Saturday, June 22, 2013

New Sensations



I have a theory that newspapers fly to Tonga. Like storm petrels and harrier hawks, they tend to flutter down on Nuku'alofa's main drag, dirty and ruffled after their long journey. Because of the time it has taken them to reach the Friendly Islands, papers often lose their news interest. It is hard to get very excited about an election or rugby game which was won or lost months ago.

Last week, though, I was alarmed to pick up a smudged and torn copy of the Guardian in a Nuku'alofa cafe, and learn that, some time in May, Lou Reed had entered a hospital in Cleveland and received an emergency liver transplant. Had the frontman of the Velvet Underground died weeks ago, without anybody to mourn him in the Friendly Islands? I was relieved when I read more of the article, and learned that the great man had come through his ordeal, and was now robust enough to resume the tai chi exercises which have apparently taken up a good deal of his time in recent years.*

When Lou Reed finally dies the obituaries will be full of stories about his days with the Velvet Underground, when he wrote grinding epics with titles like 'Heroin' and 'Waiting for the Man' and shot up on stage, but I've always loved 'New Sensations', a song he released in the mid-'80s, when he had kicked the drugs and booze and developed an unlikely interest in disco.** 'New Sensations' features a Donna Summer-style synth line, and begins with a complaint about the decadence and negativity of life in oh-so-hip New York City.

Complaining that his New York friends are like 'human tuinols', Lou jumps on his new motorbike and heads through the suburbs to the countryside:

I rode to Pennsylvania through the Delaware Gap
Sometimes I got lost and had to check the map
I stopped at a roadside diner for a burger and a coke

There were some country folk and some hunters inside
Somebody got married and somebody else died
I went to the jukebox and played a hillbilly song

They was arguing about football as I waved and went outside
And headed for the mountains feeling warm inside
I love that GPZ so much you know that I could kiss her

Ooh, New Sensations

It's amazing how good those words sound when Lou floats them over a few chords. With its vision of an escape from the corrupt city into a purifying countryside, 'New Sensations' fits easily in the hoary tradition of pastoral literature, alongside the likes of Marvell's 'The Mowing Song' and Hemingway's Fiesta. The song has become something of a private anthem for me, since I rode an aeroplane from Auckland to the tropics and began my labours at the 'Atenisi Institute.
I identify, I suppose, with Lou Reed's exhilaration as he discovers that there is, after all, a world outside the city where he had lived for so long. When I first visited Tonga in 2009 I was impressed by both its strangeness and its relative proximity to the home I knew so well. Here, less than three hours from Auckland, was a society where winter was a traveller's story, where the consumption of narcotics was virtually compulsory, where the dead were treated like living people, where poets were expected to dance as well as write, and where the capitalist mode of production faced determined opposition from an older way of organising the economy. To visit Tonga was to discover the secret, sunlit attic of the house that I had long inhabited.***

We wrapped up the first semester of the year at 'Atenisi this week with an inevitable bowl of kava. For a raw recruit like me, the last sixteen weeks haven't always been easy - there were the floods that submerged the campus, the mosquitoes that covered my arms and legs with bites, so that I looked like a giant join-the-dots puzzle, and the hot days that saw me sweat my way through three shirts - but the exhilaration of escape and discovery - of New Sensations - has not dimmed. I'll be back in mid-July for the next semester.

*I do wonder, though, whether one couldn't practice tai chi in a dangerously weakened state. Doesn't tai chi consist of a series of gentle hand and arm movements, performed at an almost supernaturally slow pace? I always expect birds to mistake the tai chi exercisers who gather in Auckland's Albert Park for statues, and land on their hunched shoulders.

**I don't share the fashionable view that disco was an aesthetic disaster. During his recent visit to Nuku'alofa Murray Edmond argued that punk was the last truly modernist art movement, because it shared with long-lost campaigns like Futurism and Vorticism the belief that it was not only possible but desirable to ignore the whole of history, and build an art that was completely new. Murray argued that later movements like hip hop have sought, in postmodern fashion, to recycle rather than reject the past. He made a good theoretical case for punk, but theory can't, for me at least, atone for the joyless ugliness of bands like the Sex Pistols. I'll take Donna Summer over Johnny Rotten anyday.

