Friday, October 08, 2010

Bill Direen's notes for the Underground

I seem to have spent a bit of time lately working in the nascent, not-very-academic field of Bill Direen Studies. I interviewed Bill on this blog in the middle of the year, after he'd learned that he'd scored a six month residency on the windy slopes of Mt Victoria at the Michael King Centre, and would therefore soon be steering his way from Paris to Auckland. Last month I talked to and about Bill at the Going West literary festival in Titirangi, and helped him negotiate his way home across the alien city afterwards; this week I chatted to him in the film studio at the back of the Depot, Devonport's cosy arts centre.

During this week's interview, which will become part of a series on New Zealand 'Cultural Icons', I asked Bill about the bands which inspired him to pick up a guitar and make a fuzzy noise for Flying Nun in the early '80s. In response, Bill discoursed at length about the Velvet Underground, a group which seems, despite or because of its brief lifespan, small output, and uncompromisingly uncommercial ethos, to have played a part in the musical education of several generations of Kiwi musicians.

With their taste for black rather than tie-dyed clothing, their songs full of imagery from dog-eared bondage and discipline magazines, their Audenesque delight in the industrial ruins of New York, and their aurally brutal rebuke to the good vibes of late '60s Californian hippy acts like Love and Jefferson Airplane, the Velvets were a band that Bill could relate to in the late '70s and early '80s, when he and punk mates like Chris Knox and the Kilgour brothers were waging a guerrilla war against the domination of New Zealand's seedier pubs by Doobie Brothers covers bands.

The Velvets' drummer Maureen Tucker provided some of the defining features of both their sound and their image. Cutting her hair short, scorning dresses and skirts in favour of dark trousers, stripping her drum kit down to almost nothing, and refusing to look at audiences, Tucker provided a mean, minimalist backdrop to songs like 'Heroin', 'Venus in Furs', and 'I'm Set Free'. For scores of Kiwi kids who wanted to play drums but were bored by the self-indulgent histrionics of the likes of Keith Moon and John Bonham, Tucker was a heroine. But while Bill was singing the praises of the Velvets this week, troubling reports about their legendary drummer were circulating through the internet. Maureen Tucker appears to have been featured, more or less by chance, in a news report from a recent rally by the Tea Party, the right-wing movement which is protesting noisily across America against outrages like affordable healthcare, the erection of mosques, and the government bailout of the auto industry.

The Tea Party is riding particularly high at the moment, because it recently got a number of its favourites selected as Republican candidates for November's elections to the House of Representatives and the Senate. Christine O'Donnell, a critic of masturbation and the theory of evolution as well as big government, is rivalling Sarah Palin as the movement's unofficial leader, after edging out an unacceptably moderate Republican in a selection battle in Delaware. In the news clip which has circulated around the net, Tucker says that she is "furious" at the way the Obama administration is leading America "towards socialism". In another statement endorsing the Tea Party that has turned up on the internet, Tucker claims that Obama has a secret "plan to destroy America from within".

Over at the Guardian website, groups of shell-shocked Tucker fans are struggling to make sense of their heroine's transformation from cool, taciturn rock chick into apparent wingnut. Some accuse Tucker of apostasy, others question why they ever considered that she stood on the left politically, and a few wonder whether they can still enjoy her music. One fan suggests utilising new stereo technology and listening to those classic Velvet tracks without the drums.

I'm not disappointed that Tucker has outed herself as a conservative, but I am a little sad that she has thrown her lot in with the Tea Party, a movement which seems to rival our own Paul Henry for intellectual substance. If Tucker wants to be a right-winger, why can't she echo the arguments of, say, Hannah Arendt, or Karl Popper, or Michael Oakeshott, rather than the inanities of Palin and O'Donnell, people insufficiently worldly to realise that Obama's policy agenda, not to mention his continuation of Bush's wars in the Middle East, would put him on the right of the political spectrum in almost any Western country except the United States? There have been plenty of great artists with atrociously right-wing politics - TS Eliot, WB Yeats, and the older Coleridge all spring to mind - but did any of them get so excited about a political movement as downright dumb as the Tea Party?

It is difficult to argue that the Velvet Underground, with their songs about narcotics, electric shock therapy, and sado-masochism, enunciated any sort of political programme, let alone a left-wing political programme. It might well be argued, though, that the Velvets, with their mixture of gauchely shocking images and clever literary allusion, and their unashamed fusion of techniques borrowed from avant-garde classical music with rock and roll rhythms, possessed a subtlety and discrimination which is foreign to the ravings of the likes of Palin and O'Donnell. I think that Tucker might be accused of cultural rather than political apostasy.

