry in Charles’s diary in which he noted, without comment, the sequence of devastating events that followed:

4.6.1919 Left for America. Sonoma.

9.6.1919 Mildred died. 11.45pm.

10.6.1919 Mildred buried. Pango Pango. (p186)

Undoubtedly Baeyertz was devastated; certainly, the reader is stunned. He ‘carried on doggedly with his programme,’ his feelings only being reflected in his jaundiced reports for the Triad. With his journalism as the sole available source, Woods sensibly avoids speculation or melodrama, but it is not the only occasion when a climax could support a more emphatic cadence.

What legacy did Baeyertz leave behind in New Zealand culture? Directly, not much, especially when compared to another largely forgotten, autocratic cultural gatekeeper, James Shelley of the National Broadcasting Service. The amateur string orchestras would have kept scratching away without Baeyertz, but Shelley gave them a goal in the National Orchestra. The musty editions of the Triad reveal its era to have a cultural excitement which is rarely portrayed. Perhaps the magazine’s lasting influence was literary: both Katherine Mansfield and bookish newspaperman Pat Lawlor admired Frank Morton, and Robin Hyde was a dedicated reader.

Alan Mulgan described Baeyertz walking the streets ‘with the standing and authority of an institution.’ In the last 40 years, essayists such as Monte Holcroft, Hamish Keith and John M Thomson have celebrated Baeyertz and the Triad but such a colourful character deserves more widespread notoriety. Now that Woods has dedicatedly sifted the archives for an engrossing biography, a television costume drama is in order (and pigs will whistle). The pitch could be ‘The Governor meets My Fair Lady’.

(First published in JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature, #26, 2008)

13 November 2009


Murray Cammick provided the obituary of Roger Jarrett he wrote for the Sunday Star-Times for reproduction here:

Roger Jarrett 1950-2000

roger jarrett by CB Roger Jarrett edited and designed the groundbreaking New Zealand music magazine Hot Licks (1974-76), a free music magazine that put new local bands such as Split Enz and Dragon on the map and exposed the finest imported music from Little Feat to Bob Marley.

Mike Chunn, APRA NZ boss and Split Enz bassist in the formative years (1972 to 1977), says of Jarrett’s contribution. “Roger and his Hot Licks magazine believed in contemporary NZ music as a powerful cultural force. He dissected it, he lauded it, he exposed it, and he criticised it - all in good taste. Split Enz's foray onto the national music scene was spearheaded by Roger's editorial support. We relished in it, we appreciated it, we never took it for granted and we'll never forget it.”

A quarter of a century later Jarrett’s description of Split Enz live at His Majesty’s Theatre has not been equalled. He wrote, “How can one describe their concerts? The Oxford University debating team on acid? Peter Rabbit as played by Syd Barrett? Monty Python visits the Queen Mother under the direction of Pasolini, Marcel Marceau and Ray Davies?”

In the spirit of the 70s, Hot Licks exposed illustrative talent such as Dick Frizzell, Peter Adams, Frank Womble and Colin Wilson.
Jarrett who grew up on Auckland’s North Shore had met Frizzell when they both worked at ad agency Muir & Associates. Frizzell recalls,  “Back in the crazy 70s, seeing Roger unshaven and red-eyed after staying up for a week pasting up that ground-breaking music magazine and Roger still raving! Writing a fiercely loyal deadline piece on Split Enz with one hand and the intro to this strange new music ‘reggae’ with the other. This is the guy who taught me the meaning of boundless enthusiasm.”

After leaving Hot Licks in 1976, Jarrett worked at Warner Music NZ in promotions. Founding Warner Music NZ boss Tim Murdoch, who had also employed Jarrett at Allied-Pye Records, says of Jarrett, “He loved music, he was always brimming with enthusiasm and smashing cars. What’s wrong with the record industry today is there are no Roger Jarretts.”

In 1979 Jarrett returned to advertising and graphic design work until he left Auckland in 1988 to live in Mount Maunganui where he could indulge his passion for surfing and pursue numerous ideas, such as writing a screenplay about Micky Dora, the legendary surfer and hustler. After the release of Point Break Jarrett initiated legal action against a Hollywood studio over similarities to his screenplay.
Jarrett continued to work in graphic design and photography and moved into web site design and internet ventures. Weeks before his death, in an email to a friend, Jarrett reflected on his hometown’s hosting of the America’s Cup.

”Fantastic scene, a great vision for Auckland. I think the city almost has its soul back. The destruction of His Majesty’s Theatre has taken a long time to live down in my book.”

12 November 2009

Grooving With Moog

When Rip It Up celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1987, publisher Murray Cammick suggested that we run a story about New Zealand’s earlier rock magazines. I interviewed Des Dubbelt, then in his 60s, and Roger Jarrett, in his mid-30s. Both had sharp, curious minds, more interested in the present than the past. Their homes suited their lifestyles. Dubbelt’s house in West Auckland was full of books and his Bechstein piano had a Bach prelude ready to play; he had a free-flowing garden that was a work of art, and a source of food. Jarrett, a keen surfer, was renting a flat on Takapuna Beach; his workroom was neatly cluttered with graphic art in progress, while the latest Prince record played. Sadly, both erudite men – who contributed so much to New Zealand music and journalism – are now dead.
Grooving With Moog: New Zealand’s Music Press
By Chris Bourke (Rip It Up, July 1987)
Two things were different about going to a movie in the 1960s. First, you were obliged to stand up for ‘God Save the Queen.’ And at half-time, there were advertisements for Playdate, only 2/- at the Nibble Nook bar.
Owned by Kerridge Odeon, Playdate developed out of their house organ Cinema in 1960. Very similar to Shake! in format and content, its coverage extended to music and other youth topics. Playdate is New Zealand’s most successful young person’s magazine ever. The magazine lasted 12 years, and in its heyday had a circulation of 75,000 copies, with a readership of four or five times that number.
Des DubbeltAlthough Playdate was the idea of Cinema’s editor Sid Bevan, he left shortly after the magazine started, and for most of its life Des Dubbelt (right) was the editor. “I felt that to go anywhere, the magazine had to shed the feel of a handout, it had to have a consumer feel,” he says. Dubbelt describes his employer Sir Robert Kerridge as “a true impresario, not an accountant” – so the magazine was not limited to KO films, but also covered Amalgamated’s releases and television stories, with genuine criticism, not just publicity. “Kerridge saw you’ve got to go with the flow. If you’re in show business, it doesn’t make sense to ignore your competition.”
The magazine was aimed equally at males and females, though the healthy advertising (some issues nearly reached 200 pages!) was mainly cosmetics and clothes (Slimryte Rolls! Bri-Nylon!) for the young Slenderella. “We followed our own interests a lot,” says Dubbelt. “We thought if it interested us, it would interest our readers. There were no readers’ surveys. We were enthusiasts.”
With Dubbelt at Playdate was Tom McWilliams as assistant editor (later executive chief sub-editor at the Listener), and young reporter Sally (who later worked for the Beatles at Apple in London).
Reflecting the explosion of the decade, music became a major part of the magazine. “It was a natural progression,” says Dubbelt. “The pop films started happening. Cliff Richard and so on, bolstered by personal visits. When the Beatles arrived, it was like the millennium.” Dubbelt remembers taking Gene Pitney to Kerridge’s Pakatoa Island resort for a story, and accompanying Tom Jones to a nightclub after his Town Hall concert – and Tommy Adderley singing ‘It’s Not Unusual’ as Jones entered.
The burgeoning local music scene was covered, particularly the summer package tours. “Mr Lee Grant was mobbed in a way comparable with any visiting big name.” Shows such as C’mon made New Zealanders pop stars. “Any TV show wouldn’t have done it,” says Dubbelt. “Kevan Moore was a brilliant producer – those shows were excellent.”
As any magazine should, Playdate’s layout reflects the design of the era. The change from hot metal to offset printing meant some radical layouts were possible: white type on black, photos bled to the edge. “We were dealing with a visual market: movies, fashion, rock, and this technology meant we could look different from the things the Woman’s Weekly were doing. The readers saw this – they didn’t want something that reminded them of their mother’s magazine.”
The innovations of Playdate meant the magazine attracted work from the “young, adventurous” photographers of the day, such as Max Thomson, Rodney Charteris, and Roger Donaldson. “We couldn’t have afforded them, but they liked the type of layouts we used, and to see their work well presented.” While they were using Mondrian grid layouts and plenty of white space, Dubbelt and McWilliams looked with envy at overseas magazines – the San Francisco Oracle even had psychedelic inks!
But the times eventually caught up with Playdate. By the early 1970s music and movies had got more permissive, and the magazine could reflect that in its illustrations – to a point. “It was just the way things were going. Take Woodstock. It was a pretty raunchy film, with a permissive attitude towards drugs and lifestyle. Tom and I felt we couldn’t cover the way the rock scene was going.
“That was about the time Rolling Stone came on the scene. They seemed to have no ‘no-nos,’ with star writers such as Hunter Thompson who seemed to be doing all the drugs, too. The youth market had diversified into heavy rock, with the accompanying drug scene, and teenybopper pop. We couldn’t and didn’t want to go into those areas.”
Playdate’s circulation was still healthy when the magazine was sold to the Auckland Star in 1972, but six months later the new owners decided to close the magazine down. Ironically, on the day Rip It Up interviewed Des Dubbelt, the Star’s parent company New Zealand Newspapers announced the closure of their 1980s teen magazine, Dolly.

