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.” 

Review: Aldous Harding, The Powerstation, August 31, Auckland

IMG_6778It takes a lot to shush up an Auckland Saturday night crowd with a single look. But Aldous Harding was able to do that with a mere glance at the sold-out Powerstation gig celebrating our home-grown songwriter’s success.

Harding is one of the more unique voices sprouting from New Zealand’s fertile music scene these last few years. At just 29, she’s crafting the kind of edgy crossover career that wins lifelong fans while never sounding like anything other than herself. She’s mysterious and strange, sometimes sounding like an alien come down to earth, with a voice that moves from angelic highs to booming lows with ease, and song lyrics that defy easy interpretation. There’s hints of Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush in her work, but it’s all dipped in an antipodean magic all its own. Her “Horizon” is one my favourite singles of the last few years, and her latest album “Designer” is one of 2019’s best. 

Dressed something like an extra in a 1990s Beastie Boys video, Harding took the stage alone, with a single guitar, and rather daringly played two of her most hushed, intimate numbers at the very start of the show. The crowd at the bar shushed; you couldn’t even hear glasses jingle, nothing but Harding’s chameleon voice echoing around the Powerstation. It was a masterful entrance by a performer who already clearly knows how to hold attention, and when the slower songs gave way to the full band joining her on the joyously bouncy “Designer,” it was a powerful burst of catharsis and exhaled breaths. 

Harding has developed a reputation for her striking performance style, sometimes gurning and contorting her features in confrontational ways. She was less trippy last night than some of her performances I’ve seen, but she still has a gift for upsetting audience expectations with an unexpected twist of her lips, roll of her eyes, or a kabuki-like set of gestures.  The show moved between quieter numbers and ecstatic jigs by her excellent band – there’s definitely a more pop sensibility in the songs of “Designer,” and a song like “The Barrel” is an anthem that still remains distinctly its own thing, with lyrics like “The wave of love is a transient hunt / Water’s the shell and we are the nut” rattling around your brain. 

IMG_6758I’ve been to shows at the Powerstation before for similarly stark, intimate shows and left annoyed by the singer being overwhelmed by the crash of beer bottles and the yammering of the audience. That wasn’t a problem tonight. On a cold August night, Harding felt like the hottest thing in town, something new and old at the same time blooming with an energy all its own. She closed with a magnificent, aching cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down The Line” and terrific new song, “Old Peel,” that left me with no doubt about her future. 

She wasn’t much for banter, but she gave us a glimpse of her self as she sighed with a tight smile at the encore, “What a life, eh?” Whatever strange roads Aldous Harding takes to in the future, I’ll be there. 

The Elvis Presley behind the jokes

elvisSometime in the next few months, Elvis Presley will have been dead longer than he’s been alive. 

It’s 42 years today since Elvis died at age 42 in 1977, and it took a long time for me to take him seriously. For most of us Gen-Xers, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll who died fat and a parody of himself was a joke. It took me years to see that there’s a thousand different Elvises. 

I was a California kid, but I lived in Elvis’ backyard for much of the 1990s, just outside Memphis and just an hour down the road from his birthplace of Tupelo. I wanted to work at Graceland for a summer job, but I couldn’t beat the competition. I fell in love with a girl from Tupelo. I slowly found the King behind the jokes. 

There’s at least four eras of Elvis proper – the young fiery prodigy, captured best in the haunting Sun Records recordings that still amaze today; the post-Army burnout whose talents were wasted for years in movies and cheesy soundtracks; the black leather-clad colossus who stormed his way to a ’68 comeback, and who then melted into the sad sweaty mess of his final years. 

When a legendary person dies, they slowly transform into myth. There’s a Shakespearean heft to the Presley story, a boy from nowhere who conquered the world. Elvis becomes a trailblazing comet or a paunchy punchline, a star of endless daffy movies, a boy who mourned his mother, a kung-fu kicking drug case who once pestered his way in to see Richard Nixon. 

I like the “Comeback Elvis” years the best, from that stunning 1968 TV Special on to the early ‘70s. At his best, he’s like a lone gunslinger bashing through the saloon doors, reminding all the young guns why he mattered. It’s the height before the fall. He’s got the years to give him authority, but he’s still young enough to prowl like a tiger in that insane leather jumpsuit. There’s a horrible trail of wasted possibilities in the Elvis story, which you can lay at the feet of his drug problem, his emotional immaturity, or the terrible mismanagement by the Colonel, who never really understood the power of Elvis. The story is Elvis is a story of lost dreams. 

