Hard News by Russell Brown

8

Music: The Passing of Vega

I saw Suicide at the Camden Palace on Thursday, October 9, 1987. It was hard going: the venue was kind of a dump, it must have been after midnight by the time they came on, and and when they did, they were so loud it literally made my teeth hurt.

But, you know, they were identifiably Suicide and that was exciting. And Alan Vega was all shambolic cool. When someone down the front helpfully pointed out that he was getting a bit fat, Vega responded.

"Yeah, I know. Waddaya want me to do – jog?"

Maybe you had to be there, but I laughed then and still makes me laugh now.

So Alan Vega died yesterday, aged 78. He had a heart attack and a stroke in 2012, so his health had not been the best. Most of the commentary has revolved around his role as the frontman of Suicide, and the duo's first two albums in particular.

That's understandable. Those two albums were like a separate evolutionary branch. They pretty much came out of nowhere and they influenced everyone from New Order and Depeche Mode to Sonic Youth, Nine Inch Nails and Bruce Springsteen (who covered 'Dream Baby Dream' both in concert and on record). And yet, they stood alone. For all that they offered an essential new perspective on rock and prefigured electronic dance music, there was no crop of wannabe Suicides.

Okay, look: I got that Springsteen part off Wikipedia. I'm not gonna be the guy who pretends he's got all the dead guy's records. But I was intrigued by this November 2015 interview that Rolling Stone tweeted after the news broke. In it, Vega tells the story of Cubist Blues, the album he made with melodic superhero Alex Chilton and his friend Ben Vaughn in 1994.

So I listened to Cubist Blues on Spotify (it's on Apple Music too) and holy shit, what a good record. Loose, rambling and – especially gven that Vega spends most of his time in his trademark 50s rock 'n' roll croon – impossibly varied. And it wasn't really meant to be:

To him, he was expecting to record only the scuffling, muted rock & roll track "Fat City," a nearly nine-minute song whose lyrics he scrawled on the day's New York Post and the trio recorded in one take. "Alex was sitting on the ground in a lotus position, playing guitar," Vega recalls of the late-night session, which took place at New York City's now-closed Dessau Studio. "He was in his position for 200 hours; he wouldn't move. I guess he smoked pot or whatever."

Vega thought they were simply going to record a single, but they ended up being there for hours. "He kept saying, 'Let's do another,'" the singer recalls. So they then tackled the ambling, bluesy "Sister," which Vega improvised. "Then he said, 'Let's do another one,'" Vega says. And they came up with 10 more off the top of their heads. "Next thing you know, I literally felt a fire burning in my scalp. I had flames coming out as we were doing the last song, 'Dream Baby Dream.'"

The album was recently re-released by Light in the Attic, who posted one track 'Fly Away', on YouTube. "It sounds like it should be on the soundtrack of a David Lynch film," Fiona observed as she passed. It does.

So cheers, Alan Vega. You were a proper New York person.

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My friends The Onedin Line have dropped the first song from their recording session with Mario Posa. It's a warm, jangly taster for an EP out later this year:

Having heard it, I can say there's another song that's a stone cold indie-pop hit on the EP, but this is very nice to be getting on with.

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The Experiment is back for 2016 this weekend at Galatos. The genre-stretching festival's lineup includes familiar names like Anthonie Tonnon, Weird Together and Soccer Practise alongside theatre and dance from the likes of Disco Bloodbath, Pretty Asian Theatre and Jahra Rager. All the rooms will be open. A two-night pass for Friday and Saturday is $35 at Under the Radar and there are single-night tickets too.

And next month, Ladi6 Parks is back with Parks, Julien Dyne, and Brandon Haru for a reprise of last year's studio-on-stage jam The Alpha Sessions. They'll be working it out in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch.

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Tunes!

Free download from Rock 'n' Rolla Soundsystem: their edit of a prowling tune by the French producer Guts. There's some Gershwin way back in there...

A deep, lazy soul groove from local lads Leisure. Twenty thousand-odd plays on Soundcloud in the three days since they dropped it:

And a supple, funky edit of Marlena Shaw's classic 'Woman of the Ghetto'. Click through for the download:

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The Hard News Friday Music Post is kindly sponsored by:

The Audio Consultant

35

Obama's Mana

Much has been said already about the considered and unifying character of US President Barack Obama's speech at the memorial for the five Dallas cops murdered last week. But I couldn't help but think of the statement he made exactly a week ago, after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile atthe hands of police.

