Friday, May 24, 2013

The problem with the Stones is that they're just greedy

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 22.)
Is the Rolling Stones juggernaut finally running out of steam? That’s the question people are asking overseas as fans baulk at the preposterous prices the British rock veterans are charging on their latest American tour.
According to reports from the United States, the band’s management has had to slash ticket prices because of poor sales. The alternative was to play to half-empty venues – not a good look for an act that has long claimed to be “the greatest rock and roll band in the world”.

Prices for the tour were originally set at $US170 in the cheap section, $635 for a premium seat and $2000 for a VIP package. A music blogger wrote that the cost was prohibitive for anyone not working in investment banking.
Compare that with the price of tickets to see Paul McCartney later this year: $50 in Seattle, $39.50 in Milwaukee. Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty are reportedly charging modest prices too, and selling well. So it’s not as if fans are no longer interested in seeing old stagers recapturing their glory days.

Part of the problem may be that the Stones are running on empty. Their last No 1 hit in the US (Miss You) was in 1978 – 35 years ago. They haven’t made the Billboard Hot 100 chart since 1998, when Saint of Me rose to the dizzy height of No 94.
Their last album, A Bigger Bang, was in 2005. How long can they expect fans to keep paying for variations of the same old routine?

But familiarity – dare I even suggest boredom? – is only one part of the explanation for resistance to the Stones’ ticket prices. I suspect the band is paying the price for good old-fashioned greed.
The Stones have never come cheap, and as their recorded output has dwindled they have had to rely more heavily on tours to maintain them in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Their Bigger Bang tour of 2005-6 was declared the highest-grossing tour of all time, earning $437 million. But they may have pushed their luck too far.

Certainly, some of their fans seem to be seeing them in a more critical light. “I have to give them respect for what they have done, but now they seem like an embarrassment,” Cameron Bowman told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Seriously, how much more money do they need? I feel like they are in Donald Trump or Gordon Gekko territory – just money for money's sake.”
Here we’re getting to the nub of the issue. For more than 50 years the Stones have been remarkably successful in passing themselves off as working-class rebels and heroes of 1960s counterculture, thumbing their noses at the capitalist establishment. The gullible fans bought it unquestioningly.

Perhaps they are now finally waking up to the reality that the band members are capitalists to the core, as fervently committed to making money as any giant multinational corporation. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the band moved en masse to the south of France in the 1970s to escape paying British taxes.
Let’s look at Sir Michael Philip Jagger, in particular. Jagger’s entire career has been built on fakery.

Some of the other original Stones – notably Bill Wyman and Keith Richards – had a legitimate claim to the working-class pose the band assumed in its early years, but Jagger came from an impeccably bourgeois background. His father was a schoolteacher and his mother was an active member of the Conservative Party. Jagger attended the relatively select Dartford Grammar School.
Given this background, it astounds me that for decades Jagger has managed to make a fabulously lucrative career pretending to sound like a black man from the mean streets of urban America. The jive talk, the bluesy inflections – it’s an astonishingly cheeky pastiche, but he’s carried it off.

As for that anti-establishment persona, which persists to this day (and which Jagger still promotes), it’s hard to reconcile with his immense fortune, which is estimated at nearly $US300 million. I don’t see how you can claim to be part of the revolution while living in the palace.
He’s reputed to be tight-fisted too. Jagger is a rarity among wealthy showbiz figures, and rarer still among knights of the realm, for having no known record of charitable work or public service.

This is no great surprise. Some of the meanest, most grasping individuals I’ve known were people who assiduously cultivated their anti-capitalist credentials.
You may deduce from all this that I dislike Jagger, but that’s true only up to a point. I think he’s a phony, but good luck to him if he can get away with it. My irritation is with all those dopey fans who still worship him as a totem of the protest generation.

