Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

The Cake and The Rain (St. Martins 2017) written by Jimmy Webb – Book Review.

June 4, 2017

 

 

 

 

Didn’t We came to Jimmy Webb while he was out driving. It was the only time a song came to him unbidden and fully formed. He rushed home, transcribed it and started shopping it around. Aging pop star Tony Martin expressed an interest and called him in for a meeting at a theatre. Webb was told to wait in the ‘Green Room’. He took a chair and sat quietly so as not to disturb the elderly man asleep on a sofa.

The old man opens and eye and looking at the portfolio Webb was cradling asked him what he had there? Webb handed it over and the man pulled out Didn’t We and after a quick read through began humming it. Then he took a trumpet from a case and played it through. Louis Armstrong to Webb, “You got a special gift kid”.

It was Sinatra who turned it into a standard. “So you’re the kid who writes them like they used to?” he said to a startled Webb at their first meeting. Webb was given granted regular access to the Chairman who would listen while Webb played. Sinatra wanted first dibs on anything special. Webb, “He didn’t say so but you knew when the meeting was over.”

 

 

 

 

Webb’s mum and dad had hauled the kids to California in search of ‘opportunity’ but after the sudden death of his wife, Webb senior lost heart and decided to return to Oklahoma. “Dad, I’m not going”. The 17 year old had decided to stay and write songs. Dad was unconvinced but gave him forty dollars, “It’s all I have.”

Webb was a musically literate grafter. He searched them out, wrote them down and knocked on doors. He got to know the right people and his songs were passed about. Glen Campbell was L.A’s busiest sideman and was ambitious for a bigger career. By the Time I get to Phoenix provided him with the breakout hit he needed.

A melancholic song about a restless love affair, By The Time I Get To Phoenix is astonishing for its emotional maturity (Webb was barely18 when he wrote it). Campbell worked it up with legendary session band The Wrecking Crew and the result is so perfectly complete that none of the dozens of versions that followed have come close to achieving Campbell’s clarity of vision.

“Write me a song with a name in it,” demanded Campbell, perhaps thinking that place names were going to be his thing. Wichita Lineman took a few days and was missing a third verse but Campbell was so convinced he took it as was and detuned his guitar in order to mimic the vocal. The third verse became the home to one of ‘Middle Music’s’ most revered guitar lines.

Webb pumped out one more place name for Campbell, anti-Vietnamese War song Galveston. It was a sensation and cemented Campbell into superstardom but it was their last major hit together. Next Webb/Campbell single Where’s The Playground Susie broke the place name rule and the result was middling.

 

 

 

 

At the end of Webb’s book is a list (partial) of the artists that have recorded his songs. It is 12 pages long and among them is the unlikely figure of Irish Actor Richard Harris.

“You got any songs for me Jimmywebb?” Webb played him a few and Harris hummed and hawed until Webb played him a new one that had been written on commission for, then rejected by The Association (Cherish, Along Comes Mary).

Harris demanded Webb play it over and over, 12 times to be precise. By this point Webb’s fingers were bleeding and Harris was weeping uncontrollably. “I’ll turn it into number one for ya Jimmywebb” he sobbed, “A bloody number one”. He did. A genuine all purpose international sensation, the kind that makes people very rich.

Webb was on the phone to Paul McCartney a few weeks later when he let slip that MacArthur Park’s unconventionally long length meant that he was receiving three times the standard airplay royalties.

McCartney drops the phone. “Paul, Paul, are you there?” but he was gone and on his way to Abbey Road where he sets about tweaking the length of new Beatles single ‘Hey Jude’ so it could be suitably hitched to this wondrous new gravy train.

It was Webb’s only number one, a feat it managed twice when Donna Summer’s version took down the international top spot in 1978.

 

 

 

 

Webb was a genuine all purpose Wunderkind who wrote the kind of songs that made stars of singers and paid for a ‘Jet Setting’ lifestyle – Up and Up and Away as he explains in his most famous song. Mansions, fast cars, cocaine and women, (the later being the source of the angst in his music) followed. A lot of it is outrageous and some of it is crazed. Buddies Harry Nilsson and John Lennon come out of this looking a little crazed. Webb less so, wide-eyed and hanging on for dear life is more to the point. He regrets none of it.

Of all his work, most underrated are the songs he wrote for vocal group The 5th Dimension. “They were Black but didn’t make ‘Black’ music. They were more show tune style and while they were open to suggestions you could only go so far as Producer. They were a team and knew what they were doing.”

The record company were unenthusiastic about Up Up Away and let it loose without any promo or backup. It caught on regardless and by mid-1967 was sitting at number 7 in the US pop charts. The money poured in and Webb could write his own ticket.

A month after the Beatles released their ‘album as art statement’ the ground breaking Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, The 5th Dimension released the Webb written and produced concept ‘art’ album The Magic Garden. And yes it has a sitar. And a Beatles song (Ticket To Ride as show tune) but as Webb explains, The Magic Garden is mostly inspired by Brian Wilson’s work on Pet Sounds (1966).

 

 

 

 

His words run swift and lean and his tales about 60s pop stardom fill out some lesser know details of a much mythologized time and place. There is no judgement, recrimination or agenda just an honest memoir about a first three decades of a man’s life. Webb is 70 and has lived a lot of whole lot of other life since then. Of that he says nothing.