That one contained many of the ideas that featured in the Dallas speech, but it wasn't a big, scripted set-piece. Obama got off a long-haul flight to Warsaw and decided he needed to say something. It's personal and authentic – and evidence of his increasing willingness to talk about race as his presidency draws to a close.

The president gave a speech of a very different character back in May at the Rutgers University Commencement. In that one, he trolled Donald Trump and rocked a stadium crowd while he was at it. "In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue!" he declared.

Last month, he went off script towards the end of something called the North American Leaders Summit to address the idea of Trump and populism.

It's clear that, as the Twitter kids would put it, Obama has entered the stage of his presidency where he has few fucks left to give and a much greater willingness to say what he really thinks.

There's no sign that this frankness is hurting his popularity. Indeed, he's getting more popular. An ABC/WaPo poll this month had his approval rating up to 56%, a level he hasn't seen for a long time (not since the extrajudicial killing of Osama Bin Laden, in fact). It's worth noting that that rise is driven by greater favourability among Democrats, many of whom may be looking at their future presidential choices much as Trevor Noah did recently on The Daily Show:

I'm not among those who perceive Hilary Clinton as some sort of modern devil, but "Grandma Nixon" is a pretty sick burn.

Stephen Colbert made a similar point – and noted a report that Obama could go into the venture capital business in Silicon Valley after his term ends.

Whether that's true or not, it seems clear that Obama's mana is increasing as his presidency ends. And that he will be part of American political and cultural life for a long time to come.

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There has been so much said about the racial divide exposed by the past week's violence in America that it's hard to know where to start. But I will say that I've found the stunning documentary series OJ Simpson: Made in America useful and fascinating. (It has finished its run on ESPN but may be back soon. Or, well, you know where to find these things.)

At its base, Simpson's story is as simple and awful as series of incidents of domestic violence that ended in a killing. At its broadest, it's a sweeping picture of American race relations, media, money and culture.

The racial intensity of the Simpson trial derived from the beating of Rodney King by police – captured for all the world to see on citizen video and unpunished by the courts. But while I understood that connection, I was stunned by the way the second part of the documentary laid out all the incidents that preceded the brutal beating of King. This has been going on for a long, long time.

We live now in an era where citizen video is ubiquitous. And we recently entered the era where that video goes live. Although most of us saw it afterwards, Diamond Reynolds' video, in which her boyfriend Philando bled and died in front of the cellphone camera, went out via Facebook Live. In one sense, the video was a disturbing spectacle – almost a snuff film – and in another, her prudent, desperate attempt to let family and friends know what was happening.

Will it bring justice? It's hard to say. Since King, and before, a substantial number of Americans have seemed willing to accept escalation, violence and loss of control as part of conventional police practice. There's even some kind of rationale there, given the extreme danger posed by America's gun pandemic. It's hard to even see a way out.

The great Gil Scott Heron famously proposed that the revolution would not be televised. He was really making a rather different point, but we do now know that it will be live online. There will, hopefully, be greater accountability as a consequence – and yet at some point we'll see something even worse than Philando Castile, something we should not have seen but cannot unsee. This is going to take a while to work through. 

1

#OrconIRL 4: The Images are Moving

As you may have noticed, the fourth of our Orcon IRL events went down at The Golden Dawn on Tuesday night – and it was great! It was the first one we've run in the evening and we made the call to shift outside into the courtyard the day before to allow for better camera angles and more seating for the audience. The weather was cool but kind.

Esther Macintyre and I were joined by Michelle Walshe (co-founder of Augusto and director of the new Richie McCaw documentary Chasing Great), Ant Timpson (most recently producer of the pure-spirited gross-out The Greasy Strangler) and the co-directors of Tickled, Dylan Reeve and David Farrier, the latter via a dodgy Skype connection from New York.

It turned out to be about much more than the movies. Put an hour aside and have a look:

Thanks so much to Hugh Sundae, Rick Huntington and Simon Barker for the great video, Matthew Crawley for the use of his lovely bar, the live audience for coming along and, of course, Orcon for the budget. A special word for my colleague Esther, who is off soon to see the world.

The next Orcon IRL in this year's series is on Tuesday August 9 and it's about the media. You might want to make a note of that.

