17 February 2019

Measure For Measure

Photos from Saturday night's performance of Measure For Measure at the Pop-up Globe, Ellerslie, Auckland. A zesty cast in fine voice, playing a pleasingly un-Bowdlerised script.  

Matu Ngaropo as the Provost

Rebecca Rogers as Isabella

14 February 2019

Rich pickings at the Boston Tea Party

As a child of the 1970s who later developed a fascination with the music of the '60s, the signature tunes of my youth ran the gamut from Remember You're A Womble to Marrakesh Express - the latter offering the rich irony of an innocent New Zealand youth singing along with an admittedly catchy tune about hippies taking a train down to Morocco to score masses of hashish. My only liability was entering my years of musical maturity in a period of lamentable poverty for popular music. My later teenage years in the late 1980s occurred during the nadir of Italo House and the dirge- and nihilism-laden grunge era. I'd never even heard of the wonderful Stone Roses; instead, Stock Aitken Waterman sprayed the charts with their insipid clones and endless boy-bands crooned and preened.

Once I finally discovered a broader palate of musical choices beyond the commercial radio many of my classmates listened to after school (and in Onehunga this usually meant either listening to 89FM or 91FM, which were largely identical) I never looked back at the charts until the Britpop boom in the UK restored melodic songwriting to the public consciousness for a few years. Starting with the Beatles and moving to Bowie and Northern Soul, I quickly learned that there were rich pickings on offer in the back catalogues of the American and British artists inspired by the British beat explosion.

The only problem was, I came along too late to see most of these artists perform in their prime. I was lucky to see Paul McCartney twice, in Auckland on 27 March 1993 and in Hyde Park for Hard Rock Calling on 27 June 2010. At the latter all-day event I was delighted to see Crosby, Stills & Nash. David Bowie also played a notoriously drenched Stadium in Wellington on 14 February 2004, and it was a thrill to see him, even if he was miles away and the sound quality was poor thanks to the wafting downpour.

Bob in Waikanae, December 2018
However, one person who has seen some other legendary artists is my former workmate Bob Bunch. Now happily retired on the Kapiti Coast, Bob grew up in Boston and was able to see many key artists from the late '60s and early '70s playing gigs in Boston, New York and San Francisco before he emigrated to New Zealand in 1972. Bob cites the happy memory of the centrality of music in American youth culture, and has fond memories of the bands he enjoyed live in the era in which anyone over the advanced age of 30 was viewed with the deepest suspicion. There were rich pickings on offer for committed gig-goers. When Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone came out on 20 July 1965 it had a major impact on Bob's Boston high-school circle - everyone realised they were living in exciting times for music. A precocious friend caught the Rolling Stones with a scant few hundred others in Lynn, Massachusetts in June 1966 - a concert that was disrupted by a riot and police teargas.

Boston had its own vibrant music scene - The Standells' 1966 local hit, the Stones-alike Dirty Water, is still played at Red Sox matches - and Bob was studying at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, 'which was for the kids who couldn't afford Amherst'. Bob and his friends used to visit the Unicorn at 825 Boylston St (now the site of a gleaming corporate Apple Store) to see folk artist Phil Ochs and gird their courage to perform at the Monday night open mic session. Another venue he frequented, Club Mount Auburn 47 (Club 47 for short), was discussed way back in 1963 by Joseph Boyd in the Harvard Crimson, who said it 'provides folk music of generally high quality and variety by both local and out-of-town performers. For a basic door charge of $1.00 you can listen to good music without being pestered to buy expensive food and drink'. Bob says that Club 47 was where Harvard Square folkies, and college and high school kids could hang out and hear their favourite artists perform at close quarters.

Bob also took advantage of family ties, journeying to Manhattan in the summer of 1967 to stay with his sister in an East Village tenement, where a traditional meal was New York-style pizza that could easily be obtained at 4.45am. He saw the Doors just after Light My Fire first came out and twice saw the Yardbirds. The first time was when Jeff Beck was in the group and their hit song Shape of Things was out. The second time, approximately a year later, he saw the group sans Beck playing to a half empty house, thereby demonstrating the truth of 'fleeting fame'.

The soon-to-be-legendary Fillmore East rock venue in the Lower East Side, which promoter Bill Graham opened in March 1968, was a Mecca for such music lovers. In its first year it featured an opening night performance by Big Brother & the Holding Company, Tim Buckley and Albert King, and on 10 May 1968 featured what must have been a spectacular double-bill of Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. (See the end of this post for some Fillmore & Tea Party clips)

Boston also hosted a famous gig by the Velvet Underground at the Boston Tea Party club, which was housed in an old church. The allure of the place was sealed by the widely-believed rumour that its opening night on 20 January 1967 featured a clandestine appearance in the crowd by none other than John Lennon. (Which was unfortunately a myth - on that day John was with the other Beatles at Abbey Rd recording A Day in the Life for Sgt Pepper's). On 12 December 1968 Bob saw the Velvets at the Tea Party with his then girlfriend, who would later become his first wife. Her ex-boyfriend happened to be Hans Onsager, the Velvets' road manager, and Bob and Vicki used to hang out and play chess with him. Young Doug Yule, who joined the Velvets to replace John Cale, got his 'in' to the group by being Onsager's tenant in Boston.

