Pith & Wind - Hang your hat on that..
On the way home from Canberra recently, Maria and I
were listening to some of our favourite female singers of the mid-20th
century on the car radio (courtesy of iTunes). One of them was the
durable Peggy Lee, who, I read on Wikipedia, started life as Norma
Deloris Egstrom, which suggests to me her family emigrated to North
Dakota from somewhere in Scandinavia. Her publicity photos always
show her as the classic, glacial-looking blonde wearing a smile like
a fake tan, and now that I read further Wiki confirms that her father
was indeed Swedish and her mom even indeeder Norwegian. North Dakota
is Fargo territory and so, we Netflixers all know, is stacked with
Peg’s singing style, particularly in her later years, was deliberately
plain and unaffected by artifice, unless you consider plainness an
artifice – perhaps an audio equivalent of Greta Garbo’s
acting style or the entire Ikea furniture range – indeed some
felt her delivery overly flat and even monotonous. Her phrasing was
equally unadorned - always the tune, always the words and nothing
but both. She had another major asset in the natural tone of her voice
(or timbre as Fossie, my choirmaster and The Christchurch
Press’ music critic for decades would’ve insisted), which
was always pleasant within her limited register and slightly grainy.
As a result, the microphone loved her voice – and as result,
we all did too.
She was the vocalist for the Benny Goodman Orchestra early in her
career when she met her future husband David Barbour, (the first of
four husbands), who started off his musical life as a banjo player
before sensibly turning to guitar and becoming Peggy’s bandleader/husband.
(I think I may’ve mentioned in another P&W that when Bill
and I were in California in the late ‘70s I covetously handled
a blond Bakelite arch-top guitar that was in the possession of a Malibu
guitar collector at the time who told me it was especially commissioned
for David Barbour).
Peggy Lee’s career went on for decades, but from her massive
recorded output I would select two exceptional songs, Fever (1958)
and Is That All There Is? (1969) I didn’t know Peggy
contributed the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Captain
Smith and Pocahontas’ verses to Little Willie John’s original
version of Fever till just now, but she was a respected songwriter
in her own right and collaborated with a number of illustrious writers.
(TV viewers of all ages still hail the Rita Moreno version of Peggy
Lee’s Fever with Animal on The Muppets Show as an all-time
Anyway, listening to Is That All There Is? in the car on
the road to Melbourne reduced me to tears – as, you might be
surprised to learn, it always has. My involuntary blubbering isn’t
just because Peggy Lee’s voice is so perfect for the song, both
in her faultless singing and narration, in which field she had a parallel
career. (Incidentally, the match seems so perfect you might imagine
the song was written just for her, but Peggy’s wasn’t
the first version of the song to be released surprisingly). No, as
good as Peggy’s performance is, I believe that in so many respects
Is That All There Is? is simply one of the great pop songs.
One of my main reasons for that belief is that Is That All There
Is? is not simply a love song. As a matter of disclosure, I’ve
spent my own career avoiding the bleeding obvious in my own song writing,
which of course means this appraisal is biased, but, whatever, I admire
the undisguised philosophical pitch that so convincingly evokes the
disenchantment and weariness for life, stylistically echoing similar
sentiments expressed in song between the wars in Europe with Randy
Newman’s Kurt Weill-type arrangement.
The perfect pop song is often emulated, if not by the same performers
or writers of the song, then by a galaxy of other hopeful artists,
managers, record company execs and publishers etc. with stars and
dollar signs in their eyes. Not with this song though. It stands alone
in the post-war decades, very much as Paul Simon’s Bridge
Over Troubled Water (that Peggy Lee also recorded) stands as
a one-off, not only in the history of pop music charts, but in the
Paul Simon oeuvre.
When I heard that it was Randy Newman who arranged the orchestration
for Is That All There Is? I assumed he also wrote the song
– I was astonished to discover it was actually a Lieber/Stolle
collaboration – it’s so different to anything else they
wrote. Randy Newman was introduced to me by Ross Wilson back in the
Party Machine days. (For those unfamiliar with my musical lineage,
after the demise of my band, The Chants, in 1967 I played bass with
Ross Wilson’s The Party Machine until Ross was invited to join
Procession in London in 1969).