One of the more significant songwriter, producer, arrangers of the 20th Century, Webb’s memoir is made of readable prose whose invention does not get in the way of a goodtime. Music and shenanigans aside, Webb comes across as a centred mid-western boy who has revelled in the fruits of his ambition.

 

 

 

*The Details in this review may not necessarily coincide with the timeline in Webb’s book. I had to return it to the library and left my notes in it and the dates on the Internet conflict so fuck it. I just wrote it as I remember reading.

** BMI – Broadcast Music, Inc. is one of three United States performing rights organizations, along with ASCAP, Global Music Rights and SESAC

 

 

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Zombies, Existential Dread and The Girl with all the Gifts.

April 11, 2017

Early on in the film discovery phase of my life I happened upon George A Romero’s landmark Zombie Trilogy. All at once clever, disturbing and satirical these films were a delight and I have watched them many times since but as the Zombie phenomenon broke out into mainstream I realised I was less a fan of Zombies than I was of Romero and while I have dipped into some of the more popular shows and films nothing bar the British movies 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later have sustained my attention…… until now.

I was out walking when I happened across Unity Books (Central Auckland) and decided to go inside. I must have walked passed the place a hundred times and while I often stopped to look in at the window display I was never going any further as book buying is no longer my thing.

When I was younger and earning better I used to buy lots of books. I loved the excitement of book discovery and outlined of my personal space with a display I imagined explained to visitors something of my inner world. Considering I had few visitors the whole thing ended up seeming a little vain and frivolous so one fine day I packed all my books down and left them out in public space for people to take.

Thinking I had done some great deed I drove back to have a look an hour later to find a group of shabby looking kids kicking them about and throwing screeds of torn pages into the air. In retrospect nothing less than my vanity deserved.

I am well pleased that phase of life is over and I have since learned that the value of the books most precious to me lies in the memory of the experience not in the possession of the hardcopy. But there I was in a bookstore and I saw they had a Sci-Fi section, which pleased me no end this genre being my first love and all and because I had this impression that bookshops devoted to literature largely eschew the format out of a misguided sense that it just isn’t worthy enough.

Iconic NZ Broadcaster and literature fan Kim Hill certainly thinks so, I have heard her say it more than a few times over the years, and her opinion isn’t so unusual. I remember walking into a grand looking bookshop in Wellington a few years back and after a look about asked if they had a Sci-Fi section. The response was bemused blinking that left me feeling a bit inadequate. I scarpered and spent my money elsewhere.

As for the genre itself, it is actually a mixture of things that includes fantasy, dystopian futurism, space opera, social and technological speculation, time travel and Zombie narratives. So there I was running my fingers across the book spines when a title caught my eye. I pulled it out and balanced it in my hands and knew that I was going to read it and like it. I jotted down the title: The Girl with all the Gifts and decided to order it from the library. Sorry Unity but at almost $40 it was well beyond my means.

 

 

Book Review: The Girl with all the Gifts

By M.R. Carey.

7/10 Stars.

 

An infection has crossed the globe turning humans into mindless hosts for a parasitic life form that craves protein. These creatures stand about waving in the wind until a movement or scent from a warm living thing triggers them into action then its all running, clawing hands and tearing teeth. The few remaining humans have nicknamed them ‘Hungries’. If you have ever seen 28 Days Later you’ll have the idea.

The uninfected have retreated to a couple of protected enclaves including a research facility where Dr Caroline Caldwell is seeking a vaccine by dissecting and experimenting on the body parts of the infected but not just any old infected. He team has discovered children who have been infected but maintain something of their humanity.

These children are a striking new mutation and involved in the research is teacher and psychologist Helen Justineau whose job involves trying to understand their nature. Are they still human? Caldwell thinks not as she obsessively takes them apart with surgical tools. Justineau is not so sure and her emotional bond with a girl called Melanie is complicating things at the facility.

As for Sergent Parks, the guy who runs the day-to-day operations at Hotel Echo, these kids are dangerous, after all he is the guy who discovered them and has had first hand experience of just how overwhelming their hunger for flesh can be. He and Justineau are not seeing eye-to-eye and as far is Justineau is concerned Caldwell is out of control.

The kids are imprisoned and when required are strapped securely into wheelchairs and ferried about the facility. By and by it all goes wrong and Parks, Justineau, Caldwell, a soldier called Gallagher and Melanie (test subject number one because of her extraordinary intellectual abilities) find themselves on the run across the barren wasteland that is now the British countryside in a desperate attempt to reach Beacon and safety. Caldwell needs Melanie for her research, Melanie is attached to Justineau (the only human who has ever shown her any care), and the others just want to survive.

The Girl With All the Gifts is a spare and neatly observed novel that follows in the grand tradition of Romero’s groundbreaking original Zombie film Night of the Living Dead centered on a group of disparate people thrust together by circumstance and trying to find a way forward against increasingly insurmountable odds. M.R Carey is a novelist whose main source of income has been writing for comics (X-Men for Marvel as well as numerous projects for D.C) and graphic novels. The tight narrative structure required for this type of prose has shaped him into an economical wordsmith who knows how to spin a compelling yarn without wasting space.

