Monday, November 17, 2008

In Which We Merely Say That Time Will Tell

In between sitting out the remainder of a full-time job (split by watching the bottom line tick over and applying judicious amounts of certain peripheral-based rhythm games), and helping putting together an updated framework and fresh content for an altogether more noble endeavour, there's also the growing pressure of finding oneself a punchline for a lack of written output, referred to in passing and in social networking status updates. At least now I know how Meiks feels. 

But my text having migrated, as it were, here we are. 

And here we all are, in the thrall of a National-led government that has – shock and horror – apparently thought about voter representation, and not merely cementing a 51% share of the House and going about business. Time will tell, of course, whether any promises are kept, whether the long-awaited tax cuts will materialise or indeed be a responsible act, or whether the inclusion of the Maori Party in the Nat/Act/UF melange was more than insurance for 2011; all the same, on Sunday afternoon I felt a sudden warmth to see the Maori Party holding ministerial roles for Maori Affairs and the Community and Voluntary Sector. This was quickly stemmed when Tariana Turia giggled her way through the well-staged press conference. (But at least Turia didn't have the perma-smug mask that Key seems to have made his own.) She was, however, looking for all the world as if she'd got more than she expected out of Key, a man with a homestead so grandiose there are apparently serious talks about building a new outhouse for the Diplomatic Protection Squad. According to the SST, the DPS is currently squatting in a caravan while they wince at the nearby market rents – one can only hope they've got an awning ready for those brief Parnell showers. And maybe a swing tennis set in case it's sunny out. 

It's good to see in the Maori Party / National agreement, though, that the larger electorates will finally get funding for more support staff. Consider, if you will, the extra time and effort it takes to co-ordinate any kind of resources for Te Tai Tonga (147,000 square km) compared to Epsom (22 sq km). And it only took a year and a half for that particular Goulter report recommendation to go through. 

I do hope, finally, that I'm not the only one who's feeling the unease of seeing a segment of the mainstream media fawn over the new PM-designate, self-made millionaire or no. Sure, it's an easy angle on a rather beige man, but I'd really rather be told that JK reheats his cups of teain the microwave than see helicopter shots of his poolhouse. Somewhat distastefully, just a couple of days ago, passive TV news viewers saw Parnell featured as a flourishing suburb despite the much-editorialised hard times. A healthily made-up lady in a dairy, barely missing her soundbite cue, mentioned the dozens of champagne bottles she'd gotten through in the leafy suburb. One local real estate functionary, more on the ball, referred to a recent $9m house sale as proof that the economy wasn't in such bad shape. Suffice it to say that these people, the PM-dez among them, will not be the first ones feeling the crunch. And suffice, once more, to say that these people are not our people. Call it tall poppy syndrome in a selfish meritocracy, but I'd rather hold back my praise until Key improves day-to-day life for anyone other than the Parnell Players. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

Two Thousand And Eleven

In an interview on Radio One this morning, incoming National List MP, failed Dunedin North candidate, and lover of short skirts Michael Woodhouse said that "the campaign for 20011 begins now". That the newly elected politician is showing such long-term fervour can only be constructive for the people of Dunedin. Woodhouse has also said he will set-up 'clinics' on the University of Otago campus for students to bring their concerns to him. He has also hinted - perhaps naiively - that he wants to push for editorial space in student magazine. What is a concern is that this long-term drive doesn't seem to be, in public at least, reciprocated by the Opposition Elect.

It wasn't foreshadowed, but it came as no surprise that Helen Clark stood down as leader of the Labour Party on Election Night. It showed her willingness to speed up the wound-licking process and get on with recovery. It's also no surprise that Phil Goff was announced as her successor. Recently in the United States Presidential race we saw the complementary partners approach at play in the selection of Vice-Presidential wannabes. A young black man chose an old white crank. An old white crank chose a retarded 'Hockey Mom'. The idea is to choose a running mate that provides properties that you lack, to broaden your potential support-base. What little speculation there was centred around people like David Cunliffe, to balance the left-right factions of the party, but two white men from Auckland was considered too narrow an image. Lianne Dalziel is female, Christchurch-based, and has a union background, with an almost creepy resemblance to Sarah Palin to combat the 'sick of her teeth' crowd. Instead, Labour went with Annette King.

