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.
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]