A Savage attack on Labour
Bill is also a writer, and his 2006 novel Song of the Brakeman has attracted both acclaim and scorn from local literary critics. The New Zealand Review of Books criticised Brakeman for being too complex for New Zealanders to understand; by contrast, a reviewer for the venerable literary journal Landfall found the novel 'immensely entertaining'.
In an interview last year with the Dunedin student magazine Critic, Bill said that Song of the Brakeman was written partly as an attack on US foreign policy. The scenes of imprisonment and torture in the novel were, Bill said, inspired by reports from the US 'facility for illegal combatants' at Guantanamo Bay. Bill made another political statement when he and The Builders headlined a benefit gig for the victims of the police raids on pro-Tuhoe activists last year.
Next week Bill will mix music and politics once again, when he launches a new mini-album called Songs for Mickey Joe at the Alleluya Cafe on Auckland's Karangahape Road. The album looks back to the 1930s, and the popular movement that brought Michael Joseph Savage and New Zealand's first Labour government to power, in an effort to draw some lessons for present-day New Zealand. Songs for Mickey Joe is being issued by Powertool Records, and it will be unveiled alongside Enclosures, the new 'short novel in five parts' Bill is publishing with Titus Books. Bill will be reading from Enclosures and playing songs from his new album at the Alleluya. You can listen to one of the tracks off Songs for Mickey Joe and watch one of Bill's quirky 'stick videos' here.
Reading the Maps asked Bill about the message behind his new music...
What interests you about 'Mickey Joe' - Michael Joseph Savage - and the first Labour government?
I was born the year the second Labour government came to power. I grew up during twelve years of National rule. Until the fourth Labour Government, Labour represented a true alternative to selfish, blinkered, uncreative National. Until Labour gained REAL power, that is. The poet and playwright Alan Brunton approached me in 1990 with the idea of putting his words to music. His words would be based on the speeches of Michael Joseph Savage. The idea appealed. Where had Labour gone wrong?
I knew Alan already, and admired both his poetry and his theatrical activities. We were neighbours. I lived in Newtown and he in Island Bay. We both staged performances at the Newtown Community Centre in which our children took part. So I agreed. Alan asked only that the arrangements have the flavour of piano songs from the beginning of the century while capturing something of the aspect of political Messiah that many working people had for Savage. So it was Alan's idea. It was he who was drawn by Savage. However we had discussed with each other (and were shocked by) the steady erosion of the care-based State during the eighties by MPs elected on a Labour ticket.
Note that his play was called Comrade Savage. It was published after the first performances. When he gave me a bagful of lyrics the play had not taken on the 'final' published shape. My album is called Songs for Mickey Joe and not Songs from Comrade Savage because not all the songs I fashioned out of his lyrics were used in the final production. Performances of the play took place over several years using some of my recordings and some instrumental recordings or live work by Michelle Scullion as soundtracks. The lyrics of some of 'my' songs do not appear in the playscript.
Does Comrade Savage have a political message for us today? Should the Labour government of our day listen to it? Could it help them avoid electoral disaster later this year?
The release of this mini-album of songs highlighting the suffering of the unemployed and dispossessed of the 1930s can only help to bring about the end of the current Labour Government. Capitalism relies upon exploitation, and New Zealand society is becoming like a monster that is feeding upon itself, upon its own people.
A new party is needed, one that will provide a true alternative to Labour. People are tired of Labour and through boredom they are going to choose any of the right-wing alternatives. What we need is not a centrist Labour Party, we need a left alternative, so that democracy can really function. The people, especially those who are suffering, who have no hope, poor health care, and whose children are getting brainwashed with dodgy ideas from corporate-controlled television and internet sources have no alternative to Labour. Democracy is in danger.
What's it like recording an album of New Zealandocentric material in faraway Paris? Did the location help or hinder you?
I am a New Zealander. The New Zealand story is my story. My grandfather, a lino-typesetter after he returned from 3 and a half years in Western Europe fighting for NZ (World War 1) lost his job in the '30s. He worked on Savage relief schemes, such as quarrying stone and building breakwaters. My dad grew up in extreme poverty. I had a privileged childhood thanks to his success in life, but the last thirty years I've been on the bones of my bum (like most other musicians and artists who do not make marketable product). I know a wee bit about the tough side of life.
If anyone is interested in Savage, they should buy this mini-album. If they are are interested in Alan Brunton, get hold of his Bumper publications and other poetry. If they are interested in my philosophy I suggest they get hold of my new book Enclosures and take a look at the music-video of the song 'Fewer than Few', on You Tube. That song does have my own lyrics. I am a bit pessimistic these days, but that doesn't mean the fight is lost.