New Zealand’s first rock paper of significance started in October 1967 – a month before Rolling Stone. Called Groove, it was edited in Wellington by Dene Kellaway for the publishers Lucas Print. He’d been the editor of Teenbeat, which had closed down the month before.
Efforts to trace Kellaway (left) didn’t succeed, but in 1968 an interview with him appeared in another short-lived New Zealand music magazine Third Stream (a curious mix of mainly classical music, plus folk and pop; it lasted four issues). Its headline read, “EDITOR RELUCTANTLY GIVES UP GROOVE.” Kellaway’s reasons were pure 1960s: his own pop career was getting off the ground … and he’d been drafted.
While Dene did his 14 weeks of national service at Waiouru, the magazine appears to have gone into recess. What happened to his pop career (NZBC didn’t buy his first single, ‘I’m Going Nowhere,’ reported Groove) is also a mystery.
When Groove reappeared in August 1968, it continued its hip coverage of the overseas and local pop and rock scenes. Although the Monkees were on the first cover, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd were also cover stories in the magazine’s first year – using illustrations drawn by readers.
For their 10 cents each fortnight, each Groove reader got a 16-page tabloid with plenty of pix and pinups, reviews and news, of pop stars and movies. Except for the paper’s news from Sydney – where Dalvanius was their correspondent – most of its overseas coverage was taken from press releases, or syndicated from other music mags. But what’s remarkable is the paper’s coverage of local music. As the nostalgists keep reminding us, then we had pop stars: Simple Image (“will they keep ‘Spinning Spinning Spinning’ till 1968’s Loxene Golden Disc?”), the Avengers, the Fourmyula, the Underdogs, Hi-Revving Tongues, Ray Columbus, John Rowles, and especially Mr Lee Grant (who wore suede boots laced at the side to an interview!).
Radio DJs were also stars, and one of Groove’s bandwagons was pirate station Radio Hauraki, with their “good guys.” When the bill legalising private radio was passed in 1968, Kellaway wrote: “Groove is very pleased about the new bill and will be giving full support to any new stations that start up. In the long run it is going to be a good thing, and with the heavy competition it will bring the standard of our local productions will improve and more local talent will local talent will be uncovered and given a good fighting chance.”
But interviewed on the way to Waiouru, Kellaway talked of giving up Groove, as his contract with Apollo Records required him to be free to travel around the world. He was going to cut singles with his band the Vibrons while on weekend leave.
“I ran Groove alone, and did most of the writing myself. I did all the record reviews too, so it was a bit hectic,” he said. “I was doing Groove for the love of the work. I wasn’t drawing a wage off it; I had another part-time job on which I was living. Because I had been trying to sing for so long, I realised just how difficult it is, and how important, for the groups to get recognition in this country. I was plugging that side, trying to help the New Zealand scene. It wasn’t really a paying proposition. It could be, but I had gone as far as I could as a one-man band; it was a 24-hour-a-day job. I had about two days a week to myself.”
In August 1969, Kellaway moved on to concentrate on his recording career. The paper’s blues columnist Barry Francis Jones took over as editor, but that’s where RIU’s collection of Groove ends.
One year after the imported Rolling Stone magazine contributed to Playdate’s demise, New Zealand had its own edition of the San Francisco mag. Published by Alister Taylor of Little Red Schoolbook fame, the NZ RS lasted six issues in 1973.
But in February 1974 an all New Zealand owned rock magazine arrived. It had the delightfully 1970s name Hot Licks.
roger jarrett by CB Hot Licks was started by Aucklanders Kerry Thomas, of Direction Records, and Radio Hauraki co-founder David Gapes. They asked graphic designer Roger Jarrett to edit the paper. “They thought of the idea of a free music mag, thinking it would be in their interest to promote music,” says Jarrett (right). “They said, ‘go for it’ – the first couple of issues I virtually wrote myself, then I found other writers. It was a different industry then for music. As far as marketing went, it wasn’t nearly as sophisticated.”
The magazine featured the best of 1970s music, from Bowie and Lou Reed to Little Feat and Joni Mitchell. “It was an enthusiast’s not a journalist’s magazine: a lot of the critical writing was blatantly biased towards favourite acts. But occasionally you got people who could actually write, such as Tim Blanx, who went off to England with Roxy Music. He was into the pre-punk music of the mid-70s, like Roxy, the Velvets and the New York Dolls, whereas I liked the more country influenced American music, and dance music.”
Split Enz were the first local cover story, followed by Mark Williams and Waves. But local music was difficult to cover, says Jarrett, “because we never had any journalists employed, so the only person who could go out and do interviews was me, and there wasn’t the time. There’s far more consciousness about a New Zealand identity now.”
Because of Jarrett’s background, the graphics were a crucial part of Hot Licks. As photographs didn’t reproduce well on newsprint, covers were done by illustrators such as Frank Womble, Dick Frizzell and Colin Wilson, and the page layout was extremely complex. Although the magazine quickly had a weighty masthead of contributing writers, Jarrett found himself doing everything else: subbing, proofing, paste-up, “the whole shebang. It was very time-consuming, and visitors would come in constantly. Very soon people thought I was an authority.”
Advertising was slow in the early months. “For a start, the record companies had to have their arms twisted to advertise.” They thought [the record store] Taste and Radio Hauraki were calling the shots. “There was a lot of politics involved,” says Jarrett. “Far too much. The whole record industry’s like that. But after six issues, they realised it wasn’t going to go away.”
Hot Licks lasted 27 issues, “quite an achievement, with no budget,” says Jarrett. But towards the end the magazine charged 40 cents an issue. That was a mistake, really, but not the reason it folded. It was still all down to me to do everything, and I was exhausted by the whole process. Plus I had family commitments.”
The circulation reached 8000, distributed through record stores around the country, though in Auckland, through Direction shops only. “It was a bit of a political football, between the purchase of records in the stores, and the amount of publicity in the mag, and advertising. Also, Direction became a distributor of overseas labels like Virgin, Casablanca, ECM – that got right up the noses of the record companies. It became too political – that’s where I lost interest.”
With the management of Direction and Hauraki having changed, there also wasn’t the commitment from above, the returns being difficult to evaluate.
“The only thing about Hot Licks that I believe is of value is that it’s an accurate reflection of its age, and what people thought about at the time,” says Jarrett. “I hate nostalgia. I’m not nostalgic about the magazine at all. It was good self-expression, and I really enjoyed it, but I really like being now, being current.”
© Chris Bourke 1987
Russell Brown writes a detailed tribute to Des Dubbelt and Playdate here. Quotes and information from the above article have appeared elsewhere without attribution (once by a senior academic who should have known better). Feel free to use it, with acknowledgement of the original source.

