Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A brief and partly accurate history of the NZ rail network

The last time I caught a train from Auckland to Wellington it took all day and half the night.  In the early nineties, you may recall, it was decided that the best way to make the trains in this country run on time was to sell them to a mob of shameless profiteers.  The assumption was, I think, that if the railways were owned by companies who had no particular interest in maintaining them or investing in new infrastructure, we would end up with a state of the art rail network that would be the envy of the world.  We shouldn't laugh - the decisions were made by policy-makers who cut their teeth in the eighties, remember, when governments everywhere were motivated by strange ideas.  Ronald Regan, for example, wouldn't even get out of bed without consulting his astrologist.  Here in New Zealand, our economic policy was mostly informed by a machine called the MONIAC, which modeled the domestic economy using a baffling system of water-filled tubes and counterweights.  That mistakes were made in this environment is unsurprising to say the least.

What the MONIAC and the occultists who interpreted its gurglings failed to predict was that the company that eventually ended up owning what was left of the railway lines by the mid-2000s would try to increase its margins by firing the maintenance staff.  Actually, maybe they did know that.  It was fashionable for a while  there for politicians to complain that as they rumbled along in their state-owned trains, they looked out the windows and saw all these guys leaning on shovels, not doing much work and generally representing a check on economic growth.  I think privitisation was supposed to make the organisation leaner and meaner or something, removing all these make-weight layabouts from the payroll.  It turned out that this might have been a case of selective perception - the maintenance workers were generally quite busy, but they weren't going to be doing very much with their shovels while the politicians were actually rolling past, because they would get hit by trains and die.  This is kind of like a train driver wondering why all the level crossings in the country are closed all the time.  Anyway, after ten or so years of Tranzrail's ownership, what with the asset-stripping, large-scale redundancies, and the massive reduction of investment in maintenance, the tracks were a mess. It sometimes took as much as fifteen hours to get from Auckland to Wellington, which is insane.

More selective perception: from a train, all the towns look like this.

That's why I had some misgivings about catching the train to Wellington last week to play a show in Paekakariki with Rosy Tin Teacaddy.  Don't get me wrong - I love playing in Paekak, and I love playing with the Teacaddies, and I really love their new songs.  Thing is, it sounds pretty romantic to catch a train to play a show, and just about every folk musician you talk to will tell you that they've got plans to do a tour of the main trunk line or something, but it can be a bit of a pain.  I mean, you spend all day traveling, and then you wind up in a railway station with about half a ton of gear.  Profit-driven delays on top of this is just adding insult to inconvenience.  As it turned out last week, though, catching the train from Auckland to Wellington is quite a lot of fun these days if you're in good company and the weather is nice.  Ms. Millicent Crow was plying her wares at Craft Country Wairarapa in Greytown on the Saturday, and I had the Paekak show on the Friday, so we put on our best traveling outfits and escorted one another on a Grand Day Out.

They didn't actually let me drive.  But they did let me pretend to drive, which is basically all you can do with a train anyway.

 There's a balcony now!  But they won't stop if your hat gets blown off.

The main thing that's changed since last time I caught that train is that now I own a part of it again, so it's working a whole lot better.  A few years ago, the government bowed to pressure from just about everybody, and admitted that maybe the MONIAC crew had made a mistake - actually, private companies don't seem to be that good at making trains run on time at all.  They admitted that yes, this was embarrassing, but they did the decent thing and renationalised the whole show.  Now it's actually quite lovely, and not at all like a train in, say, North Korea or 1970s Poland.  It turns out that state ownership does not have to be highly correlated with surly train guards, back-breaking seats, and salmonellous dining options.  In this case, we had things like leg-room, reasonably priced and quite tasty refreshments, and a pleasant stop at National Park so we could take photos of trucks.  And, although I hate to belabour the point, it was even on time.

Mountains, a tractor: what more could you want?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Don't go changin'

You might have noticed that musicians are getting smellier lately. That's not just because you're getting a bit older and more respectable and noticing these things more keenly, and it's not even because we're in the grip of the nineties revival and we've gone all, ah, 'grunge,' as we used to say. There are actually sinister forces at play here; forces that conspire to keep our musicians down and out and smelling like socks.

Putting our feet up
What's going on is that these days, if you want to fly in an Air New Zealand plane, you get to check one bag. It used to be, you may recall, that you got the twenty kilos, which you could spread across as many bags as you thought might be useful. In fact in our healthily sports-focused democracy, you actually got a bit more weight for 'sports equipment,' so if you were up for trying to convince the staff that your massive bag of effects pedals was actually golf clubs, you were basically home and heading for the showers. You could check in your guitar, your pedal board, your merch, a sack of brightly-coloured educational toys for the rhythm section, and, crucially, a change of socks. Or even two, if you were going to be gone for more than a week.  Recently, though, they changed the rules. Everything is a bit more efficient, and the staff have been replaced by cheery robots who are not easy to trick. One bag means one bag.

That means you have to prioritise, and plan ahead.  The one bag, in the first instance, is going to have to be your guitar case. The massive pedal board may seem important, but let's be honest - no-one really knows the difference between 'fuzz,' 'overdrive,' and 'distortion.' There's probably going to be pretty serviceable reverb on the amp when you get there, and nobody, nobody wants to hear 'flange.' All you need to do is stick your delay in one pocket - get that small one by Boss and stop your whining - and shove just the one fuzzy sort of overdrive pedal in your guitar case. The guitar is the main thing - arrive without the guitar and you will find that you don't look so cool when you walk out of the airport. Merch is more tricky. Apart from the bit where you get to walk out of the airport looking cool with a guitar case, there's not a lot of point in going on tour unless you're going to sell merch. Now, it won't fit in your guitar case, so what you'll need to do is fill your hand luggage with CDs or vinyls or commemorative dolls or whatever the kids are buying these days at their concerts, and carry the whole thing on board looking all nonchalant like 27 kilos ain't even a thing.

That pretty much takes care of the checked baggage and most of the hand luggage, especially if you're like me and insist on taking your violin everywhere (that's kind of a looking cool thing as well - nothing says 'I may not have a job but at least I can complain about suffering for my art while you buy me a drink' like a battered old violin case). That means you really don't have much room left, so you're not going to be able to bring anything to keep the rhythm section busy.  Which means honestly I think they shouldn't come because they'll just act up and it will be a headache.

The upshot of this is that not only is there no room for the rhythm section, which is not in itself a bad thing, but there is also no room in the modern musician's touring kit for a spare pair of socks. Or, say, a clean shirt.  Sometimes you even have to only bring one cape, which can be a hard decision.  You see where I'm going with this, of course.  A few nights of the devil's music, no change of socks and whoops I forgot my toothbrush, and it's no wonder if that musician in your life smells a bit like teen spirit.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Dylan Storey Story

The first I heard of Dylan Storey was about six years or so ago, when my flatmate gave me a three-track promotional CD and said 'hey, check this out, I bet you'll like this.'  I had recently moved to Auckland at this point and maybe I was a little bit lonely, becuase I remember that I put the CD on and thought 'man, that's a really amazing guitar sound.  I wonder if this Dylan Storey wants to be friends with me?'  In those days, of course, we didn't have the Internet beamed directly into our brains yet, so if you wanted to be 'friends' with somebody, you had to go and meet them in real life.  This is actually a bit easier for musicians than it is for real people though, because whereas if non-musicians want to cultivate a friendship with somebody they have to try to think of interesting things to have opinions about, musicians can just invite each other around to their houses to play with their toys.

Dylan always says he doesn't like cats.  You decide.

I seem to recall that shortly after hearing this three-track promotional CD, I went along to the Odeon lounge to see the release show for 'Up  in the Rough,' Dylan's first album, and I became a fan.  This is probably a rare example of one of those little promo CDs actually achieving its desired effect, although the fact that I don't run a record label or a powerful music publication concern has probably limited the positive impact I have been able to have on Dylan's career to date.  What I did do, though, was ask him to join my band.  I may have at the time implied that we would shortly be making heaps of money or something to that effect, because he said yeah, OK, and suddenly I had a band.  The other person in the band was Ms. Kate Whelen, who is now the mother superior of the Sisters of Saint Rupertsberg, who I gather are a force to be reckoned with. It wasn't too long before we were loading everything into the back of Kate's van and heading off on this ridiculously error-prone tour around New Zealand in the dead of winter, during the course of which we dealt with snowstorms, landslides, lost wallets, empty gastanks and storms at sea, and all this before the second night when we got Christchurch to discover that we'd been double-booked with The Feelers.  Fortunately, we had Reb Fountain along, who is pretty good at driving in snow, and she also saved the day by finding us a better place to play that night, which incidentally is how we met The Eastern.

