Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The more things change ...

This, from an uncredited 1959 New Yorker review of a book called "Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression", by Harris Gaylord Warren (and I'm sorry, but the name Gaylord will forever remind me of "Meet The Parents"):

Enough time has passed to allow us to think about the depression, that fascinating and not yet entirely comprehensible catastrophe, with some objectivity. ... [Hoover] did not cause the depression ... but he did not do much to end it, partly because he did not comprehend its magnitude. The irresponsibility, chicanery, and stupidity that helped bring it about were common on the upper levels of American finance and industry all during the twenties ... When the depression came, Hoover met it with a consistently inadequate set of principles. ... [Warren] suggests that Hoover was not a bad man but that, since he was unwilling to use the powers of the federal government to intervene decisively in an economic crisis, he was a poor President.

Well, hello, what have we here?

Summer camp

The recent spate of extreme hot weather put me in mind of my second experience of spending an extended period of time away from home and away from my parents. It was the end of form 1, I was 12 years old, and Weary and I found ourselves at a church camp in the wilds of East Gippsland, a sparsely populated, isolated part of Victoria that gets very hot in summer, which it then was, and which carries, in the popular imagination, intimations of hillbillies and in-breeding.

The camp was run by two people who, unlikely as this may sound, were both called Robert Luff (leading to much humorous banter along the lines of "which one?" and "will the real Robert Luff please stand up?"). For the first few days we stayed at a shearing shed somewhere outside an off-the-map town called Ensay. The shearing shed sat on the side of a bare hill, with no other sign of humanity visible in any direction. It was infested with huntsman spiders, and rumours quickly took hold as to how, in previous years, girls had run screaming (although I knew, but kept to myself, that it wouldn't just be the girls if it happened to me) from the shed on the discovery of a huntsman in a sleeping bag. Fortunately this didn't happen on our camp, but their lurking presence created a Hitchcockian sense of tension nevertheless.

The toilet, not itself devoid of spiders, was a wooden shed a hundred yards downhill (and, mercifully, downwind) containing a box with a hole in it, resting atop a pit containing about 20 million blowflies. I can only remember making one trip to that toilet in all the time I was there. Is there such a thing as fear-induced constipation?

And have I mentioned the snakes?

It's funny the things you don't remember. I have no idea how we got all the way from Fish Creek to Ensay, even though it is a trip that would have taken a few hours. In fact, I have very little recollection of anything that we did while at the shearing shed, or what we ate. I do remember the heat.

One day we drove to Swift's Creek, where I was able to briefly nurture my addiction to newsagencies, and where there was a much-needed swimming pool. One evening we took a long walk down the hill and along a heavily shaded gravel road beside a creek. It was a lovely spot. I imagine we had a picnic there, but I can't be sure. We did have a swim in the creek, its stony bottom perfectly visible, a bridge just upstream for running along, and jumping off. It would have been close to perfect, except for the fact that at some point along that walk something unpleasant happened.

I suppose I was at an age where hormones start to kick in, and bodies and temperaments do mysterious and inexplicable things. Weary and I had been best buddies since, well, since kindergarten really, and we were practically inseparable. For the second half of primary school Weary was one of a number of kids to be transferred by their parents to Foster Consolidated, on account of the experimental nature of teaching at Fish Creek under a principal and his cohort of teachers who had taken over our school in Grade 3 (a story that remains to be told). So his reappearance in my life when we both found ourselves at Foster High was like a dream come true. Thus, what happened while we were out on this walk was somewhat unexpected. I do know that it happened only inside my own head. Weary may not have even noticed anything amiss, and even if he did, he would probably have taken no notice of it.

I have, and this was only remarkable for being the first time it happened, this thing where something will trigger a sudden withdrawal from whatever is going on around me, and I fall into a dark place of frustration, confusion, anger: if you called it Extreme Sulking you might not be far off. It can happen at any time, and be caused by anyone or anything (or maybe even nothing), and there is nothing to do but wait it out and try not to burn any bridges in the process.