31 October 2009

Sir Howard Has Left the Building

It’s 1990. Howard Morrison has just been knighted. In South Auckland, Maori showband veteran Robbie Ratana is going through some new routines.
“Prince Tui Teka should have been a knight, too,” he says. “… Sir Cumference.”
Moving right along … “Have you seen my impersonation of Howard? Sir Howard?”
Ratana pulls out a cigarette lighter, ignites it with a flick, and grins.

Corny, cheeky, simultaneously sharp and silly, the distinctive humour of the Maori showbands was just one legacy of the Howard Morrison Quartet. They helped create New Zealand’s modern music industry, becoming an entertainment phenomenon by celebrating – and spoofing – their culture.
When the Quartet disbanded in January 1965 Morrison was the fortunate one who left as a household name. But it was 15 years before he found his other vocation: Howard Morrison, role model, motivator, campaigner, ambassador and bicultural conduit. It was a leadership position that offered respect, but demanded responsibility. Like a ceremonial cloak it acknowledged achievements but also carried expectations. Eventually his status as an entertainer evolved into true mana: he was a kaumatua with a title to match.

Morrison had the perfect background to lead the Quartet. His father Temuera had been a Maori All Black who played with George Nepia; his mother Kahu was a teenage member of the Rotorua Maori Choir that made historic recordings in 1930. With his powerful tenor, drive and good looks, Morrison was a natural front man. In the most famous line-up, Wi Wharekura sang alto, Noel Kingi the deep bass, and Gerry Merito was the lynchpin: a born comedian with a guitar style that launched countless singalongs. “Gerry was the driving force in harmonies,” said Morrison. “He could go anywhere, take any part; his pitch was absolutely marvellous.” He often said reunions were unthinkable without Merito, who died in January.
Like Elvis, Morrison could sing anything, and did. As a child, he sang hymns in Maori at church, then over Sunday lunch the extended family would continue with more popular fare. He never forgot the Italian songs learnt from returned soldiers of the Maori Battalion – ‘O Sole Mio,’ ‘Come Back to Sorrento’ – and he performed them with remarkable veracity. “I used to call myself Mario Maori Lanza,” he recalled. While milking the cows, he would accompany the wholesome pop songs on the Lifebuoy Hit Parade. “I would mimic whoever was singing, male or female. I knew all the hit parade songs by heart. It gave me a sort of subconscious knowledge of what people wanted to listen to. And what the majority of people still want to listen to is middle-of-the-road popular.”
The Quartet began by performing overseas hits and Maori popular favourites such as ‘Pokarekare Ana’ and ‘Haere Ra E Hine.’ Pop standards were intermingled with country and western, Italian-style pop, spirituals, light rhythm’n’blues, English and Irish traditionals, and coffee-house folk. There was even an album for mothers, called Always.
And always there was humour, at first as send-ups or impressions: ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ as sung by the Splatters; ‘Because of You’ with walk-on parts by Jimmy Cagney, James Stewart and Jerry Lewis. “You’ve heard of Johnny Ray? Here’s the Maori … Sting Ray.”
Their biggest hits were parodies, and they made the Quartet unique. “It wasn’t until we released ‘The Battle of Waikato’ and ‘My Old Man’s an All Black’ that we felt we were doing something of our own,” Morrison said in 1961. “The words, at least, were original.” The melodies came from hits by UK skiffle king Lonnie Donegan. After the idea was suggested to him by a teenage fan, Morrison wrote ‘Mori the Hori’ to ‘Ahab the Arab’ (the others were reluctant).

The Quartet (l-r): Howard Morrison, Wi Wharekura, Gerry Merito, Noel Kingi

These songs now seem like time capsules, curiosities from an era when Truth newspaper could run a page of Maori jokes beside a campaign against racial prejudice. ‘All Black’ was written by Merito, after a suggestion by their opportunistic manager Harry M Miller, eyeing the “No Maori, No Tour” controversy. Any political intent to the clever chorus line – “fee fee fi fi, fo fo fum, there’s no Horis in that scrum” – was probably lost in the laughter.
‘Hoki Mai’ remains evergreen, an easily strummed and infectious party favourite. It was also contentious. At Apirana Ngata’s request, Henare Waitoa had written the lyrics as a welcome home to Ruatoria’s men in the Maori Battalion. The melody was from ‘There’s a Goldmine in the Sky,’ a country and western hit for Gene Autry; Waitoa’s song ‘Tomo Mai’ was solemn, almost a dirge. Sped up and re-titled ‘Hoki Mai’ the song was already catching on at singalongs before the Quartet’s recording, so for the group it was an immediate, breakthrough hit. But some on the East Coast were upset that the Quartet was oblivious to the song’s significance. “At that time I was rather ignorant about the sanctity of the words,” recalled Morrison. Once alerted, he always explained the song’s provenance.
In 1981, at a Royal Command variety show, Morrison performed ‘Whakaaria Mai’ and revived his career. The Maori lyrics to ‘How Great Thou Art’ were written by Canon Wi Huata and Reverend Sam Rangiihu, Morrison’s musical mentors at Te Aute College. US evangelist Billy Graham had suggested the idea to the pair in 1959, but with his passionate rendition Morrison took ownership of the epic.

