Bill Direen's notes for the Underground
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.
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...]