The book is a reliable page turner with a well considered plot and neatly drawn characters that respects the readers intelligence and left me thinking that good writing is good writing regardless of the genre. To hell with literature snobs – Zombies make just as good a backdrop for tales of the human condition as do the sorts of themes and settings favoured by actual proper writers.

 

 

Film review: The Girl With All The Gifts (2015)

Directed by Colm McCarthy

6-10 Stars

Okay, now I have read the book I had to take a look at the film which turns out to be very much in that tradition kicked off by Danny Boyles genius film 28 Days Later (2002) and its follow up 28 Weeks Later (2007). The Girl With All the Gifts could well have been titled ‘28 Years Later’ judging by the overgrown cityscapes our little band of adventurers are wandering across as they head for the sanctuary of Beacon.

In actuality we are only eight years out from the initial outbreak but the huge mature trees filling the streets of London suggest a timeframe more in line with decades rather than a decade. The landscape is actually the abandoned Pripyat City in the heart of the Chernobyl exclusion zone whose brutalist Sovietism is not London by any stretch of the imagination. Nice try but it does serve to make the film feel a little B-Grade, as in low budget. They would have been better off sticking to those neatly rendered CGI images of an overgrown London that otherwise worked so well.

The rest of it is filmed on sets and the results are quaint rather than convincing reminding me of the TV shows I grew up watching in the late 1960s. I am thinking Star Trek, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants – all formed on soundstages with sets that are inexpensive and suggestive rather than comprehensive. Maybe this was purposeful stylistic decision?

The cast is a neat list of top line character actors including Glenn Close as the Dr Mengele like Caldwell, the ever-reliable Paddy Constantine (Dead Mans Shoes) as Sergent Parks and Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) as Justineau. They do a fine job with what they have. Melanie is helmed by an earnest Sennia Nanua whose uneven performance takes the edge of things, if only a little.

The film mostly stays true to a book written for easy big screen translation but for reasons unknown the production team have has eschewed some essential plot elements leaving the film structure feeling a little flimsy. In the book the fall of Hotel Echo is a an event which tells us a larger story about the state of the world as it stands but in the film version the security fences are clumsily knocked down by Hungries after being perfectly adequate for many, many months. Expedient but clumsy.

The director Colm McCarthy is an episodic TV director and struggles a bit with the longer format of a feature film. The Girl with all the Gifts lacks sustained tension (sadly so because the book hums along like fire on a fuse) and dramatic flair. A friend had seen it before I did and her opinion pretty much sums up my own: ”It’s ok”. Still there is potential for more from this loose franchise and that would be nice. The British do post-apocalyptic better than most.

 

What Others Are Saying:

It’s a film for people who thought they never needed to sit through another zombie flick. It’s also quite likely the strangest entry that will ever appear on Glenn Close’s IMDB page’.

– Chris Nashawatay Entertainment Weekly

 

‘A wicked, gory and even occasionally funny take on George A. Romero’.

– Barry Hertz Globe and Mail.

 

Epilogue:

I am remembering how much I loved post-apocalyptic scenarios in my youth, a strange dislocated time when I feared my natural lonerist tendencies. In my less guarded moments I dreamt of long walks through cityscapes returned to nature. It was silent and abstract world and I was happily adrift in it. There were never any Zombies, thrills, adventure or other people. My post-apocalyptic landscape was all about the mystical unconscious.

So what is the attraction of the Zombie besides the obvious scare fest? Could it be down to some existential dread based on the loss of individuality? Whatever it is, it’ a popular theme and a reliable moneymaker. The other big player here is the body-snatching genre; that’s when ethereal alien beings take over the individual’s body, eliminate the consciousness and turn it into a vessel for themselves.

Stephenie Meyer’s (the Twilight series) The Host is a modern classic (though the sputtering 2013 film adaptation by Kiwi Andrew Niccol is not). Of the several other films originating from Jack Finney’s 1954 Sci-Fi novel The Body Snatchers the best are the 1958 and 1978 titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both are perfectly realised and are a ‘must see’ for those so inclined. The 1978 film features Leonard Nimoy as a charismatic cult psychiatrist and a brilliantly hysterical Donal Sutherland as a City Health Inspector on a mission to save the world from creeping threat. The final reveal is a classic.

 

 

Book review: Gilgamesh the King by Robert Silverberg.

September 24, 2016

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Some 2500 or years before common era (B.C) there was a king called Gilgamesh who by all accounts was a man of  extraordinary talents who ruled his city state of Uruk (on the banks of the Euphrates in a territory now part of Southern Iraq) with so much vigour that the people were pushed to the brink of despair.

The men were exhausted by his energy for war, work, construction, games and partying while the women were exhausted from his sexual attentions (Gilgamesh was insatiable). He deemed it his right to posses each and every woman as was his fancy in particular young brides on the eve of their weddings. In his mind he was bestowing a Kings blessing upon them as they set about a new course in life. In their minds he was an unwelcome intruder interfering with one of life’s more sacred moments.