Like most of my generation I’ve enjoyed the music of the Stones, though I wouldn’t call myself a hard-core fan. They made some great records, albeit a long time ago, and on the one occasion I saw them in concert (again, decades ago) I thought they probably merited the label of greatest rock and roll band in the world.
I have a grudging admiration for the wizened old reprobate Keith Richards, who strikes me as a much more genuine and likeable individual than Jagger, and more seriously committed to music for its own sake. 

But the band is stretching credulity – in fact defying gravity – by continuing to masquerade as down-and-dirty rock and roll rebels after more than 50 years.  No one can pretend that their appeal rests on anything other than nostalgic yearning for the heady days of Honky Tonk Women and Gimme Shelter, when we were all young, idealistic and beautiful (well, young and idealistic, at least).
It’s pathetic, really. Perhaps the Stones would be doing themselves and everyone else a favour by pricing themselves out of the market. Then they could quietly retire and take up indoor bowls, or some such activity as befits their age.




Thursday, May 23, 2013

An audience of two at the Regent 3

Last night I had what can only be described as a Masterton experience. I went to the movies at the Regent 3, and for the first time in my life found myself sitting alone in the cinema. It was such a novelty I had to ring my wife and tell her. (Well, it wasn’t as if my phone call was going to disturb anyone.)
A few minutes before the movie started, my solitude was disturbed by the arrival of another patron. This again was pure Masterton, because I knew him; he was a well-known local journalist.  

We laughed at the oddity of the situation, but Alistair said it wasn’t the first time this had happened to him. On previous occasions, finding himself alone, he’d shouted out to the projectionist to skip the advertisements. That’s pretty Masterton, too.
Alistair sat down towards the front and the movie rolled (or whatever movies do in the digital era). It soon became apparent why there were only two of us. The rest of Masterton knew something we didn’t. Gambit was a stinker of a film.

I was half-prepared for this, because I’d read highly critical reviews as well as laudatory ones. In the latest Listener, Helene Wong gives Gambit only two stars. But I desperately wanted to like it because the screenplay was written by the Coen brothers – the same team responsible for Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and other gems. The Coens, I persuaded myself, are incapable of producing a dud. Perhaps the critics just didn’t get the joke.
Besides, there was a classy cast: Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, Tom Courtenay and Stanley Tucci. How could it fail?

Alas, it was irredeemably rotten from start to finish. There were traces of the familiar Coen Brothers formula, which often involves bumbling amateur criminals hatching audacious plots that go hilariously, gruesomely wrong. But in this case (spoiler alert!) they pull it off. Perhaps that’s why the movie doesn’t work; it lacks that essential Coen Brothers blackness.
Whatever the explanation, Gambit never raised so much as a snigger from the audience of two at the Regent 3. Alistair gave up and left about 20 minutes from the end. I persisted to the last – partly because I was transfixed by its sheer awfulness but also, I think, because I was hoping against hope that it might redeem itself in the last moments. You never know with a Coen Brothers script.

Well, it didn’t. It ended as flatly and predictably as it had unfolded. As the credits rolled, I felt the situation called for a Statler and Waldorf comment, but Waldorf had left the building.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The elimination of poverty will just have to wait

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 17.)
THE TEAM of Key and English may go down as one of the more effective political partnerships of modern times.
John Key is the schmoozer, the salesman. His incorrigibly sunny disposition infuriates a lot of people, who see it as smarmy and ingratiating. But it’s hard to argue with his poll ratings, which have held up extraordinarily well after one and a half terms during which the government has had to grapple with one crisis after another.

With the passage of time, Mr Key has also demonstrated an increasing command of policy detail, something that eluded him in the early days of his prime ministership.
Bill English is the dour Southlander doing the hard graft behind the scenes. While Captain Key is up on the bridge waving reassuringly to the passengers, chief engineer English is down below shovelling coal into the boilers.

He’s not as relaxed in the public eye and lacks his boss’s charisma. He had an unhappy time as National leader (the party suffered its worst-ever electoral defeat on his watch), but seems to have found his niche as Minister of Finance.
History may view him as a safe pair of hands – to use a classically understated New Zealand compliment – during a turbulent period that called for steady nerves.