Imagine if a 60-something Elvis had gone on to have a Johnny Cash-style latter years revival, if he’d just taken a stage with a guitar and a song and captured something of the haunting echoes of the Sun Studios years. 

One of my favourite Elvis songs is “Hurt,” (not the Nine Inch Nails/Johnny Cash version, of course) which he covered just a year before he died. I used to listen to it with a jaded, ironic eye, because Elvis sings the HELL out of this song, murdering it with an unrestrained abandon that teeters right on the edge of parody. But listen to it, man. Listen to the voice breaking as the song launches into the stratosphere, listen to the way his voice dips deep into the canyons as he sings how he’s hurt “way deep inside of me.” He’s singing about a lot more kinds of hurt than just being dumped. This is Elvis in his autumn, looking back at his highs and lows. 

It’s easy to see a punchline in the thousands and thousands of different Elvises the world has seen in the last 42 years. But deep inside the best of his songs, whether it’s the slow burn of “Mystery Train” or the unrestrained operatic bombast of “Hurt,” the real king still awaits. 

Just can’t get enough: Depeche Mode, I just can’t quit you

depeche-modeIf I ever was to bottle the essence of my late teenage angst circa ages 16-20, it would smell a lot like Depeche Mode.

Of all the ‘80s alternative icons I revisit in my dotage, there’s few  more evocative than Depeche Mode. There’s a grandiose charm to Depeche Mode’s work. It’s the kind of twisted pleasure you sometimes get from being alone in your room, miserable, but yet you don’t really want to be anywhere else. 

The Cure were dark, Joy Division were doomed, but the spice that Depeche Mode has comes from Dave Gahan’s sonorous voice, a bombastic prophet who makes everything he sings seem like the most important words anyone’s ever had to say. His Las Vegas-style showmanship isn’t subtle, but combined with the ever-inward songwriting of Martin Gore and the epic swirling keyboards of Alan Wilder, it made for a combination of gloom-pop you could dance to. Doubt and fear never seemed so glamorous. As Gahan sang on on 2005’s “Lillian,” “Pain and misery always hit the spot.” That’s Depeche Mode in a nutshell. 

One of my bigger teenage regrets was not seeing Depeche Mode on their ‘101’ tour when it passed through Sacramento. It would’ve been a great first concert for teenage me; instead I saw synth-popster Howard Jones, whose keyboards malfunctioned and he swore dramatically at them. 

1990’s “Violator,” released just shy of 30 years ago now, was peak Depeche Mode. The deeply layered woe-is-me “Enjoy The Silence” was everybody’s go-to misery pop anthem. “Personal Jesus” a swinging display of nonconformity. “World In My Eyes” and “Waiting For The Night” the kind of hushed dark romantic murmurings a black-clad teen wished he could dedicate to someone, anyone. 

I got obsessive enough that I was the guy that bought the cassingle of “Personal Jesus” featuring no less than five loping, thumping versions of their hit single, carefully analysing each piece on a quantum scale of misery.

ftcms-ef2870f2-15b1-11e9-a168-d45595ad076dDepeche Mode can roughly be broken up into three periods – their lighter “synth pop” phase of the first couple albums, when Erasure’s Vince Clarke was in the band, the “imperial phase” running from roughly “Construction Time Again” to “Ultra” when they pretty much ruled the proto-emo world, and the more muted, less omnipresent latter Mode, after Alan Wilder left the band, which continues pretty much to this day.

You know what you’re getting with Depeche Mode – dark, glittery midnight music that casts pretty much every decision in one’s life as an epic battle for the soul. It can wear thin – which is why their records post-1997 or so haven’t gotten as much traction – but even the least of Depeche Mode’s albums still has one fist-pumpingly bleak anthem to moan along to. I spin “Violator” yet again and it still transports me to their stark world. After that, words are very unnecessary.

When Bob Dylan was the greatest rock star in America

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I’ve seen Bob Dylan four or five times, but it’s mostly been when he’s been in his 60s and 70s. 

Dylan can be inconsistent as a live performer – at one show every lyric sounded like “muzza muzza BUZZA muzza” and on another, he was an elegant elder statesman who even SMILED at one point. 

But there was a point where Dylan was a blazing fireball on stage, during his mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. It’s the subject of a new documentary by Martin Scorsese, and it’s must watching for anyone who thinks Dylan couldn’t sizzle live on stage. The man was fierce. 