It's not much of an ideological stretch to see King/Goff at the helm of the National Party, quite frankly. Touch on criminals? Why, it was Phil Goff as Justice Minister that made Legal Aid a loan, and introduced unqualified Court Registrars as defendants first point of contact within the court system, encouraging them to plead guilty in a nation-wide efficiency drive. Goff has already launched into apology mode - and I guess we now get to see where he and Clark differed in opinion.

This then leaves the centre-left hoping for either of two outcomes: this is a caretaker Labour leadership, priming someone like Cunliffe for 2014, or the Greens grow some left wings and eat into the traditional Labour support the way National pandered to their centrists this year. Over time this could leave the left without one major party, which is fine unless MMP gets biffed out over the next few years. Campaigning now for 2014 seems a bit defeatist, however realistic it may be, and Labour is asking a lot of it's traditional support base's patience if this is the case. Let us not forget the damage done between 1990 and 1996, damage not entirely undone by 2008.

Elsewhere, John Key's negotiations for forming a government may set an MMP record. Without the meandering of Winston Peter's, and associated re-arranging of baubles, National want this done in time for Key to swan off to Peru for APEC (can't wait to see his smug face beaming out of traditional Peruvian garb), and they have let everyone know this it would seem. The Maori Party, Act and United Future had all met with Key by early this week. The real question was how Tariana Turia was going to be able to uphold their noble proclamations of direct democracy. 'We will take any agreement to Maoridom, and let them decide' was always the angle. What Maoridom got this week were rushed hour-long meetings that refused to discuss the content of the deal, and simply asked for blind support from the masses.

Ok, so they have no choice. The options for the Maori Party as of Sunday was nothing at all, or next to nothing with the Nats, so it's a bit of a no-brainer. And, considering the furore over the Foreshore and Seabed that spawned the party in the first place, going with Labour is no less of a sellout than getting into bed with Key, Hide, Dunne and Co. On that note, why do National have such a hard-on for Peter Dunne? They don't need him for numbers, or for ideology, and if he sat in the middle of nowhere he could indeed fade into nothing over 3-6 years which is surely good news for everyone. What bothers me about the Maori Party ramming through its consultation process to get John to Peru is that for short-term gains, and the possibility of scrapping the dole, their long term survival could be toast if National sell out the middle and lower classes - which include a large section of Maori Party voters I would imagine - like they did in the 1990s.

To lighten the mood pre-weekend, I am now off to fight old art matrons for finger food at the opening of Rita Angus: Life and Vision, 140 works - originally curated for Te Papa in Wellington - showing at the DPAG. Curator Jill Trevelyan will present a floor talk on the whole thing from 3pm tomorrow. If that's not enough for your monocle, you can check out the Royal New Zealand Ballet production of Don Quixote at the Regent Theatre this Saturday/Sunday, if you're in Dunedin.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's Not Just Politics.

So, apologies to some, and a relief to others I'm sure. But the fallout from the weekend has been the catalyst for driving me headfirst into more immersive distractions. At very different ends of the sonic scale, two men tucked in the fringes of the music community have provided more solace than most.

Matt Middleton is an institution in Dunedin, and a man who bears the burden that comes with the man/myth/legend status and for good reason. He's spent good tracts of time as a fairly comprehensive and compulsive bridge burner, a man who seemed hellbent on sub-conscious self-destruction. In his early twenties he landed a release on the already fading but still notorious Flying Nun imprint, as Crude, the most prolific / noted of Middleton's monikers I suppose, and 1997's Inner City Guitar Perspectives was a compilation culled from earlier cassette releases. Two years later, Middleton's trash-rock / swampfest / garage trio The Aesthetics had their debut LP My Right To Riches issued by Thurston Moore's label Ecstatic Peace. Kansas-based label Mental Telemetry (now Invisible Generation) - home of Six Organs of Admittance, The Magic Carpathians and fellow Dunedin headfucks The Futurians - have also lent support to a swag of Crude/Aesthetics releases half way around the world. So how, more than a decade on from being dumped on the doorstep of New Zealand's self-styled indie/lo-fi godfather label, is this man still so unremarked upon?