While media attention was focused on political scrub fires – the Dotcom saga, the GCSB, Novopay, the whiffy Sky City deal, Mighty River Power – New Zealand has quietly been winning international regard for the way it has weathered the global financial crisis.
Only this week, both the International Monetary Fund and credit ratings agency Standard and Poor’s endorsed the government’s economic approach. S and P places us among the world’s 10 least risky economies.

There’s definitely a sense that we’ve turned the corner. Economic growth is gathering speed and unemployment is starting to fall. It seems ironic that this should happen just as Australia, which seemed to sail through the GFC almost unscathed, is being battered by severe head winds.
The great migration across the ditch (which National promised to halt, but didn’t) may soon start to reverse itself as the Lucky Country battens down the hatches.

* * *

OF COURSE the economic purists will find much to complain about in the Budget. Voter bribes such as interest-free student loans and Working for Families, introduced by Labour, remain in place.
These are a continuing affront to people who insist that a centre-right party should have no truck with such policies. The arguments here are uncannily similar to those in Britain, where the Conservative Party is locked into a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats and finds itself shackled by policies that run counter to classic principles of economic liberalism.

National abandoned ideological purity decades ago, recognising that it was no way to win elections. Keith Holyoake created the pragmatist legacy of which Mr Key is the perfect inheritor. The Key formula is to do whatever works and whatever wins elections. 
It’s a style of politics that the late Margaret Thatcher, the ultimate conviction politician, had no time for. But in the MMP era, when compromise and deal-making are the keys to political survival, the purists just have to learn to live with it.

* * *

AS ALWAYS in the days leading up to the Budget, a parade of professional supplicants shuffled forward this week with begging bowls extended.
All the usual suspects lined up in the media, demanding that the government throw more money at the worthy causes du jour. One modest goal urged on the government was the elimination of poverty – surely something any finance minister with a social conscience should be able to achieve at a stroke.

Other items on the wish list included thousands more state houses, breakfasts for starving schoolchildren and free bariatric surgery, which the medical profession tells us is essential if we’re to avoid a “tsunami” of obesity-induced diabetes.
On Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, I heard one advocate for the poor saying it wasn’t enough to provide free breakfasts for kids from decile 1 and 2 schools. The government had a responsibility, he pronounced, to feed all schoolchildren.

On the same programme a housing activist, while grudgingly conceding that the government was on the right track by increasing housing capacity, made it clear that whatever was announced in the Budget would be hopelessly inadequate.
Most striking, as usual, was what went unmentioned.

No one thought to say where the money would come from. Too difficult. Perhaps they think it’s magically conjured out of the air rather than generated by taxpayers, which first requires a prosperous economy.
And no one made any reference to where individual responsibility – as in making sure children are fed before going to school, or saying no to that extra litre of ice cream – sits in their view of the perfect world.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Confessions of a dinosaur

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 8.)

My wife reckons that if I had been alive in 1893, I probably would have opposed women getting the vote.
Ouch. That’s a bit harsh. I would, of course, prefer to think it’s not true – but how can I be sure? It’s unknowable.

I have never thought of myself as sexist; quite the reverse. The people I most admire and respect have been strong women. I have never identified with the Kiwi bloke culture that thinks women should be kept in their place, whether it be the kitchen or the bedroom.
But as I say, who knows? My thinking has been conditioned by a century of liberal democracy. Attitudes were different in the 1890s and had I lived then, I might intuitively have been against such a radical change in the established order as votes for women.

My wife’s accusation arose in the context of Louisa Wall’s same-sex marriage bill. She supported it; I didn’t.
I didn’t exactly lie awake at night burning with rage over the bill, but it would be fair to say I was uncomfortable about it. I’m cautious by nature. I believe there are often good reasons why society has evolved the way it has over thousands of years and that we need to think very carefully before giving way to the fashionable impulse of the moment.