Lets be clear, Gilgamesh was not an evil king, just a bit self-absorbed and unaware of the strains he placing on the average Urukian. The people pleaded with their gods for respite and the god’s solution was Enkidu a man they created from spittle and clay who was in every way Gilgamesh’s equal. They planned that Enkidu might vanquish Gilgamesh but instead the two men became the greatest of friends and as a result Gilgamesh calmed down until the gods took Enkidu life a few years later in retaliation for some offensive shenanigans the two men instigated.

Almost mad with grief for the loss of the only true friend he had ever known Gilgamesh sets off on a quest to find a cure for death asking himself over and over: “what is the point of all our efforts if in the end we consigned to an eternity in the dusty afterlife.” (The afterlife his people believed in was no paradise and Gilgamesh was determined to avoid it). He learned in the end that death is an inescapable part of life and the solution to the fear was to live a purposeful and fulfilling life.

 

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a series of poems which remain the world’s oldest written work of literature and while it is based on an actual historical figure the various versions of the epic are riddled with myth, exaggeration and histrionics. This aside the epics are a grand insight into a flourishing civilisation – they maintained a fertile agricultural empire governed by ingenious flood control and irrigation systems that supported an urban society possessed of advanced architectural, metallurgical and record keeping skills. It also offers a window onto the origins of some cherished stories that persist to this day including the account of one great and infamous flood.

A wise king who lived some thousand or so years prior to Gilgamesh is watching the weather and predicts that heavy rains are going to cause the nearby river to flood so he gathers up most the population (some choose to stay put) and as many animals, seeds and supplies as he can manage and heads for the safety of the high mountains. The river breaks it bank and washes away the city, people and farmland leaving the fortunate survivors to start everything anew.

A simple story about a thoughtful king was set to become something else altogether and by the time of Gilgamesh it had changed out of sight. The alterations and elaborations included a giant boat, some stuff about humanity being a disappointment to their creators and then there is the bit about the gift of eternal life granted the King for saving humanity – not all the gods were in agreement about the genocide and in their gratitude for the Kings actions they gave him the greatest gift at their disposal. (It is this aspect of eternal life granted to the king that sets Gilgamesh off on his quest – if it is possible he means to have it). By the time the story reaches some Hebrew scribes a thousand or so years later the King is no longer a King and he has a new name and back story and the many gods have been replaced by one (a recent thought innovation called Yahweh) and so on.

One of my favourite storytellers is American speculative fiction master Robert Silverberg (Born 1932) and since discovering him in my early teens have devoured his various sci-fi and fantasy works with the kind of vigour Gilgamesh might appreciate. Among my favourite Silverberg books is his retelling of the Gilgamesh story – ‘Gilgamesh The King’. Staying true to the original text (recorded on clay tablet) Silverberg lovingly (and carefully) details time and place while presenting the story in easily digestible language and terms. He avoids affection and carefully examines the mythology contained within the epics making it clear to the reader how stories and legends develop and change over time. ‘Gilgamesh The King’ is an interesting and entertaining adaptation of an important historical artefact and well with your time if so inclined.

Book Review: ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ by Neil Young

September 12, 2016

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Am I a Neil Young fan? Possibly. I like a lot of his music (especially the ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and ‘Live Rust’ albums) and of the heritage artists he groups himself with in his memoir ‘Waging Heavy Peace’- Dylan and Springsteen – he is certainly the one that speaks to me the most but no, I am not going to rush out and buy his latest album (Young can cover a lot of ground – from folk to hard rock – and not all of it is to my taste, especially when he gets political) and based on the lukewarm reviews at the time I certainly did not rush out to read his 2012 book.

I picked it up recently at the library on a whim and not expecting much was surprised to find  myself quickly drawn in and unable to put it down, I polished it off in no short order. This is no ordinary memoir. It is part ‘stream of consciousness’ conversation, part-marketing tool (his Pono music player and electric car project feature prominently) but mostly it is an examination of his career and personal life, though not in any linear or completist way. Lets just say it meanders and not unpleasantly so.

The structure of the book like the timeline of events is unpredictable and often these events are examined numerous times from different perspectives. As for the music, it is well covered (as you would expect). Young radically examines his muse (pot) and gives several chapters of praise, thanks and offers numerous stories on the musicians, producers and studio technicians (not to forget roadies and various other crew and staff) who have helped him make his imaginative fancies real and his descriptions of the songwriting and recording process would stir the heart of any young musician starting out on that particular career path.

Young is self-deprecating and quick to acknowledge his faults and the lack of maturity that has dogged him most of his life, that and his tendency toward self-absorption – a trait which has caused those close to him much grief. That said, he never dwells or wallows, just puts us in the picture before explaining his evolution and growth as a person. He is also reveals himself to be an obsessive entrepreneur, materialist, model train fanatic and egalitarian Canadian. He contracted polio as a child and then just about every other preventable disease before his epilepsy kicked in. With all this in the basket he reveals that he has struggled with myriad health issues including the brain tumour that led him to give up the Herb (on Drs advice).

Young did not inhale until his early 20s and when he did the music “turned into god” and since stopping (a year and a half before completing this book) has not been able to write a single song. Narcotics feature heavily as a character in this narrative but without the accompanying specter of opinion. Young just says it how it is and has been with him and his peers and makes no judgment.