The other thing Reb did, though, was steal my band.  I am not bitter about this, because while having a band is quite good for things like getting out of the house and having regular contact with other humans, it does necessitate getting out of the house and having regular contact with other humans.  Also you have to organise things and it's sort of your fault when you book a tour that turns out to be riddled with snowstorms, landslides, storms at sea and The Feelers.  As well, since I was part of the band that she stole, I got to keep on playing in a band with Dylan Storey, it just wasn't my band any more.  That was actually pretty good, because a) I didn't have to organise anything much, and b) we got Simon Gooding in to play guitar too, so he and Dylan could play these really nerdy harmony solos and crack each other up on stage. 

Dylan explaining how glaciers work

So basically, I've been playing in bands with Dylan for about five years or so, and we've spent quite a bit of time hanging out in vans together.  He knows the names of all the birds and most of the stars, and he likes to play Led Zeppelin songs at soundcheck.  His song 'the water' was to my knowledge the only bFM #1 hit single ever to have both a 5/4 time signature and a flute solo, and he writes songs about awesome things like space.  He's got this way of playing guitar solos that pretty reliably makes me grin like a dog at a duckpond, and he knows all the words to 'Up On Cripple Creek' by The Band, even though they don't make a lot of sense.  Since I've know him, he's released two more albums, both of which are amazing, especially 'Out Of The Soup.'  I had a lot of fun while I was overseas playing that album to people, who would invariably say things like 'what?  Who's this guy?  This is awesome!  He's from New Zealand?'

Anyway, the reason I mention all this is that last Friday, Dylan released a new EP of some stuff he's been working on lately.  It's called 'the power of suggestion,' and I suggest that you will like it.  He's doing that thing where it's free to download, so obviously he's figured out something about economics that I don't understand or maybe he reads those blogs about the future of music distribution or something.  Anyway, what I'm saying is, it's really good, and you can have it for the price of a glass of water, so go get it from here.   It's got harmony guitar solos.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Multimedia Millicent

Last week Ms Millicent Crow and myself went to the opening of Sophie Oiseau's exhibition Ghoul Friends at the High Seas Gallery, and now I am the proud owner of half an artwork.  It's a screenprint that depicts Millicent herself, overcome by postprandial somnolence, having just devoured either a person or one of the higher apes.  People tend to think that she's a vegetarian, and mostly she is.  I suppose that sometimes she must devour her victims though, otherwise Sophie would be lying to us through art, which is a thing she would never do.  A lot of her other work, for example, is about animals that most people don't believe in but nevertheless probably exist. 

You're probably wondering what a lot of people are wondering: Are Millicent Crow's feet that pointy in real life?  The answer is no, dear reader, they're not.  In real life, her feet are less pointy than that.

I'm not much in the habit of buying art, not because I don't like it, but because I have a nerdy habit of paying my rent each week.  At the moment, that doesn't leave a lot left over to put in the art jar.  That will change of course once either a) we move to Whanganui, or b) I figure out a way to monetize my turtle.  Then I will have the means to buy so much art that I will be able to eat my dinner off it.  In case you were wondering, I do have some preliminary ideas for getting rich off my turtle, but at the moment they hinge on me owning a zeppelin and the turtle being able to fly it, so they're still very much in development.  It's having ideas like this, I suppose, that explains why I have not yet become rich through the natural course of events.

Ms. Millicent Crow is popping up all over the place at the moment.  When she's not devouring people or featuring in artworks lately, she's getting hounded by the press.  You could probably not find nicer press to be hounded by than the good people at Extra Curricular Magazine, though, so really it's not that big of a problem.  They were around here the other day taking photos of the cat and chatting about craft and the Nature of Art and so on, and now they've run a story on Ms. Crow's gocco prints in their latest edition.  It's a cracking read, and it's available from many reputable dealers (including the High Seas Gallery, in fact), so if your turtle has been paying dividends I urge you to rush out and buy a copy immediately.  As if that wasn't enough, there is also an interview with Millicent over on the Craft Country Wairarapa blog, in which she reveals why we're probably not going to get our bond back when we eventually do move to Whanganui.  I'm a tiny bit jealous of all this actually; nobody has put me in a screenprint for ages, and I certainly don't have anybody soliciting my opinion on the Nature of Art.  Fortunately, though, I have a blog, so my opinions are available unsolicited.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Analogue Starlings

An important development since last week is that now I have access to two analogue synthesisers.  I'm not really one of those people who can wax lyrical about the difference between analogue stuff and digital stuff, but I do get a strong impression that as a general rule, analogue stuff is more hip.  Having analogue synths on your record is a bit like buying locally grown produce from the market, or going to see a proper shrink instead of hooking down antidepressants and vodka - the effect is more or less the same as the bogan alternative, but it gives you something to talk about at dinner parties.  Ordinarily I'm more of a supermarkets and fluoxitine kind of guy, but the presence of analogue synths makes my studio look a little bit more like the bridge of a spaceship so I'm all for them.

Here is a picture of my studio, looking about thirteen percent more like the bridge of a spaceship than it used to.  It probably isn't the sort of spaceship you would want to take into hyperspace or rely upon to ensure the survival of humanity or anything, but I'm pretty happy with some of the sounds it's been making.  A couple of months ago, though, two pairs of starlings built their nests in the roof, and their chicks have just hatched.  That means that everything I record at the moment includes a sort of ambient chirping at around four kHz, which isn't really ideal.  In the nineteenth century, I would have solved a problem like this with a ferret; in the sixties I would have been able to purchase some sort of DDT-based bird repellent from my local hardware store.  In 2010, I can blog about it and download a parametric EQ to notch out four thousand Hz, which is good because I'm quite fond of starlings.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

All animals are psychotic

What's going on in this photo is that for the first time in a long while, I don't have an out of town show this month. That means that Millicent Crow and myself have been spending as much time as possible hanging around down at the docks pretending to be in classic action movies and mucking about with the self-timer mode on the camera. There are probably other ways to spend a sunny weekend in Auckland, but we personally find this one quite fulfilling.

The docks can be more relaxing than the park near our house, because the wildlife is on the whole less disturbing. The other day, as we were running* next to the duckpond on a tranquil early summer evening, we witnessed two very unnerving incidents of duck-on-duck violence.  Those of you who actually listen to the words of my songs (and don't worry, I'm aware that most people don't) will be aware that I like to use birds quite a lot, often as metaphors for things like love. One of the reasons for this is that several species of bird mate for life, which is a handy fact to use in songwriting if you want an excuse to write about ducks. The paradise duck, in particular, has this habit, so I like to think about paradise ducks quite anthropomorphically and imagine them growing comfortably old together in their swampy paddocks, perhaps reminiscing to each other about how they met and telling the same stories over and over again but not minding.

Me, singing a song about ducks.  There are others.

It turns out, though, that there are problems with using ducks like this. Unfortunately, they're not mating for life because they're in love with each other. Actually, they're mating for life because they have adapted through natural selection in such a way as to more effectively pass on their genetic code and ensure the survival of their offspring, given the environmental conditions in which they find themselves. To this end, one quite effective strategy apparently is to eliminate competition for scarce resources. That means that at this time of year, as well as being all clucky and looking after their fluffy little chicks, they're also doing their best to harrass and murder the fluffy little chicks that belong to the other ducks who live in their pond.

See the love in their eyes?

Did you ever wonder why you see a mother duck waddling along with between seven and ten little yellow ducklings in tow? It's not because she got a bulk order; nobody wants that many ducks. They have this many ducklings every year, but we are not yet, as far as I can tell, up to our necks in ducks. The reason she needs so many ducklings is that if she wants even a couple of kids to look after her in her old age, she has to factor in attrition. A lot of this attrition comes at the hands, or beaks, of other ducks. That's right - those ducks you feed, those ducks I carelessly turn into symbols of undying love in jolly little folk songs - if they were humans, they'd be in jail or working as bouncers. They are basically just vehicles for genetic code, and if they see a threat to the survival of that code they will move swiftly to neutralise it. The word for this if you're a human is 'psychopath.'