Because this is Matt Middleton who wouldn't bother getting on the plane to go to gigs. The man who would tear a sign down and throw it through the window of the casino restaurant. The man who knocked himself unconscious mid-set by smashing his head into his microphone. The truth and the legend blur constantly, of course, but the end result is that the myth is the prominent lens through which people see and read him, and sadly that often means that people don't take the time to listen to his music, which is truly sad, because by 2008 the man and the music have matured to the point that this truly feels like a pivotal point in the Middleton ouevre. More than in any time I can remember, he is attacking the music with a fury that finally fits the searing stomp-skronk-wail-riot of the sonic vision.

A one man vaudevillain, crooning demented lounge ballads over thumping electro freakouts, and taking charge of the saxophone like it's some kind of man possessed, needing to be tamed and tamed it shall be.

It is easy to forget when people are making music that doesn't fit into handy three and a half minute blocks, stacked mile high; music that eschews form in favour of function, that sets about digging cavities into your frontal lobe so you never have the option of returning to a life like you led before you heard, frontal assaults on the mind and body, that the whole often obscures the musicality that flourishes within it. Crude's jazz background, a clarinet player initially, is what holds it together, stitching anarchic improvisations together literally by a thread. It is also the real flourish behind him, pausing hesitantly, hovering over a fret board, then lurching suddenly into scratchy trills that pierce the swampy depths below. It's not always easy listening music, and don't expect to be let off lightly either by the production of the music or the live performing of it, this is stuff you need to digest, but thanks to the way Middleton can so effortlessly cast you under his fidgety spell, the challenge soon gives way to a spatial-temporal realignment before your very eyes and ears, taking you to a jaded post-apocalyptic overpass, howling at the moon to no avail.

Crude is Crude, but Crude is also The Aesthetics. Often unfairly labelled simply as a Crude band, they belong to two very different spaces. The trashy regurgitation of Motor City rock n roll filtered through the rising pretense of New York No Wave - live at least, references to The Contortions finally seem valid again, thankfully - sets The Aesthetics apart from the future worlds Crude inhabits. But Middleton is an auteur, and while it is negligent to deny the impact of the list of past influences and band mates, there's no denying that the scope of the sound can still be boiled down to one man. Same goes for the far more infrequent works of jazz-freak rogues Anomie Ensemble.

Matt Middleton is a small man who makes a lot of noise. Auckland composer Warwick Blair could not be closer to the polar opposite of this. An imposing figure, dressed largely in black with a formidable paw for the shaking. For such a giant of a man, Blair's compositions have deftness and subtlety that are astonishing. Much like Middleton, you are also unlikely to see his music videos pop up on C4, or on the radio. His projects are highly conceptual, and seem more at home in a gallery space than at a pub. He is comfortable with the term composer being substituted for songwriter. His latest epic, Stars was written with a gallery space in mind, and it made it's full length debut here in Dunedin a few weeks back. Simply, it was one of the most stunning, and more importantly immersive, musical experiences I have ever had. In short, it's an ambient composition that plays uninterrupted for 24 hours, but around the room is an accompanying ambient film by astronomer/artist Paul Moss, in real time: clouds and rainbows during the day, starscapes at night. The stars are a bit too static, says Blair. It's a work in progress. At the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Blair played his 24 hour opus from 4pm on a Saturday to 4pm on a Sunday. The gallery remained open all night, and you could come and go as you pleased. I went back six times.

Hearing Warwick Blair talk about his music you could be forgiven for thinking it was the work of a man more interested in the programming than in the songwriting. The day is broken into eight movements, each exactly three hours long. Then, each three hour section is broken into eight movements, each 22.5 minutes long. Somewhere roughly in the middle of each of these drops the central motif. I use the word drop rather lightly here. Echoing digital percussion rings out clear over lush rolling ambience, more hypnotic perhaps than engaging. And then, out of nowhere, comes the incredible haunting voice of classical Indian singer Sandhya Rao Badakere, sitting on a pile of cushions in the middle of the room. You can't even see her breathing, but the voice that comes out of her belongs to another world and another time. And then her twenty-two and a half minutes are up, and she is gone again. Not before a dislocatingly human hack out in the foyer.

