How Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer helped make NZ feel less isolated

Hi all, just a quick linkpost today – let me turn your attention to a review/essay sort of thing I wrote over at Radio New Zealand during this crazy week: Finding a community in isolation.

As I wrote last post, Amanda Palmer has been touring New Zealand, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic played havoc with the end of her tour. She wrapped it up in style, though, with a livestream “ninja concert” Monday in Wellington featuring special guest star Neil Gaiman, puppets and more. I wrote about watching it and how we can all maybe find new kinds of communities until this weirdness passes. Amanda herself had a very kind word or two to say about it on her various platforms as she and Neil prepare to bunk down in NZ for a while.

Go read it. And I’ll just note one last thing, it’s pretty darned cool to have one of my literary idols Neil Gaiman retweet a tweet from his wife praising an article that I wrote. If it’s all gonna crash down soon, it’s not a bad way to go out.

Review: Amanda Palmer and staying sane in insane times

…So this week has been one hell of a year, hasn’t it? There’s a growing sense of madness and uncertainty and are-we-all-living-in-a-Mad-Max-prequel vibe. The perpetual hysteria of the internet doesn’t help, and honestly, often feels like it’s making it all worse. Who knows what’s going to happen next?

So after an endless cascade of bad news, yesterday seemed like a good night for a four-hour intensely emotional concert with hundreds of other people.

I went to the fourth-from-last show of Amanda Palmer’s epic “There Will Be No Intermission” world tour last night, despite the voices in my head saying that a sold-out show was kind of a scary place to be after a day full of headlines about mass contagion. 

But in the end, I went, because over and over again in my life when things have gone to shit, art is what lifts me out of the ditch. 

I know Amanda Palmer is an acquired taste for some folks. She’s intense, oversharing and excessive; she’s made some controversial statements. She’s also quite funny, captivating and honest to her core, I think. I like her because she’s brave, the reincarnation of every dazzling theatre girl I ever dug. You can call her “punk cabaret,” “folk-rant,” whatever you like. 

For “There Will Be No Intermission,” she’s crafted a hardcore show – yes, four hours! – that combines lengthy “stand-up tragedy” monologues about love, “radical compassion”, life and death with piano-pounding selections from her career. She cites the touchstones of Nick Cave, Nanette Gadsby, and others, but Palmer makes the night uniquely her own style. 

It’s intense stuff – Palmer talks candidly about her sexual life and in particular her three abortions in riveting detail. It’s the kind of frankness you rarely see in a public figure and while it’s sometimes unforgettably hard to listen to, Amanda also pulls out as much black humour as she can. I mean, this is a woman who wrote a song called “A Mother’s Confession” that features a chorus of “but at least the baby didn’t die.” An expert storyteller, she knows exactly how far to take the audience before dispelling tension with a bit of wit. 

An artist’s job, she said, “is to go into the dark, and make light.” 

It all wrapped up in an explosively cathartic, hilarious yet heartfelt rendition of “Let It Go” from Frozen, disco ball glittering light shadows through the audience, and we finished the night wrung-out and worn out, but you know, it felt good. Palmer got two standing ovations, and while the dramas and fears of the world outside never entirely left the room, for a few hours, they receded a bit. 

One of the appeals of Palmer’s music and ethos is that intense sense of community, and right now when the very idea of community is kind of freaking everybody out, it’s good to know there are other people like you out there, even if you’re just seeing them from afar in your own form of self-isolation. 

I don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. But I’ll try to make light, because it beats the alternative. 

And it’s just a ride / It’s just a ride

And you’ve got the choice to get off anytime that you like

It’s just a ride

It’s just a ride

The alternative’s nothingness / Might as well give it a try

(-“The Ride” by Amanda Palmer) 

Nick Lowe and the power of pop to save you

Blue on blue  / I’ve got a message in a song for you 

There’s a song in my head, and it keeps going around.

1. NICK LOWE

In my mind / I’m on the end of a ball of twine 

I saw Nick Lowe and his backing band Los Straitjackets earlier this week at The Powerstation in Auckland. It was a terrific power-pop crooner night out.

