Tuesday, September 14, 2010

God save the queen - maybe.

PhotobucketMy head of state in New Zealand is Queen Elizabeth II. We're still part of the Commonwealth, still a fragment of the once-huge British Empire. While we have our own Prime Minster and all that, in theory, the Queen is our big boss, even if the power is more ceremonial than not.

In recent weeks the debate on New Zealand's future has flared up again, with the leader of the opposition party saying it's time to start making plans for a republic. "We need to start the conversation now," said Labour leader Phil Goff. Prime Minister John Key seems to be content with vagueness, having said before a New Zealand republic is "inevitable" but not actually doing much more than that. Bills introduced to actually move the debate don't get far; the most recent one failed on its first reading in Parliament.

The sentiment generally seems to be that when Queen Elizabeth II dies or steps down, NZ (and probably Australia) will move to sever their last ties to the monarchy. The notion of poor King Charles III doesn't seem to instill a lot of confidence in people. (We might still have Queen Elizabeth for another 20 years though - while she's 84, her mum lasted to 101.)

However, you could argue that without the ties to the motherland New Zealand suddenly becomes a mighty small country at the bottom of the world. Australia already has a lot over us economically. Would losing the monarchy actually benefit us in any tangible way on the world stage? Do we need it to stay afloat? Yet culturally, we're hardly "Southern Britain" anymore. NZ is a vibrant, multicultural nation - a little bit Pacifica, a little bit Maori, a little bit Australian, a little bit Asian. Britain really is an awful long ways away. We're our own identity now.

I've got nothing against old Queenie, and I find the novelty of it all kind of interesting to observe coming from the American system of government. If pressed, I'd have to admit the whole notion of a hereditary leader, as limited as her actual power might be, kind of flies in the face of my good ol' "anybody can be President" American idealism.

PhotobucketBut I'd bet firm money a change is going to happen, in the next decade if not sooner. I certainly see no harm in the notion of planning for it, but there seems to be a political timidity to engage on this -- for fear of offending the last hardcore monarchists. But it's foolish to wait until Queen Elizabeth II kicks the bucket to even start thinking about the future. While there's a kind of quaint charm to the idea of the monarchy, in reality New Zealand stopped being just an outpost of empire some time ago. It's only a formality that we still have a Queen.

(Speaking of outposts of Empire, I'm off to the United States for a long-overdue holiday and will be on blog hiatus until mid-October sometime. Cheers mates!)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nik's unheralded albums #2: Elvis Costello, "Mighty Like A Rose"

Elvis Costello, "Mighty Like A Rose" (1991)

PhotobucketThe thing some people like and some people don't like about Elvis Costello is that he's a dabbler. The one-time punk's angriest young literary man has gone on to forge a career of astounding diversity, doing everything from country music to fuzzy garage rock to laidback balladry to even, god forbid, an opera. I personally love Costello's never-idle mind, even if all of his career spins don't quite pan out (the opera, no thank you). Costello is always recognizably himself, even when trying on different genres. One of Costello's albums that is often overlooked when his career is considered is 1991's "Mighty Like A Rose," which is an album of violent, almost dizzying eclecticism.

"Mighty Like A Rose" was the first time I fell hard for Costello, and perhaps that's why I hold it so dear. It's full of verbose wit and rage like the best of his work, while musically it careens about like a drunken sailor, with blasting guitars, horns, calliope, flutes, even maracas. "If you really want to hear an angry record," Costello writes in the liner notes, "then this one is for you." He had an untamed long-haired, bearded look around the time of this album which makes him look like some kind of demented prophet coming from the other side. The lyrics reflect this new look -- the first lines on the album are "The sun struggles up another beautiful day / and I felt glad in my own suspicious way." So the tone is set, as "Rose" swings between malice and mourning. There's a kind of lurching energy to "Rose" that reminds me a bit of Tom Waits.

"The Other Side of Summer" is a Beach Boys song wrung through a dark wringer, sneering instead of crooning. Men and women recur throughout "Rose" playing cruel games with each other. In "Harpies Bizarre" the girl is crushed by the worldly stranger. In "After the Fall" she has her revenge. Two songs co-written with Paul McCartney feature here; in their "Playboy to a Man" it's romance as jaunty battle of the sexes; Costello yelps, "now you're standing there in your underwear / now you know just how it feels for her."

PhotobucketIf "Rose" were just meanness it wouldn't have much appeal, but what I also like are the moments of tenderness like the brittle "Sweet Pear" or "So Like Candy," and the razor sharp wit of songs like the over-the-top rant "How To Be Dumb" or "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," which is about exactly what it sounds like.