For logistical reasons, it is difficult for Stars to be presented in its entirety, although a four-hour preview version has been produced in Wellington. It's not something you can digest in one sitting, a la Warhol's Empire, but it is a truly beautiful treasure, in a time when it is more difficult than ever to use the term sincerely. If you missed it, don't worry, he is bringing it back to the Dunedin Fringe Festival next year, and an expanded version (with screens on the roof and ceiling) will be showing at Galatos in Auckland for the Fringe early next year. It gets better. After this is an eight stanza opera - ruminations on love, death, sex, drugs, dance etc - with a jazz singer, two opera singers and a folkie, with three multi-instrumentalists. The 'Dance' section is a tempo-mapped remake of New Order's 'Blue Monday', the biggest selling 12" single of all time.

Escapism, pure and simple. Don't take on an empty stomach, and if problems persist, consult a physician. In times like this sometimes only prescription medicine can numb the pain.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Electile Dysfunction: Numb Notes On A Long Weekend

Well there you have it.

The moment all filthy pinko lefties had been denial about for the last couple of years has come to fruition, and the wonderful world of democracy has delivered our country, in the midst of the turbulent economic situation worldwide, into the hands - as David Slack has noted - of a champion gambler, who celebrates his victory in a gambling emporium. The victory was more emphatic than most dared conjure, but from the perspective of any potential social conscience over the next six years, and that's rather optimistic, it would have been good if they got the numbers on their own. For all his rhetoric about Helen Clark pulling together a "five-headed beast" to run the country, it looks like John is set this week to cobble together a centre-right Frankenstein of his own.

Speaking of which, they didn't thaw out Sir Roger long enough before his televised address on Saturday night, and his eyes took on a glow that burned the colour of Chicago. Perhaps a little less freezer time, and a little more time in Rodner's tanning booth might be in order. Structural changes must be made. Their only real policy seemed to be Sir Rog as Minister of Finance, but have backed down as a potential coalition partner, and will instead offer support on confidence and supply. Hide and maybe Heather Roy will get Ministerial portfolios, but won't be sitting around the Cabinet table. Don't think you're safe, yet. Douglas would make a fine head of the so-called Razor Gang Key has pledged to hack through the civil service. Or chairing a Select Committee or two, if he can stay awake that long. He really makes John McCain seem quite spritely. They get five MPs in total, including the terrifying Sensible Sentencing Trust advocate David Garrett, and Rodney Hide is drumming up a storm, taking their 3.72% support as a serious mandate for reform. This from a party that couldn't even get more votes than Winston Peters. The Nats get 59 seats, and Act's support takes that to 64, which is enough to govern, but not enough for Key. He has openly courted Peter Dunne, and the Maori Party, which could eventually make it 70 on their side to 52 against. Decisive indeed.

Drawing is as many of the minor parties as he can gives Key frightening leverage, and a fantastic way of evading responsibility for the more unpopular reforms that could be on the way. They have the mandate to move in more of a neo-liberal economic direction than they would dare institute themselves, and blame it on Act, and then push the moral conservative angle if it suits them and dump the blame on the doorstep of Peter Dunne. If they wanted to start locking up prostitutes again, or give us our right to bash our kids, there's nothing stopping them. They can call them policy concessions, rather than party policy. Not that National's justice programme isn't worrying enough on it's own. It plans to give judges discretion to sentence a violent offender to life in prison without parole, for a first offence, if the crime is "heinous" enough. Further, second offenders for violent crime (which includes theft in Key's initial proposal but as with most policy was a bit vague and non-committal), will also be no longer eligible for parole. Anyone who is arrested for a crime that could carry a maximum penalty of jail time will also be forced to submit DNA to a crime register. That includes the crime of being in possession of spotting knives, of all things. Whether or not it is destroyed when and if you are cleared is unclear. Having been screened for DNA myself in the past, for 'elimination purposes', they aren't that good at keeping you informed about what's going on. Hell, they didn't even tell me when they no longer considered me a rapist.