Nick Lowe isn’t quite a household name, but he should be. He’s a music geek’s musician, who’s written some fantastic earworms over a 50-year career. “Cruel To Be Kind,” “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass” – all Lowe’s work. He also produced Elvis Costello’s first five albums, a streak of genius rarely matched in music history, and The Damned’s debut. He was even Johnny Cash’s son-in-law for a while.

Lowe’s songs are cutting yet warm, a gentler reflection of Elvis Costello perhaps. With Los Straitjackets (a Mexican wrestling mask-wearing surf guitar instrumental rock band, and yes, that’s as awesome as it sounds), it was one heck of a good show.

And there was that one song.

2. BAD THOUGHTS

Blue on blue  / How has it come to this 

It’s harder to control things lately. The 2010s sucked in a lot of ways, with death, professional turmoil, sickness and disillusionment, and the ever tick-tocking drumbeat of time passing. To cap it all off I had a life-threatening health crisis almost exactly two years ago, which left me taking pills for the rest of my life and feeling diminished.

I know by any normal metric, I’m an incredibly lucky guy. My problems are nowhere near as bad as a lot of other people. Intellectually, I know that. But the problem is that somewhere inside me it feels like a regulator broke down a while back, and it’s harder to take control of how I feel sometimes. That I’m at the mercy of chemicals or biology or some angry cloud. That’s when everything is blue. Or black. 

3. POWER OF POP

I can’t sleep/ For all the promises you don’t keep/ I wanna run but I’m in too deep

Lowe’s set was terrific, engaging and fun, but there was one song that just hit me much harder than anything else. It’s a song in my head, and it keeps going around. 

“Blue On Blue” is the name, from the EP Love Starvation. It’s a simple, elegant little ode to love lost, and yet for some reason, in the way a song does, it stopped time a little bit for me. Inches from the speakers, front of the club, I felt like Nick Lowe was singing it only to me. Just a guitar, a spotlight, a 70-year-old man with white hair and a song. 

It’s not even a song about depression. It’s a romantic ballad, about not being able to leave her behind, and the pain that lingers. It’s a beautiful little song, and at one point as Lowe’s backing band dropped out and he sang a verse alone, the crowd silent, it felt like the power of pop sliding into my veins. Slightly sad songs have always made me feel things more than others. That’s why power pop is kind of beautiful, because the great bands like Big Star and Badfinger and Teenage Fanclub and Cheap Trick and Nick Lowe all master the art of pretty, glittering songs that are still kind of sweetly melancholy in their cores. 

Everyone’s blue sometimes. 

Sometimes a song doesn’t mean what it means. How a song gets to me doesn’t mean it’ll get to you.

Everyone has those tunes that stick in their mind, glued to a place, a time, a person. Peter Gabriel’s “Solisbury Hill” is about my graduating high school in California and moving to the other side of the country. Sebadoh’s “Ocean” is about the girl who got away. The Bangles’ “Different Light” will always be the soundtrack to my first kiss. Lou Reed’s “Magic And Loss” is about pushing through the darkness. Freedy Johnston’s “The Lucky One” is about taking a chance and changing your life. 

And for some reason, that night at the club, Nick Lowe’s “Blue On Blue” felt like a reminder that a song can be the best medicine. 

It’s the power of pop, of a song to get to you. Blue on blue is how I feel sometimes, pushing through. 

There’ll always be songs. 

Year in Review: My top 12 pop-culture moments of 2019

It’s 2020, and I’m still getting used to that fact. While I’m recovering from three weeks in California and a return to New Zealand summer, let’s hit my 12 favourite pop-culture moments of 2019!

* It’s an obvious pick, but … Avengers: Endgame, Captain America and that hammer. Marvel fanboy bliss in a movie full of great moments and the culmination of an act of movie world-building this comic book geek couldn’t have imagined possible back in 1984. 

* Exploring the bizarre world of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag with his novels The Scar and The Iron Council. Superb reads and a doorway to exploring the whole remarkable “new weird” genre for me (latest obsession, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Area X trilogy).  

* Accepting middle-aged manhood with a newfound appreciation for jazz and sax men, mainlining Miles Davis and Coltrane riffs, and catching an awesome Auckland show by Kamasi WashingtonThe wails of a saxophone soothes the savage breast of a middle-aged dude.