So, there we all were, walking along in this beautiful landscape. Weary was mixing and having fun with the others, in a way that I couldn't. Before long it seemed to me that I was alone in the world. I knew that I didn't need to be, that I was among friends, but I felt trapped, and helpless to do anything about it. I got really, really angry, muttered terrible things to myself in response to what the others, particularly Weary, were saying, and physically withdrew from the group. Swimming in the river shook me out of it, but the feeling resonated, and confused me, for some time. I had discovered something about myself that I hadn't known before, and that I would rather not have found out. And I knew, too, that this longstanding friendship had suffered a unilateral, debilitating blow from which it would stagger along for some time but never really recover.

The camp went on. The last couple of nights we stayed at a church hall in Omeo. There was a swimming hole at a bend in the creek in the centre of town, where we spent a long afternoon and where I managed to lose my glasses. I had gotten used to swimming around without them on, and I simply failed to realise that I wasn't wearing them. They fell out of the towel and onto the ground. The next morning, we went exploring a warren of caves on the side of a hill. I could barely see a thing without my glasses, which made scaling the hill difficult, and it didn't really help with my fear of heights, as I had no real idea of where I was in relation to the ground except for the fact that it was some indeterminate distance below where I was. Later on that day, we went back to the swimming hole, where my glasses were waiting for me, intact but in bad need of a clean.

We went for a midnight walk to the local cemetery, where we scared the bejesus out of ourselves, mucking about with torches, making scary noises, and telling ghost stories and other tales of mystery (such as the one where the girl is sitting in the car on a deserted road while the fellow goes out to investigate some movement over in the trees at the side of the road, and then, hearing a banging noise on the roof of the car, she gets out to investigate, only to discover that the banging is, well, I don't think I should go any further actually, there may be children watching).

We also listened, many times, to a Rolling Stones cassette that was in someone's possession. "Sympathy for the Devil", in hindsight, seems a bit out of place in a church hall.

The camp ended. So, eventually, did my friendship with Weary, although not for a little while longer, and even then perhaps not forever. I never heard from any of the other participants again, nor have I ever met another person called Robert Luff. Two is probably enough for one lifetime.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

This Goes With This (junior edition)

Carl has pointed out that the Little Jimmy Osmond of "Long Haired Lover From Liverpool" sounds more or less exactly like the Brenda Lee who sang "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus". I wonder if they were ever seen in the same place at the same time.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Song(s) of the day

First there's

"Wings", by The Fall. "Wings" has long been one of my favourite Fall songs. Its lack of availability is a puzzle. For a long time it existed only as the b-side to the first disc of the "Kicker Conspiracy" double-seven-inch, and on "Palace of Swords Reversed", one of a number of otherwise superfluous and/or dubious compilations that sprang up, and continue to do so, in the cracks of The Fall's peripatetic label-hopping existence. It appears on the Rough Trade "Totally Wired" set, but not on "50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong", which is otherwise probably the best jumping-off point for youngsters.

But its relative obscurity cannot hide the fact that it is a great song (and, unlike a lot of Mark E Smith's seemingly free-associated, top-of-the-head ranting, it has some kind of structural and even - gasp - poetic lyrical integrity). It immediately hits upon a grinding riff and refuses (or forgets?) to let go. There is also a fine video clip that exists on a VHS tape called, and I could be wrong here, "Perverted By Language BIS", wherein MES intones the words while sitting stony-faced in a pub somewhere in (presumably) northern England, the wallpaper of which clashes spectacularly with the knitted pattern on his jumper. At least that's how I remember it.

And then there's

"Tighten Up", by Yellow Magic Orchestra. I cannot believe I had no idea that this remarkable cover version existed. But a little research set me straight. It is no wonder, actually, that its existence has been buried (or at least kept hidden from me). The original, Japanese version of "X∞Multiplies" is a funny sort of record, a few songs interspersed with lengthy extracts from something called "Snakeman Show", some in Japanese and some in English but all making no sense whatsoever to your average Westerner. Thus, unbeknownst to me, the Australian version of "Multiplies", which is the one I knew back in those golden days, was actually made up of a large part of "Solid State Survivor", together with three of the actual songs from the Japanese "Multiplies". But not, strangely, "Tighten Up". (Possibly the fact that it is divided into two parts (three, arguably, given that Part One itself fades out and comes back in again), much as was the Archie Bell & The Drells original, didn't help the decision makers know what to do with it.) Discogs says it exists independently as a single, but I can't imagine this would have dodged my radar if copies had reached Australia, given that I was [possible understatement alert] a bit of a fan.

