Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Ursula Bethell and Blind Lemon Jefferson

Bill Manhire melancholically tweeted this morning: 
I wish someone would do something about Ursula Bethell's grave. #urusula

and posted this photo. You can see what he means:


So here is Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1928 with “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”:


And here is Geoff Muldaur in 1998 with “Got to Find Blind Lemon" which is about wanting to keep Blind Lemon’s grave clean. The full, funny, true story is in the liner notes to his album The Secret Handshake. All together now: “With my broom in my hand, headed out from Jackson Square. I had to get to East Texas, find that graveyard somewhere.”

Monday, September 29, 2014

Songs of Innocence: an experience

There has been much noise in the Twitterverse about Apple giving everyone in the iTunesverse a copy of the new U2 album Songs of Innocence. Bit creepy, was the consensus, someone pushing unwanted music at you. Less polite people asked, "What is this shit?" Others argued that hey, it’s free, so what’s your problem?

Jeff Sparrow weighs in at The Baffler. Quote unquote:
In retrospect, the alliance between U2 and Apple seems almost inevitable, not least because they’re both grappling with a late career slump. Throughout the post-Jobs era, Apple has struggled to live up to the expectations of its fanboys. This year, CEO Tim Cook faced the unenviable task of generating the customary buzz around an iPhone not appreciably different from earlier iterations. 
As for U2, its fortunes have been on the slide for decades. Remember the 2009 album No Line on the Horizon? No? Neither does anyone else. In the United States, it shifted, as they say, 1.1 million units, a significant decrease from the 3.3 million copies of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and 4.4 million of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The band has seen “a steady decline in sales even steeper than the overall industry trend,” says the Wall Street Journal.

What follows is guff about the Ramones, social justice, yada yada, and then:
So, with the iTunes deal, U2 attempts to appropriate rock and roll itself. That is, Songs of Innocence offers a simulacrum of the old-fashioned rock blockbuster, an album that (because it colonizes millions of electronic devices) will be as ubiquitous as any record in musical history. At the same time, it renders traditional fandom entirely redundant, since the songs appear whether the device-owners like them or not.
It’s form without content, a musical experience that seems like rock, except without everything that rendered rock important. Teenage lust, the vagaries of fashion, obscure subcultural identifications: all of those components of musical taste have entirely vanished, as Tim and Bono simply make your choices for you.

Quite. Some musicians may feel that a mega corporation giving away music by a mega rock band is not in the interests of less-famous musicians who try to earn a living from selling their stuff, ie from persuading consumers it is worth paying for. U2 will have been paid megabucks for this, but the process just reinforces the Mega mindset that music has no value.

Some may feel that giving stuff away is not in the interests of all of us, not just musicians, who depend upon copyright for our living.

Others might have listened to the album. I have. It is the first U2 album I have ever listened to. (Because Bono, basically.) I thought it was not very good but then I don’t listen to much rock. I waited a few days and listened to it again to give it a fair go because first impressions can be so misleading. It was still not very good. It sounded dull and old-fashioned to me and I’m older than the guys in the band.

There is, however, a good album based on William Blake’s poetry collection  Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It is David Axelrod’s Song of Innocence, released in 1968, after the success of his production of  Mass in F Minor by the Electric Prunes. (Younger readers: I am not making this up.) Axelrod had earlier produced albums by jazz greats Stan Kenton and Cannonball Adderley and was a brilliant arranger. Mad, but in a good way.

Song of Innocence has Carol Kaye on bass, Earl Palmer on drums and a bunch of other legendary session players so, unsurprisingly, it has been a source of samples for DJ Shadow and many other hip-hop musicians. The most-sampled one, “Holy Thursday”, also features in Grand Theft Auto IV. More about the original album here and here.

The first three tracks are “Urizen”, “Holy Thursday” and “The Smile”:

Friday, September 26, 2014

This is how to do journalism

Mark Amory, the Spectator’s literary editor for so many years he can’t remember – could be 25, could be nearly 30, he says – bids farewell in this week’s Diary. Best books pages in the world if you ask me. Quote unquote:
In the early Eighties then, when Alexander Chancellor had reinvented the magazine after a bad patch, and it seemed daring, anarchic and slightly amateurish, I wrote theatre reviews and one late afternoon went round to Doughty Street, where the Spectator then was. I could find no one sober in the building. How did it manage to come out so promptly each week?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In praise of: stationery

The Independent notices a book about stationery.  James Ward’s Adventures in Stationery: a journey through your pencil case (Profile Books), to be precise. As precise as Ward is about the appeal of stationery. Not just paper – we’re talking, or at least he is, about drawing pins, highlighter pens and staples too.  He says:
“At work, my colleagues might notice that I bring in my own stationery rather than use the stationery in the office, but they probably wouldn't try to engage me in conversation about it. Online, it's completely different.” [...]  
“Without wishing to overstate it,” says Ward, aware that he’s overstating it, “stationery has created civilisation. Language is how we make sense of the world, and written language gives us an aggregated sense of knowledge. That only happens because of stationery.”
I point out that this has more to do with pens than, say, desk tidies. “Well, yes, I suppose there are less essential items,” he says. “But if you’ve got pens, you need to put them somewhere, don’t you? You can’t just have them rolling around.”