If Maureen wants to rethink her political trajectory, and also reflect on her musical legacy, then she could do worse than listen to Mean Time, the album Bill Direen will launch with a gig at Auckland's Kings Arms Tavern on November the seventh. In a statement written to accompany Mean Time, Bill explains that the work is supposed to evoke those Velvet-tinged years of his youth:

This album is very personal but that doesn’t mean it’s an exercise in navel gazing. It is dedicated to the memory of a friend who died ten years ago this year, someone who used to go to see bands play during the proto-punk period (1975-1977) and followed my groups through to their time of mild popularity in the mid-1980s. He moved all around Christchurch and all around the country visiting his friends and listening to music with them.

Punk/Hard/Soft/Folk Rock, honest words and electric guitars from the Velvet Underground to The Sex Pistols, from Question Mark and the Mysterians to Mark E. Smith provided the sound track and inspiration for our thoughts, adventures and quests for a life. Sometimes I think the world was too mean a place for him and other amazing personalities like him.

These songs are a tribute to them all and to a period in time and in New Zealand’s history that was a curious mixture of desperation, anger, long discussions and pure affection. Records and books were at the centre of it all, inspiring everybody, but it was the personalities who kept it going.

A note on the sleeve of Mean Time announces that the album is 'for Tom, who left the gig early'. Direen aficianados will know the part that Tom Scully played in the creation of Beatin Hearts, the Chris Knox-produced album Bill, aka The Builders, cut during a frenetic visit to Auckland in 1983. Early that year Bill had startled the Christchurch musical establishment by entering a Battle of the Bands competition with a pick-up group of buddies, and winning the top prize with ease. As a reward, and perhaps as an inducement to leave town, Bill was given funds to travel to Auckland and record some tracks there. Tom Scully tagged along for the ride, but he had, initially at least, things other than music on his mind. An acute political thinker, a voracious reader, and a man who was both fascinated and disturbed by the human potential for violence and authoritarianism, Scully spent much of the drive up to Auckland telling Bill about his study of the bloodier aspects of Aztec politics and religion.

Impressed but perhaps also wearied by Scully's tales of endless human sacrifices on the altars of stone temples designed according to arcane but rigorous mathematical formulae, Bill encouraged his friend to write down some lyrics about Aztec civilisation. The result was a text called 'Aztec Hearts', which Bill turned into the disturbing, enthralling first track on Beatin Hearts. With a spare, Tuckeresque drum beat and a slow, sinister bass line keeping time in the background, Bill delivered Scully's ode to blood sacrifice in a voice that began by sounding weary, even disgusted, but gradually rose to a pitch of fanaticism. Bill sang the frenzied conclusion to the song again and again, overdubbing each new effort onto the original track, until his voice sounded awful and monumental, like the voice of a God-priest holding a beating heart aloft in the light of a rising midsummer sun:

A million hearts we tear,
the suns behind the sun,
we wield obsidian blades,
reach for the pulsing heart,
the sun inside the sun,
and we shriek, in agony,
and we shriek, in ecstasy
rip out the pulsing heart!
under the pulsing sun
rip out the pulsing heart
the sun behind the sun!
more light! more life!
the sun behind the sun!

'Aztec Hearts' is the only song Tom Scully ever wrote, but it is not an easy song to forget. It sounds, in retrospect, like a reaction, albeit an obscure and eccentric reaction, to the unravelling of New Zealand society in the early '80s, as much as a depiction of the violence of Aztec society. Tom Scully was a fierce opponent of Rob Muldoon, whom he considered responsible for the bloodshed that marked the Springbok rugby tour of 1981. Like Bill and many other young Kiwis, Scully feared that Muldoonism might be a harbinger of fascism downunder. But many of Muldoon's young and radical opponents seem to have been weirdly excited, as well as terrified, by the escalating social conflict in New Zealand in the last years of the strongman's reign. The final conflict between left and right, capital and labour, seemed to be at hand. Perhaps the wave of antipodean violence that the Springbok tour, the assaults on Maori at Bastion Point and Raglan Golf Course and the endless bitter industrial disputes seemed to presage would not be as pointless as the violence of the Aztec priests. Mean Time is Bill's first studio album since Chrysanthemum Storm, a collection of rock songs he laid down with a four-piece band on the eve of his November 2008 tour of New Zealand. A few years earlier he had released the much quieter, much more recalcitrant Human Kindness, which he had recorded solo in a studio high in Switzerland. If Chrysanthemum Storm was a jaunty rocker, Human Kindness was a collection of aural textures and tones.