22

Friday Music: The Curse of the Chills

Chills founder Martin Phillipps has always been a student of pop music mythology; of the way talent and destiny draw an arc that doesn't always land in the right place. And since the very early days of the band he has willingly embraced a thing called "The Curse of the Chills".

It's the idea that on the cusp of greatness – or at least, greater success – something will happen to undo it all. That might be something as hard as the tragically early death of the band's drummer Martyn Bull (the song Phillipps wrote in tribute to him, 'I Love My Leather Jacket', is weighted with the idea of destiny). Or something as daft as that time he missed out on collecting the band's first New Zealand Music Award because the Cook Strait ferry hit a whale. I'm sure he'd agree that more than once he's made his own hard luck.

Which is why The Curse of the Chills is the perfect title for the forthcoming documentary about his 36-year musical story. It's the first film production to be undertaken by the band's UK label, Fire Records, which released a trailer this week:

The documentary is set for official release next year, but there's a "preview version" in the CD-DVD package of his solo Live at the Moth Club album, which is released on July 22 and can be pre-ordered here on Bandcamp.

One of the highlights of the trailer is a frantic live video of the band playing my favourite Chills song, 'Oncoming Day'. There's an early demo of that on an expanded (again) version of the Kaleidoscope World compilation, which is out on August 19 on Flying Nun (I presume this means Phillipps' disagreement with the label has finally been resolved) and can be pre-ordered here:

It's one of six new bonus tracks on the 2LP (or CD) reissue, which features sleeve notes from friend and champion of the band Martin Aston. The full track listing is here.

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Meanwhile, out today on Flying Nun: the new Lawrence Arabia album, Absolute Truth, which can be had from the Flying Out store or Bandcamp, which are also taking pre-orders for the vinyl LP version due next month.

Note also that next week the band begins a national tour that culminates in a show at Auckland's fab Crystal Palace theatre on July 29.

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In rather a different vein, I'm going clubbing. No, really I am. Bevan Keys, Rob Warner and Greg Churchill are getting together to put on Tribute to New York House at Spy Bar tomorrow night. That's an all-killer-no-filler lineup and the music is extremely relevant to my interests. I really hope someone plays this one:

Although dropping this one would possibly be even cooler :-)

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I mentioned Blair Parkes' lovely solo album Cardigan Bay recently. Blair has posted a videof the last track, 'Frost Fish'. It actually captures the genesis of the song, when Blair came across a frost fish, way out of place in the shallows of New Brighton beach, and got out his phone:

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In others news, warmest congrats to Alex Behan for landing the very sought-after gig as host of RNZ's Music 101.

At Audioculture, Keith Newman talks to Dick Frizzell about his work in the world of music, including this early sleeve for Dragon:

And a video for Courtney Barnett's 'Elevator Operator', with cameos from everyone from Sleater-Kinney to Michael Leunig:

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Tunes!

Do you love the funk? Well, you'll probably dig this.

Some folks called New Funk Order have put together a podcast series of deep (and vintage) funk cuts and posted them to HearThis. You can download each one if you join Hear This and reshare it. 

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The Hard News Friday Music Post is kindly sponsored by:

The Audio Consultant

51

The war is still with us

The first post published on this blog, on November 14 2002, was titled Extreme Pragmatism. It was about the prospective invasion of Iraq and specifically the Clark government's decision to send a New Zealand frigate to help with anti-terrorist surveillance in the Mediterranean.

I noted that Opposition parties saw the move as" joining the war on Iraq by the back door. For the Greens this is a bad thing, for Act and National it’s a good thing." I ventured that "the Clark government is – as it has in so many spheres – practising pragmatism."

Swiftly offer modest aid in Afghanistan – but try not to talk about it. Steer well clear of Iraq – but send a frigate to help with the established programme of anti-terrorist surveillance in the Mediterranean. Reject unilateral America action in Iraq, but take a softer line now that the UN Security Council has been hectored into a new resolution. It might not satisfy the high moral stances of either the Greens or Act, but it is probably the best way of keeping our little country out of trouble.

I went back to the archive and found the post last night, after watching Sir John Chilcot voice the folly of the invasion of March 2003 and the unending war that followed. Chilcot's summary of the 2.6 million words in his report on Britain's march to war was damning, understated, beautifully written. It did not specifically accuse former British Prime Minister Tony Blair of deception, yet it left Blair exposed as not only a liar but a fool. A fool with blood on his hands.