I thought I remembered Ross playing a live Randy Newman cassette,
with just Randy and the piano in what sounded like a small club. Maybe
it was a bootleg as it doesn’t appear on the Wiki discography.
Anyway, however I came across him I was already acquainted with Randy
Newman’s dry, ironic humour (yes, a revelation! an American
practising irony) and his wistful tunes that remind me of Hoagy Carmichael
and occasionally even Steven Foster as well as Kurt Weill.
Randy’s style appealed to me a lot and you don’t have
to listen very hard to detect his influence on my songs on Spectrum’s
Milesago album and The Indelible Murtceps’ Warts
Up Your Nose album, in particular the tracks Virgin’s
Tale, A Fate Worse Than Death and Mama Did Jesus Wear Makeup
from Milesago and Be My Honey and Stay Another
Day from the Warts album.
Or do you?
I just had to go and listen to two of the Milesago tracks ‘cause
I haven’t listened to them in thirty or forty years. Yep, the
Southern Hemisphere colonial version of Americana is detectable in
the musical arrangements, but the lyrics lack Randy’s restraint
and have clearly gone way too far for comfort. To say that they are
too ambitious for a pop record is a massive understatement. I actually
found myself sweating and wincing as I listened to A Fate Worse
Than Death. There is no way that a song like that could be countenanced
for general release these days. In the era of #MeToo’ism it’s
gratuitously provocative and ultimately indefensible, even if there
was an intent that went beyond the immediate thrust of the narrative.
One of my biggest personal miscalculations was inspired by Randy Newman.
My estimable grandfather was dying in Auckland and I was in Melbourne
without hope of returning to be present at, or after his death. I
think it must’ve been my grandmother encouraged me to write
to him, which is a difficult enough assignment without the respect
and reverence accorded to the great man to factor in.
I’m not sure how or why I included the Randy Newman lyric, except
I thought the song captured a great and meaningful truth that I imagined,
foolishly perhaps, would be some sort of consolation. I can’t
remember if I included any other than the final line.
After I sent the letter I was absolutely mortified at my presumption,
but my grandmother later told me that the Colonel had not been displeased
and so I consoled myself with that modest reassurance.
The whole lyric displays Newman’s genius.
Everyone has gone away
Can you hear me? Can you hear me?
No one cared enough to stay
Can you hear me? Can you hear me?
You must remember the old man
I know that you can if you try
So just open up your eyes old man
Look who's come to say goodbye
The sun has left the sky old man
The birds have flown away
And no one came to cry old man
Goodbye old man goodbye
You want to stay I know you do
But it ain't no use to try
'Cause I'll be here-and I'm just like you
Goodbye, old man, goodbye
Won't be no God to comfort you
You taught me not to believe that lie
You don't need anybody
Nobody needs you
Don't cry, old man, don't cry
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Toolbox - Humour
'With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.'
It is apparent that over time that funny isn’t funny anymore.
Plays, movies and general jokes from times gone by quite often fail
to amuse a modern audience. There are exceptions. Look at Oscar Wilde,
who died destitute in Paris one hundred and eighteen years ago at
the age of 46, whose wit has travelled well. He once said “If
you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll
kill you”. But at his trial his famous wit failed to move the
judiciary who were out to punish him for being witty, gay and legally
ill-advised. But then again he was Irish, six foot three and didn’t
like the wall paper.
It is hard to resist just filling page after page with his aphorisms,
but when Wilde wrote in De Profundis, “Most people are other
people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a
mimicry, their passions a quotation”, one knows when to stop.
Well perhaps others do.
Shakespeare has not done too well, as pronunciation has changed over
the past four hundred years. The line in ‘As You Like It’,
“…. and so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe”,
would was a double entendre for Elizabethan theatregoers, who would
have pronounced “hour” the same as “whore”
and “ripe” like “rape”. Today only Harvey
Weinstein would be amused. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Everything
in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
Many of the first films were comedies and, being silent, were slapsticks,
a term originating from ‘a device consisting of two flexible
pieces of wood joined together at one end, used by clowns and in pantomime
to produce a loud slapping noise’ when somebody fell on their
arse. The Oxford Dictionary says ‘Comedy based on deliberately
clumsy actions and humorously embarrassing events’, …….
such as falling on your arse. Otherwise known as, post 1939, a ‘pratfall’.