* The Chills are some of the greatest pop musicians New Zealand has ever spawned, and a fantastic documentary on the ups and downs of their mastermind Martin Philipps is a great look at their career. Seeing it at a special showing with Philipps himself in attendance and singing a few songs was fantastic. More reading: Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

* The Hulk can be anything, and Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk continues to be the best comic book Marvel’s done in ages, combining horror, heroics and awe as we discover there’s life galore in the gamma giant yet. This is the only entry to repeat from last year’s list, which tells you how good it is. 

* Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a cinema for the first time in years on Halloween night in a benefit hosted by creator, songwriter and actor Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien. Go-go dancers, flying toilet paper and profanity, spooky, hilarious fun and sweet transvestites galore. 

* The Mandalorian and finally seeing an IG droid do its thing nearly 40 years after The Empire Strikes Back. I can’t tell you how geeked out IG-11 made me feel. More reading: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years.

* Rediscovering Akira Kurosawa. Even though I love Seven Samurai, Ikuru and the Yojimbo series, my knowledge of Kurosawa’s deeper filmography has been sadly lacking, until now. High And Low, Stray Dog, Red Beard, The Bad Sleep Well and so much more are like full-course meals for the head and heart. 

* Volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe for a third season this year and, particularly, seeing their fine version of Hamlet at least 8 or 9 times, each time the performances and bottomless wisdom of the play getting deeper and deeper for me. More reading: Hamlet, the play that never ends 

* Superheroes are everywhere, and it’s impossible to see every movie and TV show, but a real highlight this year was DC’s quirky, foul-mouthed Doom Patrol series, which captured the surrealism and horror of Grant Morrison’s epic run nicely. More reading: It’s the end of the world and I like it

* Bong Joon-Ho’s astounding Parasite and those stairs. Best movie of the year in a year with a whole lot of great movies? I have to suspect it is. 

* The opening of the heartfelt and gorgeous Tongan/New Zealand documentary For My Father’s Kingdom at the NZ International Film Festival, in a colourful gala packed with Tongan spirit, music and pride. Tongans are among my favourite of New Zealand’s rich tapestry of diversity, and in a year that also brought us the horror of the Christchurch attacks, this night at the movies was an inspiration of what this country is really all about. It was a privilege to witness this. More reading: Film festivals are the best-ivals

Next time, I’ll get negative with a look back at a few cultural lowlights of 2019! 

I can’t stand it, I know you planned it: My top 25 albums of 1994

Everyone’s favourite year in music is probably the music of their youth, but come on, people – objectively speaking 1994 was one hell of a year for popular music. 

It was 25 years ago now, and I can slap together a list from memory easily of 25 fantastic albums from ’94 that I still listen to regularly. 

1994 was a crazy, buzzing year in my memory – graduated university, grabbed my first job at an actual newspaper, fell in and out of love a bit, and spent a hurly-burly summer working as an intern at Billboard magazine in New York City, surrounded by and swimming in the music of the times. Some of the music I discovered that summer – Guided By Voices, Freedy Johnston – still grab me today. Others were just in the air, like Nirvana or Green Day. 

Yes, this list is a bit white, alternative and male, but to be fair that’s what I was listening to in 1994. It’s the songs that stick with me a quarter of a century on, a soundtrack to a year I’ll never forget. My top 25 albums of 1994, in alphabetical order: 

1. Tori Amos, Under The Pink: One woman wearing her heart on her sleeve, confessing everything, afraid of nothing. 

2. Bad Religion, Stranger Than Fiction: Punk unafraid to preach, and soaring with erudite anger at the state of the world. 

3. Barenaked Ladies, Maybe You Should Drive: Their open-hearted power pop swung between sentimental and wordy, and here they hit the perfect balance. 

4. Beastie Boys, Ill Communication: It still seems wrong that the Beastie Boys are over now, but we’ll always have “Sabotage.” 

5. Beck, Mellow Gold: “Loser” was everywhere, but this is overall a fundamentally weird, ramshackle record, ambling along to its own strange beat. 

6. Blur, Parklife: Is “sassy” the right word here? Britpop’s finest hour IMHO, swinging and smart and cynical. 

7. Johnny Cash, American Recordings: A giant takes the stage for a valedictory round that very nearly surpassed all he’d done before. 

8. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Let Love In:  A noir tale of a tall handsome man, in a dusty black coat with a red right hand.

9. Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Brutal Youth: A burst of venom and flame from someone who’s not quite an angry young man any more, an overlooked and underappreciated gem. 

10. Green Day, Dookie: Pop-punk propelled along at 1000 miles an hour, ephemeral and yet unforgettable. 

11. The Grifters, Crappin’ You Negative: Rusty grunge from deep in the heart of Memphis, a hidden gem I wore out on road trips through Mississippi in the summer of ’94. 

12. Guided By Voices, Bee Thousand: Glittering shards of surreal power pop, hit records from another dimension – it hooked me on GbV for life.

13. Hole, Live Through This: Subtract all the Courtney Love baggage you might have – this album is still one fierce wound of a record.

14. Freedy Johnston, This Perfect World: Heartbreakingly gorgeous, wistful songwriting by a guy who should’ve been huge. 

15. Nine Inch Nails, The Downwards Spiral: The sound of not knowing, and screaming in the dark. 

16. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged In New York: A curtain call, a last bow, what might have been, what never was.

17. Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: Unfolding like songwriting origami, nuggets of obscure beauty – go back to those gold soundz, and keep my advent to yourself. 

18. Pulp Fiction Soundtrack: Music curation is an art form, and Tarantino’s never done it better than this perfect mix tape. 

19. Tom Petty, Wildflowers: You belong among the wildflowers; the late Petty’s greatest album, contemplative and gorgeous and at peace. 

20. REM, Monster: Fuzzed-out and distorted, REM at their peak of fame, and their still strangely askew, enigmatic run of hits. 

21. Soundgarden, Superunknown: IMHO, Pearl Jam’s stuff hasn’t really endured that well; Soundgarden’s angst-filled grunge has. 

22. Velocity Girl, ¡Simpatico!: Effortlessly charming, sunny grunge-pop, well worth seeking out. 

23. Velvet Crush, Teenage Symphonies To God: Power pop with a ‘90s sheen, sweet harmonies and teenage kicks. 

24. Weezer, The Blue Album: One of the great power-pop debuts of all time; I hear it makes you feel just like Buddy Holly. 

25. Neil Young, Sleeps With Angels: Of the approximately 457 albums Neil Young has released, this one has the beauty of a dusty abandoned saloon falling apart somewhere way out in the wild west. 

Bubbling just under: Sugar, File: Under Easy Listening; Outkast, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik; Sebadoh, Bakesale; Veruca Salt, American Thighs; Portishead, Dummy; Meat Puppets, Too High To Die; Youssou N’Dour, The Guide (Wommat); Frank Black, Teenager of the Year; Alice In Chains, Jar of Flies. 

The Kinks, the Australian Outback, a memory, a dream

I’m roaring through the Australian Outback, more than 100km/h, past red dirt and yellow grass and under blue skies, and I’m listening to the Kinks. 

Every day I look at the world from my window – Waterloo Sunset, The Kink

I’d always wanted to go to the Red Centre, the wide-open Outback sung about in songs by Midnight Oil and ancient, enigmatic and empty. I went a few years back to Alice Springs, isolated and strange, and Uluru, the massive sandstone monolith hunched right at the heart of the old country. 

There was no internet, and a few CDs I’d grabbed in Sydney in my rental car for the 4-hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru. One of them was the Kinks’ Something Else, their fifth album, from 1967. 

Uluru stands out alone in the middle of a vast plain of red dirt, a giant unopened eye half-peering over the horizon, expanding in your car windshield from a distant hill to a  towering monolith, all the more impressive for its isolation. 

This is my street and I’m never gonna to leave it / And I’m always gonna to stay here if I live to be ninety-nine – Autumn Almanac, The Kinks

The Kinks are a band that grows on me more and more the older I get. Perhaps it’s because of all the big ‘60s bands, The Kinks are the ones who seemed middle-aged even when they were young. Oh, they were hell raisers, don’t get me wrong, but Ray Davies’ lyrics always looked inward, introspectively. They were nostalgic for a world that’s never been. Ray Davies’ world view always seemed perpetually middle-aged. 