Indeed. You want those pens stationary. 
“There are people who are football obsessives,” he says, “who can name teams going back years and remember what minute such-and-such a goal was scored. They’re considered normal guys who like their football. And there are people who memorise endless Beatles facts, you know, who played what instrument on which album and so on, and that’s also deemed cool. But if you apply that same interest to something like stationery, you’re mocked.”

I am not mocking him: he is onto something here, and I like his blog I Like Boring Things because he is concerned about mathematical accuracy. He is sound on peas and cheese. Quote unquote:
I do not think that “an Eiffel Tower” is a helpful unit of weight for measuring cheese consumption.

Peas, cheese, pins and staples. So here are the Staple Singers  live in 1972 at Wattstax with “Respect Yourself”:


Fun fact: Pops Staples and Te Ururoa Flavell have never been seen in the same room.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

More like the dull snap of a raw carrot

Sometimes I get to read pre-publication copies of books. These things are given to booksellers to read, and they pass them on to customers they think have a clue about the particular genre, to get feedback for the retailer and the publisher/distributor.

Yesterday I finished one by a mega-selling household name US crime writer I gave up on many years ago. I was reluctant to take it but was assured by the bookseller that it was a return to form.

These pre-publication copies are edited but not proofread so one isn’t allowed to quote from them. Fair enough. But I’m going to without identifying the novel or novelist. Mr Discretion!

Best thing for me: the scene of the crime is a lovely, tiny town in Massachusetts that I have spent time in. Worst thing: the writing. 

Here is the opening paragraph:
Copper flashes like shards of aventurine glass on top of the old brick wall behind our house. I envision ancient pastel stucco workshops with red tile roofs along the Rio dei Vetrai canal, and fiery furnaces and blowpipes as maestros shape molten glass on marvers. Careful not to spill, I carry two espressos sweetened with agave nectar.

Here are some more quotes, in no particular order:
Not much to worry about. The nearest neighbour’s about ten acres away. 
“Not to mention once manner has been established and then I overrule it, that doesn’t always set well either,” I replied. 
Their collective mood is electrically charged, glimmers of upset flashing, and their aggression rumbles from a deep place, threatening to explode like a bomb going off. 
Hand-painted signs advertise homegrown produce The Garden State is famous for, and I swallow hard. I feel choked up with emotions I didn’t expect. If only life were different. I’d like to pick out sweet corn, tomatoes, herbs and apples. I long to smell their freshness and feel their potential. Instead what’s around me is like a noxious fog. 
I end the call and say to [X] “I feel as if we’re in the middle of some nightmarish nexus.” 
It’s not up to [X] to disavow him of his assumption that [Y] is still working the [Z] case or maybe any case. 
I snap on a lamp and imagine distant gunfire. Not an explosive noise or a sharp crack but more like the dull snap of a raw carrot, a celery stalk, a green pepper I break in my bare hands. 

Earlier the narrator had ripped up basil leaves “with my bare hands”.

So here is Delta Goodrem live in Sydney with “Bare Hands”:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How to write an obituary

English newspapers have the best obituaries. Best of them all, weeks after week, are the ones in the Economist. Why? Because Ann Wroe, their anonymous (all Economist articles are unsigned) obituarist who unfailingly catches the character of the recently departed. In the 13 September edition she wrote a brilliant one on Joan Rivers. Quote unquote: 
Her sad-ass critics said she kept crossing the line, and all the more as she got older. She’d say, What line? She’d made a career out of loudly mentioning really unmentionable things—right from the 1960s, when you couldn’t say “abortion” on TV, especially if you were female, and so she said “She had 14 appendectomies.” No one else dared even squeak about these things. But by talking about them you could take control and laugh at life, even when it truly hurt. “Lighten the fuck up!” she would shout to her audiences. “These are jokes.”