Morrison was a man of contradictions. His courtesy could swiftly turn brusque. A self-confessed show-off, he also admitted feeling uncertain of his place as he moved between two cultures. As an advocate for Maori – beaten in the Ruatahuna playground for not speaking te reo – he didn’t hold back, whether championing or criticising his people. He could be blunt with his opinions, and dismissive of any competition. His comments were often looking for a reaction, and also a macho challenge: prove yourself. He had, and he wore his knighthood with great pride.
The day after Morrison’s death, the NZ Herald cartoonist captured his impact on a certain generation of New Zealanders. In Rod Emmerson’s strip a mature Pakeha couple sits in their lounge. Dad asks Mum to dance. While singing ‘Pokarekare Ana’ in Maori, they waltz together on the carpet. After a final twirl, Dad bows, saying, “Vale Howard Morrison.”
Among contemporary Maori musicians, his influence is ongoing, and sometimes tangential. Fifty years ago, sitting on the bank at the Bowl of Brooklands for each Showtime Spectacular concert was the Prime family from Hawera. Their young son, already a good singer but with ambitions to become an entertainer, keenly watched the acts, especially the top of the bill. “The Howard Morrison Quartet, they were incredible entertainers,” Dalvanius Maui Prime recalled in 2000. “Maori had their mega heroes. But the thing about the Quartet was there were all these Pakeha people getting into it as well.” He realised it could be done: Maori, singing in Maori, to a huge mainstream audience.
Last year a TV series described 100 significant moments of New Zealand music. In the penultimate item, a line-up of young Maori musicians – hip hop and te reo performers and songwriters – testified to the impact that Dalvanius and the Patea Maori Club’s ‘Poi E’ had on them as children. It had been an arduous journey from ‘Mori the Hori,’ but the baton had passed through 50 years: the microphone as mere.

(First published in the NZ Listener)

02 September 2009

Slipped Discs

By early 1978 I had heard so much about Auckland that I decided to check it out. The date was 9 March: a friend’s birthday, and also the day Bob Dylan performed in New Zealand for the first time. I was too young to travel up from Wellington in a van with friends from the Hutt Valley, who themselves were lucky to find a rental company prepared to hire them a vehicle. Luckily I still looked young enough to get a half-fare on NAC. That was $20 each way, and the gig was $8.50; at the time a full-price LP record was $7.50.

The Western Springs concert was magnificent, better than most Dylan shows I’ve seen, although his “Budokan” band of the time has been unfairly maligned as his Vegas period. That’s just rock-crit posturing; the full arrangements were fascinating and his adenoidal voice still had melodic flexibility.

I especially remember the feeling of wandering around the big smoke before my mates arrived and the day after they left. Of course I did a record-store trawl; the ads in Rip It Up were like a treasure map. I only had about $15 spending money and when that was gone, I was stuck. The banks closed at 4.00pm and there were no money machines; only businessmen had credit cards and students didn’t have cheque books. The only person I knew was a jazz-loving aunt in the depths of suburbia, an hour away by bus. The city seemed very seedy and lonely around the Fort Street/Customs Street/Britomart bus terminal area, and I couldn’t imagine Queen Street would later become my neighbourhood.

So far from the warm hearth did I feel that one of the most evocative memories is wandering out of Marbeck’s record store just as they played ‘Sway’ off the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. I stood in Queen’s Arcade, listening to the song on their outside speaker, wallowing in it like a letter from home. Besides the great Record Exchange on K’Road, I also stumbled upon the hippest record store in the inner city: Taste Records on High Street. Six months later, keen to get another dose of Auckland and especially its record stores, I returned.

Loitering in Taste, listening but not buying, I observed a confident, knowledgeable fellow behind the record counter: he was alert and busy, but not too cool to help the customers. He was about my age, with an intelligent forehead. I didn’t know that a year earlier he had brought the first punk bands to Wellington. In August 1977 I had snuck into Victoria University to see the Scavengers and Suburban Reptiles; like musical napalm they laid waste to anything that whiffed of long-hair and long guitar solos. The Reptiles’ gig was especially apocalyptic. They were on second in a double-bill with hippie rock gods Living Force, who were instantly rendered irrelevant. In my shoulder bag I had my latest record purchase, Jacques Louissier playing Bach. (Catholic tastes or merely omnivorous? Because of the piano, jazz was an interest but never prog rock: and certainly not after that gig.)

Meanwhile back in Taste, the record salesman and proto-punk impresario was planning his next moves. Having recorded the Reptiles in the first New Zealand punk release, within three years he would revolutionise the local recording industry with the independent label Propeller. Later, he would do it again with dance clubs, a jazz club, and masterminding the campaign that made ‘How Bizarre’ a worldwide hit.

Simon Grigg has always had omnivorous tastes, with the courage to back his uncanny foresight. Rarely for such a tastemaker, he also has a sense of history. In a recent article on his Opinionated Diner blog he shares his love of music collecting, retailing, the record industry and Auckland itself in a fascinating history of the city’s lost record stores. It was as satisfying as a musty rummage at Rock & Roll Records on Fort Street (then going to the counter to receive an approving, or querulous, eyebrow from Kerry Buchanan).

Among the many characters he mentions who have helped shape the musical tastes of Aucklanders is one who became a mutual friend, Dave Perkins: the much-missed owner of Taste, rock T-shirt pioneer, left-wing businessman and wicked raconteur. Simon mentions that Dave got his start in record retailing in an upstairs store on Vulcan Lane, and reading that I thought Bingo. A missing link.

In the mid-1950s, with the arrival of the LP record, there was a boom in ‘smart record bars’ in New Zealand’s cities. Prior to that the industry was dominated by record sections in department stores, instrument and electrical stores, as well as the HMV chain and their arch-rival the Columbus Radio Centres. In 1956 came the opening of a ‘swell new discery’ in Auckland that was especially influential to musicians.

Situated upstairs on Vulcan Lane, it was called The Loft, and run by the jazz pianist Jim Foley. During the war he performed several times with the visiting 290th Army Band (a hot swing act with a drunk pianist), and after it he broadcast Youth Must Have Its Swing on 1ZB. He spent the early 1950s flitting back and forth to the States, often performing over there. He was devoted to inspiring others about jazz. Leading musicians such as Musician’s Union president Bert Peterson, the jazz trumpeter Jim Warren and the leading rock’n’roll guitarist Bob Paris were among many who found Foley’s enthusiasm and knowledge meant The Loft became a hangout and an education. In 1956 it was described as

A really super new spot where you can listen to and purchase “The Most” in LP records amid the most pleasant surroundings. Proprietor of the swell new discery is well-known jazz enthusiast, Jim Foley. Shirley Howard, cute little record assistant formerly of Chas. Begg and Co, is “charge d’affairs” at the record counter. Feature of this spot is the modern but tasteful décor.

When that was written, the song ‘Hot Diggety’ was the top performer in a survey of sheet music and record sales, plus radio airplay. But The Loft was especially known for its enthusiasm for jazz. US singer Carmen Macrae was astonished when she was told that Foley loved an album of hers so much he took every other disc down from his racks, so that only Macrae’s was on display.

Simon Grigg’s history of record retailing in Auckland makes me want something similar about Wellington. My experiences only go back to the mid-1970s, visiting James Smith’s, DIC, and eventually the hip discounter Chelsea and the master, Colin Morris. (Though I spent most money at Silvio’s second-hand record emporium.)

During the war, HMV would close its Cuba Street store for dinner on Friday nights. When it reopened half-an-hour later, there would be crowds waiting to rush in and fight over the two small boxes of new 78s that HMV had managed to import that week.

But by 1957, for example, someone wanting a scarce copy of My Fair Lady in downtown Wellington could visit The Record Shop, Discville at Fears, Dixon Maddevers, the Record Grotto and Coffee Bar at Gurney’s Electric Company, James Smith’s, the Record Bar in the DIC, and two branches of the Lamphouse.

Now, between Parson’s for classical at the beginning of Lambton Quay, and Slow Boat and Real Groovy at the top end of Cuba, walking through Wellington is a long, dismal trek for anyone wanting a hip discery. But there are a lot of singing ghosts.