So the other evening, as we were jogging through what should have been an idyllic pastoral scene, we were confronted with the sight of a male paradise duck (that's the one with the dark head) holding at bay a pair of mallards (those are the ones with the green heads on the boys and light brown heads on the girls) and systematically drowning their fluffy yellow offspring by holding their little heads under the water. This elicited an immediate crisis, to whit:

'He's killing them! what shall we do?'
'Um. Maybe nothing? This is probably how come we're not overrun with ducks.'
'No, we have to stop him! I'm going to hit him with a branch.'
'Really? That's not very vegetarian.'
'I won't kill him, I'll just teach him a lesson.'
'He's a duck. I bet he isn't good at lessons.'
'But we have to try to stop him!'
'I mean, do we? Probably if we scare him or whatever he'll just get more stressed and then he'll want to kill more ducklings.'
'How could you know that? You're just making it up and using your authoritative voice that you use when you're making something up but you want people to believe it anyway.'
'OK, you're right about that, yeah.  But it seems sort of plausible, doesn't it?'
'It always seems a little bit plausible, but you're still making it up. If we don't do something all these ducklings will die!'
'I think maybe that's what has just happened, in fact. Um.'

A little bit further around the lake, the scene repeated itself. This time, though, the principle actors were a pair of black swans. The difference is important, because it's a bad idea to interfere with black swans if they're on a rampage. Firstly, there's that thing that everyone knows about how they're super-strong and they can break your leg with their wing. Or maybe it's just your arm, but either way it's pretty serious. Then there's the legal question. The other thing that everybody knows about swans is that in England, all the swans are the property of the Queen. That means it's best not to hit them with branches because she can probably have you hanged or something. By extension, then, all swans in New Zealand must be the property of the Governor-General. His powers are mostly of the arcane constitutional kind, and probably don't extend to having people hanged for interfering with the viceregal swans, but we're pretty fond of the old G-G. We wouldn't want him to hear that we'd been going round hitting his swans with branches, so we just let that situation lie.

Watch out.  Insanely powerful and protected by royal decree.

Altogether, then, the park presents a much more stressful moral environment than the docks. No doubt nature is just as red in tooth an claw down there, but at least the baby animals are less cute - baby seagulls, for example, are pretty hideous; and I don't know that we'd get quite as exercised about a similar situation involving fish. When you're recreating and hanging out you don't always want to be faced with moral dilemmas or threats to the anthropomorphic order you've imposed on the animal kingdom; it's not relaxing.  I think we're going to have to avoid the park for a while, at least until the ducklings have become better able to take care of themselves.

On an unrelated note, the other thing I do when I don't have any out of town shows is play shows in Auckland - like this one for example, which is this weekend at Cafe 121 in Ponsonby, with Hannah Curwood:

The birds on the poster are sparrows - Danish ones - which Ms. Crow adapted from a Danish banknote.

*Yes, we run. I like to keep in shape, just in case I have to thwart something one day, like say a bank robbery or an assassination or something. It would be a shame to not be able to thwart something like that just because you were a bit puffed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Whanganui: the new Berlin?

When I said the other week that I was going to Whanganui for rock'n'roll reasons, you may have thought something like 'bah! How disappointed he will be, searching for the Devil's music in that forsaken pile!  There will be no joy for him on this journey, mark my words!'


Well, well, well.

To that I would reply that a) your internal monologue is really smug, and you sound a little like a cranky old wizard, and b) actually you're also Wrong, because is turns out that Whanganui is not only awesome, it's also quite rocking.  Because I like to keep my ear to the ground,* I had been hearing rumors that Whanganui was cool for a little while.  Mostly I had been discounting these, because you know how people will talk.  After a whirlwind seventeen-hour visit last weekend however, and some subsequent rummaging around on the internet, my opinion has changed.  I now feel like I've gathered enough evidence to justify a mental reclassification, which means that Whanganui has been officially added to the list of Places We Could Move To For A Little While Sometime To Make A Thing Of Some Sort. 

The first point in Whanganui's favour is how extremely grampire it is.  As we were looking at photos of some of the available rental property on the internet, Ms. Millicent Crow remarked of one place that it looked like somebody's grandad had actually exploded in the middle of the room, such was the degree and quality of Axminster carpet and floral wallpaper.  That kind of decor would be perfect for living in for a couple of months trying to write some songs or something.  If ever you couldn't think of something to write about or if you were bored or whatever you could just watch the cat constantly freaking out, partly about about how much the carpet reminds her of a snake-filled jungle, and also because of all of the scary grandad ghosts that only she could see.

Gampire as, and full of ghosts.
Whanganui is a proper city, you know.  It even has suburbs and beachside communities you can move to if living uptown on the dole writing the occasional song becomes too stressful.  Out by the sea there's a suburb callled Castlecliff where a particularly attractive cottage caught our eyes.  If we wanted to live there, for example, it would cost us exactly half of what we pay in Auckland, for a place twice the size.  In fact, right now, the most you can pay for a house in Whanganui is $380 per week, and that's for somewhere that's about the size of Graceland and comes with a full complement of monkey butlers and a shark tank.  The great thing about this place out in Castlecliff, though, is that as well as it being close to the crashing waves and the cries of the gulls and so forth, the ad says 'no pets.'  If you look in the photograph below, however, you will see most clearly that there is a horse in the yard.  I swear I didn't photoshop it cos honestly, look at the shadow, I'm not that good.  This is great, because what it obviously means is that in Whanganui, a horse is not a pet.  It's a car.
House with a horse.  If I had a job, I could ride it to work.
I don't want to give you the impression, dear reader, that life in Whanganui would be all about old person houses that smell a bit funny and riding your horse to town every Tuesday to change your library books.  There's more to it than that, and when I said above that Whanganui is actually rocking, I did mean it.  If you walk the echoing downtown streets on a Saturday night, between rows of mostly empty-looking turn of the century stone buildings with their faded advertisments for Epsom Salts and names like 'South Pacific and Orient Meat and Wool Co.,' you are likely to hear the sound of ghostly voices and laughter.  Follow the sound, turn a corner, and you'll start to see a drift of tight jeans and full skirts.  Just as you may begin to notice that the walls are covered with stencil art and photocopied A3 posters, you'll hear a 'one, two, you know what to do' crackling from a fuzzy PA upstairs, and the windows of the old Wanganui Chronicle building will commence to shake with the sound of a telecaster slamming the valves of not one but two towering and ancient Jansen amplifiers.  This will be followed half a bar later by a rattly snare drum playing the Johnny Cash freight train riff, then the rest of the band will come in and you'll suddenly realise that there's something seriously rockabilly going on here and if you'd better leave town quick before you put a quiff in your hair and get hooked on diet pills.

Or you could just jump right in and take the stairs, which would lead you to the headquarters of Stink Magnetic Recording Company, where there will be a party happening.  These guys are one of the things that make Whangnui a rock'n'roll town, and their commitment to fuzzy surfabilly psychowerewolf zombie music is a cedit to the whole community.  The building they're in, which I think used to belong to the Wanganui Chronicle, is a maze of art studios and open liftshafts, with a basement so haunted the locals look at you funny if you ask them about it.  There is talk of another venue opening next door, and if you ask about noise control they just laugh and open a beer.  When we played there last week the crowd looked like the sort of people you get in Oamaru or Lyttelton, or Berlin for that matter - people who can't see the point in working stupid hours for idiots in order to pay rent in a big city when they could live cheap in a town with lots of space and do things like build robots out of bike parts or work on their guitar sound.  These people are essentially my target market, which is a bit of a shame because their lifestyle choices mean they tend to have no money.  But: they usually let you stay at their house, and they often have heaps of cool things to play with in it.

So basically all I'm saying is don't be surprised next time one of your friends says they're moving to Whanganui for a little while.  They're not a junkie, and they're probably no more mentally ill than the rest of us.  They just want to live in a town where they can concentrate on writing and illustrating their book about birds and still have some money left at the end of the week.  Also, now that Mr Laws is no longer the president of the place, it has again become a safe envioronment in which to raise your turtle.