A fascinating book that leaves us with a man struggling to stay financial in light of the rapidly changing times within the music business (streaming and downloads) and struggling to stay clean and ‘sober’. He still has not decided if ‘straight’ is the right method and wishes he had never seen the brain scans which reveal the plaque buildup in his brain, indicating he might be a dementia candidate, like his father. For all his achievements Young leaves us with the impression that he always has been and remains ‘an innocent abroad’, a Hippie dreamer, an oddball who got very lucky.

As for his family life, he is very gracious and generous in his expressions of love for his wife Pegi, various ex-wives, close friends, parents and children and it is with the latter that we get our best picture of Young. Father of two disabled children, one severely so, all I could do was put myself in his shoes and wonder how I would have coped with such complexity. My answer was “not as well as he has.”

*Since reading this book I have learned that Young and Young have parted ways after 36 years of marriage which is certainly confusing in light of all Neil’s steadfast professions of love. The man is a conundrum.

‘Waging Heavy Piece’ is no masterpiece nor is it one of the great rock biographies but it has something special about it – that same and certain idiosyncratic flavour found throughout his music and career, that little something that has stood him out and apart from the crowd and coloured him unique. My visit with Mr Young was worth every second of my time.

As for my favourite Neil Young moment – Live Rust – I was thrilled by his descriptions of the concept and how that film, tour and collection of enormous songs all came together.

Book Review: The Big Ratchet by Ruth DeFries

March 13, 2016

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I am interested in the environment at large which led me to believe that those who align themselves politically with the Green movement would make great Facebook friends. I was wrong. Where I sought discussion about the problems facing the biosphere all I got was a wall of blame and apocalyptic dread. Well, that’s a wee bit of an overstatement, not all my Green friends were that way, some were powerfully reflective but they were far and away a minority voice.

Mostly the Green’s on Facebook seemed view the environment as a black and white thing missing the grey subtleties entirely and so after a couple of years of comments proclaiming ‘were fucked, the planets fucked and ………… (fill in the blank) is to blame’ crowding my timeline I cracked and went on a de-friending rampage. It was doing my head in.

I am not blind to, nor unconcerned about the environmental problems being wrought upon the biosphere by human activity, I simply refuse to believe that our activities are beyond redemption and the damage we have caused irreversible. In saying that I must acknowledge the role of fear and anger in stirring debate and bringing issue to light and to those former friends I say job well done but anger alone is not enough, it is but one component of the process that alters perception and behaviour.

In her book ‘The Big Ratchet’ scientist Ruth DeFries (Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology) addresses black and white perception of the human impact on the biosphere with a an easily understood scientific exploration of the processes that have allowed life to evolve and flourish on this planet. With that perspective anchored, she focuses her attention on humanity and our broader relationship with the natural world.

Here she reflects on our ability to observe, consider and then manipulate evolutionary machinery, a proclivity that has allowed us to achieve extraordinary things, most notably with food supply. Our explorations have allowed us to flourish but without a manual to steer us, our experiments have resulted in unforeseen outcomes, not always positive.

The books sub-title ‘How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis’ tells us the story of how environmental crisis triggers within us a response that has allowed us to successfully think our way through extraordinarily difficult challenges and problems. A ratchet is a mechanical device that allows continuous linear or rotary motion in only one direction while preventing motion in the opposite direction and DeFries uses this metaphor to reveal our species onwards momentum as environmental engineers.

A thoughtful writer, DeFries has produced a thrilling page-turner that is filled out with history, discovery, insightful analysis and some indications of how she sees the near future unfolding. I would imagine my Green activist friend would have a lot of problems with De Fries conclusions that despite everything, (increasing population, habitat destruction and climate changes), the future looks bright. The Big Ratchet is a hopeful big-picture kind of story and I came out of the reading somewhat better for the experience, certainly more informed.

 

Book Review: ‘How Bizarre, Pauly Fuemana and the Song That Stormed The World’

November 16, 2015

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Music Impresario Simon Grigg first met Pauly Fuemana through his nightclub ‘Cause Celebre’ on Auckland’s High Street in the late 1980s.  A young and “devastatingly charming” young Pauly was a regular and rather naively (as it turned out) Grigg offered him a small bar tab, one that was quickly used up and looked like it was never going to repaid.

Anxious to recover something from the deal, Grigg set Pauly to work at various tasks around the club and discovered in Pauly “the worst employee ever”, one more concerned with his looks and the ladies than clearing tables and washing glasses.

Regardless, it all turned out pretty good for all concerned when a few years later Simon heard a track that Pauly had been working on with Producer Alan Jansson called ‘Doof it Up.’ Impressed, he immediately signed Pauly to a fledgling label he had created to release Nathan Haines’s debut album. ‘Doof it Up’ (street slang meaning  ‘to have a scap to work things out’ but not in an overly aggressive way) became ‘Big Top’ and then finally ‘How Bizarre’, a phrase Pauly borrowed from Alan’s wife Bernie who was a frequent user of the term.

Simon knew he was onto “something pretty special” and organised a licensing deal with a “less than enthusiastic” PolyGram NZ whose opinion quickly changed after the Australian arm of the label saw the songs commercial potential and rushed it to release.