So, had I been an MP, I would almost certainly have lined up with those voting against the bill. But at the same time I could see that the arguments from the other side were hard to counter.
I realise too that human civilisation can’t always be relied upon to evolve in desirable ways, and that sometimes the status quo has to be overturned for society to progress.

There was a time when slavery was accepted as part of the natural order, and the brave minority who challenged it were seen as dangerous radicals. But who would now question the moral correctness of William Wilberforce and his followers?
The same could be said of any number of issues that once polarised conservatives and liberals, but which have now been settled.

To conservative white American southerners in the 1950s and 60s, civil rights for black people were unthinkable. Even more recently, white supremacists tried to justify the subjugation and oppression of the majority black population in South Africa. Anyone proclaiming such views today would rightly be regarded as some sort of Neanderthal.
Does same-sex marriage fall into the same category? We don’t know.  To use a cliché, the jury is out. Either we have made an awful mistake, or future generations will look back in bemusement and wonder what all the fuss was about.

In his inaugural address in 2009, President Barack Obama – a man who, because of his skin colour, would have been able to enter the White House only as a cleaner or butler if society had stood still – used the phrase “the wrong side of history” to describe those who are left behind by the currents of change.
Will people who opposed same-sex marriage be regarded in future as having been on the wrong side of history? It’s possible.

My wife’s accusation (it was a joke, but she was making a serious point) caused me to reflect on whether I’d stood on the wrong or the right side of history on other causes.
The first issue that came to mind was the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1986. Although I didn’t march in the streets or attend rallies opposing it, I admit I was uncomfortable with that change too, which may seem extraordinary now.

Was I on the wrong side of history? Undoubtedly. I suspect hardly anyone now would seriously argue that homosexual acts should be treated as criminal. But at the time, it seemed a very big leap and the country was torn. The legislation eventually passed by only 49 votes to 44.
It would be unfair to characterise all opponents of Fran Wilde’s ground-breaking bill in 1986 as knuckle-dragging troglodytes, just as it was wildly inaccurate to portray those opposed to same-sex marriage (as National MP Maurice Williamson did) as bigots and religious fundamentalists.

On other issues, my record is mixed. I opposed the Vietnam War and the 1981 Springbok tour, which probably puts me on the right side of history.
I broadly supported the radical economic reforms of the 1980s, although I recall being apprehensive about the sheer scale and speed of the changes. Like many New Zealanders, I was probably so accustomed to living in an over-regulated society that the prospect of being liberated from all those suffocating state controls seemed almost scary. East Germans must have experienced a similar sensation when they were reunited with the West.

Here again I believe I was on the right side of history. What was then considered radical policy is now accepted as mainstream, although the Left continues to fight a dogged campaign of resistance. (Helen Clark pandered to the Left by referring to the failed reforms of the 1980s, but strangely left them intact.)
Nuclear weapons were the other great defining issue of that era, and while some anti-nuclear rhetoric verged on hysterical, I believed New Zealand was entitled to take the stand it did. In the end, it became a matter of asserting our right to chart our own course and resist bullying by bigger powers. That’s another tick for the “right side of history” box.

On some current issues we just don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong. The climate change debate, for instance, is so ideologically charged that it’s virtually impossible to distinguish propaganda from reliable science. 
Treaty settlements? Those who support them may yet turn out to be on the right side of history, provided settlement money is wisely used to raise Maori achievement levels, lift Maori out of poverty and contribute to economic growth. Ngai Tahu seems to be on the right track. But scepticism will persist if settlement proceeds are used to promote separatism and enhance the standing and power of tribal elites, as too often seems to be the case.

On the current issue of paid parental leave, it strikes me as contradictory that when so much has been done in the past 30 years to roll back the state’s intrusion into people’s lives, there is mounting pressure for it to assume the role of a super-parent.
On that issue too I’m sure to be seen as a social dinosaur, stubbornly resistant to progress. But at least my wife agrees with me.