03 August 2009

Boogie Nightmare

Within moments of the news, a text arrives: “I blame it on the boogie.”

The longest running, slowest-moving curtain call in show business is over. The black and white minstrel show is cancelled. It’s been a long time since he changed the music business into something it now regrets (where in excess wasn’t a band but a strategy). It’s been even longer since Michael Jackson’s music was the most exciting thing to come out of a radio.

In the year that man walked on the moon, the man who invented moonwalking landed in our midst. ‘I Want You Back introduced the Jackson 5, and few pop songs – or careers – have opened with such an impact. It starts at full throttle, the piano-driven introduction pulling Michael centre stage to give a desperate, attention-grabbing wail. I’ve arrived, it declared, and I want you back. I’ve got some help: Smokey Robinson (“Oo oo baby”) and the Beatles (“Yeah, yeah, now”). And I’m as funky as James Brown (“All I want! Abuh-buh-buh-buh. All I need!”). He was just 11.

Within a year the Jacksons had conquered America with their family-friendly funk. Looking like Sly Stone’s church-going cousins, they became the ultimate crossover act, reversing Elvis’s journey. Ed Sullivan loved them; the Osmonds copied them. They even became a cartoon show on TV, pre-dating The Partridge Family and The Cosby Show.

The J5 were well drilled; their father’s heavy hand made certain, and Motown producers nicknamed “The Corporation” did the rest. But Michael Jackson’s mastery of everything he did – as well as his cuteness – meant he eclipsed his brothers immediately. Since the age of five, he had been putting the work in. Looking out the window during rehearsals, watching other children play (cue: string quartet). Standing in the wings, watching Jackie Wilson and James Brown tear up stages, conducting with their feet, as much acrobats as singers.

If ‘Ben’, Jackson’s first solo No 1, was an early warning of trouble (a 15-year-old with a lachrymose ode … to his pet rat?) then one of his last gasps with the J5 hinted at his revolutionary musical future. The smiling harmonies learnt at Motown, the sophisticated slickness of Philly, the irresistible simplicity of disco’s rhythms, and the infectious, daffy lyrics: “Don’t blame it on the sunshine / don’t blame it on the moonlight / don’t blame it on the good times / Blame it on the boogie.”

He could dance before he could sing, and his idols went back, way back: beyond Motown trainer Cholly Atkins and Sammy Davis Jr to Cab Calloway and the cakewalks of ragtime. Playing the Scarecrow in The Wiz was pivotal, and appropriate: a childhood fantasy with a legacy, a sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster that couldn’t be improved. It starred his mentor/obsession, Diana Ross (surrender, Dorothy!), and the original featured Judy Garland. He did love the divas, and the child stars.

Crucially, on The Wiz he met Quincy Jones, a musical veteran who always chases the cutting edge of pop. He helped Jackson realise Off the Wall, the album many regard as his peak. Jones gave the album focus, and a state-of-the-art sheen. But it was Jackson’s success: he used everything he’d learnt about delivery, with an added passion fuelled by having something to prove. It displayed his mastery of groove (‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,’ ‘Get On the Floor,’ ‘Workin’ Day and Night’) and soul (his anguished but controlled singing of the ballads, ‘She’s Out of My Life,’ Paul McCartney’s gift, ‘Girlfriend,’ and the Stevie Wonder impersonation, ‘I Can’t Help It’).

A massive hit, Off the Wall built the foundation for its unexpected sequel. In 1983 Jackson turned a lacklustre Motown TV special into a spectacular showcase. He teased with something new: the charged rhythm of ‘Billie Jean’, while looking coyly from beneath a fedora, his thin legs poised, with too-short black trousers exposing white socks so we could follow his ankles. He then unveiled the moonwalk: a dance that simultaneously goes forward and back, but strangely goes nowhere, proving some rule of physics.

Fifty million viewers saw it, and most of them voted with their feet to buy Thriller. It was Off the Wall remodelled for the 1980s, turned up to 11: the imposing rhythms, the vocal theatrics, the fusion of dance and rock, the paranoid psychodramas in the lyrics. Eddie Halen had a walk-on role, and so did horror ham Vincent Price. It arrived just as music television was hitting its stride, and Jackson’s videos were, of course, epics. With more singles than a dating agency, Thriller’s success kept building on itself; the record companies got greedy, and Jackson became a megalomaniac to rival Mussolini.

Many careers relied on the success of its follow-up. Bad now seems like the soundtrack to the 1987 sharemarket crash: a post-modern exploitation of what had come before, turned into ugly songs and uglier clothes. Mirror-glass architecture with few tenants. Two songs have lasted, although one is just a mechanised, intoxicating groove, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel.’ The most sincere could have been a showstopper from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. ‘The Man in the Mirror’ advised that world peace started in the home: “take a look at yourself and then make a change.” Simultaneous with the album’s marketing overkill came a blacklash, from African-American critics outraged at the surgical betrayal of his race (and his talent).

In the 22 years since, there was Dangerous – the title seemed ludicrous, before the paedophilia allegations – HIStory and Invincible. But his greatest hits have all been headlines. He was addicted to many things: fame of course, though the fame industry has long seemed like an accessory to a living hell. Despite his messianic best intentions – We are the world, we are the children – Jackson exemplified what can go wrong in human nature.

Once, he was the embodiment of a century of artistic achievement in popular culture. He became yet another example of Little Richard’s Rule of Rock’n’Roll: “He got what he wanted, but he lost what he had.” BB King would say, “The thrill has gone.” The day that Jackson died, it was the refrain from an old spiritual that haunted me: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last.”


Tweaked a little since it was first published in the NZ Listener, 11 July 2009

23 July 2009

Hillman Hunter

Pedigree is important in music. To be a soul singer, it helps to be the son of a preacher man. In country music, coal miner’s daughters have made their mark.

So Al Hunter, born the son of a miner in the back hills of the Waikato, must have had a head start when he decided to be a musician. He reflects on this as he drives the last few bends in the road to Pukemiro. He spent his childhood in the small mining town, about 15 minutes southwest of Huntly. At the age of 18, he caught the bus to Auckland, hoping to join a blues band. That was in the late 60s; for the last 20 years, Hunter has become known singing country in the big city.

As he gets closer to his birthplace, he remarks on what’s missing. Rotowaro, a ghost town for years, isn’t even that now. Up until a few months ago, the town’s presence could still be felt, lingering like the coal dust in the air. Recently, though, a new road was built that bypasses even the spirit of long-gone Rotowaro. Having flattened the township, the mining company now wants to see what’s below the old road.

There’s still an open-cast mine at Rotowaro, a gaping black canyon surrounded by rolling green hills. Hunter visited the location recently for the cover shot of his new album, Cold Hard Winter. His life could have been very different. He points out the mining company office where he worked as a pay clerk after leaving school. He had only lasted a few weeks underground, in the McDonald mine nearby.

It was terrible,” he says. “I was the ‘trucker’ who pushed skips full of coal. I was a skinny little guy, and not strong. And that took a lot of strength.”

The Pukemiro mine closed in the mid-1960s, but the township is still there. Nestled on the side of a hill, Pukemiro can be visited in moments. But it’s still thriving, as a haven for retired miners, or as a rural dormitory town for workers in Huntly and Hamilton.