*this is an actual lie, the first to appear on this blog.  I hate keeping my ear to the ground; most of the time if I look like I'm listening I'm really doing something completely else.  Sorry about the lie, I will try to make sure it doesn't become a habit.  If I lose credibility with my readers I may damage my chances of getting rich by selling advertising here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

On tour with John White in the Dominion of New Zealand

No hurry here.

When I took a tumble in Calais that time, as well as smashing my face up a bit I also dropped my ipod and my violin.  The violin is something like a hundred years old and protected by powerful gypsy force fields, so it was fine.  The ipod is about four years old, which in ipod terms means that its been obsolete for about three and a half years, and presents a case similar to your neigbour's blind and deaf eighteen-year-old terrier.  No surprise then that that brush with the pavement was enough to send it scurrying to the Great Consumer Electronics Graveyard On A Beach In China Somewhere.  This week, with the ipod gone to its rest, we had to rely during the trip to Wellington on a bunch of mixtape CDs I made.  This was not a problem, because Ms Millicent Crow came along for the ride also, and making mixtape CDs is still really the only trick I know for impressing girls.  As we passed through Cambridge, a particuarly fine track came on, towards the end of my 'quiet but still awsome driving music' compilation.

'Hey!' Interrrupted I. 'What do you think of this track?'

'It's alright I guess.'

'Would you say you 'like' it, do you reckon?'

'OK, yeah.  Like.'

'Really? Sweet!  Do you know what that means?'

'Sigh. No.  What does that mean?'

'It means you like Led Zeppelin now!  Yess!  My work here is basically done.'

'What? So no.  Is this Led Zeppelin?  I thought they were all denernernerner boom sort of stuff.'

'Yep, this is 'Going to California' off Led Zep four, and you just told me you officially 'like' it.'

'Did you just put this song on the CD so you could put on your blog that I like Led Zeppelin?'

'Wow.  Um... Kind of, yeah.  But also because it's a good song.'

'I think you should stop thinking about things to put on your blog before they actually happen.  It's weird.'

'Maybe it is, but you like Led Zeppelin.  That's actually not weird because they are one of the best if not the best band of all time.  So on average, we're not weird.'

'I'm not going to respond to that except to say it makes no sense.  And I'll be pissed off if you say that I like Led Zeppelin on your blog.'

This got us as far as Putaruru. Money is worth a lot more there than it is further up the line, so I was able to purchase a suit from the Baptists for a very reasonable price.  That night, I left this entire suit behind after the gig at the Frederick Street Sound And Light Exploration Society, which is not a thing I habitually do.  In fact, it occurs to me that over three months of touring around Europe, forty shows and forty-one thousand-odd kilometres by planes, trains, ships and busses; back-rooms, bar-rooms, mattresses in living rooms, heatwaves, thunderstorms, psychedelic rock'n'roll and acid rain; countless metros, tube-stops, u-bahns, s-bahns, stables in the forest, solarpunk vineyards and walks in the park, all I lost was this: a single red patch lead, the sort you can get five for ten bucks down at Surplustronics.  I actually even know who has it, the swine.  BUT: Driving my own car from Wellington to Auckland and back via Whanganui over roads too familiar to even write songs about, two shows only over the course of a single weekend, I mislaid or left behind the following items:
  • One three-piece suit, including the waistcoat
  • A deliciously warm jacket (twice)
  • My actual glasses that I need in order to see properly
  • My hat
  • A tin of tobacco (wasn't mine, don't smoke, long story).
  • Three dollars and change.
My sister asked me how come I never lost anything in Europe, given how uselss I clearly am.  'I had a system,' I replied.  'It's important to have a system.  Also, I didn't change my clothes.'

'That's gross.  I hope you're lying.'

 I know what you're probably thinking:  'Jesus, this is boring.  I wonder if anything cool happened on the weekend, like maybe Sam fell over and hurt himself again?' The answer is well, yes, actually, cool things did happen.  I got to go on tour with John White and Ms Millicent Crow, which was pretty much a Tour Dream Team.  We had picnics and talked about how the fourth dimension works until our brains started to hurt.

Millicent Crow, stealing own soul.

John White with Squizwot.

John White thinking about hypercubes.

Mangaweka: Quiet.  Too Quiet.

We visited the haunts of those denizens of Wellington and Whanganui who have most to do with spiky interdimensional freakout music and fuzzy psychedelic werewolf music, respectively, and when we had finished doing that we drank some wine and sang some songs.

The Frederick Street Sound And Light Exploration Society, Wellignton: 
Interdimensional General Store

Stink Magnetic HQ, Whanganui: Home of NZ's finest purveyors of psychowerewolffreakout surf jams.

In Wellington, we went head-to-head with the Sisters of St. Rupertsberg and Stefanimal, who were playing down at the Mighty Mighty on the same night we were at Fred's.  The Mother Superior of St. Rupertsburg used to be in the Bond Street Bridge Band, and Stef used to be in John's band Mestar, so the stage was set for some sort of teen movie show-down battle of the ex-bandmates.  As things turned out, that proved to be unnecessary: John phoned Stef from the stage during his set, and they did an across-town phone-in duet together.  If there was a dry eye in either house, I'm sure I didn't see it.

John at Fred's: photo by syncretismassociates
We should have a jam sometime, are you busy? photo by syncretismassociates

Yeah, now is good: Photo by Syncretismassociates

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Look, a winner:

And the winner is:  Maja.  Even though she pretended to be her dad, and tried to start rumors about me which are mostly unfounded.  That's how fair the process was; I asked the cat and she chose without fear or favour. 

Tomorrow I will drive to Wellington for these shows I mentioned.  People who aren't from New Zealand may not be aware that that's actually a fair way away, even though our country is just a pair of islands in the middle of a large ocean full of sharks.  The island thing can be confusing for people, I think.  Once upon a time I had a job selling liquor and cigarillos to Americans off the cruise ships, and middle-aged rich people would ask me things like 'is there a Hard Rock Cafe on the island, sweetheart?'  It took me a while before I figured out that the island they were talking about was the North Island, which is not usually thought of as an island in the sunny South Pacific atoll sense.  I didn't know the answer, so I would alternate between yes and no depending on how much I felt like making up directions that day.  For all I know, there are to this day Americans in places like Dargaville or Fielding looking for this elusive cafe.  I wish them luck.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Broken Heartbreakers and a sweet giveaway

For the past few years, I've been playing space mandolin and dark, tremulous guitar (See what I did there?) with The Broken Heartbreakers.  It's been a blast.  Then I turned my back for five minutes, and half the band ran away to parts unknown, so we're having a little break at the moment.  It turned out, though, that in a classic case of how you never really know what drummers are up to back there, our drummer Myles had been quietly shooting really grainy footage and taking low-resolution photos of us (mostly of our backs)  for the duration.  Earlier in the year, in the moments when his new baby daughter was asleep, he edited it together into a sweet little video to go with the title track of our new album 'Wintersun.'  For reasons best known to himself, he decided to use a version of the track that is actually quite different to the one that ended up on the record, in that half the vocals are missing and the guitars in the bridge kind of sound like Supergrass.  Such nitpickerry notwithstanding, the results of his efforts warmed my heart when they emerged from the internet into the Berlin apartment where I was sitting listening to the rain and missing my band a couple of months ago.

I don't think this is the kind of video that will ever get played on the television, partly because it's just too awesome, and also because it actually doesn't get any bigger than the little window here.  Also, the section between 2:43 and 2:46 features rare footage of the only time Rachel has been know to lose a game of pool, so it's kind of embargoed.  So for now, this is an exclusive, which is sure to boost my traffic and help me to monetize my blog.

I'm kind of interested to hear whether other people enjoy this video quite as much as I do.  I mean, for me it's memories of touring with a good people for the past couple of years playing awesome music; to you it may look like a bunch of grown-ups failing to act their age.  Perhaps it's the same thing.  Anyway, since the Broken Heartbreakers usually appeal to a more sensible and mature demographic (as well as our hordes of teenage fans who were devastated when it was revealed that John was actually married to Rachel and hence unavailable), here's a video of us being accepted by the cultural establishment:

Yep, that's Finlay MacDonald there, who edited the NZ Listener last time it was a good magazine.  If that's not cultural establishment, I quit.