***When I say all this I don't mean to imply that Auckland is a decadent, nihilistic town, full of human tuinols. How could anyone condemn a city which is home to the Hard to Find bookshop? Using Tonga to criticise Auckland would, in any case, be incoherent, given that more Tongans live in Auckland than in Nuku'alofa. It can be argued that Auckland is a vast mirror in which the whole of the Pacific can be seen, albeit in sometimes distorted and dark ways. Every Pacific people, from the Tongans to the Tuvaluans to the Nauruans to the Chamorro to the Caldoche, have their representatives in Auckland. Peoples who once clung to remote atolls or Stevensonian volcanic isles now colonise streets and flats in Glen Eden or Glenfield or Glen Innes, bringing their songs and dances and legends with them. To catch a bus from the Tongan and Samoan strongholds of Mangere and Otahuhu to the Fijian streets of Papatoetoe is to repeat ancient vaka journeys across the western Pacific. Anthropologists and historians interested in even the most remote and recondite cultures of the tropical Pacific are more and more often finding themselves beating the streets of Auckland, as they search for manuscripts and artefacts brought south and stored, alongside umu covers and lawnmowers, in suburban sheds and garages.



[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

tonga...lol

9:17 pm  
Blogger Rachel Fenton said...

I love the end of the video.

The idea of Auckland as a mirror is interesting. There's probably truth in it.

9:42 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Lou Reed! I thought he died years ago! I remember only that sinister but intriguing thing by him called 'Walk on the Wild Side' I just looked him up and it was a novel by Algren who looks interesting himself.

I didn't think much of the Lou Reed you have here. But I'm not big on so-called "pop music". Then it occurred to me I'd never listened to any punk music so I YouTubed 'The Sex Pistols' and I found them very good!

Not sure if I will convert to Murray's "philosophy", but he maybe has some points.

The drug taking etc associated with such music is not so good though...

Good old working class anarchistic "fuck you" via music!

Now I'll go back to listening to Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater"...with the sex pistols in one window and Pergolesi in the other. Some interesting philo-psycho intermodulation warp factor distortion tortion is taking place!!

God is battling it out with Sid Vicious & Blake and Milton's (their) beloved Devil!

12:31 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I'm pleased you two liked the video, because Siua Ongosia, aka Swingman, is a talented but sadly unappreciated artist who has been having a tough time of it lately. His lyrics are as good as his melodies, and I've been trying to drum up interest in him here in Auckland. He's never left Tonga, but I can imagine him wowing crowds in Auckland. Two of my students, Ulu and Miko, put me onto Swingman: they consider him a genius, and are hoping to make a film about him. I got them translating his lyrics into English in Creative Writing class.

I'll e mail you both about catching up. I wanted to go to the launch of brief 48 - the Bill Direen-only issue! - the other night, but the weather was appalling and my arm was playing up. I heard from Bill yesterday that a lot of other folks were marooned by the weather. Apparently our friend Ted Jenner is organising a get-together, though...

3:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Follow me into a solo, get in the flow
And you can picture like a photo
Music mix, mellow maintains to make
Melodies for emcees, motivates the breaks
I'm everlasting, I can go on for days and days
With rhyme displays that engrave deep as x-rays
I can take a phrase that's rarely heard
Flip it - now it's a daily word
I can get iller than 'Nam, I kill and bomb
But no alarm - Rakim'll remain calm
Self-esteem makes me super, superb and supreme
But for a microphone, still I fiend
This was a tape, I wasn't supposed to break
I was supposed to wait, but let's motivate
I want to see you keep following and swallowing
Taking and making, biting and borrowing
Brothers tried and others died to get the formula
But I'mma let you sweat, you still ain't formed
You a step away from frozen, stiff as if you're posing
Dig into my brain as the rhyme gets chosen
So follow me and while you're thinking you were first
Let's travel at magnificent speeds around the universe
What could you say as the earth gets further and further away
Planets as small as balls of clay
Astray into the milky way, worlds out of sight
Far as the eye can see not even a satellite
Now stop and turn around and look
As you stare in the darkness, your knowledge is took
So keep staring, soon you suddenly see a star
You better follow it, cause it's the R
This is a lesson if you're guessing and if you're borrowing
Hurry hurry step right up and keep following the leader

4:36 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I'm sorry I didn't (myself) look / listen to "Swingman", I was diverted by the ref. to Punk Rock and Lou Reed etc.

