Northern Advocate Column

Shane Carter in Whangarei

Shayne Carter at Laneway 201230 May 2015

It’s clear to me that Whangarei has reached a cultural high-watermark moment. And it’s nothing to do with the Hundertwasser. It’s not the even the wonderful Hatea Loop Walkway, or indeed the Whangarei Growers’ Market. It’s not the many bustling cafés in this town, one of which I’m currently sitting in writing this piece. No, it’s the prospect of Shane Carter, frontman for the legendary Straitjacket Fits, playing live in Whangarei. I truly never thought I’d live to see the day that I’d be able to see my musical heroes in my own hometown.

The arts and music scene has been bubbling along nicely for a while now, thanks to the efforts of talented and dedicated local people. Many of whom might quite fancy living in the inner suburbs of a bigger city like Auckland, Melbourne or London. But oh well, if you can’t afford it, Whangarei will have to do. Why not try to create something of that big city vibe here.

I have to take my hat off to Jessica White and her team at The Old Stone Butter Factory for the music, performance, comedy, poetry and burlesque that’s being put on for our entertainment pleasure every week. The artists deserve to be supported, to encourage local talent and ensure those from other parts of the country (and overseas) keep coming back. Word is getting around New Zealand musicians that Whangarei now has a great live venue.

On Saturday 13th June when Shane Carter walks on stage with his electric guitar I’ll be very happy I didn’t have to make the trip to Auckland to see him, and that there’ll be people I know in the audience to share the experience with. I’m sure he’ll play classic songs from the late 80s/early 90s era of the Flying Nun label, when New Zealand indie rock bands were as good as any in the world, songs like Dialing a Prayer, She Speeds and Bad Note for a Heart.

As the global rock star he could have been, Carter had it all, good looks, a punk attitude and awesome ability on the guitar. It was the lyrics, though, that raised it to another level, sung by Carter in his sneering voice (think Elvis crossed with Johnny Rotten). Lyrically, he pushed and twisted the conventions of love songs, often dwelling on the darker side of love and obsession. Some songs were deeply mysterious and held together by memorable poetic images, like “No need to fight these things crawling inside/ Like slaters on dead wood/ Nothing’s forever so make sure it’s good” from Headwind, off the powerful and melodious 1991 album Melt.

On the night I’ll be calling out for a song I’ve never heard him play live, Brittle, a bluesy and moody number with a quirky guitar riff. This was the song Straitjacket Fits contributed to the 1993 compilation album No Alternative, produced by the US-based AIDS awareness organisation Red Hot. Other contributors were Smashing Pumpkins, Pavement, Soundgarden, Beastie Boys and Nirvana.   

But no matter what the setlist, I’ll be there dancing joyfully on the inside, imagining I could be in any cool inner city music venue in the world. And yet I’ll be in Whangarei, which will make the night even sweeter.

Art, Northern Advocate Column

Window cleaning with Billy Apple


16 May 2015

With the sun getting lower in the sky I’ve noticed how dirty the windows of our house are. The dust, grime and insect droppings are showing up marvelously, backlit by sunlight. I need to clean them.

Cleaning windows is something I actually quite enjoy. And each time I’m reminded of one of my favourite artworks by the New Zealand artist Billy Apple. 

In the 1970s, Billy Apple ran a gallery in New York that was a cutting-edge space for the emerging conceptual and non-object art movements. Artists like Apple were questioning every preconception about art. They were rebelling against the idea that art was a precious, crafted commodity, bought in galleries and displayed in homes or rarified museum halls. Part of this critique was the idea that art and life might somehow be fused in the creative act of the artist. The implication was that everyone could use their imagination to perform symbolic acts to re-shape and re-present their world. At the time it was an exciting idea. 

One work by Billy Apple involved picking up broken glass from selected streets in New York and displaying the piles on the floor of his gallery. What was the art experience here? Was it in the act of picking up the broken glass, often with the help of neighbourhood kids? Was it the piles of “beautiful” shards displayed in the gallery? Was it the photos recording the action that we can still look at today? Or was it just the idea that the artist had done such a thing? 

So back to cleaning windows. This was an act Apple performed in April, 1973. Wearing a striking yellow skivvy, he was photographed polishing the inside of a window in his gallery. What the hell you might ask. But if you suspend judgement for a moment and think about the act and objects involved metaphorically, there’s something happening here. There’s light, colour and composition for starters.  

For myself, I think about the human desire to beautify and control our lived environment. In this case, to have windows which are clear and spotless. Often though our attempts to beautify or alter the world do not last. The window that Apple cleans will get dirty again. What’s more the glass surface on the other side, storeys up from the New York streets, remains dirty. As an individual we can only change so much about our world, so much is beyond our power to affect. Yet in the face of this, the individual creative act―the artist’s or our own―is still important, defiant even.  

After cleaning the windows of my house I stand back proudly and appreciate their shining clarity. I know, however, that almost immediately the car fumes, the dust and dirt, will start to build up again. There’s a tinge of sadness that comes with fragile beauty. It’s not too much of a leap to think of cleaning windows as a metaphor for our own temporal and fragile existence. It’s with a smile that I recall the mortal artist in his yellow skivvy reaching upwards to clean the very top part of the gallery window―it’s somehow life affirming.