Why am I telling you this?  I thought you might want to get a copy of the newish Broken Heartbreakers album, is why.  Ms Millicent Crow has been telling me that I should do a giveaway on my blog for quite a while, because that's what people with blogs do, apparently.  So here goes: What you have to do is leave a comment below telling me your favorite thing about the 'Wintersun' video, and sometime before Thursday I'll choose a winner.  I will probably do some sort of names in hats or random number generator type procedure in order to ensure fairness, or perhaps I will get the cat to choose.  The winner will receive this princely prize pack:

One 'Wintersun' CD, to be posted anywhere in the world or to the Mars colony, and
Two free passes to any of the the shows I'm doing with John White over the next couple of weeks.  If you're not in Wellington, Whanganui, Raglan, or Auckland, these are transferable, so you can nominate two people in one of these towns to get in for free.  I probably can't give away free passes to the South Island shows because I'm not playing at those ones, but I'll check with John and get back to you.  Similarly, if you already have a copy of 'Wintersun,' because chances are if you read this blog you're either a friend or a relation and you got it at one of the release shows, take the free one and give the one you already have to your aunty for Christmas.  If you are a relation, though, please don't give it to one of the aunties we have in common because then she'll get two.

Pretty sweet deal, huh?  Comment away.

UPDATE:  It was drawn to my attention that I had set my settings such that you needed to do stuff like sign in to leave comments, which a lot of people find quite difficult apparently.  This blogging thing is clearly more complicated than I had anticipated.  Anyway, I've changed it now, so everybody can comment, even spambots.

Spambots: Even if you win the competition, you can't come to the show.  Sorry.

The Brokem Heartbreakers will see you now.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Imagine an imaginary menagerie manager imagining managing an imaginary menagerie

One thing I realised when I got back to New Zealand is that we need a new pet. We already have a cat and a fish, and we used to have several more fish until the remaining fish ate them, but there is room here for a newcomer I think. Fish are good because you can ignore them. They don't need to be exercised, and if you forget to feed them for a while they pretty much sort themselves out, at least until they run out of smaller fish. The fish is called Leviathan and he's fine, we quite like him, he can stay. The only real problem with fish is that they aren't particularly fulfilling as pets because it's hard to tell what they're thinking and they don't really listen if you've got something you want to talk to them about. The cat is a different story, but I did not fly all the way around the world to write a blog about the cat. All I will say on that subject is if anybody wants a violently deranged and overly furry housecat who likes to drool on keyboards and destroy people's stuff, send me a stamped, self-addressed envelope and you can have her by return post.

I want an animal less homicidal than a cat, but more interesting and interested than a fish. It's a difficult balance to strike, because the pet must also not need exercising or training at all. A pig is a possibility; I have always been fond of pigs. My friend in Berlin has a pig called Kenny Powers, who is obviously a very fulfilling and faithful companion, but the impression I get is that he requires a lot of attention and training. That's fine if you've got the commitment and stickablility to maintain a good training regime, including walks in the park and jumping practice etc, but I fear that I lack that stickability. It would be a shame if my pig lost condition and became lazy due to my want of focus. A dog wouldn't work either, because you can't ignore dogs. If you ignore your dog for too long, pretty soon it will be running around the neighbourhood eating children, and that attracts journalists. I need a pet I can ignore sometimes, but one that will be there when I want a bit of a gossip.

So what I decided was this: It's turtle time! What this house needs is a tank with a serious turtle in it, the kind that you can feed meat to when you're bored, the kind with red dots on its ears and a leathery head that it retracts into its little shell when it's eaten too much meat and it has indigestion. Turtles make great pets because they are virtually self-sufficient: They don't need to be walked or burped, they don't crave attention, and you don't have to try to teach them things because you just can't: turtles don't do tricks. They just hang out, swim around, and look awesome. But: if you want to, you can talk to them, and they will be a lot more interested than a fish would be. That's because while fish have no knowledge of the world beyond the aquatic, turtles are amphibious, and therefore have a broader perspective on life. They hunger for knowledge, and in their little turtle brains lurk the rudiments of empathy. Once you have won its trust (with meat) your turtle can be a very sympathetic listener.

Another strong advantage a turtle has as a pet is that when we go away, lots of people will be happy to look after it. Nobody who's met her wants to look after our cat any more, because everybody knows that she's trouble. It's pretty hard to find a dog-sitter as well because of the regular exercise thing, and the problem with leaving your pig with someone is that pigs can easily be turned into a range of delicious meats and it can be hard to explain that your particular pig wasn't for eating. Turtles are no-fuss and pretty much all look the same, though, so nobody will have any qualms about turtle-sitting because a) it's easy, and b) if you still manage to make a horrible mistake and kill my turtle, you can replace it with a similar-looking one and I will never know.

I am strongly looking forward to this turtle, and I know that pretty soon people will start asking me what I'm going to call it. Well, I can reveal that I've thought quite a lot about this, and my first and well-considered choice was 'Led Zeppelin.' That would be a rad name for a turtle. Here's the thing though: you can have that name for your turtle if you want, because I'm not going to use it. I realised that I'm really looking forward to people meeting my turtle and going 'pretty cool turtle man, what's its name?' and me just saying 'The Turtle.' Because really, that's all the name it will need. It's not like it needs to get a driver's license or vote or anything, it's just a turtle. Using its powers,* The Turtle will know when it's being addressed or spoken of, so no fancier moniker is necessary in my view. When we talk of 'The Turtle' in this house, everybody will know who we mean.

So obviously nothing much exciting has happened this week, but sometimes it's good to be able to take a breather and sort out your life, particularly vis-a-vis turtles. Next time something interesting happens you will be the first to hear about it, and you can also expect more pictures of turtles here in the future. I'm thinking of subtitling this whole thing 'the blog that keeps on giving,' so feel free to let me know what you think about that.

Next week: In which I go to Whanganui, for rock'n'roll purposes. We'll see how that turns out.

*Yeah, The Turtle has powers. What of it?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I'm a lot like you were

Did you think maybe that just because I'm back in Neuseeland I might stop it with the blogging? No such luck. Auckland is a lot like Berlin, I have found, except that everything is further away and it costs more. The main difference is that when people are rude to me on public transport here I usually know what they're saying, and I have a chance to respond with a witty remark. The situation doesn't arise much, of course, because Auckland doesn't have any public transport to speak of. If it did, though, I would be prepared with some of the pithy comebacks I've been saving up for when I got back to an English-speaking country where they would appreciate my ready wit. This may not sound apropos, but I've been working on my witty comebacks in my head for the past couple of weeks, ever since I got heckled by a toothless busker in Freetown Christiania.

It was just another day at the An Emerald City office - we were rolling through the lawless streets of Copenhagen's autonomous anarchist zone in Jim the Eagle, the German ex-police van with crow-black bulletproof windows. I was perched on the windowsill of the shotgun-side door, ostensibly the better to navigate through the windy hodgepodge of stalls and hawkers with their t-shirts and overpriced cannabis, but actually because I was pretty sure that I looked kind of rad sitting up there all rock'n'roll with my leather jacket and my top button undone. We were in good spirits, heading for a venue called Loppen, where we had been told we could confidently expect to have a very pleasant evening. As we slowed to negotiate a bottleneck, a wizened fellow banging on a five-stringed guitar looked up and called out to me something I didn't quite catch about my hat. Because objectively it's a very good hat, I figured it must have been an unsolicited compliment, so I smiled benignly and gave him a regal wave. I share this story now because I suspect that this was my mistake - behaving like royalty from the comfort of a police-looking Volkswagen may not endear one to the kinds of anarchists who get by playing five sixths of a guitar to broke wasters in open-air drug markets, and if you dear reader are able to profit from this insight one day then more power to you, I say.

Jim the Eagle, roosting outside Loppen.

After we'd found the venue and packed the gear in using their Steampunk Family Robinson freight elevator, we decided to go an have a look around the neighbourhood. Christiania is a good place to play a show, because it has something for every member of the modern psychedelic instrumental rock ensemble. If you're a political theory nerd (and every band has one) it is an interesting case study in spontaneous organisation and the effects of a power vacuum on the marketplace. If you're into weird little houses that look like they were built for hobbits by wizards, it has those in spades. If you need a new hat for the stage, or a cape for everyday wear, the selection is wide and relatively inexpensive. If you like to get into conversations about the relative merits of Moroccan versus Tibetan hashish, you will find plenty of people to talk to about your hobby; there are also swings and slides for the rhythm section to play on.

