Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

The-Chills-For-WebsiteIt all started with a few mixtapes.

mens-black-nz-music-month-2019-teeMy first exposure to New Zealand music was a high school girlfriend, who put Crowded House’s Temple Of Low Men on a tape and hit me right in the feels. My second a few years later was another mix tape, by a Kiwi I’d been pen pals with in the pre-internet days, of “Noisyland Music” that included bands with weird names like The Chills, The Clean, JPSE and The Verlaines. (Dear reader, I married said Kiwi and we’re coming up on our 20th anniversary this year, good god.) 

The Chills were the ones that hooked me. They didn’t sound quite like anything else this Mississippi college student was listening to, spooky and atmospheric and achingly pretty. “Pink Frost” bubbled through the cassette player in my battered VW Rabbit and it sounded like transmissions from another world. 

Songs like “I Love My Leather Jacket,” “Kaleidoscope World” and “Heavenly Pop Hit” were clever and catchy, soaked in that peculiar sense of isolation and grey-skies mysticism that music coming from an island on the bottom of the world has. Pre-internet, NZ could be a lonely, alternately stifling and cozy place, and The Chills more than anything caught that zeitgeist in their music. And that voice – lead singer/songwriter Martin Phillipps really was The Chills, and the gorgeous ache of his voice the heart of their songs. 

Since I heard those crackly mix tapes decades ago, I’ve moved to New Zealand, become a citizen, listened to a couple hundred NZ bands, great to awful, watched our Lorde and saviour take over the music world for a little while, and through it all I’ve always had a soft spot for The Chills. 

Last night we watched a wonderful new documentary, The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps, which told of the ups and downs of this seminal NZ band, and featured both a Q&A and acoustic set by Phillipps afterwards. It was a great night, a full house of people who grew up with the Chills since their Dunedin days and those like me who stumbled across them on the other side of the world. 

The Chills story is that of a million other bands – scrappy beginning, a few minor hits, hard yards of global touring, and then swept up by a record label that doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Cue drugs, drink, label stoushes and a revolving door of more than 30 (!) band members in Phillipps’ orbit over the years. Yet the low-key charm and honesty of Phillipps and the band members keeps the film’s sadly common tale fresh. 

A diagnosis of Hepatitis C might have spelled the end of Phillipps’ story, but the marvellously intimate documentary has some surprises in store. It breezily moves back and forth between the Chills’ rise and fall and Martin Phillipps today, in his cluttered Dunedin home, navigating dreadful hospital visits and still trying to give the band another go. 

Best of all, it was great to see Phillipps after the show chatting with the crowd, happy and healthy after the wilderness years, well into his third act and keeping the Chills as mind-bogglingly cool as ever. He played “Pink Frost,” of course, in a haunting acoustic version, and as the chords warbled throughout the theatre I could close my eyes and almost imagine them playing again on that mix tape, a million years ago and 6,000 miles away. 

Robert A. Caro and digging into the American Dream with LBJ

mag-15Caro-t_CA0-jumboI’m a sucker for a good presidential biography, even as I loathe the orange troll currently occupying the White House. There’s something about the life sagas of America’s leaders that fascinates me, from the legends like Lincoln or Roosevelt to the sad sacks like James Buchanan. 

I’ve read dozens of ‘em, but if I had to pick the best, I’d single out Robert A. Caro’s sprawling four-volume (so far) life of Lyndon B. Johnson. I’m re-reading the first book, The Path To Power, for the first time in years. 

Caro is having a moment right now, with a short memoir (“Working”) just out as he labours away on the fifth and final book of LBJ’s life and times, a monument in prose he’s been working on for an astonishing 45 years or so now. At 83, Caro is in his autumn, but many a fan like me hopes he makes it to the finish line on what is one of the finest examinations of a leader and his times ever written. Forget Game of Thrones, this is the saga I want to see finished off.

170px-Lyndon_B._Johnson_-_15-13-2_-_ca._1915As a researcher and a journalist, Caro has few peers. The man is a human vacuum cleaner, sucking up every single factoid possible to craft fully rounded tales – he famously moved to the Hill Country of Texas with his wife to research LBJ’s boyhood years, and The Path To Power shows the painstaking time he took in its vibrant invocation of a long-gone era of hardened farmers and struggling families in a hostile land. 

