Just as a jazz musician might watch his fingers to see what they are playing I write now to see what I am thinking about. I watch myself trawling the dark corners of the music world. Thinking and writing and hoping that someone out there is listening. It’s risky Bubba, but someone’s gotta do it.
I have been living dangerously: I have been letting my mind spin late at night reading Kingdom Of Fear – the explosive memoirs of rock and roll hero and inventor of Gonzo journalism, Hunter S Thompson. HST’s colourful writing and acerbic musings remind us that he was one of the great observers of the counterculture. In Kingdom of Fear Hunter single-handedly assassinates modern America. We are post 9/11, its Condition Red and Bush is a “whore beast”. Literati in extremis. It’s a mesmerising read.
Along with Lester Bangs and the other noisy boys of the fledgling rock press Hunter was one of the chosen ones – a journalist who graduated from sports reporting to his halcyon days writing for Rolling Stone magazine covering music and politics. Throughout the 1970s he immersed himself in the cross-over worlds of rock, politics and celebrity, madly-deeply patrolling the altered states of the underbelly of America. He peaked with perhaps his most well-known book – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Hunter has had five biographies written about him, two Hollywood feature films have been made from his books and his name turns up on half a million internet web pages – more than William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe combined.
Apart from being genuinely insightful HST continued to rage against the machine right up until his recent tragic death – crazed road trips, girls, guns, bikes and brushes with the law. In the last days of Saigon he drank daiquiris, smoked cigars and watched helicopter gunships ride shotgun in the sky as the NVA invaded the city. He and Jack Nicholson did crazy 3am rides through the suburbs of Hollywood test driving motor cycles for Ducati after ingesting most illegal substances known to humanity. Always looking for the edge.
If you want a good candid read in the same vein – a scramble on hands and knees through the undergrowth of the kiwi music industry – check out Colin Hogg’s The Awful Truth (1998). For many years Hogg was the critic for the Auckland Star. He was vitriolic then as a music critic but was a serious taste maker who championed the weird and praised bands who lived and played in the margins. For two decades he wore tight black jeans and a five o’clock shadow; the fringed black leather jacket and chisel toed half boots (even when he accompanied the Hawaiian-shirted Herbs on a humid reggae assignment to Fiji).
Hogg interviewed everyone from Sam Hunt to Iggy Pop and Rolf Harris. With chapter titles like “Rats Invade Ponsonby”, “Blind in Kawhia” and the HST homage “Fear and Loathing in Kylie Minogue” the Awful Truth is as close as you will get to full blown antipodean Gonzo journalism.
The tradition of Kiwi music journalism has been kept alive by some seriously good writers over the last decade. Chris Bourke, who wrote a good account of Crowded House’s rise to fame Something So Strong, published in1997, retired last week from being Kim Hill’s producer on the National Programme to write a sequel. And for an informed look at New Zealand hip hop Gareth Shute’s Hip Hop Music in Aotearoa is a grand account of the browning of the New Zealand music industry and the rise of Pacifica in South Auckland.
We have other great documentary rock journalists among them Murray Cammick – who established the still flourishing Rip It Up magazine – and the venerable John Dix who wrote the first fully researched book of the New Zealand popular music scene Stranded in Paradise.
If you are interested in current quality reviewing of music and in depth interviewing of musicians check out Graham Reid’s cool website www.elsewhere.co.nz. Reid has a great turn of phrase and a good sense of linking the themes and streams running through the music and lives of seminal musicians. He has written thousands of music articles and has now extended his music writing to travel writing as well; The Road after all is just a jump to the left for any writer who has documented the endless vocational trudge of touring musicians who follow Joni Mitchell’s “white line on the free freeway”.
In November this year Dunedin will host a conference of the Australasian chapter of IASPM – the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. This esteemed worldwide network of 800 academics has within its midst some of the sharpest minds who research and write about current trends in popular music. Among them are writers like Simon Frith and Tony Mitchell. Frith, who began his music journalism writing for the NME, is now a Professor of Arts Culture and Environment at Edinburgh University. His book Performing Rites has become a bassline text book for analysing popular music. Similarly, Dr Tony Mitchell based at Sydney’s UTS has done outstanding research on New Zealand popular music ranging from looking at issues of cultural identity to the rise of Flying Nun and punk music in the 1980s.
Written by Liam Ryan Wednesday, 17 October 2007