Time is as fast as the slowest thing – Wonderboy, The Kinks

The Beatles looked back at the past either with droll mockery (“For The Benefit of Mr. Kite”) or soul-baring pathos (“Eleanor Rigby”). The Stones generally only looked back at things that involved them getting laid. The Who looked back, with anger. 

But The Kinks often looked back with rose-coloured glasses, with wistful thoughts of the way things used to be, or should’ve been. “Waterloo Sunset,” “Death of A Clown,” “Victoria,” “Celluloid Heroes,” “The Village Green Preservation Society.” 

I miss the village green, And all the simple people. – The Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks

The Australian Outback humbles you. It’s vast, sprawling, primordial and raw. It’s the oldest place I’ve ever been. Hiking through 40C+ heat, desert black flies pickpecking away at all your exposed flesh, the world reduced to prime colours – red, blue, brown blending into yellow. You feel a weight. You feel history, and the weight of something that’s been around way longer than you, or anybody you’ve ever known. 

Nobody has to be any better than what they want to be – Australia, The Kinks

The Kinks felt a weight too, even if they would never articulate it precisely as that. It’s the weight of what might’ve been, what was, what could never be. Sometimes music and a place blend together in your mind, and you can’t separate the two in your memory. 

The Outback is an old, old place, older than just about anywhere else, and Ray Davies sings for me. 

As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise.

I’m Gen-X, and all my rock heroes are dying

Somewhere in the last few years, my music collection began to contain more dead people than live people.

It’s been a grim decade for my tastes. Bowie. Prince. Cohen. Tom Petty. Aretha. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. Lou Reed. Scott Walker. Just in the past few weeks alone, Daniel Johnston, Eddie Money and Ric Ocasek all took the last train from the station. 

When both The Cars’ Ric Ocasek and Eddie Money died within a few days of each other recently, it felt like another thudding harsh reminder that my cassette-filled, Atari-drenched ‘80s childhood was in fact more than 35 years ago now. That the towering pop stars of my youth were now becoming old men. 

Eddie Money, portrait of an ’80s rock schlub.

Eddie Money’s delightfully overwrought 1986 hit “Take Me Home Tonight” is the sound of your 14-year-old author, jittering with hormones and intensity, in unrequited love with a girl with spray-gelled hair dancing with her friends on the other side of the junior high school gym. I’ve never actually owned an Eddie Money album, but Eddie Money was part of the ‘80s DNA, in that same endearingly awkward rock crowd that included Billy Joel and Huey Lewis. You absorbed their hits, maybe you hated them, maybe you loved them, but 35 years on, they’re the sound of your youth.

And The Cars were always cool and gawky, all at the same time, which is the best possible way to be. Ric Ocasek did not look like David Lee Roth; he looked like a guy in the shadows at the coffee shop reading a beat-up William Burroughs book. The Cars crafted perfect little new wave power pop gems that always sounded vaguely spooked by something far outside their control. 

I know they say rock ’n’ roll is a young man’s game, for young people by young people, but for some reason most of the musicians I’ve dug have always been older than me. Being a Gen-X music fan often meant digging artists a decade or more older than you were. Bowie was already in his 30s when he became a superstar in the “Let’s Dance” era. Someone like Bruce Springsteen or Phil Collins always seemed like an adult. Morrissey, The Clash, The Cure – they were all at least 10 years older than teens in the 1980s. 

All the rock stars who defined the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s are entering their 60s and 70s now. We’ll continue to see a slow drip of rock star deaths for years to come, and every one of them will make some of us feel a bit more mortal ourselves. 

One morbid thing about living in New Zealand is that if a “legacy” act comes here, you jump on it, because it might be the last time they ever come down this way. I saw Mick Jagger strut like a golden god with the Stones in 2014, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I didn’t get to what turned out to be Leonard Cohen’s last concert, ever, anywhere, right here in Auckland in 2013, and I’m kicking myself forever. 

Watching the stars who peopled your teenage dreams grow old and fade away is a striking reminder that it’s happening to you, too. I’m afraid my musical tastes have become even more calcified with age, and I’m far more likely to listen to a Ramones album or the Kinks than I am a Tekashi 6ix9ine. 

On disc or stream or vinyl, they’re all still young. They’re still there, forever young, no matter how many years pass or obits roll. To quote The Cars, “Uh oh, it’s magic, when I’m with you.”