Re-reading The Path To Power, I’m struck by Caro’s digressions and how they never feel like digressions. In most biographies a straight line is drawn from “A” (brief sketches of parents and family history, birth of subject) to “B” (subject’s life and career begins). But Caro lingers in the telling details, making us understand the infertile dirt which birthed LBJ, such as a short chapter about what life pre-electricity really felt like for the Hill Country farmers and wives – and that’s where his work comes most alive. Thirteen pages painstakingly detailing the work Hill Country women would do to wash and iron clothes without electricity is riveting:

More than once, and more than twice, a stooped and bent Hill Country farm wife says, “You see how round-shouldered I am? Well, that’s from hauling the water.” And, she will often add, “I was round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent when I was still young.” 

0cd909cfbc5bacfb7fd48e2a43a493eaCaro takes the time to get it right, and while 5 volumes and 5000 or so pages about one man’s life may seem excessive, other, shorter biographies I’ve read about LBJ seem like Cliff’s notes skimming over the surface compared to the richness of this work. 

You don’t have to be a fan of LBJ to admire Caro’s work, which frequently points out Johnson’s selfish, ambitious and often cruel narcissism – but always counterpoints it with his knack for the common touch, or how the haunting memory of his poverty in the Hill Country never, ever left the man, even when he became President of the United States. The first book of the four so far only takes us to 1941, but in its 700+ pages is the story of an entire cosmos. 

I’m dying for Caro’s final volume because it will at long last tackle the Vietnam years, an era which scuttled forevermore much of LBJ’s achievements and blotted out his remarkable civil rights work with blood in the jungle. There’s something Shakespearean about the lives of most of our presidents, but never more so than with LBJ – a poor boy from Texas who always wanted to be President, who got there in the worst way possible, and who lost everything over his intransigence on a war on the other side of the world.

Caro is our guide through a life that evokes everything good and bad about the American dream, and it’s a pleasure to dive again into his works. 

Review: Mavis Staples and Tami Neilson, Civic Theatre, April 23, Auckland

I’ve realised in recent years that if you have a chance to see a legend, you see the legend. I saw Prince perform just two months before he died, but I’ll always regret not seeing Leonard Cohen giving his last concert ever in Auckland or missing out on what turned out to be David Bowie’s final tour in 2004. 

mavis-tami-auckland-live-v21133x628So when soul legend Mavis Staples came to town, I made sure to be there because I didn’t want to miss what might be my only chance to see her way down here in NZ.  That may sound a bit morbid, but honestly, Mavis and outstanding opening act Tami Neilson were actually one of the most life-affirming, optimistic shows I’ve been to in ages. In a time when the news seems to bring us down almost every day, you need a little Mavis Staples singing that “love is the only transportation.”

It’s hard to sum up just how awesome Mavis Staples’ career has been. She’s been singing since 1950, when she was just 11 years old, with the family Staple Singers. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Bob Dylan wanted to marry her. She’s worked with everyone from Prince to Jeff Tweedy to Curtis Mayfield. Songs like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” are part of American history.

IMG_5784Today, Mavis Staples is a few months away from 80 years old, she’s barely five feet tall, and she was obviously nursing a sore throat, but she still tore the roof off the Civic Theatre in Auckland with her soaring voice and inspirational message. 

Backed up by a crack back-up band, for an hour or so she took us through soul and gospel history, covering Funkadelic and the Talking Heads, and hammering home her message of positivity against the odds – “Build a Bridge,” “We Get By,” “No Time For Cryin’” – it’s all about rising up and carrying on. Mavis even joked that she might run for President. I’d vote for her in a second over the current occupant. 

1528670891846Opening for Mavis was the wonderful Tami Neilson, a Canadian/New Zealander country singer I’ve been wanting to see for ages. She didn’t disappoint, nearly managing to actually upstage Mavis Staples with a rip-roaring fierce set of her rockabilly/country anthems. She’s got a stunning stage presence, all retro charm and easygoing charisma. Neilson’s got a voice like Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton had a super-charged baby and she let it tear through the Civic. Stragglers who wandered in late because they’re too cool to see an opening act were missing one of the best performances I’ve seen in ages, proud and strong and every way a match for Mavis Staples. If you don’t know Tami Neilson, check her out. I’d say she’s on her way to being a legend, too. 