In 1975, Dylan hadn’t really toured since his late ‘60s motorcycle accident. He put together a kind of travelling show featuring guests like Joan Baez, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg and more to play smaller, intimate venues. The Rolling Thunder Revue had a theatrical bent – Dylan painted his face white, like a kabuki performer, and added touches like a dazzling electric violinist to his songs. There was a freewheeling electricity to the atmosphere. 

He’s performed thousands of shows over more than 50 years, but I’d argue that for the 50 or so shows of Rolling Thunder, Dylan was never better. Scorsese’s documentary shows him commanding the stage, stalking, staring and singing like his life depends on it. There’s no mumbling here.  He spits every syllable of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with a power that makes this account of a racist murder a harrowing listen. Chestnuts like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” or “Blowin’ In The Wind” seem revitalised. Then-current songs like “Isis” and “Hurricane” rage when he performs them. 

Clear-eyed and potent, there’s a fierceness to Dylan’s presence that’s remarkable to watch. Sparks fly off him when he enters a room, not in a showy David Bowie or Mick Jagger way, but in a concentrated, smouldering focus. He combines the intensity of young folkie Dylan with the more grizzled maturity of someone in their mid-thirties, and it lends his songs new power. 

“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” is a great movie, and fitting with Dylan’s mystique there’s a bit of flirting with fiction and masks (let’s just say some of the people interviewed are not what they seem). But in the end it’s a celebration of one of Dylan’s most fertile periods and a reminder that one of the greatest songwriters of all time could throw down with the best of them when he wanted. 

Movies I’ve Never Seen #1: ‘Head’, or how the Monkees blew themselves up

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It took me a little while to warm up to The Monkees. 

They were the pre-fab, ‘reality TV’ Beatles, or so I thought. But eventually, I cottoned on to their easygoing talents, the goofy charms of the TV show, and some of the most ingratiating pop nuggets of all time. 

I’ve seen what’s left of The Monkees twice in the past few years – in 2016, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork did a terrific Monkees revue here in Auckland, and last weekend, Dolenz and the only other surviving Monkee Mike Nesmith took one last turn through town for another nostalgic blast. (Peter Tork died this past February, sadly.) The 2019 show was good fun, although hampered by muddy sound and the ageing limitations of the surviving band (the 2016 show was a lot more energetic, to be honest). I was still really glad to see Nesmith, 76, who’s been in ailing health, because he’s one of the great unsung songwriters of our time. 

movie-poster-for-the-film-head-starring-the-monkeesI’ve seen three of the Monkees live now, and I’m happy to have done so. But there was one last Monkee fan hurdle for me to cross: Their mysterious, controversial 1968 movie “Head,” which is either their finest moment or their nadir, depending on who you ask. 

I’d never seen it until this week. I expected a dated hippie mess. I had no idea it was a dazzling comic horror movie that would fill me with existential dread. 

“Head” is a strange, groundbreaking film that assumes you know who the madcap Monkees are, and then proceeds to tear the ground out from under you. There’s not much of a plot – the movie apes the surreal skit humour of the TV series, but with a jarringly nasty edge. You know you’re not in kiddieville anymore when a song featuring shots of screaming female fans cross-cuts into the infamous images from the execution of a Viet Cong officer – it’s like a Backstreet Boys video suddenly morphing into a Marilyn Manson joint. 

I’ve generally a low tolerance for psychedelic storytelling, which tends to really only work if you’re stoned yourself, but the Jack Nicholson script (yes – THAT Jack Nicholson) to “Head” never gets too completely up its own navel to become incoherent. Despite its scattershot approach, “Head” is about a fictional famous band who are trapped on a treadmill of fame in a world they can’t escape. “Head” frequently breaks the fourth wall to show the sets and cameras the Monkees are forced to perform on, but it never gives us the possibility of escape. It’s “meta” before anyone really even knew what that meant. The movie even rewrites the famous theme song:

maxresdefaultHey, hey, we are The Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image / With no philosophies. 

In a world where “Love Island,” “Married At First Sight” and their ilk have overwhelmed commercial TV, it’s still a cutting little blade of a film. It’s a movie that begins with Micky Dolenz’s apparent suicide and ends with the screaming Monkees being stuffed into a featureless black box and driving away into unknown horrors, forced to perform endlessly in a never-ending hell, a scene that is as dark as any ending from a David Lynch film. (Twin Peaks, meet The Monkees!) I can’t imagine how a teenybopper fan of the band would’ve reacted to it in 1968. 