Saturday, May 4, 2013

Tiny Tinui paid a high price for patriotism

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 3.)

SHORT OF Gallipoli itself, or perhaps the famous Menin Gate in  Ypres, there can be no better place to observe Anzac Day than the charming rural settlement of Tinui, in the Wairarapa.
Several things make Tinui perfect. First, it’s an enchanting little place, tucked away in a pretty valley and proudly preserved to look much as it would have decades ago. Even the original village jail is still intact.

Second, Tinui has profound historical significance. It was there that the world's first Anzac Day ceremony was held in 1916, when Anglican vicar the Rev Basil Ashcroft held a service in the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd (still in use) before leading a procession up nearby Mt Maunsell to erect a permanent memorial.
A cross stands on the hilltop still, though the original wooden one had to be replaced in 1965 after being battered once too often by the wind. It has become traditional for people to climb the steep track to the cross after attending the Anzac Day service at the Tinui Memorial Hall, where the local women’s institute provides a classic country morning tea: asparagus rolls, bacon and egg pie, club sandwiches and, naturally, Anzac biscuits.

But perhaps the most striking thing about Anzac Day at Tinui is that it brings home, in a way few other places can, the human impact that the two world wars had on small communities.
As part of the service, schoolchildren stand in front of the war memorial and recite the names of the men who went away and never came back. Thirty-six locals died in World War One, including seven at Gallipoli, and 12 in World War Two.

It’s hard to imagine the impact those losses must have had in a small, isolated rural community. Among those killed in the 1914-18 war were two lots of three brothers.
Masterton mayor Garry Daniell told me after last week’s service that many farms in the Tinui district were run by strong, matriarchal women who, when the menfolk failed to come home, rolled up their sleeves and took over.

He also recalled that as a boy aged about 10, he met a local spinster who mentioned that her husband had died in the war. When the inquisitive young Daniell asked his name, she answered: “I don’t know. I never met him” – a poignant way of explaining that marriage was denied her because the war took the lives of so many eligible local men.
* * *

ONCE AGAIN, Radio New Zealand has debased the word “debate”.

It’s currently broadcasting what it calls a series of “debates” on the current review of New Zealand’s constitution. But they are nothing of the sort. 
They are cosy consensus sessions featuring safe speakers who can be counted on to agree broadly on the key issues. While the participants are learned and articulate, it’s dishonest to pretend these affairs are a genuine contest of ideas.

They are a sham, creating the misleading impression that the highly contentious issues under discussion – such as the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in our constitutional arrangements – are largely settled.
The only hint of dissent comes in the few minutes allocated for questions at the end, when one or two brave souls have the temerity to ask pointed questions – such as whether the speakers favour a society in which rights are allocated on the basis of race.

Even my left-wing fellow columnist Chris Trotter is appalled, pointing out that there are plenty of people willing and able to challenge the politically correct orthodoxy of the “debaters”. (Ironically, the same Chris Trotter recently denounced me for suggesting some Radio New Zealand programmes were biased. Perhaps he has had a change of heart.)
This charade closely follows a series of pretend “debates” on the Treaty, also broadcast by Radio New Zealand, to which I referred in an earlier column. The state broadcaster and Victoria University, whose Centre for Public Law organised the events (and stacked the panels with its own academics), should be ashamed. It is a misuse of power – nothing less.

* * *

FASHION, both female and male, is a source of endless amusement.
I keep a close eye on the fashion pages and can pronounce that for women, the frumpy look is "in" this winter. Shapeless clothes designed to disguise the female form are big, along with colour combinations that appear to have been thrown together in the dark.

Stick-thin models continue to predominate, with the added requirement that they must now be pigeon-toed.
For men, the desired look this season is suits that appear at least one size too small, making the wearers look like schoolboys who have put on a sudden growth spurt.  Designers have gone the American way, opting for trousers that end at least an inch above the ankles.

And as always, the most ludicrous examples are the most expensive.