The woman behind the monster: ‘Lady From The Black Lagoon’

344445_poster_lI’ve written often before about my undying love for Creature From The Black Lagoon. It’s one of the best Universal monster movies of all time, a fantastic creepy love story with a fairy tale’s elegance and one of the most unforgettable monsters of all time. As a fanboy, I thought I knew almost all there was to know about it. 

Mallory O’Meara’s fascinating new biography “The Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick” dredges the swamps of the past, unearthing the story of a forgotten pioneer for women in film in a witty, bittersweet and fierce look at Hollywood’s golden age. 

Milicent Patrick (1915-1998) was never quite a Hollywood superstar. She was a talented artist and designer, a model and a minor actress in a slew of b-movies. But she had a keen creative eye and before her career was derailed by depressingly familiar sexism, she worked for Walt Disney as one of very few women in animation (including on the classic “Fantasia”) and later on, she designed creatures for movies like “This Island Earth.” 

a15d5c39bb5d653cb6b184f45682ccbeBut her biggest claim to glory today is that she designed the epic look of the Creature From The Black Lagoon. The Creature is, I’d argue, the second-best monster design of all time (sorry, but Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster has to take the top crown). It’s alien, yet human; terrifying, yet captivating. 

Unfortunately, the elegant, humble Patrick rarely got the credit she deserved for the work – a nasty piece of work named Bud Westmore who ran makeup for Universal Studios took all the credit, and later fired her entirely when Patrick actually started to get some acclaim for her designs (and ample publicity for what, at the time, was a novelty of an attractive young woman working in horror movies). That same sad story of a poor excuse for a man destroying a talented woman’s livelihood can be found a thousand times in Hollywood history. 

“Lagoon” is an often angry book – O’Meara’s conversational, amiably digressive style makes it very clear how personally she takes the tale of Patrick’s rise and fall. Women are often treated worst of all in traditionally male-dominated industries. You don’t have to look further than outraged fanboy reactions to “Captain Marvel” or “The Last Jedi” to see how cancerous the worst of fossilised blokes can be. Patrick went on to have a pretty decent life post-Hollywood, but you still wonder what could’ve been. I love the classic Hollywood films, but you just can’t ignore that they were a very male-dominated, non-diverse world, and think about how many Milicent Patricks were out there.  

01chapmanMonster.popIn “Lagoon,” O’Meara also shows the hard work that goes into the biography of a somewhat obscure person, hunting down leads and tracing dusty steps in the past. The story is as much about her and her experiences as a young woman in Hollywood as it is about Milicent Patrick. Some of the anecdotes O’Meara tells of her own treatment are truly dismaying, especially because they are all too common. The real monsters are still out there in Hollywood, hiding in broad daylight.

“Lady From the Black Lagoon” is well worth reading for any fan of classic film, and O’Meara deserves applause for shining a spotlight on the many unremembered women who played a part – and deserved to play a bigger one – in crafting the films and creatures that haunt our dreams. 

Give me animation: The Disney remakes nobody ever really asked for

fullwidth.21a338c9So the first autumn cold of the season hit the household, and I spent most of a day prone on the couch undertaking a surefire cure for the blues: Cartoons. 

I mainlined a bunch of old Disney classics I hadn’t seen in years in between sips of lemon tea, like “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo” and “Beauty and the Beast.” And for the first time in ages I saw them through childlike (and decongestant-addled) eyes, as the remarkable works of art they are. Thousands and thousands of hours of labour went into their creation. Watching the lush colours and textures of “Pinocchio” unfold, it’s hard to imagine that this was only a decade removed from the black-and-white doodles of “Steamboat Willie.”