The song went to number one across Australasia in 1995 and next stop was Britain where the song failed to fire significantly on first release. It wasn’t until British radio superstar Chris Evans heard the song while on holiday Australia in 1996 and started playing it on his BBC 1 Breakfast show that the song hit properly. Grigg: “When the song hit in Britain we were rushed over to appear on Top Of The Pops and there we were (Pauly was broke and still living in a council flat in Auckland) sitting in the Green room with the Spice Girls. Baby Spice came over to Pauly and said “You’re Bizarre” and Pauly replied “You’re Spicy.” It was all pretty surreal.” From there the song set Europe alight, (in particular Germany, the worlds third biggest music market) and finally in 1997, it cracked the really big time, America.

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Image: Simon Grigg and Pauly Fuemana circa 1995

Initial attempts to get the song released in the States had been met with resistance from Labels with comments like “too quirky” but it was via Canada that ‘How Bizarre’ got its ‘in’. Upon release it went straight to the top of the Canadian charts. Radio listeners on the other side of the border locked onto it and started asking their local stations to play it. A radio station in Buffalo (upstate NY) put it on high rotate and it spread like a virus, hitting right across the State and most notably in New York city where it went ballistic. The rest of the story is history.

With the Lorde phenomenon lighting up the local scene in recent years, it’s easy to forget the impact of ‘How Bizarre’, our first really big international hit. Kawerau boy John Rowles had scored first with two substantial hits in Britain back in the late 1960s (‘If I Only Had Time’ and ‘Hush, Not Word To Mary’). In 1980 Split Enz came close with the True Colours album and the single ‘I Got You’ but it wasn’t until Neil Finn’s Australian based Crowded House scored internationally with the single ‘Don’t Dream it’s Over’ in 1986 that a native child hit the really big time, and big as it was, ‘Don’t Dream its Over,’ looked a bit pale in comparison with what was to follow with ‘How Bizarre’, a genuine all purpose hit in every market in the world, from Asia to the America’s, Europe, Africa and everywhere else in between.

From 1995-97, the song itself shifted some 4 million units and the album around 1.5 million units and is still a money making goldmine today thanks to royalties from advertising, movies, TV show placements and ongoing airplay.  Grigg: “It’s the song that keeps on giving. The amount of serious money one song can generate is phenomenal.”

Simon Grigg’s book ‘How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the Song that Stormed the World’ charts the course of the song from it’s humble origins to its world dominating success, but this is not just the story of a song, it’s also the story of the creative minds behind it, most notably Mr Fuemana himself, a man Grigg describes as being “both extraordinarily talented and deeply flawed.”

Pauly came from humble origins; the son of a Niuean father and a Tuhoe mother he grew up on the ‘mean streets’ of Otara and suffered ongoing wounds from a deeply dysfunctional family life. Grigg: “Pauly was psychologically ill equipped to deal with fame and handled it rather badly despite the efforts of a robust management team. At his worst he was a ‘fantasist’ who loved the ‘bling’ and surrounded himself with sycophants, at his best he was a humble collaborator and a loyal friend with a generous spirit.”

While taken to fits of violence and paranoia, “Pauly,” explains Grigg, “also had a good heart. He took care of his wider family, paying of debts and mortgages but fell pray to those within the family who felt entitled and demanded ever more money from him.” Grigg’s goes onto explain that for a time Pauly was “seriously wealthy” but his need to be seen as ‘the man’ and his spendthrift ways led to his financial undoing and eventual bankruptcy.

Pauly died in 2010 from respiratory failure following a protracted battle with ‘chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy’, (an inflammatory disorder of the peripheral nervous system). Fuemana’s funeral was held on 5 February 2010 at a Pacific Island Presbyterian Church just off K-Rd in Central Auckland. There were 200 people in attendance.

Simon Grigg was there and it was during “the very moving funeral service” that he decided to write it all down, as it was: the good, the bad and the ugly- fearing that if he didn’t, the real story would never be told as it actually was. He was there, all the way through, a hands on witness to one of the more cautionary tales in the Kiwi cannon and his account is one grand ripping yarn from the first page to the last.

Grigg’s book is a modern fable about the pitfalls of fame and celebrity, a riveting account of a highly complex man and a detailed exposition of the machinations at work in the music industry at large. Destined to be classic, ‘How Bizarre’ the book is not just for music fans, it is a ‘story for the ages’.

It’s Superman – The Superhero and Society

November 15, 2015

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Superman emerged in 1930’s USA. It was depression era and the nation was in crisis. On top of all the economic woes another threat loomed large, war. It was a decade of painful self-reflection, change and uncertainty, and as it has been since antiquity, in times of crisis the superhuman emerges to foster hope. He is a figure with god-like powers, a saviour who can restore order and right wrongs. In this circumstance, Superman is a survival response, a mental game that fosters hope, courage, fortitude and good conduct in hard times.

My first Superman was the 1950s TV serial version. By the time it made it way to me in the late 1960s it was already a relic from another era and looked shabby. George Reeves, a big corn fed guy dressed in ill-fitting cotton underpants, played an earnest and one-dimensional Superman before dying in mysterious circumstances in 1959.

Hollywoodland is a 2006 film that examines his last movements and speculates on the cause of his death. Ben Affleck ‘s Reeves is a simmering portrait of a man losing his grip, and while Affleck reminds us what a good actor he can be, a veil is lifted on the mythology of celebrity and fame, offering us a barbed glimpse into a world that appears prettier than it is.