As the coverage on BBC news moved on through the responses of political columnists, diplomatic historians and soldiers' families, it was hard to know what to look at, listen to or write about. But I did wonder what I said at the time.

I wasn't new to writing reckons online – the script of the radio version of Hard News had been posted to the internet since 1993 – but 2002 was an epoch away in internet years. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter did not yet exist, let alone WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram.

But blogs – and specifically the free tools to write and publish them – did.  It was a profound and novel experience to be able to read the accounts of Iraqi bloggers Salam Pax and Riverbend before, during and after the invasion. In the West, where bombs did not fall, warblogging became its own purpose.

Me as much as anyone. In the first half of 2003, I wrote about various things – science, the news media, the Americas Cup, drugs – but mostly, day after day, about the war.

In a post at the beginning of March, the month of the invasion, I wrote a post headed Dirty tricks and blood money, noting that:

The blood-money deals are, of course, going on all over the place. The Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies says most of the 34 countries counted by Bush as part of “coalition of the willing” might better be considered a coalition of the coerced: “Almost all, by our count, join only through coercion, bullying, bribery, or the implied threat of US action that would directly damage the interests of the country,” says its 13-page report. “This ‘coalition of the coerced’ stands in direct conflict with democracy.”

In a post on March 18, two days before the war began, in a post headed The Empire Strikes, I wrote that:

The stark truth is that almost no one is convinced by the American case for war now. Those few world leaders to publicly endorse it have done so in the face of huge opposition from their own people – and, in Tony Blair’s case, a party rebellion and potentially fatal political damage.

This is not surprising. It defied reason to implement an inspections process then kill it because it began to bear fruit. The Americans did not seek the counsel of other nations; merely a pretext for war to satisfy a decade-old doctrinaire plan for US strategic dominance.

They lied and dissembled as much the evil man they want to unseat – using forged documents, repeating claims already dismissed by inspectors, waving satellite photographs of trucks that proved to carry nothing more than food.

In the next post:

All weekend, as CNN reporters respectfully pointed their microphones at US Army PR men, al-Jazeera was showing a very different image: the body of a child with the back of its head blown off, absent brain.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Arab world is seeing a very different war than are the consumers of American-based media. That dead child became a signature image of the war without ever being seen by Western audiences. It’s hard to know where this will go but it is probably not anywhere good.

CNN’s coverage is not, as some would have it, propaganda – it’s a bit more complex than that. But what is clear already is that CNN, with its omnipresent but anaemic coverage of the war, is losing the journalistic battle. It presents the strange combination of a constant flow of information and a raging lack of curiosity.

Two days later, I noted that Al Jazeera had launched an English language website. Among the problems it faced in its first week was a denial of service attack launched from the US. But also:

The rather poor climate for free speech in the US has hit the Qatar-based news channel in other ways this week. The New York Stock Exchange has “indefinitely” banned al-Jazeera reporters from its trading floor, explaining that it is restricting access to “responsible” networks.

Only hours after Tony Blair refused to promise a group of his own MPs that cluster bombs would not be used in Iraqi cities, it became clear that cluster bombs are already in use in civilian areas of Basra and Nassiriya. The Guardian has an interesting report from the Nassiriya hospital, among other places. Ironically, Human Rights Watch yesterday released a new briefing paper, warning against the use of cluster bombs in Iraq. Amnesty International also strongly opposes the use of these weapons, in part because they tend to hang around and kill and maim long after military action is over.

Ten days after the war began, a post headed Being lied to:

Over the weekend, spokesmen for Tony Blair put word about that Saddam had sacked his commander of air defences after a series of surface-to-air missiles landed on Baghdad. This, they said gave reason for “scepticism” over claims that the bombing of two marketplaces in Baghdad this week were the result of coalition attacks on the city.

In fact, as Robert Fisk had reported after being shown an American missile fragment at the site of the second blast – which killed 62 people – the almost certain cause was a wayward US missile. I wrote:

Would they lie to us? Would Tony Blair lie to us to cynically gain political advantage? Well, he has already in the past week. During his visit to the US for meetings with Bush, Blair spoke at length and with passion about the “execution” by Iraqis of two British soldiers.

“If anyone needed any further evidence of the depravity of Saddam’s regime, this atrocity provides it. It is yet one more flagrant breach of all the proper conventions of war. More than that, to the families of the soldiers involved, it is an act of cruelty beyond comprehension. Indeed, it is beyond the comprehension of anyone with an ounce of humanity in their souls.”