Anarchist goods elevator. Don't bother looking for the
inspection history or any of that bourgeois nonsense.

To get to all of these diversions, however, it was necessary to pass by the toothless busking man again. We were strolling, you know, six deep, looking kind of like a band with a couple of hours to kill and probably also like we knew it, when the busking dude calls out 'Hey! nice hat man!'

'Thanks dude.'

'Yeah man, nice hat! Shame you're yuppie scum!'

'Beg your pardon?'

'Nice hat! Shame you're yuppie scum!'

'Oh. Yeah. I um, I guess it is.'

This was really confusing. I mean, I'm used to getting yelled at by people, don't get me wrong. Usually though, it's for doing things like Looking Like a Fag in Public, or Not Paying Attention During a Discussion, or Playing a Noisy Solo While The Guy Who Wrote the Song is Singing About His Feelings, all of which I have been guilty of and actually quite enjoy doing. Getting a yell in these situations may not be always welcome, but at least it is not unexpected. Strolling through Hippietown with my musical co-conspirators though, wearing not even a suit, but my busking hat with the lucky crow's feather in, I would have thought I was safe from accusations of yuppiedom. Particularly when these accusations are leveled at me by a busker with few teeth, the kind of guy who usually winds up on my team, these things can smart.

Pretty good hat, for a yuppie. Note that the coffee is a long black,
not like a cappuccino or something that maybe a yuppie would have.

In the absence of a witty comeback from the proud owner of said hat, Dan, bless him, was all for going back and starting something with the guy. He was in the army down in Israel for a while, and sometimes the esprit de corps comes out I guess. Rob, however, was quickly at pains to appraise us of the sociopolitical realities of the situation in which we found ourselves: when you're in an autonomous zone controlled by an anarchist tribe who have thrown out the cops, it's a good idea not to start altercations with people with no teeth. I didn't have much to contribute; I was sulking a little bit, which is what I usually do when people call me a yuppie and I can't think of a funny thing to say back.

I don't know about you, but when people call me things I tend to go through a brief period of introspection to determine whether or not the new label is accurate. I mean, there is every chance that the broken-down minstrel hanging out on the fringes of the cannabis bazaar shouting at strangers has some sort of insight into my life that has hitherto been hidden from me. It would be a shame to forgo this chance for self-improvement just because I find the messenger's behaviour boorish. I also probably needed to walk past the guy again in order to get back to the venue for soundcheck, so I wanted to have a think about how things stood and where our relationship was at so I would know how to interact with him should the opportunity arise a third time.

As the others tried on hats and chatted with the pushers, I considered the situation from a few angles. The first thing I thought was that I hadn't heard anyone say 'yuppie' for quite a long time, really since the nineties if I think about it. Maybe it's common in Denmark, though, and the guy didn't have to be down with the latest slang if he really had a point, so I let that slide. Was I dressed like a yuppie? I didn't even have to check, I had been wearing the same clothes for several days and none of them would have earned me rapid preferment in an office context. So not that then. Could it be my overall appearance apart from my clothes? Yuppies, I'm pretty sure, shave a lot, and generally engage in grooming. Like cats, they wash themselves frequently. They are well turned out, and their nail polish is usually not chipped as far as I am aware. I, on the other hand, had left my razor in a gas station restroom in Calais over a month ago, I was beginning to smell faintly ursine, and I lost points in the nail-grooming category as well. In short, I was well prepared for playing space violin in a psychedelic rock band, but I would not have even made Casual Friday in most downtown workplaces.

Guys, to smell 'ursine' is to be like these chaps. Not whatever you were thinking.

Perhaps it was something more intangible then, like attitude? It's true that I am arrogant and I tend to walk around with a vast sense of entitlement, but I would have though that 'asshole' was a more appropriate label for someone with those traits, and in any case I'm working on it. Perhaps he meant that I have an eye for the main chance, a keen instinct for the vagaries of the market, and a razor-sharp focus on my career? How to tell the poor man, then, that I am used to playing for little or no money beyond costs, and my idea of career development is a day spent listening to every single Led Zeppelin album, back to back and in order? It made no sense. This aggression, I decided, would not stand.

I will not trouble you with the range of options I went through in my head regarding the inevitable future encounter with this heckling busker. The problem I had was that any verbal riposte on my part would inevitably come across as prepared and stilted, since he would know that I had spent the past couple of hours thinking about it. That essentially meant that the better it was, the more it would seem like I'd thought about it, which would mean he'd got to me; whereas if it was lame I would look extra-dumb because after all, I'd had a couple of hours to think about it, hadn't I? Any non-verbal response, though, would be very far out of character for me because of how well brought-up I am,* so I really was in a bit of a bind. I guess I could have mooned the guy, but that seemed, and still seems, tacky. My least bad option, as far as I could see it, was to embrace the yuppie/busker dichotomy and offer the guy twenty Kroners to shut the hell up. As it happened, I was spared the decision by my old allies: social confusion and my congenital inability to recognise humans.

What happened was, the group of us became separated for various reasons and me and Rob were the last to wander back to Loppen together for soundcheck. As we approached the spot where the busker had been, I could hear a cracked voice singing 'Old Man' by Neil Young, and all I could think was you've got to be fucking kidding me. We stopped by the guy playing the guitar and he's all like, do you like the song? And I'm like, yeah, I mean, I like the song I guess but to be honest it isn't his best work and you really need more strings for that shit don't you? Rob kind of gives me a look like don't be a dick, man, and the guy asks what we're up to in Christiania. Rob says we're here to play music and the guy says cool, he plays music too. Rob says uh-huh, cos the guy is holding a guitar and has just been observed to sing.

'Whereabouts you boys playing?' He sounds Canadian. Whereaboots. Come to think of it, he looks kind of like Neil Young, if Neil Young smoked crack.

'Over there. In um, in Loppen?'

'No way. Tonight? With that Canuck band?'

'Yeah, I guess.'

'Wanted to get to that. Couldn't get a ticket.' Yeah, because you spent all your money on crack, Neil, thinks I. But doesn't say it.

'Oh, well we've got some door list I think. Have we still got door list, dude?'

'What? Um I guess so. Maybe we shouldn't -'

'Yeah OK, cool man, we'll get you on the door. What's your name?'

So the guy gave us his name, and I was very confused because that wasn't how I expected it to go at all. At the same time I was quite impressed with Rob because I figured that this had to be the last thing the guy was expecting, and it was a pretty masterful comeback, if that's what it was. We didn't discuss it though, and the two of us walked back to the venue, speaking of more lofty matters. Later on, however, over dinner, Reuben suddenly remembered the guy.

'So did you see Toothless Busking Man again today?'

'Yeah man, saw him again on the way back.'

'Did you give him a karate chop?'

'Um. Yeah nah that didn't seem appropriate really, after Rob had like invited him to the show and whatever.'

'No way! Did what?'

'Wait, what? No I -'

'Yeah he did! Dude, you totally did invite him. Do you have a hole in your brain?'

'Yeah, well, yes. I mean I do, but what? Holy shit, was that the same guy?'

'Yeah, the busker, man! The one who saw through my disguise? That was the guy we were talking to on the way back. Who you said to come to the show. Wasn't it?'

'Really? Are you sure that was the same dude?'

'Fuck I don't know man, people are people, right? These broke-down old junkies all look the same to me with their guitars and their Neil Young and shit. But yeah, I think so.'

'Nah look I'm pretty sure that was a different guy from before. No way was I going to invite that guy. Jesus.'

'For real? You're sure?'

'Yeah, like, ninety per cent?'

'OK, that's pretty high. Far out, this town bugs me out man. I totally thought it was the same guy.'

'Oh man, and you didn't say anything?'

'Yeah well what was I gonna say? You were just about pashing the dude.'

Social confusion, retarded development in the part of my brain that recognises faces, these are powerful forces that conspire to strip meaning from my life. It's possible that the guy came to the gig that night, but to be honest, the Danes really like their Black Mountain so the room was pretty full and I didn't see anyone with that many gaps in their teeth. Basically, this kind of incident is by no means isolated for me and it often takes me about four goes before I recognise people's faces at all. This often has hilarious consequences for everyone except me, which is fine, because it's good to make people laugh, but it can be inconvenient when it comes to things like revenge. Dad reckons that it means I should never try to be a politician, and he's probably got a point. I reckon the main thing it means though is that I need to work on my comebacks, because when you're me and all the faces look the same, you only get one chance with the haters.