(Other notable films about Hollywood and fame include Sunset Blvd. 1950, The Sweet Small of Success 1957, A Face in the Crowd 1957, Elmer Gantry 1960 and David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive).

 

My second Superman was the 1970s comic version. I didn’t like the comics enough to buy them myself, I was more inclined toward The Phantom: The Ghost Who Walks, but I enjoyed dipping into my cousin’s extensive collection them whenever I got the chance to visit them. This Superman was a nice but dull. His emotional life, bound to an endlessly circling three-way love affair, is limited, and like his war against injustice, dogged if uninspired.  It was all too ‘white bread’ for my tastes. This Superman had no depth; it was all smoke and mirrors.

Lois and Clarke is a TV series that dates from the early 1990s. Lois is sharply intelligent, ambitious and sassy and Clarke? Well, he’s just Clarke, earnest and reliable and hopelessly in love with Lois who, sadly for all involved, is so bedazzled Superman that Clarke may as well pack his bags and go home to Smallville. The result was an entertaining if uninspired romantic comedy.

The first live action Superman hit the big screen as a serial in the late 1940s and finally as a stand-alone film in 1951.  Superman and the Mole Men, starring the unfortunate George Reeves, is a forgettable low budget affair of middling proportions. It wasn’t until 1978 that the big screen version got its act together with the Christopher Reeve helmed Superman, a money tree that spawned three sequels and made Reeve into a huge star, albeit one destined for a fate little better than his predecessor and almost namesake, Reeves.

Since then, reboots have wooed audiences with a special effects driven circus and little else. The latest big screen Superman Henry Cavell is like his predecessor Brandon Routh handsome, heroic and painfully earnest this earnestness being Superman’s fatal flaw. It makes him a bit boring as a personality something you could never say about his counterpart Batman.

Smallville ran on TV from 2001-11 and is perhaps the first real attempt to add some emotional complexity to the subject. First and foremost Smallville is a soap opera, a drama about a group of people who find themselves connected by a series of circumstances that act as a catalyst for self-examination and personal growth. Smallville is also a morality play; one interested in love, desire, values, virtue and good conscience. Smallville offers us, for the first time, a wholly ‘human’ Superman, one who is dealing with life’s emotional complexities while trying to come to terms with the ‘strangeness’ of his existence.

It is no surprise to discover that writer Tom De Haven is also a fan of Smallville. His novel, ‘It’s Superman’, shares a similar emotional tone, and like the show, seeks to make the Superman legend more credible. In his quest, De Haven takes a scalpel to dodgy narrative and consigns the clichés to storage; the result is an absorbing and often thrilling narrative that leaves no stone unturned in its quest for authenticity.

De Haven’s Superman is as much about America as it is about anything, a celebration of all that is good about the nation and it’s people, but one that never flinches from the dark side of the American dream: a world of greed, racism, prejudice, fear and ignorance, the precise conditions required to instigate the re-emergence of the Superhuman saviour.

This American story, (with overtones of the Grapes of Wrath and Kerouac’s On the Road), begins, as always, in a small Kansas town, with an unusual boy and his kindly guardians.

Jonathan and Martha Kent are decent folk: fair, humble and honest with a strong moral compass; values they lovingly bestow upon their strange charge. Their purity of heart is the touchstone for the emerging man-god who is all at once frightened, bewildered and worryingly excited by the promise of his power.  The Kent’s remind us, that though America is flawed, it does posses conscience.

Photographer Willy Berg, (who replaces the half -baked Jimmy Olsen), has been falsely accused of murder and is running for his life when he stumbles into Smallville and Clarke. Berg is an ambitious artist with an eye for the chance. Sometimes he is self-serving sometimes he is selfless. His heart is innately good, his motivations complex. He represents America’s evolving cultural aspirations and desire to be a force for good in the world.

Lois Lane is ‘oh so sure of herself’, except when it comes to love. After a series of men she realises that she loved them but was not ‘in love with them’. She wrestles with her tempestuous nature and is confused by her own worst tendencies. She knows she more gifted than most and this both thrills and unsettles her. Lane is juxtaposition. Both confident and fearful, she represents the faltering steps of a nation entering its adulthood and coming to terms with its power, obligations and responsibilities

Lex Luthor is a subtly drawn portrait of a Psychopath. He schemes for reasons he does not understand; seeking something he knows not what. Craving power for its own sake, he represents the dark side of the American dream. He is ambitious intelligence gone awry, operating without regard, conscience or higher purpose.

Clarke is a young man enduring the trails of life while trying to remain true to his authentic self. Fortunately he has a robust temperament and a steady heart. Through Clarke, De Haven’s reminds us of the best of America.

America wants the world to share its dreams. Is it going to be Clarks or Luthor’s version?

In the closing act of De Haven’s ‘It’s Superman’, we find Louis taunting Clark with the words “Nicely Nicely.” “Oh look,” she cries, “It’s Clark Kent, Mr Nicely Nicely”………… “Oh look”, she splutters, “its Clark whose just so Nicely Nicely all the time.”That followed by a heavily barbed, Farm boy.” She is horrified by her behaviour but he just annoys her so much and worst part is, she doesn’t know why.