But the lead story in Friday’s Daily Mirror quoted the sister of one of the soldiers, Luke Allsop, who was clearly appalled at what Blair had said. Her brother had not, she said, been executed:

“The Colonel from his barracks came around to our house to tell us he was not executed. Luke’s Land Rover was ambushed and he died instantly. The Colonel told us he was doing what he could to set the record straight. We are very angry. It makes a big difference to us knowing that he died quickly. We can’t understand why people are lying about what happened.”

Blair’s official spokesman later admitted there was “no conclusive proof” that the soldiers had been executed.

We were witnessing the brief, apparently triumphant military war for control of the country. Two weeks after the invasion began, I observed that "more than ever, the West and the rest of the world seem to be seeing very different wars in Iraq." Twenty days in, it was like nobody had really died:

“We share sacrifices. We share grief. We pray for those families who mourn the loss of life; American families, British families …” George W. Bush let the sentence hang in the air. I genuinely thought he was about to say “Iraqi families”. It would have been a decent and thoughtful thing to do. But he didn’t.

Instead, Bush and Blair got through the whole of their press conference in Belfast yesterday, each paying tribute to coalition dead, without acknowledging that any Iraqi citizen has suffered so much as a paper cut in the past two weeks. As an exercise in denial, it was right up there with the daily briefings from the Iraqi information minister.

Both men are often described by their supporters as “courageous”. But real courage would dictate that they tackled the consequences of their actions head-on. Contend that the deaths of civilians – or, let’s face it, the poor Iraqi conscripts – have been a regrettable consequence of the pursuit of a greater goal of liberation. They might even be right. But they didn’t try. It was like nobody had really died.

But, then, tragic stories like that of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas, orphaned and hideously injured when a missile struck his house this week, raise the bar pretty high on a war of liberation. The Jordan Times story on the boy is particularly heart-wrenching. I cried when I read this:

“Can you help get my arms back? Do you think the doctors can get me another pair of hands?” Abbas asked. “If I don’t get a pair of hands I will commit suicide,” he said with tears spilling down his cheeks.

Soon after, the priceless human heritage of the museums in Mosul and Baghdad was looted and Donald Rumsfeld responded by declaring, at once dismissive and jocular, that "freedom’s untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."

A little over two months after the invasion, I wrote this post, touching on the mock furore over Helen Clark's observation that a President Gore would not have launched this already troublesome war:

A Herald poll today finds New Zealanders still staunchly behind their government’s stance on Iraq, but, polite to the last, believing Helen Clark did the right thing when she apologised over the Al Gore thing. Meanwhile, John Armstrong provides a useful perspective on Jim Anderton’s possibly ill-advised sally forth in the defence of the Prime Minister against American “bullying”: his support for the coalition government’s commitment of New Zealand troops to Afghanistan destroyed the Alliance – and this is the American way of saying thank you? Problem is, there is no brownie points system being operated by the Bush administration: minor (and not so minor) nations will do as they’re told all the time, okay?

The extent to which the action in Iraq has yet to play out has been spelled out by a deadly string of attacks on US troops in the past week. Freelance military analyst Phil Carter has some interesting comments on what mistakes were made. The dissolution of the Iraqi army has been hailed by British diplomats as a sign that the new American administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has a better grip on the job than his predecessor, but others are concerned at the risk created by the enforced unemployment of 400,000 young male Iraqis. The purge on armed forces within the country has even taken in the militia that the Pentagon bought for its pet Iraqi, Ahmed Chalabi, but the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution isn’t playing so nice.

There's far too much more to tell here – more than I have time and you have patience for. But it's easy to see how Chilcot's account could take seven years and 2.6 million words. The scale of the deceit, the fecklessness of the democracy project, the depth of the suffering, the profound and enduring nature of the consequences see to that.

There's a danger in responding to Chilcot's damning analysis of seeing this through a British lens, or as Tony Blair's war. The real picture is more complex and much wider. It encompasses the fools and liars in the US administration and the false conception of history that drove them. It takes in the savagery of the 2001 attacks in New York, which the fools and liars took as their pretext. It's war itself.

Much of what Chilcot said last night was, to a greater or lesser extent, already known. A good deal of it was known before the invasion even took place. But hearing it stated in spare, elegant English, from a massive evidential foundation, was still important. It should make us contemplate the fact that 13 years later, the  war is still with us, and it is still monstrous.