*and also a bit of a sissy.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Done all I can do in this town

After three months on this side of the world, the seasons have taken a turn. The weeping birches by the Treptower memorial are colouring, and honking great skeins of geese cross the sky from the North. As the evenings begin drawing in, the drug dealers in Gorlitzer Park have started to fight each other with baseball bats, and finally I can wear all of the layers of wool I laughed at myself for hauling over here in July. I like to wear wool, and I like the geese. Riding around a park in a big old railway yard while the leaves turn gold and the various crews of pushers pursue diplomacy by other means is a fine way to spend an afternoon if you're not busy, but despite these attractions it still feels like it's a good time to head home.

I try to remain vigilant in life when I can, but I do find that things tend to sneak up on me. Opening for the Black Angels with An Emerald City was a good way to celebrate my last week in Europe, but it was only a couple of days before my train to Frankfurt international airport that I really started thinking in terms of leaving town and making sure I did what I'd come to do before I had to go. You will be aware that the main thing I came to Europe to do was ride purposlessly around Berlin on my bike Philip, so I made sure I did that first. Me and him have had some good times together over the past few months, and I think he realised that our time was coming to an end, because he was a little subdued on our last few outings. Usually he is a very spirited bike and he likes to throw his chain at inoppourtune moments, or lock up his wheels in the middle of bustling intersections to show me who's in charge, but as we've cruised around our favourite parts of Neukolln and Kreutzberg this past week his behaviour has been very proper.

Another of my key mission objectives for the Berlin Operation was to spend a good part of most days cluttering up a particular cafe in Oppelnerstrasse where you can get the best long black north of Midnight Espresso. I don't usually care that much about how my food and drink taste, but these long blacks are very fine and the company there is often worth getting out of bed for. If you ever feel like maybe your pants don't match your jacket and you're not ready to face up to the beautiful kids in Berlin just yet, a leisurely bout of coffee consumption here should put you in the right frame of mind to stroll down the strasse with your freunden, ready see and be seen. I think the rule is that it doesn't matter if band practice starts a little late if at least half of us need to stop at Passenger for a coffee before we feel like we can make a useful contribution to the session, and band practice has been starting late a lot recently. This is a good thing, and it meant I was able to put in a bit of quality time with the motley Passenger crew before I left town.

One of the few things that I really needed to do in real life, though, I predictably ended up postphoning until my last day. Those of you who have kept clicking back here hoping for something worth reading* since a couple of months ago may recall that at one time I was bragging about how busking has made me rich as a troll. I'm not apologising for bragging here; people who dislike bragging typically have nothing to brag about. However, I feel I should clarify my financial situation somewhat, in order that readers don't develop the impression that the people of Berlin have handed life to me on a plate, or in a hat, if youlike. The thing with busking is that people usually give you coins. Sometimes notes, but usually coins, and that's fine - I like coins. They make me feel like a character in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. (I.e. awesome). The problem I had in July, though, was that I liked my coins too much. Like some latter-day Midas, I hoarded them and gazed lovingly upon them, enjoying them both as objects and as tokens of the esteem I felt I could purchase with them from my peers. It is true that I should have been more out in the fresh air, but my behaviour did have a rational basis, which was this: I figured I might as well take them all to a bank at once and get them changed into notes in one go rather than in time-wasting dribs and drabs. As you will be aware, my time is precious and my days are crowded with purposeful incident.

It was reasonably important for me to get these coins changed into notes, because bureaux de change typically don't handle coins; presumably because they are not run by trolls or aficionados of fantasy fiction. My plan was to not be completely broke when I got back to New Zealand, so I needed to convert my hoard into a form that I could reconvert into NZ dollars later. So it was that on the last day of July, before I left Berlin to hoon around Europe in an A-class Mercedes for a month, I carefully counted all of my loot. I divided it into bags by denomination and multiples of ten, and set off to find a bank. It was raining a bit and I was toting about fifteen kilograms of coins in a calico bag, looking very much like a traditionally-minded bank robber. My spirits were high as I approached the first bank, just around the corner.

'You would like to do what please?'

'Um, change these coins? To notes? Ah, bitte?'

'Change to another kind of money? For um, for foreign? This is not-'

'Um, nein. I mean like change the coins to notes? In Euros?'

'Ah so. This also is not possible. You may deposit this coins, but to do this you must first have an account. With this bank.'

'Was? Ok. Gosh. Um, I think my friend does.' I tend to only say 'gosh' when I'm a bit flustered, and it's usually a sign things are not going well for me.

'Your friend, is he with you?'

'Ah, no. Nah. He's not here.'

'Without this friend, sorry we can do nothing.'

'Serious? You can't just swap them for me for like a commission or something? That would be totally sweet in Neuseeland, they really like doing it. It gives them a chance to play with coins and stuff.'

'Sorry, you talk so fast! What did you say please?

'Um yeah nah don't worry about it man, eh . Danke.'

'Please have a nice day.'

The story was similar at the next establishment, and at the one after that there was the added twist that they don't even handle coins at all, and the thought of it seemingly makes them ill. The next place turned out not to be a bank at all, but a mortgage broker, with hilarious consequences. By this time it was raining quite hard and I was beginning to wonder how much fifteen kilograms of coins is actually worth in real life, and whether it was much, and suspecting that in fact it wasn't. In mounting frustration and dampness, I tried a series of casinos, figuring that they would be used to coins and probably had a system. They may very well have had, but unfortunately I was insufficiently charming and nobody wanted to try to understand what I was talking about. Probably this was because I was dripping wet, speaking English, and waving around a shopping bag full of cash. Not a threat, necessarily, but probably not worth going out of your way for.

I had a show to get to, so I decided that since I had about twenty-five kilos of instruments, amps, pedals and sundry other equipment to schlep up to Fredrichshain on the U-Bahn, I might as well haul the coins along as well. Improbably, this proved to be a good move, and set a pattern for the rest of the tour - after the show, the host very graciously agreed to take a hundred euros worth of ones off my hands, in exchange for their face value in paper money. I was pathetically relieved, both for my own financial situation and for the state of the Euro in general. After all, money is only worth what we agree it is, and the evidence from that day suggested very strongly that nobody believes in coins any more. It was nice to feel that both I and the European Union might be less broke than people thought.

So the next day, when we set off to London very very fast on the autobahn, I had in addition to my usual kit about four hundred Euros worth of one and two Euro coins. For the next few weeks I would gauge the atmosphere after each show, and if the host was convivial I would tell the sorry tale and do a deal to swap twenty or fifty of these shiny tokens for real plastic money. Between this and our practice of paying for petrol with one-Euro coins when the gas station staff were surly, my piratical hoard gradually converted into a much more freely convertible, and still satisfyingly solid, pile of cheerily-coloured European banknotes.

When I got back to Berlin at the beginning of July though, and retrieved the flight case for my guitar from the friend's apartment where it had been stashed, I looked inside and was reminded that while I had taken care of the ones and twos, there were still about a hundred and fifty euros worth of twenty- and fifty-cent coins sitting there in envelopes looking like a job to do. I hadn't taken these on that part of the tour, partly because they were really heavy, and partly because I decided that it was unlikely that even the most helpful venue owner or bar manager would remember the New Zealander who insisted on counting out hundreds of twenty-cent coins on their bartop with much fondness at all. It was this last pile of coins that became my final task in Berlin - in addition to playing shows, riding my bike and a rigourous schedule of hanging out, converting this final stack of silver became a useful thing to procrastinate about.

That's why, when a kindly soul finally took pity on me and walked me the ten minutes from Passenger cafe to her bank, and we stood and watched while the teller succumbed to her own rulebook and labouriously counted the whole jingling stash into a legitimate, numbered account, returning the pile of crisp banknotes so desirable to international money-changers, I felt a satisfying sense of a mission accomplished. The task had been hanging around for weeks, not getting in the way so much as providing a useful ambition around which to organise my plans. That was the task, and it had been ticked off - time to leave this town and follow the geese.