Bill's new album arguably finds a middle ground between song and atmosphere, noise and quiet. The fact that Bill recorded Mean Time alone in his Paris flat, yet made use of bits and pieces of music mailed electronically from old bandmates in New Zealand, may account for the album's alternating moods of eerie loneliness and loud bonhomie, and for the way it moves between recognisable song-structures and expressionist stretches of abstract sound. Guitars and keyboards squall and drone, and then suddenly come together to form exquisite, delicate melodies over which Bill sings in a frequently distorted voice about exile, loss, and the torment and comfort that memory can provide. Several of the songs on Mean Time offer narratives that are perhaps meant as fantastic allegories for personal experiences and contemporary events, after the manner of 'Aztec Hearts'. On 'Bryon and Eve', for example, Bill sings:

To know the thing before them,
they would have to travel far.
Byron navigated,
she steered the nematode.
His hair was dark, archaic,
she was biblically unkempt:
He was tall and comely,
she was a manly Eve...

The curl of his lip
was no stranger to contempt
The war was over oil
when they ran out of road...
The severed head of Orpheus
floating down from Thrace.
The rest of his belongings
on a sexless ass.
Tribute fell like tears
Eurydice's face on 10,000 golden coins...

The balance Bill has struck between structure and ambient noise on Mean Time is exemplified by his extraordinary version of 'I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night', the oft-recorded folk song which pays tribute to a left-wing trade unionist framed for murder and executed during the First World War. Bill lets the famous tune emerge slowly out of a haze of distorted guitars and keyboards, so that the defiant quality of the lyrics that accompany it is emphasised:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me
Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead,"
"I never died," says he

Mean Time is an album loud and wild enough to recapture the youth of men like Bill Direen and Tom Scully, but quiet and thoughtful enough to offer some perspective on those now-distant years in the late '70s and early '80s, when life was lived for the next gig, the next single, and the next political protest. With its blend of rock and roll and musique concrete, the album has the subtlety of the Velvet Underground records that inspired Bill and his friends to begin making music. Maureen Tucker may have lost the sense of culture and history that made the Velvets so unusual, but one of her greatest admirers is keeping the band's legacy alive.

[You can pre-order Mean Time from Powertool Records. And in case Mean Time isn't enough, Bill has yet another album, a collection of spoken word pieces backed by music improvised by some of his European mates, on the way. Bill will launch Mindful with a performance at the Depot on the twentieth of this month.
I can't resist posting this eleven minute clip of my favourite Velvet Underground song, which has nothing to do with drugs or bondage and discipline or New York chic...]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The September 13 issue of Forbes, the business magazine owned by Bono, has an article by Rhodes College professor Art Carden entitled “Scrap the Minimum Wage.” Carden claims that the minimum wage, which is impossible to live on, “has only destroyed jobs.” Surprisingly, Carden doesn’t volunteer to work for less than the minimum wage himself. According to his theory, that would create several new jobs in the poverty-stricken city of Memphis where he lives.

When Bono bought Forbes he said he liked the magazine because “it has a consistent philosophy.” Little noted when he made the acquisition, this may have been the only time in the 21st century when Bono has been honest in public (e.g. his “African” clothing line is made in China). The “consistent philosophy” of Forbes may be summed up as “It is glorious to be rich.”

The same issue of Forbes which calls for eliminating the minimum wage has a handy list of suggestions for the world’s wealthy people. A few highlights:

“Commit to extreme wealth. For the super-rich, personal wealth creation is a top priority.” [Bono and his U2 bandmates put their already considerable fortunes in a Dutch tax shelter to prevent the Irish government from collecting some of it to distribute to the poor]

“Engage in enlightened self-interest. The super-rich are focused on obtaining their goals and objectives, culminating in great wealth.” [Bono’s handler, Paul McGuinness, has proposed that music fans pay U2 each and every time they listen to one of the band’s songs]

“Connect for profits and results. The super-rich are masters at nodal networking.” [from Arnold Schwarzenegger in California to Dmitry Medvedev in Russia, if there is a politician doing harm in the world Bono is there. Aside from starfucking, the purpose is photo ops which keep Bono’s products and get-poor-quick schemes in the public eye]"

11:26 pm  
Blogger hamshi said...

Neat I'm looking forward to hearing the new Direen albums. It's actually 14 years since 'Human Kindness' came out, which I think is still one of Direen's strongest records (speaking as one of the few obssessive fans to have them all). He did a stunning version of A Million Hearts / Aztec Hearts at the Dogs Bollix a couple of years back, so I'm looking forward to those gigs too.

I was pretty surprised by Mo Tucker embracing Tea Party politics because her solo work had what sounded to me like stridently left-wing lyrics. The VU connection is a bit of red herring here - I was unsurprised when Nico came out as a fascist, Lou Reed as a Bono-hugging liberal, and Angus MacLise as a gullible hippie. But many of Tucker's songs were passionate tirades about a working-class life spent near the poverty line. I guess living somewhere that has virtually no left-wing politics has led some people to look for hope in all the wrong places.