Anyway, it is a gloriously faithful ("ersatz"?) and fearsomely infectious rendition of the original, right down to the "Hi everybody, we are YMO" introduction, but they have the good sense to throw in some Vocoder just when you start to get too comfortable.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

You read it here first

But now you can read it here, in the New Yorker, with facts and figures, greater detail, and an elegance with language that I can only dream of. Oh, and a more negative prognosis than my own: I am naive enough to believe (actually it is more "hope") that the economic collapse that is now upon us can be turned to advantage by investing in infrastructure that will actually further reduce the world's carbon emissions when the economy hots up again. More fool me.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Song of the day

"Ain't No Sunshine", by Michael Jackson.

There are some storming versions of "Ain't No Sunshine" out there. I had no idea that Michael Jackson had turned his hand to it. And yet there it is, his fourth single, a minor UK hit in 1972, which means he must have been only 13 or 14 when it was recorded. (And the song itself would only have been a year old.)

It starts of with a nearly whispered spoken word intro, which is underpinned by some snaking, "Maggot Brain"-style lead guitar. The song proper is an exquisitely arranged combination of Motown rhythm section, funky drumming,strings and vocal harmonies. It oozes confidence and maturity. And then there's Michael's voice. Professional coaching alone, even if coupled with a tyrannical father leaning over one's shoulder, could not conjure a vocal performance of this level. Michael -- and remember, he is only a boy -- owns this song. He sings it from the inside out, even though he is singing about emotions and concepts he can only have been starting to become aware of.

It is moments like this that force me to re-think my own attitude to the sorry tale of Michael Jackson. We have been very hard on him. Here is one of the most exceptionally gifted singers, and performers, that we have ever seen or heard. He was on the stage at 11, and was never allowed to have a childhood of his own. His life has never been his own to live. No wonder he is so fucked up. Is it so wrong to suggest that we should be grateful for all that he has given us, rather than gaze, slack-jawed and full of tut-tutting disapproval, as his slow unravelling is paraded across the front page?

Our own 11-year-old has been a big Michael Jackson fan for some years. He either doesn't know, or doesn't comprehend, the story of Michael's latter years of tragic fall and public laughing stock. He is lucky enough to be able to appreciate the entirety of "Thriller", and assorted hit singles, at their magnificent face value. I played him "Ain't No Sunshine" this morning, and he instantly took to it.

We are, truly, not worthy.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Song of the day

"Kidney Bingos", by Wire. If Wire were ever going to have a tilt at megastardom, this gorgeous song was it. (Clearly, they failed. I suspect its name may not have helped.) Sure, it suffers today from an unwanted eighties sheen (especially that (un)classic mid-80s bass sound, what do you call that anyway, "flanged"? "phased"? just plain old "overproduced"?), but in the actual mid-80s that would only have helped their cause. If you close your eyes, you might be listening to a good U2 song [ahem - ed], well, if you were able to imagine U2 without the stadium-targeted bombast, and if you were able to scale down the size of Bono's ego to something like the size of a normal person's (and lose those stoopid glasses).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A couple of interviews with Mr Alan Moore




It's always fun to immerse yourself in a few Alan Moore interviews. It is something of an Energizer Bunny experience: switch him on and watch him go. (I once heard him interviewing Brian Eno for a BBC radio series. He may have allowed Eno to get a word in edgeways.) The Wired interview, in particular, is a good example of Moore in full flight, because of its length as well as its breadth and depth.

The thing I like about hearing (well, reading) Alan Moore go off is that he is, for someone who operates so far outside of the mainstream of society that his closest contemporary might be the Unabomber, remarkably rational and sensible in the way he sees the world and in the things he says. Why not reject Hollywood's overtures, if to do so is a principled objection and not a publicity stunt? Also, he seems to be simultaneously aware of his own stature (and justifiably proud of his work) while acknowledging that the medium he works in is predominantly (historically and in a post-"Watchmen" world) entertainment for (male) juveniles and misfits.