What I'd have to call one of my top 5 Elvis Costello songs of all closes out the record on a note of resounding grace -- "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" which reels about like a carnival from an alternate universe, a catalogue of surrealistic imagery. There's a fine sleight of hand here as Costello sings of "shadows of regret" and broken hearts, then reveals himself as a character in the song -- "well I'm the lucky goon / who composed this tune / from birds arranged on the high wire." He ends with what he later called a kind of "agnostic prayer," a beautiful moment when all the anger and frustration of the album ends with a glimpse of hope -- "Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain / I can't believe, I'll never believe in anything again."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

And it burns, burns, burns, like a ring of fire...

PhotobucketSo we had a magnitude 7.1 earthquake down here yesterday morning, the most damaging in New Zealand in about 80 years from the looks of it. It didn't hit anywhere near us in Auckland, but about 500 miles south in Christchurch on the South Island, NZ's second biggest city. I visited there for the first time a year or so ago and it's a really beautiful city with great buildings, and am sad to see how torn up it's been -- though thankfully, no loss of life reported so far.

Because I'm lucky, I was actually awake at 4.35 am Saturday when the quake hit -- I work at danged early hours on Saturday mornings. Didn't feel it in Auckland, although by (perhaps) freakish concidence, at almost the exact same time the giant glass front door of my workplace shattered into a million pieces. We were having a ferocious gale-force windstorm up here at the time so I can't say it was the earthquake that caused it, but then again, who knows if it wasn't a factor?

It is a vivid reminder that we here live right on the Pacific Ring of Fire, which isn't just a Johnny Cash song but the most active geothermal zone on earth. NZ straddles a continental shelf and the entire country is dotted with volcanoes, thermal vents and more. Our home of Auckland has literally dozens of theoretically extinct volcanos (used as Maori ancient pa, fortresses). In our harbour is a giant looming volcano island, Rangitoto, which erupted out of the ocean not 700 years ago, which is a mere eyeblink in geological time. It's hard to imagine the sheer chaos a giant volcano in the nation's biggest harbour would cause if it popped up today.

Peter, 6, was a bit freaked out by all the earthquake coverage on the TV last night and can't say I blame him. Growing up in California earthquakes were a constant fear too. My thoughts go out to all those down south affected by this billion-dollar disaster, and it's a stern and worrying reminder that when it comes right down to it, the human race are mere visitors on a playing field of immense natural forces far more powerful than we are.

• In other quake coverage, Arthur talks about disasters and social networking (I too got a flurry of anxious Facebook messages yesterday).

• To help: Salvation Army NZ

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On the end of every fork: Naked Lunch

Some books you try several times to read before you crack their code. I remember picking up a paperback of William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" years ago and being unable to get past the first 30 pages or so. It had a sleazy, baffling and intimate tone but I couldn't make head or tail of it. PhotobucketMore recently, bolstered by a diet of Bukowski and having read a quite interesting biography of Burroughs, I thought I'd try it again. This time the book opened itself up to me. I'm still not quite sure if I "liked" it in the traditional sense of reading a book, but I can't quite stop thinking about it.

The key to "Naked Lunch" is realising that it isn't a traditional narrative, that there is no end or beginning really, and that it's basically the drug-stewed mind of Burroughs spinning forth in a frequently vile, hallucogenic rant loosely tied together by a few recurring themes. It's hard to put aside all the narrative preconceptions you bring to reading, but once you slide into "Lunch's" strange and slithery rhythms you kind of get what's being attempted here, closer to a prose poem than a novel. It's the sex and drugs that puts a lot of people off "Lunch," and it's without a doubt not for the timid -- I consider myself fairly unshockable but several passages in "Lunch" push one to the limit. It is a book without an ounce of comfort in it. You later learn many of the most shocking passages, the mass orgies/massacres and such, are meant to be a metaphor for capital punishment. Not sure how well it works at that, but as a general "look how terrible man can be to man" sort of screed, it does the job.

Photobucket"The sailor's face dissolved. His mouth undulated forward on a long tube and sucked in the black fuzz, vibrating in supersonic peristalsis disappeared in a silent, pink explosion."

Ostensibly it's "about," if anything, the drug subculture in Burroughs' imaginary "Interzone" -- based on the expatriate Tangiers community Burroughs lived in during the depths of his drug addiction in the 1940s and 50s. Characters appear and disappear; chapters were apparently randomly assembled from the huge pile of manuscript Burroughs had written. There are moments of blackest humour that pass in between the visions like bone-dry chuckles. All but a few sentences of the novel may just be a vivid halluciation.

What sticks with you is Burroughs' foul, snakelike, ellipsis-filled, wandering prose -- like a David Lynch movie, it's more about setting a mood than a straight plot A to plot B movement. It assaults you, bombards you with grotesqueries. It's like listening to Captain Beefheart - if I'm in the right mood, it works, but it's not everyday cuisine. In between the slime and sleaze there are glittering shards of prose beauty, men with eyes like insects and gibbering protoplasmic spasms. Is it a 'comfortable' reading experience? Absolutely not, but somehow between the viscera and abominations it stirs you, leaves you different than you were before.