It is quite like a judo break-fall but only experts and gymnasts should
try it on a hard surface rather than a mattress.
When you see it executed you are amazed that people are not seriously
hurt. Buster Keaton, whose acrobatic skills had been honed on the
vaudeville stage as part of his parents act, was seemingly indestructible,
except from the vagaries of public taste. There is a little classic
where he painfully lifts on leg onto the bar, and then lifts the other.
I can remember going to Ashton’s circus as a young nipper and
hearing the slapstick sound. Not that I liked clowns all that much
as they seemed dangerous and anarchic. They might throw a bucket of
water over me rather than confetti which would leave me covered in
embarrassment and humiliation. Therefore sitting in the front row
set up an evening which was never going to be enjoyable. Horses were
too close, elephants defecated in near proximity and trapeze artists
were bound to slip and fall right in front of me.
I do recall that this was still the days when there were live animal
acts with lion tamers who would have the big cats jump from pedestal
to pedestal with casual disdain whilst we looked safely on from outside
the cage. If you have ever been close to a large feline carnivore,
you know that sticking your head inside their mouth would make you
wish that they used mouthwash. Halitosis, a word that didn’t
exist before 1870, doesn’t capture the ripe smell of partially
As with trapeze artists you know they wouldn’t be doing what
is patently idiotic unless they thought that the risk was reasonable
and manageable risk. But risk nevertheless. Having no physical skill
and limited coordination, throwing myself into space trusting that
somebody might catch me twenty metres away is not even a remote possibility.
The same with walking into a cage full of lions armed only with a
chair and a whip. But fronting up to a clown with white face, putting
nose and red wig was a prospect that was equally alarming.
Our grandparents gave Mike, for no reason that I could think of unless
it was an oblique comment on his character, a biography of the famous
American clown Emmett Kelly. He created the character Weary Willie.
A hauntingly sad tragic figure with large white sad lips emerging
out of a six o’clock shadow: a clown, who could usually be seen
sweeping up the circus rings after the other performers. Trying to
sweep up the spotlights in the ring. My only impression of the book
was that it was depressing and not as interesting as Biggles flies
East’. ‘Biggles flies West’. ‘Biggles flies
North’. ‘Biggles flies South’. ‘Biggles flies
slightly West of South’. And ‘Politically Incorrect Biggles
Humour is often at someone else’s expense. The hardest lesson
in life is being able to take being the butt of a joke or prank. Please
let me learn to smile ruefully and with an aired or amused resignation
whilst not showing that I am fuming inside for revenge. There are
a few people who will get their comeuppance for the nasty things they
did at primary school. I remember being tripped up more than once,
and as for the boy’s toilets – well we won’t go
So perhaps this is why people laugh in and at violent movies. Extreme
slaughter in slow-motion with blood, arms and limbs flying everywhere
really is funny to some. You can hear them laughing. Is it a generational
thing? I find it really upsetting and wonder if I am sitting in the
theatre next to a homicidal maniac. Having said that there is a moment
in the Japanese samurai film ‘Zatoichi’ directed by Takeshi
(Beat) Kitano where, early in the movie two baddies decide to set
upon Zatoichi, who is blind, and run down the hill drawing their swords
as they run. Unfortunately one is too close to his friend and finds
his arm rather sliced by the enthusiastic draw of his partner.
But these are modern aberrations. Being of the radio generation whose
Sunday nights were sent listening to either of Christchurch’s
two radio stations I probably should go and seek out the oldies we
listened to then such as ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’,
‘A Life of Bliss’ and see if they are still funny. I know
that ‘The Goons’ are brilliant, but I have only vague
recollections of oddities as ‘Life with The Lyons’ and
‘Round the Horne’. All I know that only the 1950s could
devise a radio programme with a ventriloquists and his dummy. I only
hope that ‘Educating Archie’, was recorded in front of
a live audience or else the fifteen million listeners and the fan
club of 250,000 members were not getting their money’s worth.
Or perhaps that was the joke?
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Trans-Tasman Tales - It’s all about Neve…
In a situation not dissimilar to
Trump’s relief at having attention distracted from him onto
his US Supreme Court nominee, ScoMo was surely thrilled to have Russell
Crowe recommend that he be replaced by Aotearoa-NZ PM Jacinda Ardern.