The Tea Party hosted a wide array of amazing performances in its time. It was a hallmark of Boston's cutting edge taste in music that the Tea Party would have a larger crowd for the Velvets than for the Doors, whose national popularity was at its peak. Bob was always impressed with the hypnotic inventiveness of the Velvets' performances and recordings, and noted that it wasn't all rock 'n roll excess: their then drummer, Maureen 'Moe' Tucker would attend church every Sunday.

In 1967, having moved to the West Coast, Bob also saw the Velvets play the Fillmore West, the precursor of the Fillmore East, and other clubs like The Matrix. Hans took Bob and his girlfriend back stage after a show where they caught up with Doug Yule again, and met Stirling Morrison and Maureen Tucker as they were packing their gear (Lou wasn't there). The Velvets injected an air of East Coast danger and otherness into the City of Brotherly Love. Alex Abramovich in the New Yorker writes of those 1969 West Coast Velvets gigs:

By 1969, the Velvets had shaded lighter. Warhol, Nico, and Cale were all gone. (Cale’s replacement, Doug Yule, was a talented but conventional rock and roller from Boston, barely out of his teens.) For their third album, V.U.’s frontman, Lou Reed, had written exquisite songs—“Pale Blue Eyes,” “Jesus,” and “Candy Says,” which Yule was given to sing—in which the paranoia that marked his earlier ballads, like “Sunday Morning,” had given way to something softer, more searching and spiritual. The Velvets had always contained musical extremes: loud and soft, melodic and dissonant, avant-garde and primitive. By the end of the sixties, their emotional repertoire had become just as broad.

While the performances may have been memorable, the relationship with the promoter wasn't always plain sailing. This 2014 New York Post article reports a testy atmosphere between the Velvets and Bill Graham:

After Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground mocked Fillmore West’s minimal setup, Graham snarls at the band, just as they were to take the stage, “You motherf—ers! I hope you bomb,” remembers Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison. That led Lou Reed to smash the house drum kit on stage, cutting himself with a cymbal in the process. When an enraged Graham stormed to Reed’s dressing room for a dress down, he saw the bleeding man and relented — though only for insurance purposes, the Velvets claim.
What I wouldn't give to have seen some of these amazing gigs! In the meantime, there's always a world of archival clips to peruse endlessly and somewhat obsessively:

Fillmore East

Albert King - Blues Power (1970)
The Who - My Way / C'Mon Everybody (1968)
Sly & the Family Stone - Music Lover (1968)
Jimi Hendrix - Live at the Fillmore East (1968)

Fillmore West

Led Zeppelin - Live at the Fillmore West (1969)
Aretha Franklin - Respect (1971)

Boston Tea Party

Velvet Underground - White Light / White Heat (1968, film by Andy Warhol, featuring Edie Sedgwick)

See also:
Music: A Chickasaw County Child, 5 February 2018
Music: Keith Moon's brandy breakfasts, 4 August 2017
MusicThe last time Paul saw John, 20 September 2015

04 February 2019

The second-oldest submarine in the world?

John Bisset reports that the town of Middlemarch is raising funds to house a derelict submarine, the Platypus. The article notes:

The 150-year-old submarine is thought to be one of only two of its vintage still in existence. "In the history of submarines it's quite amazing and would certainly be the only one ever built in New Zealand," museum curator Dawn Coburn said.
- Stuff, 3 February 2019
Another way of putting it could be to say that the Platypus might be the second-oldest submarine in the world. There's a Confederate submarine, the H.L. Hunley, which sank in Charleston harbour in 1864 along with its target, the US Navy steam sloop USS Housatonic, after a torpedo-ramming run. The Hunley was salvaged in 2000 and currently awaits refurbishment in South Carolina. The Platypus is a mere 10 years younger.

The ODT reported at length on the Platypus' early testing in Otago Harbour in the summer of 1873:

A few venturous individuals were launched with the craft, and loudly their cheers rang out when she took the water fairly and did not turn turtle, but on the contrary, floated as buoyantly and as upright as a dish. The assemblage on shore also cheered, and so did the crew of the Peninsula, which steamer had been engaged to tow the Platypus to Stuart street jetty, where it is to be finished off, and afterwards submitted to its first trial of submergence.
- Otago Daily Times, 24 December 1873

02 February 2019

King Offa covers his bases

When the British chieftains started commissioning their own coins they continued the practice of retaining the original elements of Continental coins, while reflecting their own artistic sensibilities at the same time. It must have been a tricky business. On the one hand individual leaders wanted unique coins; but on the other they had to pass muster in the wider world. The practice of copying coins from elsewhere - particularly those regarded as trusted currency - was one that would continue for centuries. A gold coin made during the reign of the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon King Offa has 'OFFA REX' on one side and the inscription 'THERE IS NO GOD BUT ALLAH ALONE' on the other. For a while it was claimed by some as evidence that Offa had converted to Islam - until it was identified as a copy of an Arabic coin. Islamic gold coins of the Abbasid dynasty were the most trusted in the Mediterranean world at the time and Offa's coin-makers were simply giving their own output the best chance of being accepted as credible tender.

- Neil Oliver, A History of Ancient Britain, 2011

See also:
HistoryThe reputation of Queen Aelfthryth, 4 March 2014
Blog: A sunny day on Dartmoor, 29 April 2011
History: Treasures of Mercia, 17 December 2009