I saw the short for the "Watchmen" movie. (It ran before "Slumdog Millionaire". I reckon Danny Boyle has read a comic book or two in his time.) I have no intention of seeing it. But I did want to get a feel for how the film makers would make the world of the Watchmen look, and I can't say I was disappointed on that score. Still, I would much rather read the series for the, what, fourth time than watch a movie of it. And I didn't need to read Alan Moore's views to reach that conclusion.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Motorcade Sped On

Next on the Darren Hit Parade is "Happy Together", by The Turtles. There are a bunch of sixties beat groups that I have never been able to tell apart. Okay, I can separate The Beatles from The Stones, and I have a reasonable handle on The Kinks and The Zombies, but when it comes to the likes of The Turtles, The Troggs, The Small Faces, Herman's Hermits, and a swathe of others, I can't actually put a name, or a face, to any of them. Which is not the same as not liking the music they made. Take "Happy Together": it is simply too joyful, too welcoming, too, um, brilliant, not to strike a chord. And the chorus makes me want to pick flowers and ride bicycles - specifically, an old bicycle, with a basket, and slightly rusted tin mud guards. Maybe yellow, but an old, faded yellow. The sun will, of course, be shining.

"Happy Together" is followed, incongruously, by ZZ Top's "Legs", one of the most ridiculous hit singles. Ever. It starts off like Motorhead, but only for the first few seconds, until the disco backbeat kicks in and you instantly sense that what you are listening to is a money-making exercise. In truth, without the silly beards and souped-up hot rods they would be not much different from, and no more likeable than, Foreigner, except maybe for "rocking" a bit "harder". I always liked the fact that the one without the beard was called Beard, but that's probably just me. Actually, I thought I liked this song more than I do.

And one more, to put a bit more distance between where we are now and the start of this very long list. It's Phil Spector but with a few bricks removed from the wall of sound. It's "Sugar Baby Love", by The Rubettes (a name which I assumed signified that they were a girl group, how wrong I was), a song I never thought I would want to hear again, whereas in fact I would rather listen to this than "Legs" any day. There is something endearing in the earnestness of this song. It is, in its own way, a time capsule, but it is dealing with, and in, feelings that have been felt by teenagers of any place and time. Whatever next? Am I going to discover a long-suppressed love for The Bay City Rollers?

Oh, what the heck, let's also throw in "It's A Heartache", by the female Tom Waits, Bonnie Tyler, a song that was so unavoidable during its heyday that it is hard to listen to it with open ears now. So I won't.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New Morning

A few conflicting emotions tossed themselves around when I heard the one-two news punch that (a) Mick Harvey had left the Bad Seeds and (b) one Edmund Kuepper had been recruited as replacement, at least for a forthcoming tour of Europe.

First, I had to take stock of my own response. If this had been the mid-80s, and those twin pillars of Oz Rock Royalty Nick Cave and Ed Kuepper had been thrust together onto the same stage at the same time, I would have been wetting my pants with excitement, and running up to total strangers on the street to tell them about it. So I have found it curious to observe my sardonic eye-rolling reaction in 2009. It's not as if my affections for either of them have cooled in the ensuing 25 years. In fact, if anything the opposite has happened: of all the old guard, Cave and Kuepper have been the ones to have continued to work hard, develop their craft, and surprise. I suppose my thoughts, if I can pin them down, go like this:

(a) when am I ever going to Europe? Hence, the Cave-Kuepper thing is of theoretical interest only;

and, (b) to borrow from well-known music critic John Wayne, could any stage be big enough for the two of them? Unless my memory has failed me, Kuepper hasn't played second fiddle to anyone since The Saints, and look how that turned out. Cave? Well, I can't think of any name that more conjures the expression "front man". So what, or who, is going to give? Which makes it an interesting proposition, but not, I expect, a lasting one. One can only assume they shared one too many beers up on Mount Buller.