11:58 pm  
Blogger Stuart Page said...

Shit! I didn't know that Tom had left stage right. He was a cool guy, that I met at a Bilders gig I seem to remember, and I failed miserably to keep up with the conversation and alcohol intake... But I remember him being a very bright and opinionated person, vital, and great to be with. Adios Tom!

2:50 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

That's nothing - ask Bill to tell you the trajectory of Giovanni Ferretti. I bet he knows all about it.

(Incidentally, we have this German copy of Nusquama in the house, and neither of us has the faintest clue of how he got there. Plus we can't read German. A veritable literary mystery.)

8:57 am  
Blogger AHD said...

Great review Maps.

Down here in Christchurch, the Dunedin Sound doesn't seem too far away. It still seems to be an all-senses assault on this conservative, smug and prim little place. The Clean's 'Getting Older' still speaks to the same disenchanted University students, albeit in a post-Rogernomics age of student fees, few jobs and ideological assault rather than at the height of it all.

In a sense, I can understand Tucker becoming a right-wing zealot. It's the fantasy of acting at grass-roots, that what she is doing is speaking 'for the people', those unfairly dealt to by government. It's the anarchist in her. Now let's just hope Dave Kilgour doesn't throw his support behind Paul Henry...

10:02 am  
Blogger hamshi said...

This I misunderstood but is still a great song:

10:12 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

billy d uses voodoo to stay on top...

1:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More DIY production from Bill?
Why can't he come into the 21st century and get some slick sounds?


2:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The same red diaper doper babies who elevated The Vichy Chicks to celebrity status with “Shut Up And Sing” are now here to blacklist any entertainer who speaks out against socialism. Yeah, fucks.

I saw this article posted on facebook with scores of catty comments. Dicks.

Maureen worked for IBM. She actually had a desk job and she returned to her old life as the band went away.

Sterling Morrison left to teach and work on a tugboat. So what?

Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico lived the life of a lesser grade rock stars.

Fucking arseholes.

And fuck you cunts too.

Tosspots, fuckwits, shitters, fucks.

4:53 am  
Blogger hamshi said...

Mo was a keypunch operator at IBM, which I guess is technically a desk job.

Good luck with finding socialism in the US to rail against!

9:01 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Note that the Munsters also want to make Presbyterianism the state religion of their new country, according to their website

11:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS Rumour has it that Bill Direen jammed with Nico and Lou Reed when they came to NZ in the '80s. I wonder if he still has those tapes - they'd be worth hearing...

11:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry...Munster comment on wrong thread. Oh well you get the point...

11:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill and Lou together? Really?

3:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've jammed with a lot of famous cult heroes, Chris Matthews, Peter Gutteridge, Paul Kean played a cute bass, the talented Stuart Page, and Mary Rose Crook and of course the great Chris Knox (not forgetting Mike Dooley). Maybe even the names you mention, Lou and Nico and John were in one of those peeling practice rooms ... Roi Colbert knows the truth about the sessions and what happened to the tapes. Bill D.

8:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only got as far as Christine O'Donnell -- puzzled as to whether She's a critic of '...masturbation and the theory of evolution..' as one linked theory. Darwin didn't seem to deal with self-abuse in the bits I read.

6:28 pm  
Blogger maps said...

She's a creationist - and a young earther to boot. Some info here:

6:46 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Ouch! I see that site I just gave a link to is dedicated to the preservation of free enterprise as well as evolution! Ah well: the point is just that it provided links to reports in the mainstream media about O'Donnell's beliefs...

6:48 pm  
Blogger AngonaMM said...

Back to the thread about the Velvets in practice rooms (Roi Colbert, are you there?). Mike Dooley tells me he has jammed with many of the best, so it might be him you are thinking of Scott, about munching some riffs with Lou and John Cale. I can tell about hanging out a little with Nico after her show at the Clarendon, Christchurch, 1984?, nothing much to tell except that her preferred guitarist clinmbed in from a window above us at one point. He'd been covering the rooftops like DraculA. More seriously, I just heard that Tony Peake died yesterday in Adelaide, peacefully. Tony was singer in bands Newtones, Vandals and Streets of Flowers in Christchurch form the punk era to the mid-80s.

5:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This guy would be absolutely NOTHING without that haircut !!!

And I would just love to see how HE would get on in a COMMUNIST REGIME !

12:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

any regime!

4:57 pm  
Blogger Robin Johnson's Economics Web Page said...


10:44 pm  
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7:33 pm  

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