But I will listen to it soon.

Scott - did you go Bill Direen's performance / launch on Saturday? I was just too cold and not in the mood to go anywhere, but I'll be at the launch of Vaughan Rapatahana's book 'Toa' (next month or August I think it is).

8:53 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

You should make sure you identify (there is subtitle facility on the images) any writers or artists you feature on here from Tonga or the Pacific. They are there but seeing their situation: difficult but they are managing well in an interesting environment with this strange parallel environment here in Auckland.

Today my Tongan neighbour seeing the paint and repairs I've done to my house asked for some help.

There were some holes in the walls! (Large holes.) My reaction was to ask him how many sons he has!! (We know there are two.) When he said six I recalled your statement about children and (Tongans) and (looking around to see if he had a TV!) I exclaimed aloud making husband and wife laugh. We painted the wall...(the landlord is inspecting the place in a few days) the only reason I was able to help was I had some gear, some experience painting my own house, but mainly because I looked at a DIY video before I went over.

In so far as the neighbours here have time mostly there is reasonable "togetherness". The "demographic" has changed since I was young here (so there are many nationalities now in NZ (and thus in my suburb)and I think that is increasingly the case world wide).

But I also lived in (South) Otara (became Clover Park) and earlier in (working class and with quite a large Polynesian population) Ponsonby of the 70s.

So NZ is a mirror of Polynesia in many ways. NZrs (myself included) tend to default to thinking that we are in Europe somehow...then it is realised that we are in the Pacific. In Oceania. Not only in - we are Oceania.

The reason your or our Socialists (so-called) and certain "liberals" are not very interested?* I think it is partly that which I recognized in myself, a kind of "residual racism by default" and in other cases I see otherwise quite liberal "revolutionaries" who, when you ask how they are going to effect any good changes point thousands of miles away. Some are quite racist or racist by (how does one define these things?)...Human beings I think have tendency to classify and either to embrace difference, or to avoid it.

I think what you are doing by going to Tonga is close to what socialists and or some Christian idealists and others did when they went to China or the USSR in the early days or maybe now to South America (and other emerging "revolutionary" nations): while they talked they also acted. They made mistakes, they said some of the wrong things, but they learnt and in so far as progress or "spread of" information could happen it did.

I also recall reading E. P. Thompson's famous book on the working class history and the importance shown in it of, as well as more militant actions for progress or justice etc, the "quiet" things such as book or educational societies (somewhat like the later WEAs) for workers that wee repressed. Many of those "oppressed" in the Pacific were those of the working class deported to Australia for reading a book or writing too many letters, as well as sometimes stealing bread to survive.

(The Guantanamos can now be found in the US but what do we know of other imperialist nations' skeletons?)

In this sense, the production of 'The History of the English Working Class' was, as much as (big strikes, bombs thrown at Monarchs, guerrilla wars etc), a revolutionary act.

*Also people spend hours on FB etc and perhaps Blogs are now less "fashionable". There are also these "robot" words which don't seem to stop the endless inane adverts that get through.

9:31 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I see - re Bill.

Pity he was marooned. Haven't had time to study his book but I did see excerpts in other Briefs (they were good indeed).

The weather was o.k. here I was just a bit stressed about driving into the city on a Saturday night.

So Ted is organizing. Aha! I should go and take something if there is something on.

9:45 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I listened to the video and read the lyrics of "Swingman". I it is good for sure. A great flow and interesting word usages and energy and some interesting and unusual image juxtapositions.

10:44 pm  

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