You also have to spare a thought for Mick Harvey, unsung hero of Australian music. I suppose his departure from the Bad Seeds was written on the wall with, in particular, the Grinderman project and, in general, the growing dominance within the Bad Seeds of that fiddlin' bushranger, Warren Ellis. But it is a sad thing, nevertheless, to contemplate the bald fact that "it's over".

It is easy, I suppose, to romanticise, in a tortured-artist sense, the life lived (if that is the right word) by Nick Cave in Berlin in the early 1980s. But I have always believed that if it wasn't for Mick Harvey Cave wouldn't have survived those days. Surely he cut it pretty fine as it was. Even hip cats only have nine lives. But Mick Harvey, at least on my reading of it, was the fulcrum around which Cave wildly spun: solid, dependable, able to withstand all the pressures that swirled around them. (Of course I could be wrong, but I've seen nothing in Harvey's subsequent appearance of unshakeable calm to make me doubt it.)

Also, Harvey was in large part responsible for the sound of the Bad Seeds, and the way that band developed. Or, in a sense, didn't. The Bad Seeds have always given new meaning to the word "ramshackle", and yet to see them play, in any of their many permutations, or to listen to "Live Seeds", is to understand that they are, when all is said and done, one of the great rock bands. They evolved over the space of the first four Bad Seeds albums, and Harvey's hands can be found all over each of them. In fact, for me the Bad Seeds, as a band, were never better than on "The Firstborn Is Dead", in which they comprised just (but not, he hastens to add, "merely") Barry Adamson on bass, Blixa Bargeld doing whatever it is that Blixa Bargeld does, and Harvey.

And yet Harvey has never sought the spotlight. Whether that is the result of his close-quarter observations of what that spotlight did, and what it might have done, to Cave is a question that even Harvey himself probably couldn't answer. But it's not for want of talent. "Intoxicated Man", his first solo record, was many people's (and my own hand is up) first introduction to Serge Gainsbourg, and it is a fine album, understated like Harvey himself, typically perfectly played and arranged, and (if I remember right) he even did the translations himself. His subsequent "pop" records (I haven't heard his soundtrack work) may not quite reach that gold standard, but any of them would serve, and frequently do, as perfect Sunday-afternoon listening.

In short, Mick Harvey has long been one of our honest-to-goodness heroes. We wish him well.

Boing boing

Another dead cat bounced off the Wall Street pavement overnight. Quite a large one this time (five per cent), but one can only assume that gravity will take effect, if not tonight then one night in the near future.

Meanwhile, the page count in the New Yorker continues to shrink, as the biggest economic contraction since the last one proceeds apace. The magazine survived the [First] Great Depression and we can only hope it has the reserves, and stamina, to survive whatever this one winds up being called. Of special interest in the recent "Anniversary" issue is George Packer's report from the real-estate wastelands of Florida, in which he gives both an insight into the human face of the collapse, and how Florida seems to have been its Ground Zero. (I still have trouble fathoming how a fall in real estate prices in one State of the Union could have such far-reaching international effects, but what do I know?)

What I do know, or at least what it looks like, is that the United States economy is so fucked they are going to have to find a new word for "fucked".

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Song of the day

"Born on a Train", by The Magnetic Fields. Even if this was the only song Stephin Merritt ever wrote, he would have earned his place. It is our extraordinary good fortune that it is, in fact, only one of many (including sixty-nine on one (triple) album, a fact which continues to leave me staggered each time I think of it).

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Magazine advertisement of the day

Look at this ad, from the New Yorker magazine circa February 1959. (If you click on it, you can see it at full size. How good is that?)

Looking at this photo today, it is easy to overlook the fact that it was taken fifty years ago. The Seagram Building hasn't changed a bit, in either appearance or stature, since it was completed, not long before the photo was taken. The building site across the road is, presumably, long gone, but there is little difference between the building site of today and that of mid-century. The furniture being carried into the building, well, our vantage point is a bit too far away to be certain, but it looks from this distance to be a little bit 2009 itself.

In fact, it is maybe just the cars in the bottom left-hand corner that provide unequivocal period detail. Those, and the font used at the very bottom of the ad to list all the places that Dunbar Furniture Corporation calls home.