“Head” is weird, funny and fragmented, but it’s also a stunning little rebuttal to the goofy hijinks of the Monkees TV series and a warped meditation on the fame machine. It’s a miracle it ever got made, and it’s no surprise it sank like a stone at the box office, who expected “A Hard Day’s Night” and got something like a Monkees Apocalypse Now. More than 50 years on, it’s a stone cold trip. 

On seeing Prince, two months before he died

1*SOvl-KNc5_L7sZWZiDB7QwPrince would’ve turned 61 today. I saw him for the first and only time just two months before he died in 2016. I wrote this back then, the morning Prince died, mostly for myself:

Dig if you will, a picture.

Prince. The first time I heard him I was 13 or so and he sounded like an alien. “When Doves Cry” slithered out of the FM radio like nothing else out there, the words “animals they strike curious poses” unlocking something deep in my brain.

Thirty years later he played maybe 10 metres in front of me, and he didn’t seem to have aged a day. Prince would live forever.

He took the stage at Auckland’s ASB Theatre for the early show on that balmy February night with a showman’s swagger, orchestral music swelling up and swelling up for long minutes before, with a crash and a flash of light, Prince’s distinctive afro-topped silhouette popped up before the crowd, twice as tall as the real man.

Two months later he’d be gone, and that doesn’t seem possible, surely some kind of stunt like that time he changed his name into a spaghetti-like symbol.

I’m still not over Bowie. I’m weirdly numb about Prince today. He can’t be gone because two months ago I saw him hold 2,000 people in the palm of his hand, and a force like that can’t die in an elevator at Paisley Park at only 57, can it?

You look now for signs, but there weren’t any. At 57, he was lean and sculpted, poised at the piano and eyes twinkling with amusement. Unlike the elaborate hairdos of his heyday, he’d reverted back to a natural afro, which towered over his head. He was a small man, but he was big. A wiggle of his finger or a tiny curve of a smile and 2,000 people at ASB Theatre sat riveted.

1*hwwPz7avqqQB6TKfKAvS9AWhen I heard the Auckland show was Prince solo with a piano and a microphone I was a bit worried – none of those screeching, thunderous guitar solos, no dynamic interplay with the backing band. An “unplugged” Prince conjured up worrying images of a Las Vegas-style revue with the Purple One sipping on sparkling water and turning every song into a Liberace number.

I was wrong. Prince showed us the skeletons and muscle behind the songs, reminding us that while he was flamboyant and eccentric, he was also one of the greatest songwriters of the past 50 years.

They were his first and only New Zealand shows, two tightly planned gigs executed with tremendous precision. Tickets flew out the door in seconds no matter the cost. I dithered for five minutes too long and missed out, spent the next week or so in FOMO funk. Yeah, it was a lot of money, but PRINCE, man. There’s no regrets like those born from chickening out at the last second.

Then the day before the concert, there was a flurry on Twitter over a few last-minute ticket releases for the show. No hesitation. I Would Die 4 U. Click. Ninth row. Nine rows from Prince. Forget the cost.

At ASB theatre, he cracked right in to the distinctive riff of “I Would Die 4 U,” and summed up his appeal for all of us: “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.” Is it hyperbole to say it felt like we were in the presence of genius? But it feels true.

12734006_10208888189304572_9185663524839450730_nThe Prince on stage at Aotea Centre was at the top of his game, a master at playing the crowd. But he was having FUN as well, something that’s hard to find at that lofty level of fame. He threw a dash of “Charlie Brown” theme music into “Little Red Corvette,” and it was like watching a master painter at work, scribbling tiny doodles in the margins. He recast all the classics, turning “Purple Rain” into a gospel revival, “Kiss” into a funky dance party. More than 30 years into his career, it felt like a victory lap.

“Can I stay for a bit?” he purred at the end of one of several encores. He could do this all night, he was letting us know, but could we handle it?

He’d played Sydney and Melbourne just a day or two before, and the very next day he was off to bloody Perth on the other side of Australia. Then he was going to Oakland, California, right after that. This Prince would play forever!

The crowd stood on its feet for minutes. He basked in applause, raised a hand, waved, and spun, turned, and dashed off the stage in a disarmingly childlike, awkward manner – and that was our last sight of Prince, sliding off into the shadows, his music still ringing in our ears. How could he just leave us standing, alone in a world so cold?