Crowe’s proposal drew many comments, including one turning the
Australian ‘Eastern Isles’ slur on its head to propose
Ardern become PM of the Western Isles. Another called Ardern “fab,
gutsy, progressive,” while describing ScoMo as “stale,
male” and “privileged”. It’s understandable
that Australians need some distractions these days; along with all
the political stoushes it’s been experiencing, there’s
the tragically disappointing performance of the national Rugby team,
the AFL Flag ‘stolen’ from the Victorian Pies by WA’s
Eagles and the demise of the NFL’s treasured but failing Footy
Show. I know, I know, it’s enough to make the most hardened
Ocker think seriously about learning a Haka – or at least the
words to God Defend New Zealand.
There’s no doubt Jacinda picked up a heap of brownie points
on her UN excursion, aided and abetted by first child Neve and first
bloke/nanny Clarke. As rating-topper US TV host Stephen Colbert noted
when interviewing her, she was notable for several ‘firsts’
including first mum/world leader to spruik her offspring at the UN.
In their ‘delightfully cozy’ chat Ardern and Colbert schmoozed
through the agreed talking points: LoTR/Stephen’s Hobbiton Honorary
citizenship; Air NZ’s new Chicago-Auckland direct service. However,
not everyone is enamoured of Jacinda.
As the saying goes, there’s no show without punch, and there’s
no shortage of NZ National Party (cf. AU Liberal) members and supporters
ready with cudgels at hand to have a whack at “Cindy”
– their pejorative misnomer for her. Typically, critics are
members of the media pack who rely on slagging-off to ensure ratings
and clicks, and it’s the latter web-based commentariat who lead
the charge. (Disclaimer: Several decades ago I was responsible for
establishing the first online distribution of news in NZ for Radio
New Zealand. At the time it seemed rational and sensible to deliver
a text version of the radio news to those with computers; how little
I appreciated what a mess would result. In those days news was written
up by journalists and overseen by editors for standards compliance
before the final copy passed through sub-editors who proofed it and
assured it was linguistically competent. Today, such a labour-intensive
process is not only uneconomic it’s undesirable in an environment
where the majority of the ‘copy’ is ‘creatively
constructed’ –my own endeavours here included!). Ardern’s
critics, so far, are predominantly nit-pickers over issues like: using
the RNZAF to exclusively ferry her to a Pacific conference for only
one day because she was breast-feeding; employing photographers in
New York to take ‘glamour shots’; not being ‘tough
enough’ on errant colleagues. All this, stuff not untypical
of most political environments these days where launching predatory
personal attacks trumps discussing/debating policy and progress. I
live in hope that eventually the pointlessness and lack of success
of such strategies will bring an end to them. To that end it’s
useful to consider the thematic premises that thread Ardern’s
public addresses. Take her UN speech in which she promoted “kindness”,
“compassion”, “collectivism” and the maxim
“Me Too must be We Too”, or her “Blueprint”
for the country’s future with three key features – “Firstly,
building a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy. Secondly,
improving the wellbeing of New Zealanders and their families. And
thirdly, ensuring new leadership by government.” The critics
dismissed the latter as like a TED talk, all style no substance, but
the distinguishing element that blunts criticism is the ever-present
personification of ‘the future’, the first-child Neve
Te Aroha Ardern Gayford. In a way that is not unlike the public perception
of ‘credibility’ related to the woman accusing the US
Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment, there does seem to be
a recent significant shift in the ‘balance’ accorded women
in matters of trust and belief relative to that of men that Ardern’s
“We Too” remark highlights.
Time will tell as to whether Ardern will weather the slings and arrows
of the outrageous fortune that saw a relatively inexperienced, young
woman politician elevated at very short notice to replace a failing
male Party leader then move onto Premiership and proceed to be feted
by international media as the new image of a woman Head of State –
1 of 10 that represent just 6.3% of the world leaders total. Whatever
transpires, it wouldn’t hurt readers in Russell Crowe’s
Eastern Isles to pause and think about what they really could do with
– and without – in a leader before the next election comes
upon them. Kia Kaha cobbers!
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