Halfway up the main street, Hunter shows us the site where the IGA store stood, decades ago. He’s mentioned it in his song ‘When the Circus Came to Town.’ It’s a true story, although calling it a circus was an exaggeration; there was only “one horse, one tent, and not one tiger”. But it was exciting to a 10 year-old, and Hunter volunteered to join. The manager said he could sell the hot dogs, and paid him with all he could eat.

Nearby is the Pukemiro Hall, unpainted and closed up. Down the hall on Saturday nights, Hunter’s father would play the piano at parties. One time he slammed down the lid of the piano and declared, “If no one’s gonna dance, don’t expect me to play for you!” He loved tunes such as ‘Remembrance’ and ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ and classical music, too. Apparently, the more he had to drink, the better the music got.

Not that Hunter can remember. He was only eight months when his father died. Aged 46, with asthma and lung problems from working in the mines, he left behind a wife and seven children.

There’s an 18-year gap between Hunter and his eldest sister, Ella. She still lives in Pukemiro, beside the hall where their father played. When we visit, her coal-fired range is alight; the aroma of a lamb roast fills her small house. Their mother, who came out from Scotland as a 15-year-old, always made sure they got up to a warm house by rising at 5.30am to bake bread rolls.Ella remembers her brother’s first performances. “From the age of four, he’d get up at all the dances in the hall and do an item. Then he won a talent quest at Whangamata when he was about seven.”

Ella and Al try to recall the song he performed that night. Was it ‘Bye Bye Love’? No. ‘Don’t Be Cruel’? No. ‘Money Honey’? No. Hunter does remember another victory, though. In the third form he won the Huntly College talent quest, singing ‘Long Tall Sally.’ The Beatles’ version, of course. That achievement convinced him to take up singing again; at that stage, he’d been in retirement for about three years. “I always sang at dos and parties,” he says. “But when I was about 10, I gave up. I enjoyed it, but I always felt like I was under pressure to perform.”

Ella mentions the collection of records in the Hunters’ house. They had a pile of 45s. “We bought everything that was popular. Elvis EPs, Fats Domino, Little Richard.” Next door, a neighbour would let them play his 78s of Hank Williams and Hank Snow on the windup gramophone. “So going back to country was natural for me after the blues,” says Hunter.

Pukemiro is not without its changes, too. House prices in Huntly have gone up remarkably since the highway to Auckland improved, and Pukemiro may be next. A cottage for sale across the road had an open home just before we visit, and 15 people had a look.

And for some reason, the regular earthquakes they felt as children seem to have come to an end.


First published in the NZ Herald, 1997. A compilation of music by Al Hunter, Glenn Moffat Red McKelvie has recently been released on Exile.

12 May 2009

Tararua Crossing

1. Underbelly

Waitakere and Miramar can fight it out as Westywood or Wellywood. Otaki planned to become the film centre of the South Pacific in 1921, well before talkies. The New Zealand Theatre & Motion Picture magazine was sceptical about the hamlet’s aspiration to become “the Los Angelos of New Zealand.”

Willy-nilly, the good people of Otaki have decided that their health-giving little town is a suitable place for the establishment of the picture-making business in New Zealand, and a company, with a capital of ₤25,000, is being formed to erect an up-to-date studio. Now, whilst not wishing to dampen the ardour of the people concerned, and least of all to deny that Otaki has certain advantages from a photographic point of view – clarity of air, good weather, fine sea and mountain scapes – we would point out that there are thousands of such places in the world, and that studios have not been established in each because the American, English, French, German, and Swedish studios are turning out more “movies” than the world can masticate … picture supply has leapt ahead of the demand. The fact that 50,000 picture people are out of work in Los Angelos will at least give the Otaki company an excellent opportunity of building up its histrionic staff.

Nearly 80 years later, Otaki is booming, causing havoc on State Highway One as weekend shoppers look for bargains. Once famous for a health camp that strengthened the country’s 19lb weaklings, Otaki has reinvented itself as “the lingerie capital of New Zealand.” The Bendon shop was among the first to transform it into a discount destination, and since then outdoor gear and swimsuits have followed. But behind the fashion façade is a thriving nest for Maoritanga. The iwi station’s slogan is “Keeping it reo”.

2. Cottage Industry

Going back to the country was all the rage as the 1960s ended and the hangover began. The Band were probably the first to go rural, when they shifted to upstate New York in 1967, recording The Basement Tapes with Dylan and writing Music from Big Pink. But Traffic were the first to make a noise about heading out of town for some provincial quiet. In 1968 they all moved into a small cottage in Berkshire to write their second, self-titled album, which has been compared to Big Pink. Canned Heat wrote the ultimate song about it, the perennially sunny, uptopian ‘Going Up the Country’, staying in the water, getting drunk all the time. Van Morrison’s ‘And It Stoned Me’ fits too: fishing poles, gypsy soul, ohh the water. Damn cold at the moment, and it’s only late Autumn.

New Zealand’s contribution to the genre was the Fourmyula’s atypically stomping ‘Otaki’ in 1970: ‘We’re goin’ down to Otaki … they take drugs in Otaki …’ It was actually recorded in London, maybe it was inspired by homesickness: the winter of 1969-70 was a long way from a sunny front porch in Upper Hutt. A box-set of the Fourmyula is imminent, so we’ll be able to hear the Fourmyula at their boogie best soon.

3. Waiata Maori

Forty years before the Fourmyula, the Tahiwis were the first to celebrate Otaki on record. In 1930 the Maori trio travelled from Otaki to Sydney to record 22 waiata for Parlophone, including one called ‘Otaki’. The song is a lament, to waltz rhythm, accompanied by a keening fiddle and oompah piano. They also recorded ‘Raukawa’ (their tribe, words by the legendary leader Kingi Tahiwi), ‘Waikato’ and ‘A Poi Dance’ (which featured a solo by Henare Tahiwi on the mouth organ). ‘Waiata Maori’ was arranged by Alfred Hill and segues from a maudlin ballad into a “Ka mate! Ka mate!” chorus and back again. The record company was likely looking for a single when it asked the Tahiwis to record several popular favourites from the brand-new talkies, among them ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’

The Tahiwi recordings can be seen as New Zealand’s equivalent of the seminal Carter Family recordings in Bristol, made three years earlier. All 22 sides were preserved by the Alexander Turnbull Library – from a set of pristine 78s found in a private collection in Australia – and released on CD in 1998 as part of the National Library’s “Treasures in Sound” series (Atoll A9801).

30 April 2009

Gospel According to Keith

Keith Richards may never have to carry his belongings round in a supermarket bag, but he often talks like one who does. Until, that is, his bon mots - so often reminiscent of the last drunk at a party - are translated for you. The world thanks Jessica Pallington West, the codebreaker behind What Would Keith Richards Do? Daily Affirmations from a Rock'n'Roll Survivor. Here, then, is what she calls "the Tao of Keith":

11569943-11569949-slargeKeith the fatalist: “Altamont, it could only happen to the Stones, man. Let’s face it — it wouldn’t happen to the Bee Gees.”

Keith the strict constructionist: “There’s nothing wrong with the gun. It’s the people who are on the trigger. Guns are an inanimate object. A heroin needle’s an inanimate object. It’s what’s done with it that’s important.”

Keith the historian: “That Adolf. What a piece of work.”

Keith the nutritionist: “Cheese is very wrong.”

Keith the fantasist: “I’ve never turned blue in someone else’s bathroom. I consider that the height of bad manners.”

Keith the athlete: “When I was a junkie I used to be able to play tennis with Mick, go to the toilet for a quick fix and still beat him.”