Disney is this kind of insanely massive corporate monolith these days, and that sometimes obscures the creative legacy of the company. Sure, they patented Corporate Cuteness (TM) and there is often a bland, monocultural sameness to much of their work. Yet at their best, the classics mainline the universal themes of the fairy tales they’re often based on to hit some primal notes. 

c03a6b0aa4c0296c0e21828cb06b7326I’d forgotten how bloody DARK “Dumbo” and “Pinocchio” are. There’s runaway children sold into slavery, a mother placed in chains, cruelty from the cartooniest of funny animals. (And we won’t even talk about “Bambi.”) 

The monolith Disney of 2019 is bashing out product on many fronts, some great (Marvel hasn’t put a foot wrong), some less. The frenetic urge to remake their animated classics with technically gorgeous, ultimately heartless CGI “live action” versions is pretty depressing. 

As pop culture continues to eat itself, Disney is avidly mining everything from “Beauty and the Beast” to “The Lion King” and “Mulan” for slick retellings that for all their pizazz never really live up to the simpler hand-drawn lines and colours of their inspirations. I’ve watched a few of these “remakes” and they vanish in the mind like mist, yet images from the original cartoons are un-eraseable. 

aladdin-genieI watched the upcoming “Lion King” trailer and I just felt bored. I don’t hate these remakes, but they seem pointless, just more grist for Scrooge McDuck’s vaults. They’re stretched out (1941 “Dumbo” 64 minutes; 2019 “Dumbo” 112) and excessive elaborations of the gorgeous simple lines of the originals. What’s cute becomes creepy rendered in vivid CGI — blue Will Smith in the also upcoming “Aladdin” remake is something I never really needed to see, and it’s kind of freaking me out. 

The real creativity was seen in the labouring of men and women working in the ‘30s and ‘40s on perfecting an amazing new art form of animation. Their work hasn’t dated in nearly 80 years. 

hqdefaultThere’s nothing I’ve seen yet in a CGI cartoon remake that approaches the stunning surrealism of the original “Pink Elephants on parade” sequence of “Dumbo” or the explosion of colour and passion of “Fantasia.” There have been lots of great original CGI cartoons from Pixar and the like of course, but Disney’s flood of redundant remakes is like a gift nobody really asked for.

Give me an original cartoon every time; it’s the cure for what ails me. 

The play that never ends: ‘Hamlet’

IMG_5196Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. — Polonious

I’ve been living in Hamlet-land for the past 8 weeks or so, a strange foggy kingdom full of ghosts and daggers and soliloquies that haunt the brain. 

As mentioned before, I’ve been volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe replica of Shakespeare’s famed theatre here in Auckland again this summer, for the third season in a row. The centrepiece of this season for me was what’s pretty much the most famous play in history, “Hamlet.”

There’s nothing like watching a play seven, eight, nine times or more to have it seep into your pores, and the Pop-Up Globe put on a marvellous version of Hamlet led by an excellent energetic Adrian Hooke in the title role (and Summer Millett as an outstanding, vivid Ophelia). Watching the show from all around the theatre, with crowds of uniform-clad school kids and groups of Shakspeare fans of all ages from 8 to 80, you can see how this enigmatic, blazing fire of a play has lasted more than 400 years. 

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. — Hamlet

IMG_5200As I’ve said before, I find Shakespeare bottomless – an infinity of meanings can be found in his works, and new twists reveal themselves in every new look. Hamlet is perhaps his crowning jewel as an artist, a play about a young man who asks the question every single one of us asks at some point in our lives: To be? Or not to be?

To sleep, perchance to dream: — ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? — Hamlet

During my month or so of Hamlet, I read books about the play – Harold Bloom’s erudite “Hamlet: Poem Unlimited” and Dominic Dromgoole’s very entertaining travelogue of the London Globe’s worldwide tour of the play and the meanings wrung out of it, “Hamlet: Globe By Globe.” I watched Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, based on his play which takes two minor characters and spins an entire side story out of them. On the bedside table awaiting a re-read is John Updike’s “Gertrude and Claudius,” a prequel. Hell, I even watched the unforgettable trailer for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hamlet (from The Last Action Hero, it’s a movie that never really was, but geez how weirdly cool would that be?). Hamlet is impossible to avoid in life. 

We defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. — Hamlet

I’d play a mental game of just how many turns of phrase, famous titles and sayings sprang from Hamlet. It’s long enough to span its own comprehensive Wikipedia page. Hamlet is everywhere. It’s in the crazy goofy McKenzie brothers comedy “Strange Brew” I watched 117 times in the mid-1980s. The Lion King. David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest.” The popular NZ TV series Outrageous Fortune. Philip K. Dick’s “Time Out of Joint.” Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind” song. Hell, even a “Star Trek” movie (Part 6: The Undiscovered Country, of course). 

IMG_5582What does it all mean? After hours and hours of Hamlet this season, I’m still not quite sure.

It’s about a young man facing up to his future. It’s about revenge. It’s about lost love and death and the impossibility of a human being ever truly knowing what’s out there beyond the veil. It’s about some terrible decision-making and some mighty low-down bloody actions. In short it’s a bottomless voyage into the human experience and somehow a guy from Stratford-Upon-Avon hit upon universal themes and truths that we’re all still grappling with centuries later. It’s Hamlet, and we never finish it, not really. 

We know what we are, but know not what we may be. — Ophelia

It’s the end of the world and I like it: The Doom Patrol

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I didn’t have high hopes for a Doom Patrol TV series. We’re living in an age where comics as obscure as bloody Cloak And Dagger are getting a show, and I was afraid I’d see one of my favourite comic books of all time churned up and turned into mediocre, forgettable content for the masses.

I’m glad I gave it a shot, because so far Doom Patrol is living up to the surreal, crazed and humane comics it’s inspired by. It’s superheroes for those who are actually getting a little sick of superheroes. 

dp94Doom Patrol have always been weird, a team of misfits and outcasts kind of like the X-Men, but more so. Their original 1960s comic adventures are a bizarro Silver Age blast, but “my” Doom Patrol really burst into being with Grant Morrison’s seminal late 1980s reinvention of the concept. Morrison’s twin masterpieces of Doom Patrol and Animal Man back in the day blew my teenage mind. 

Drawing on dadaism, obscure German fairy tales, psychology, philosophy and mythology, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol was unlike any other comic book. Hermaphrodite superhero? Check. Sentient transvestite street? Check. Paintings that come to life and eat people? Check. Gorillas and disembodied human brains falling in love? Check!

The Doom Patrol are broken people – “Robotman” Cliff Steele (terrifically voiced by Brendan Fraser) is a human brain in a robot’s body, “Negative Man” Larry Trainor is a crash victim inhabited by a bizarre ‘negative spirit,’ “Elastic Girl” Rita Farr is a Hollywood star left trying to cover up her disfigured plastic flesh, “Crazy” Jane is an abuse victim split into multiple personalities, each with its own superpower. Even more than the X-Men, they’re freaks of nature. The “X-Men” movies long ago lost their primary theme of outcasts and prejudice in a muddle of tangled continuity and Magneto blowing shit up. 

The TV show doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and pathos of their conditions, and makes them the perfect foils for a world of escalating weirdness and threats. The TV show also adds the character Cyborg, last seen played with incredible dullness in the muddled “Justice League” movie a year or two back. Cyborg is far better here, a voice of relative normality, albeit still damaged, with Joivan Wade giving an excellent performance. 

53811008_402606643871269_5458107167754158080_nOne of the newer of the approximately 419 streaming services out there, DC Universe premiered last year with Titans, which was a mixed success for me – I dug seeing the “Teen Titans” come to life and there were some great parts, but the show had very scattered storytelling and a self-consciously adult tone that felt forced (Unless you really thought we needed to have a blood-soaked Robin muttering “F—- Batman” to make the character work better). Doom Patrol is more adult by nature, so the swearing and mature themes work better (I’ll never get tired of hearing Cliff Steele aka Robotman saying, “What the F—-!?!?” in response to Doom Patrol’s never-ending parade of weirdness). 

Doom Patrol stands out among a sea of super heroism because it embraces the comics’ fundamental strangeness rather than rejecting it with a veneer of gritty ‘realism’. No other big-budget superhero show this year will feature a donkey that doubles as a dimensional portal, unless Avengers: Endgame is hiding some major secrets.

Doom Patrol reminds us of how gloriously wacky comics can be, and how the most damaged and deformed of us can still find a way to save the world sometimes.