So, have we formed a coalition police state wrapped in the robes of the religious right? I am preparing for the worst, but it doesn't seem necessary to get angry for it's own sake. But we have to be careful and make sure we actively resist the New Right regime should the worst eventuate. Active Opposition to the Government has to start now. This is day one of the 2011 campaign.

Under Clark and Cullen's management, this country has seen nine years of economic stability, until very recently, and they can hardly be held responsible for that. On top of that, it has been a great season of progressive reform: the success of KiwiSaver, the establishment of a centrally owned bank in KiwiBank, the right for same-sex and secular couples to recognised Civil Unions, the legalisation and regulation of prostitution, the removal of the excuse of reasonable force in child abuse cases, the 'clean slate bill' wiping your criminal record for ancient minor offences, the banning of smoking cigarettes in bars/clubs/restaurants/schools/offices, the reacquisition of the national rail system, the unbundling of Telecom's monopolistic practices, finally establishing a systemic working solution to the national climate change responsibility, the Working For Families scheme offering necessary relief to stay-at-home parents, nationalising the compensation industry and removing the interest charged on student loans for active students and graduates living in New Zealand make up a short but breathless list.

It hasn't all been bread and roses, as they say, and seeing as Phil Goff's meddling in the Justice Dept is some of the ugliest, it is ominous that he is being tipped as the replacement for Labour's outgoing leader. Labour seem to be making a push to the centre. It's no small sign that they put forward Clare Curran (from P.R) rather than Don Pryde (EPMU - President - who eventually fought the losing battle against Bill English in Clutha-Southland) in the safety of David Benson-Pope's empty Dunedin South seat. They are looking to the future, and that doesn't seem to include their working class roots as much as many would like, with some consolation coming from the oft-tipped Andrew Little (EPMU - National Secretary) to fill the shoes of Labour Party President Mike Williams. With the advent of a slightly diluted version of Wayne Mapp's notorious 90-Day Probation Policy just around the corner, giving employers of twenty employees or less the right to fire workers without recourse to Personal Grievance claims, the centre-left could use some gnashing Union Teeth.

There is new blood in Labour's ranks, despite the carnage, but the centre-left, inside and outside of politics, needs to be far more active in the next three years. History suggests National will get at least a couple of terms in, but it isn't unachievable for Labour to revive itself in 2011 to the same degree National did in 2005. And the Greens, sadly, learned that fighting a Presidential campaign without a personality to lead it can only get you so far, even if you have the best billboards and t-shirts. The Greens need profilic representatives, or candidates at least, to bring them the attention they will need to push on past being simply the 'best of the rest'. The real challenge is who will step up in the Beehive and challenge the New Right? Clark and Cullen may or not be around the full term, and like his politics or not, you have to admit having Winston Peters around would have been useful for sheer antagonism. I mean, Trevor Mallard can't do it all himself.

So, a sombre and sobering result for the nation, perhaps. Or a call to arms for the socially aware, most optimistically. Disaffected liberals are the centre-left's biggest enemy, and frustratingly, it would seem, some of the most difficult people to mobilise. The lack of voter numbers in Auckland Central, for example, let a 28 year-old middle manager with no political experience waltz into one of the most crucial seats in the country. What will it take to get the cool kids to vote? Bomber Bradbury for Auckland Central in 2011? Perhaps for the Greens? It might well take someone with their own television channel at their disposal to break the conservative grip over the news media. When the media scrum tried to get at Key, who needed a team of SIS thugs at his own party HQ, it seemed to be the first time they were prepared to question their idol. Wait until the King has been crowned, and then it's safe to find out his glaring inadequacies. Their self-made prophecy came true, because nobody doubted them.

Through it all, I suppose, it may be bad news for bureaucrats, but it could be boom times for punditry and satire. The latter of these could prove to be a useful mode of engaging a tough and media savvy demographic the way that Neo-Liberalism seems to make the 20 and 30-something Commerce grads wet. Gateway politics, maybe?

I promise more optimistic distractions next time, but in the meantime, the most retarded band promo, in a hilariously feline way, is right there for you to stare blankly at.