Friday, October 1, 2010


Berlin is not a hilly town. There are very few hills here at all, in spite of the fact that several of the suburbs are named after various notional mounds of dirt that you'd really need to be quite worked up to try to make a mountain out of. The area is well served by lakes and even fairly extensive forests, but hills really aren't a feature. The largest hill in the district, in fact, is artificial. It was built in the late forties after five years of aerial bombardment and several months of sustained artillery barrage had left approximately sixty million cubic metres of rubble lying around in Berlin, generally cluttering the place up and getting in the way of efforts to rebuild the city. So far, so WWII, you may be thinking, but the location of the hill is not a coincidence either. Faced with a decision about where to put all this rubble, the occupying Allied military commanders decided that they might as well make it useful. In the Western sector, in the area administered by the British, there stood a Nazi military college that Albert Speer had designed in such a way as to make it virtually impossible to demolish, even with the kind of ordnance the Royal Corps of Engineers had available to them in that part of Europe in the late forties. It was the kind of place where a range of terrible things had happened, and the general feeling was that it should be gotten rid of. Since it was so hard to demolish, and they had all this rubble all over everything, they came up with one of those elegant solutions that can only ever be carried out by organisations like armies of occupation, which are unencumbered by civil engineering regulations or the need to consult with residents: they decided to bury it. So they built a hill on top of the military college and called it Teufelsberg - the Devil's mountain.*

This would be worth a look in itself, I would imagine, if you were the sort of person who went out of their way to visit enormous rubbish heaps. I have my quirks, to be sure, but an abiding interest in piles of rubble has not hitherto been one of them. What I do have though is a serious weakness for abandoned Cold War-era military installations, particularly the sort where you get to climb through holes in barbed-wire fences and risk possible cross-cultural misunderstandings with bored security guards. Lucky for me then that the US National Security Agency in the seventies took advantage of the elevation provided by the artificial hill and put up one of the most aesthetically pleasing sorts of Cold War military installations there is - a radio listening post, which they used to spy on the radio transmissions of the DDR. Radio listening posts have such a strikingly attractive aspect partly because they tend to be situated in areas free of physical interference, which is to say the tops of hills, and partly because the best way to protect all the fantastically expensive receivers and knobs and dials and so on from the elements whilst still maintaining a decent signal quality is to construct buildings that resemble either giant golfballs, enormous fungi, or a space station, depending on your frame of reference.

Space Base Golfshroom.

Once the DDR shut up shop in the 90s, the NSA pulled the plug on the facility and went, I imagine, closer to people they actually wanted to listen to. They took all of their receivers and most of the knobs and dials with them, but they left the buildings, and they left the enormous mushroom/golfball/space station things on top of them. Since that time, the area has been largely ignored apart from an abortive attempt about ten years ago to turn the whole thing into an apartment complex. There's a couple of fences, but they're full of holes, and climbing through holes in fences around abandoned military installations is the height of entertainment for a lot of people. Apocryphal security guards with theoretical rabid dogs on hypothetical chains are said to roam freely in the grounds, but the day we where there I think they might have been spending time with their ideal families, because we were able to stalk our way in through the trees unmolested.

This is a little deer we surprised in the forest. He proved impossible
to catch, so we had to eat the lunch we'd brought from home.

The possibility of imaginary security guards makes the whole thing a lot more exciting, of course. It's pretty lucky that I used to train intensively in the pine forest behind my house for just this sort of mission, and it was even luckier that on the day we infiltrated the facility I was accompanied by my main training partner, who remembered all the signals and protocols that you have to use when you're busting into a highly secure US radar installation on top of an artificial hill in Germany with an indestructible Nazi military college buried underneath it like some sort of secret level. Our combined experience gave us a pretty serious bonus when it came to pulling off moves like avoiding imaginary security guards, and I can report that at no time were our ranks decimated by withering fire from camouflaged bunkers, nor were we caught by any deadfalls, tripwires, or gin traps. Not even imaginary ones.

Johnny Law is around here somewhere, I can feel it.

Once we'd had our fill of sneaking through the forest cover like some sort of elite Ewok commando strike force A-team from 'Nam, it was time to check out the primary mission objective: the domes themselves. As in the best sorts of computer games, we were working against the clock, because one member of our party had heroically elected to stay beside the hole in fence. She said it was because she didn't want to both break her neck and get German arrested in a single day, but I think actually she was Providing a Diversion and Covering our Escape Route, which are crucial and often overlooked roles in a mission and will still earn you lots of experience points. We were fortunate though to have Mr. Tim G. in the team, who is able to move pretty smartly when he needs to, and has a lot of tricks up his sleeve when it comes to being on the run from Johnny Law and keeping a unit moving efficiently in the field.

Wikisign - add your own hazard warnings.

The buildings that the radar domes sit on are really quite fun - they're huge abandoned concrete bunker type things, with lots of exciting-looking cables and broken glass and inscrutably twisted bits of metal lying about, all covered with the Graffiti that spreads in this city like mould in a fruit bowl. There were a few giddy minutes when were looking for a way up, and we were unable to find the official quite safe concrete stairs.

'How do you reckon we get up?'
'Do you reckon you can't get up maybe?'
'Nah you can definitely get up, I saw all this stuff on the internet.'
'And plus how did that guy get up there?'
'What guy?'
'Johnny Law?' You know who that was.
'Nah, that guy on the roof with the macbook. That's not Johnny Law, that's just some hipster writing a screenplay.'
'Oh, OK.'
'Maybe... do you think you have to climb up these ladder type things? On the outside of the pillars?'
'Yeah no, I'm definitely not going to do that.'
'Ah, yeah, I'm also not going to do that.' Naysayers.
'What if these really rusty-looking ladders are the only way up?'
'Then I'm going to probably just not go up.'
'It's only that last bit that looks hard, where you have to sort of reach -'
'I am not going to be climbing these ladders of which you speak. Nor are you. We're not climbing these ladders. They're not even proper ladders anyway, they're like reinforcing or something.'
'I'm not saying we should necessarily climb them, but like if these ladders are the only way up -'
'Stop calling them ladders!'
'Um, guys? I think these things here are the stairs?' T.G. often wanders off when people are having productive discussions, but he usually comes back with useful intel.
'Real stairs? Or fall seven stories and break your neck stairs?'

They're definitely not ladders. Don't climb them. Indiana Jones
would climb them perhaps, but he does lots of things you shouldn't do.

This is why real Ewok commandos mostly communicate with hand signals I think. As it turned out, the stairs were built to exacting US Army standards, and will probably still be there when you and I are stardust again. They were certainly adequate anyway for the task of conveying us safely to the best view of Berlin I've ever seen.

Berlin, with screenplay-writing hipster in foreground.

It really is a long way up.

Go on, look down. That's not a ladder either.

That's an open lift shaft. I'm not sure what motivated some vandal to prise open the
lift doors on everyfloor, but it certainly makes the whole experience a bit more vertiginous.

There are very few towns in the world where you can catch a train to a man-made hill and walk into an abandoned military base in broad daylight, but not get shot at, mugged, or blown up by landmines, and you can also drink the water and call a cop if your bike gets stolen. Third world levels of awesome and poorly-guarded ruins combined with first-world civil society and governance make for a pretty rocking playground. The view from up there in the radar domes is all the sweeter for the fact that you wouldn't even be able to get that high without all of this history going on underneath you, layers and layers of it piling like sediment and forming the foundations for the next outlandish structure somebody takes a notion to put up. From the top of the Teufelsberg you can see a communist TV tower, a fascist airport, a capitalist nuclear plant, and acres of forest teeming with enough wild boars to give Obelix a stomach ache next time he comes to visit the Visigoths. You can see the stadium where Jack Lovelock and Jesse Owens won their medals in 1936, and you're standing right under the flightpath of the C-47s that fed West Berlin for two years during the luftbr├╝cke. The last military casualty of the cold war was shot by DDR border guards somewhere on the plain to the north, and red squirrels run up and down the telephone lines that the CIA used to use to pass on propaganda to Radio Free Europe. These days it's a great place for hipsters to come to do their photography assignments, although I'm told it's considered a bit of an easy brief for obvious reasons.

Me, walking on history. Tim S snapped this shot.

If you ignore things like the piles of radioactive waste and the possiblity of
catastrophic failure, nuclear power stations are pretty cool.

*The video that the link in this paragraph takes you to is way better than most of the ones I link to, so go watch it.