Keith the scientist: “I looked upon myself as a laboratory.”

Keith the film critic (on Godard): “He was out of his depth in England. Like William the Conqueror.”

Keith the music critic (on the Beatles): “They were exactly what was needed. It was a great enema.”

Keith the fashionista: “I reckon our style came direct from the Three Stooges.”

Keith the contemplative: “Mine is a very nebulous spirituality.”

Keith the metaphysician: “It seems strange that we do the same thing with the same boys all these years later. But it’s like when you get drunk at a bar and wonder later how you got home. You know where you are — you’re home — but how did you get there? That’s the mystery.”

(Hat-tip to the NY Times' David Kelly.)

Addendum: by chance I came across this quote, that says more than any of the above ...

Keith the multi-tasker: “While I was a junkie, I learned to ski and I made Exile on Main Street.”

... and Phil K sends a link to a new Guardian interview in which he actually talks sense about music ...

29 April 2009


1. Double feature

scarecrow The Ronald Hugh Morrieson celebration that his champions – Sargeson, Stead, Shadbolt – had hoped for took place in the 1980s. After Goodbye Pork Pie, the fledgling New Zealand film industry knew what it needed in its scripts: humour, locally based. The 1982 film of The Scarecrow was disappointing, despite the cadaverous presence of John Carradine and the cute-as-a-button Tracy Mann. Three years later, Came a Hot Friday perfectly encapsulated Morrieson’s world, mainly thanks to bravura performances by Billy T James and expatriate-immigrant Peter Bland. Sadly, because of the production company Mirage going bust, Came a Hot Friday as a DVD reissue is lost somewhere in legal limbo. But its trailer can be viewed on the NZ Film Archive site, as well as The Scarecrow’s trailer.

2. Time, Gentlemen

In his 1971 Landfall essay, CK Stead did make a link between Morrieson and David Ballantyne, and he expanded on this in the introduction to his 2002 essay collection Kin of Place. The complete introduction is on-line, but this is the relevant passage, in which Stead looks back with no false modesty:

Both were writers whose work deserved serious attention and had not had it. In the case of Morrieson it needed only the double assault Frank Sargeson and I made in Landfall 98 (June 1971) to turn everything around in his favour. Morrieson the man was a ‘character’; his life story was picturesque; he was wild in his youth yet also frightened, home-bound, and soon a sad drunk; and his books were marvellously entertaining with flashes of genius. No threat to anyone, hugely talented but also manifestly flawed, he was, one might say unkindly, made for New Zealand, and has become (the more so because there is added piquancy in the recognition that it happened too late for the man himself to enjoy it) another of our literary icons.

Ballantyne also became a disappointed drunk, but one who kept up appearances, stayed employed as a journalist, and kept writing. No one (least of all Ballantyne himself) thought of his Maori grandmother as a ‘feature’ to be exploited. There was nothing to attract public attention except the novels themselves, whose only appeal was their peculiar honest homespun excellence - like the ragamuffin poor kid who wins the sprints almost unnoticed because he doesn’t have the gear and never behaves like a champion. Patrick Evans made a brave case for Ballantyne in Islands 31-32, even arguing (beyond anything I would have claimed for him) that his contribution to New Zealand literature was ‘at least the equal of Frame’s’; and Peter Simpson, who also wrote enthusiastically about Morrieson, has argued for more attention to Ballantyne’s work. But these appeals, it seems, have been ineffective, and the novels, unlike Morrieson’s, at the present date (2001) are long since out of print. It is to be hoped that a biography currently being written by Bryan Reid may bring at least Sydney Bridge Upside Down out of retirement.

3. Wild Westies

Billy T James Another passage in Stead's 1971 essay leapt out, about the character Billy T James later played in the film Came a Hot Friday:

“The Te Whakinga Kid is a grotesque. He wears a cowboy suit, carries a cap gun, lives by the fantasy that he is a Mexican bandit, and speaks accordingly … (Can one dismiss the Kid simply as an unreal comic device? After completing this note I read of a young Maori convicted of armed robbery who, it was explained to the Court, lived by the fantasy that he was New Zealand’s Ned Kelly.)”

This reminded me of a couple of things. Years ago in the Rotorua paper I read a court report of a young Maori up before a magistrate in Ohakune. His first name was Elvis, and he was getting busted for pot. Where, the judge asked, did he get the marijuana? Elvis replied: “I was walking along the street and came across these ski turkeys. They said, Do you want some pot? So these ski turkeys gave it to me.”

Johnny Cooper cropI hadn't thought of the stoned, Ohakune Elvis for a while, but the Te Whakinga Kid has crossed my mind a lot recently, as I've explored early country music here. He is the archetype of the country-and-western obsessed provincial youths who, inspired by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies, went down to their small town haberdashers, got Mum to sew on some fringes, grabbed a guitar and started yodelling. Not just Johnny Cooper, our first prominent rock’n’roller, whose original incarnation was as “the Maori Cowboy”. But a whole posse of them, all Pakeha. And, the evidence suggests, the dressing up was more important than the singing: there's something beyond fantasy going on here. Cooper of course is one exception; there are others, but more who made better photographs.

4. Desolation Throat

dylan hat new A couple of albums back I wrote that Dylan – his trademark whine reduced to a gargle – was singing like Bing Crosby with throat cancer. Attending a concert this week in London, Fraser Lewry says it now sounds like he’s trying to cough up his own blood. Listening to the new album Together Through Life, that’s about right. The album is an entertaining throwaway, and all the better for it: like an EP that Al Swearengen and some cohorts out of Deadwood have knocked off in the back room of a brothel. The funniest line so far is in the song with the tune borrowed from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters: “I just want to say that Hell’s my wife’s home town.

A friend has mentioned that he finds Dylan’s interviews gnomic. That’s true: the interviews are a rarefied level of Dylanology, inhabited by ageing academics and people on day-release. There’s even a whole webpage devoted to the subject: “The 10 most incomprehensible Bob Dylan interviews.”

And he has long since turned into the Duluth Kid.

28 April 2009

Yesterday’s Papers

1. Sliver of hope

IF Stone New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd compares this gloomy era in journalism to the film Sunset Boulevard, rewriting the famous quote of aging actress Norma Desmond: “Papers are still big. It’s the screens that got small.” She asks Phil Bronstein, editor of the troubled San Francisco Chronicle, to take her on a “justify your existence” tour. Bronstein drives her past the journalists’ bar, now empty, the police headquarters where they uncovered corruption, the SF General Hospital, once teeming with Aids patients. In magazines, when the circulation department receives its returns marked “Subscriber deceased: please cancel,” it’s a stark reminder that one’s readership is aging. But this is now a good thing, reasons Bronstein:

His tour ended with cold comfort, as he observed that longer life expectancies may keep us on life support. “For people who still love print, who like to hold it, feel it, rustle it, tear stuff out, do their I. F. Stone thing, it’s important to remember that people are living longer,” he said. “That’s the most hopeful thing you can say about print journalism, that old people are living longer.”

The reference to crusading journalist I.F. Stone (pictured above) was heartening - the Seymour Hersh of his day, for years he ran his own I.F. Stone's Weekly - and intriguing. I don't think he was a relative of Bronstein's short-term wife, Sharon Stone.