And here is an interview with Ann Wroe about her process. Quote unquote: 
The subject of the week’s obituary is decided on Monday, and it must be written and polished by Tuesday. This 36-hour window is a marathon attempt to consume as much information as possible. “I just sort of feed it all in. Make a huge great collage in my mind. And then it compresses down terribly: there must be millions of words in there and it just comes down to a thousand.”
 Often, Wroe is stepping inside the mind of someone who was utterly obsessive about something, and briefly, their passion must become of great importance to her as well. “There was one man I wrote about who was a carpenter, and he specialized in making drawers. It’s quite difficult to get drawers to go in and out smoothly, and you can understand how that could become an obsession. So I had to learn how to make them as well, and find out which woods were best. I had to be just as enthusiastic about how to do it as he was. [...] 
Wroe insists on only reading source material by her subject. “I never go to any books written by anybody else. I go to the words on the paper, their diaries. I think it’s the only way to do it, because that’s the voice that has disappeared.”

Amazing. So here is the late Warren Zevon in 1980 with “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Suffragette City


In breaking pedestrian-crossing news, Wellington City Council announces:
Wellington has a new character to replace the ‘green man’. Kate Sheppard will now signal when it’s safe to cross the road.

Excellent. Away with you, Green Man. I will miss you even though you reminded me of one of Kingley Amis’s best novels.

So here are the Red Hot Chilli Peppers with “Suffragette City”:


Monitor: Peter Grace. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Rory Sutherland on e-cigarettes

The Wiki Man column in the Spectator of 30 August begins:
I was waiting on an office forecourt recently puffing on an e-cigarette when a security guard came out. ‘You can’t smoke here,’ he shouted. 
‘I’m not, actually,’ I replied. 
He went to consult his superior. A few minutes later he reappeared. 
‘You can’t use e-cigarettes here either.’ 
‘Why not?’ 
‘Because you are projecting the image of smoking.’ 
‘What, insouciance?’

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK or, in his words, “Fat bloke at Ogilvy. He tweets here.

Friday, September 5, 2014

In praise of: Peter McLeavey


This morning a courier delivered a package from Booksellers NZ. It contained a signed copy of the NZ Post Book Awards’ book of the year, Jill Trevelyan’s biography of Peter McLeavey, published by Te Papa Press. I won it in a competition on Twitter.  Result!

I was keen to read the book because a) obviously it is good,  b) it covers a part of NZ culture that interests me, c) I admire Peter very much and d) I also like him because he was very kind to me in my year of hell when I lived in Wellington, 1979-80. I spent a lot of time in his gallery. It was an education.

Also, I was curious to see if the book included my favourite painting of Peter. Sadly, it doesn’t. So here it is: 


This is Peter McLeavey as a Nun (1986) by Mary McIntyre, which appears on page 72 of Robin Woodward’s monograph Mary McIntyre: Painter (Whitespace, 2010).

I first saw it at RKS Gallery in Auckland in an exhibition of Mary’s portraits – from memory the Sylvia Siddell portrait, The Post-Modern Birthday Cake (1987) was there; I can’t swear to it but probably Dick Scott in a Shower of Parts (1985) was too. None of these three subjects was entirely thrilled with how they were depicted in these large paintings. (Much later Mary painted me. I got off very lightly.)

Keith Stewart quoted Mary in this Quote Unquote profile: 
“Peter McLeavey didn’t like what I did of him, but then he didn’t pose for me. I decided I would do a portrait of him because I could see that I could do it. I get this feeling that grabs me, an epiphenomenon, and I know. It’s sort of a sense of power, and once I get it I know that if I pursue the feeling I will do a painting the way I want to. 
“I got that with Peter McLeavey. I decided that I was going to paint him because he is such a distinctive person, and I saw quite a bit of him. I followed him around, looking at him, and he knew I had it in mind. He said to me, ‘I hope you are not going to paint my portrait.’ Then I saw him at a party in this nun’s outfit, and he was marvellous. Totally marvellous. He just looked like tough old Mother McSomething-or-other who had taught you at school and cracked you over the knuckles with her stick. A nun from my childhood. My god, he was like it. And of course he was brought up a Catholic. 
“I put the convent in the Rimutaka Hills in Wellington in the background, and Terry Snow’s daughter when she was little. She posed for us and pulled this face, which was perfect. So I put her in. And I gave him this apple for his role. He was the pre-eminent dealer in New Zealand at the time. He still is. He’s a very fine dealer. So I gave him the apple.”

Peter was brilliant at matching a client with a piece they would love and might just about be able to afford. I am still kicking myself for not buying the small Mrkusich work on paper he tried to sell me. It was beautiful – I can still see it – but was more than a month’s salary from my miserable job at the Listener. I could have done it, just about, but chickened out. Idiot.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Like a horse etherised upon a table

For research purposes I spent the morning at the Cambridge Equine Hospital. Take it from me, you ain’t seen nothing until you have seen an anaesthetised horse stretched out in an operating theatre with tubes coming and going everywhere, undergoing arthroscopic surgery on its hock.

Fun fact: the first thing a horse wants to do on waking up after surgery is to eat, and eat right now.