Northern Advocate Column

Anthony Bourdain: artistry, doubt and dead octopus

anthonybourdainsicily

Stone dead, half-frozen octopus dropped from a small fishing boat into the waters off the coast of Sicily. Plummeting to their second deaths, with all the metaphorical weight of a dead albatross. All for one man, who’s snorkelling below, filmed by an attendant camera crew. 

In the wetsuit, Anthony Bourdain, writer, ex-cook and maker of original, funny, dozen-thoughts-per-minute television. He’s in Sicily for season two of Parts Unknown (2013). He’s meant to be catching this ocean delicacy for real, not being fed them from above like an aquarium-caged sea mammal. The local restaurant owner orchestrating the sham obvious didn’t get the memo that for Anthony Bourdain authenticity is everything.

Underwater, with a snorkel in his mouth, Bourdain, the charismatic, natural communicator is unable to say a word. The anger he’s feeling cannot be expressed in a series of trademark expletives. Just the silence of the pathetic deceit reigning down on him. He’s powerless to stop the bullshit.

It’s through the narration added afterwards in the editing studio that Bourdain gets to speak the horror of what he experienced. “I’m no marine biologist,” he deadpans, “but I know dead octopus when I see one… Strangely, everyone else pretends to believe the hideous sham unfolding before our eyes, doing their best to ignore the blindingly obvious.”

As octopi thud lifelessly onto the seafloor, he continues the despairing monologue: “I’ve never had a nervous breakdown before, but I tell you from the bottom of my heart, something fell apart down there, and it took a long, long time after the end of this damn episode to recover.”

This wasn’t just a tragic-comic scene, a good story for his television show, it was an existential crisis of monsters-from-the-deep proportions. The look on his face back on shore said it all.

Faith in humanity was at stake. Faith in himself. It’s like those falling dead octopus are Bourdain’s own burdens, mistakes and regrets, piling on top of humanity’s greater follies, from gluttonous overfishing to run-of-the-mill everyday media fakery. And here he was complicit in it all. That’s one hell of a guilt load. So Bourdain gets blindly and sourly drunk on gin cocktails. It’s his birthday.

This story, both painfully real and artfully presented for fist-punching dramatic effect, is what Bourdain could crystalise in a few minutes of TV. There are countless scenes from No Reservations and Parts Unknown that make you laugh out loud and want to cry at the same time. Have you doubting our very worth as a species one minute, then making you believe eating grilled sardines at a bistro with good company is the greatest joy possible. 

As a cook, Bourdain might not have been an artiste, but as a maker of hour-long television, he was in my mind an artist. The flawed, witty, passionate man that he presented to us on screen was like a fresh oyster off the rocks compared to the bland fast-food celebrities we’re so often forced to consume. I was a fan.

From this distance his suicide is unfathomable, an act lacking any easy explanation. We’re left with a big tidal pool of doubt. 

Which is the feeling you often got watching his shows filmed in places like Beirut, Jerusalem, Libya, Detroit, Moscow or the Congo. In his later shows, when he was more serious about what he was doing, Bourdain never gave easy answers to the world’s problems and conflicts. He didn’t have them, and he didn’t pretend to have them. Like all good sceptics, he put the onus on us to figure it all out. 

In a recent interview, he said: “I don’t like comfortable conclusions. Life’s not like that. I’d rather leave people hanging even with a lingering doubt or a feeling of being unsettled.” And yet his brutal honesty, natural empathy for ordinary people, and unwavering internationalism was itself a kind of answer. It must be part of the reason so many people around the world have voiced their sadness at his passing.

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Music, Northern Advocate Column

All hail Prince Tui Teka!

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All hail Prince Tui Teka! I never knew. Listening to the big man sing ‘Heed the Call,’ the title track of the recently released compilation of Aotearoa soul, funk and disco tracks (1973-83) was a musical revelation. It’s a sublime, drum-heavy soul track, that stands up alongside anything by Al Green, Curtis Mayfield or Solomon Burke. 

While it’s the effortless crooning of Prince Tui Teka that lifts the song, the dynamic rhythm section and backing vocals supplied by The Yandall Sisters are equally essential. It was a surprise to find out the song was initially recorded by Kenny Rodgers and his band The First Edition. Written by bandmate Kin Vassy. The Prince Tui Teka version is, I think, superior, but it shows what a strange melting pot music can be.

The original song had the background of the Civil Rights movement in America and is a plea for racial understanding and peace through the secular gospel of music. “Have you been sleeping/The sermon’s in the music,” Tui Teka drawls before The Yandall Sisters come in with: “The man standing next to you/ He must surely be your brother/ So brother, please, heed the call.” You realise listening to the message of this song, that soul, funk and disco were being embraced by Māori performers at the same time as the Land March (1975) and the Bastion Point occupation (1977-78).

And while the 1970s are often portrayed as dark economic and social times, there was close to full-employment, the union movement was strong, and houses were affordable. In politics, music, and every other part of life, Māori were putting their “good foot” forward. There was a confidence that needed a soundtrack. It’s English that’s used, and American musical forms are the vehicle, but it’s to Māori working in South Auckland factories, in government department offices, in freezing works around the country, who Prince Tui Teka is singing to.

But not only to them, because if there was one factor that drove the music scene in New Zealand at the time, it was that pubs were king. Māori or Pākehā, if you were looking for a good and rowdy time after a week of wage-slavery, and music was your thing, then it was to pubs like The Gluepot in Ponsonby that you went. The equivalent venues existed in Whangārei and around the North.

There were no separate disco clubs, like in cities overseas. If you were a musician interested in the latest funk and disco sounds, your only option was to introduce that sound to a general audience. The underground and the mainstream had to co-exist, had to bang up against each other. Literally according to Alan Perrott, one of the men behind the Heed the Call! compilation. “There were fights in the crowd most times [the bands] played,” says Perrott in an interview with Grant Smithies for the Sunday Star Times. “These were hard-arse bars, and let’s not forget this is New Zealand, with a long tradition of men having to get blind pissed before they have the confidence to dance. Let’s just say there was a fair bit of drama…”

But conflict and controversy have always played their part in getting noticed. And so Mark Williams from Dargaville fronted in tight, chest-bearing jumpsuits, make-up and earrings. It’s his photo in full get-up on the cover of the album. You can just imagine the comments from a heavily largered pub crowd

The new sound did win converts, though. Mark Williams had big hits with ‘Disco Queen’ and ‘A House For Sale’. ‘I Need Your Love’ by Golden Harvest reached number one on the New Zealand charts in 1977. ‘Sweet Inspiration’ by The Yandall Sisters was hugely popular. 

Unfortunately, what we have now was only the tip of the iceberg. Perrott, an obsessive record collector, has lamented the fact that not much of the music played in the bars and pubs was ever recorded. There was no money to be made from entering the studio, the live music scene was where the money was. Heed The Call!, then, is a precious time capsule, a few choice nuggets of feel-good funk rhythms and soulful voices to savour. A taste only of a cultural milieu that’s been and gone.

If you want to escape back to that era, to remember it, or visit for the first time, then this album is essential. Don’t let your preconceptions sway you. For too long, certainly, I’ve neglected names like Dalvanius, Mark Williams, Prince Tui Teka, Tina Cross and The Yandall Sisters.

But for all those named stars, it’s the tough, talented and largely forgotten musicians working the pub circuit the length of the country who are the heroes of this album. One of the best songs is ‘You Can Dance’ by Collision, a band which originated from the forestry town of Tokoroa.

I’m so often in awe of the musical talent and great songs that have come out of this small country. Whakarongo ki te waiata.

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