2. Cold beer, hot type

Ballantyne There are few books written about New Zealand novelists, but even fewer about its journalists. After the Fireworks is both, a biography of novelist and Auckland Star leader writer David Ballantyne, who died in 1986. It’s an evocative portrait of the loneliness of a writer in a hostile culture, diverted by the hard-drinking, hard-bitten but strongly bonded world of newspapermen in the 1940s and 1950s. Ballantyne’s first novel The Cunninghams was written when he was just 23, in 1947, and published in the US; it would be another 15 years before he published another.

Long sessions at the Occidental in Vulcan Lane were part of the reason, but he managed to get off the bottle in 1973 and produce a late flurry of work. After the Fireworks captures the smoky newsrooms, the pride and wisdom of the long-serving reporters and sub-editors, the daily post-deadline binges, the hidden subcultures such as the rundown flat at 301 Willis Street, Wellington, where journalists, poets, novelists (and even Douglas Lilburn) would come and go, knowing they could get a beer after six o’clock closing. Under the circumstances, the Aucklanders’ productivity is extraordinary:

“… visits to Willis Street were sporadic and impulsive excursions, usually involving drinking in Auckland on a Friday after work, catching the overnight train to Wellington, drinking at various Wellington watering-holes … partying on at 301, then catching the Sunday night train back to Auckland in time for work at the Star on Monday morning.”

The biography was written by Ballantyne’s friend Bryan Reid; the pair started at the Star on the same day in 1943. The book slipped under my radar when it came out in 2004 but – like Ballantyne’s best, Sydney Bridge Upside Down, from 1968 – is recommended.

3. Quality of Mercer

dom1 The Dominion Post runs the country’s best obituaries, but didn't quite get the tone right with a recent tribute to the former Dominion editor, Jack Kelleher. Portraying him as a cardigan-wearing conservative – and concentrating on the brief tabloid folly of Rupert Murdoch – doesn’t tell the whole story. A quick glance at Kelleher's journalism suggests he moved in a broad circle. His ghost-writing of forensic pathologist PP Lynch’s memoir No Remedy For Death is mentioned; erudite, stubborn, patrician, Lynch did not suffer fools. Kelleher could work the public bar as well: he was close enough to the “hermit of Hawera,” novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson, to be a key source for Julia Millen’s biography. His history of Upper Hutt reveals a rapport with Wellington’s hippest post-war bandleader, Fred Gore. And his sensitive obituary of Ruru Karaitiana in 1970 – the only one the ‘Blue Smoke’ songwriter received – indicates a newspaperman who never stopped working his beat (in this case, Wellington’s inner-city music precinct of the late 1940s: Mercer, Willis, Manners and Bond streets). Maybe not Clark Kent, but a very effective mild-mannered reporter.

4. A comic sign of health

The same week of Kelleher's death, I found Ballantyne's biography in a small town sale bin. Both reminded me of Julia Millen's biography of Morrieson, from 1996, which also hasn't reached the audience it deserves. The pair had quite a bit in common: their era, their profession, their obscurity, and their alcoholism. Unlike Ballantyne, Morrieson didn't leave a swag of diaries, letters and manuscripts, which made Millen's task more difficult. But by weaving in anecdotes from his fiction, and putting in plenty of leg work, she captured his drive and his demons, in that closed Taranaki world.

“Herbert had told me on the quiet that he reckoned Uncle Athol had got his teeth from Mr Dabney, the undertaker.” (The Scarecrow)

Landfall 98 hanly“What is this thing called gothic?” asked Morrieson, after a rare literary review during his lifetime. Just months before Morrieson died - yes, “another one of those buggers” who only became famous afterwards - Robin Dudding published two “appreciations” in Landfall 98 (June, 1971). Morrieson's champions were Frank Sargeson and CK Stead, and the issue had a cover design by Pat Hanly. Sargeson wrote:

We hear sometimes of somebody who intends a march on Parliament in order to emphasise some fact of human nature or human society. It would be a comic sign of health in the community (not to mention an immense compliment to Mr Morrieson, and his skill in revealing to us much about the inner nature of human life in our country), if Parliament were to march upon him and his home town.

20 April 2009

Hits and misses

1. Bob Dylan on old music

jellyroll In the recent interview plugging his new album Together Through Life, Dylan was asked about the song 'Life is Hard.' Introducing his question, music journalist Bill Flanagan said, "It comes from a tradition that got pretty much wiped out by the popularity of swing and blues and rock 'n' roll. I remember Leon Redbone said once that the big break in 20th century music was not in the '50s when rock came in; it was when swing and jazz knocked off parlor piano ballads in the late '20s and early '30s. Do you ever wish that old style had stuck around a little longer?"

"Today," replied Dylan, "the mad rush of the world would trample over delicate music like that. Even if it had survived swing and jazz it would never make it past Dr. Dre. Things changed economically and socially. Two world wars, the stock market crash, the depression, the sexual revolution, huge sound systems, techno-pop. How could anything survive that? You can't imagine parlor ballads drifting out of high-rise multi-towered buildings. That kind of music existed in a more timeless state of life. I love those old piano ballads. In my hometown walking down dark streets on quiet summer nights you would sometimes hear parlor tunes coming out of doorways and open windows. Somebody's mother or sister playing 'A Bird in a Gilded Cage' off of sheet music. I actually tried to conjure up that feeling once in a song I did [on Shot of Love] called 'In the Summertime'."

2. Dylan on Randy Newman

"Randy. What can you say? I like his early songs, 'Sail Away,' 'Burn Down the Cornfield,' 'Louisiana,' where he kept it simple. Bordello songs. I think of him as the Crown Prince, the heir apparent to Jelly Roll Morton [pictured above]. His style is deceiving. He's so laid back that you kind of forget he's saying important things. Randy's sort of tied to a different era like I am."Madonna 1985

3. Some loser on new music

"Pop picking is a fast and furious business these days," said the liner notes on the Beatles' first album. In 1985, writing about the marketing of hit records, I commented on Madonna's presence in New Zealand:

[This year] her image seemed ubiquitous: clones wandered down Queen Street and haunted Manners Mall wearing lace gloves, corselettes and rosary beads, as the seamless melody of 'Into the Groove' flowed from boutique to boutique. Madonna was just this year's model. A new product to be promoted, sold, used, and - inevitably - abandoned.

I was today reacquainted with this prescient piece of tipsterology in A Foreign Egg in Our Nest?, Geoff Lealand's 1988 book on American popular culture in New Zealand. Unlike me, he had the wisdom to hedge his bets: "A year or so on, however, this prophecy has yet to be fulfilled for Madonna's records still make the New Zealand Top 20 and her fitful film career and personal life continue to be newsworthy. It is possible, however, that her light will dim in another year or two as the possibilities to ring changes on her persona (the Virginal Tart) become more and more limited; to be yet another half-remembered personality of the past. So far, however, she has persisted."

4. Stick to your knitting

In global headline news today, 24 years later, Madonna fell off her horse. I think I'll stick to better bets than pop picking, such as the new horse-racing phenomenon, the four-year-old Overdose. He has just won 12 races out of 12 starts; I'm on him for the second leg of the double at Budapest. “We didn’t expect anything from the horse when he arrived,” Sandor Ribarszki, the horse’s trainer, told the New York Times. The paper described Ribarszki as “a quick-witted joker who has called Overdose 'short' and 'kind of ugly.' Now Mr Ribarszki said he had trouble sleeping at night, wondering if anything had happened to the horse.”