Does she love Clark? No, it can’t possibly be, she loves Superman. Clarke ponders his dilemma. If Lois cannot accept him as himself, then so be it. Instead, he will just love her and use that love as he once used the love of his parents/guardians- as a touchstone; one that keeps him centred and grounded, one that encourages him to seek out the best in himself, because, in Clarke’s mind, to love is to honour.

De Haven received a fistful of flack from critics who felt that his story had diminished Clarke by making him into a vulnerable and flawed figure haunted by the demons of inadequacy and uncertainty.

De Haven responded thus: “He is a young man who grew up in his time and his place and was educated according to the theories and with the tools of that context. (He went to Smallville High, not Phillips Exeter Academy, for crying out loud.) He worries that he’s not smart enough to do the things that he wants to do, feels he should do, but he manages to put aside, if never completely overcome, those feelings of inadequacy, and to me that’s heroic. Why would anyone think a 17-20 year old kid from a tiny farming town in eastern Kansas would move out into the greater world and immediately, instinctively believe he could compete with a big-city politician like Lex Luthor or engage in an easygoing man-to-man conversation with the President of the United States?”

It is precisely this kind of insight that makes ‘It’s Superman’ the fine experience it is. De Haven’s ‘It’s Superman’ is all at once a penetrating character study, a rollicking good yarn and a lovingly crafted portrait of America as it was. The best Superhero novel ever? I think it could well be, for me it least, it’s finally a Superman narrative I can take seriously.

 

The more literary end of the Superhero cannon is sparsely populated, and besides Its Superman, Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ and Michael Chabon’s, achingly beautiful, ‘The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay’, require a mention.

The latter, like’ It’s Superman’, is period specific story about a popular anti-fascist comic book superhero called ‘The Escapist’ the creation of two Jewish cousins. Powerless but for their creation, they use the Escapist to wage an allegorical war against Hitler on behalf of the suffering Jews of Europe. Like ‘It’s Superman’, this book is also about America,- it’s dreams, hopes, ambitions and dark realities. I listened to it straight after finishing De Haven’s tome and couldn’t have made a better choice.

Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’, another book centred on the American dream, is about ideas and believing in them, in other words, it’s a story about faith and all that faith means. This battle for ‘hearts and minds’ is played out on a metaphysical landscape populated by superhuman’s who, while possessing great and unusual powers, exist only as a manifestation of human faith. This is a darkly comic drama that seeks to examine, in part, America’s obsessions with media and celebrity.

Another superhuman narrative worth mentioning is Robert Silverberg’s ‘Gilgamesh The King’, a retelling of the Gilgamesh Saga, a Mesopotamian poem that dates back some four thousand years.

Gilgamesh is the oppressive ruler of the long-suffering people of Uruk. The gods respond to the people’s pleas for emancipation by creating an equal to Gilgamesh, a figure imbued with the best of human qualities. Enkidu is made  from saliva and clay and through a series of adventures, teaches Gilgamesh how to be a good king and how to live a good and virtuous life.

Silverberg: “At all times I have attempted to interpret the fanciful and fantastic events of these poems in a realistic way, that is, to tell the story of Gilgamesh as though he were writing his own memoirs, and to that end I have introduced many interpretations of my own devising which for better or for worse are in no way to be ascribed to the scholars.”

This is a risky strategy, but one that works. Gilgamesh the King is both an inspiring and prescient story about good conduct and an entertaining history lesson to boot.

 

The Superhero cannon is populated by a cast of characters that include Jesus, the Golem, (hewn from clay by a Czech Rabbi to protect his people from anti-Semitic genocide), Batman, Captain America, The Phantom, Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel- just a few of the many names on a list that stretches back into deep antiquity.

The latest superhero on the horizon is artificial intelligence, a life form hewn by from the substance of the earth, much like The Golem and Enkidu, and set free to improve the human condition, but, as science fiction so artfully reminds us, things can go wrong when great power is unleashed, and the power of the self-aware computer could just as easily be a force for the bad as a force for the good. But along with the apocalyptic ‘Terminator’, the dystopian Blade Runner and the misbehaving HAL from Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, there is another story at play, one imbued with conscience, ideas, hope and optimism.

Spielberg’s ‘A.I.’ is a great masterpiece of the genre and asks us, that like Spanish film ‘Eva’, to consider the ethical implications of artificial intelligence.

‘Bicentennial Man’ introduces some important ideas, notably Isaac Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics. The 3 Laws seek to find a creed by which humans and robots can co-exist:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The movie is easily dismissed, but behind the all the sugar coating is something of startling depth that is offering us a positive glimpse of the future.

Otherwise there is the ‘Matrix’: the machines we have created have enslave Humanity but there is hope, whispers of an ‘adorned one’ who will arise and save us. In this case his name is Neo.

At the end of the day, Superhuman story is a warm safe place where the stressed psyche can escape to for healing, guidance and comfort. It is an ever-relevant morality fable that for some, is as import to emotional well being as the god figure is to others. Long they continue, in all their varied glories and conditions, to ‘leap tall building is a single bound’- in service of the weak, oppressed and those suffering the slings and arrows of unrequited love.