Hosted by Tyler Fox
Rock and Roll in New Zealand:
The Building Blocks of a Rebel Identity
How can culture cross an ocean? At first I’m sure this question must seem childish or at least simplistic, but I think it bears some thought. After all, understanding the answer to a question like that may well give some crucial insight into the makeup of whatever it is that we are calling ‘culture’, and how it can be transmitted and subsequently adopted. Perhaps we can garner an understanding of whether or not it is a thing at all. It is a strange question, but from my visit to New Zealand recently I think I may have garnered a few insights into how the elements of something like ‘culture’ can actually change location (after a fashion, at least).
Like any great job, I was able to conduct a large portion of my research in places that didn’t really seem like a conventional work environment: nightclubs, concerts, bars, outdoor festivals, and house parties. (If only I was getting paid…) My subject of study was independent rock music in New Zealand. In the spirit of Clifford Geertz, I would like to present an anecdote that I think in so many ways presents a certain aspect of New Zealand rock music such that it is at once a very typical episode one might encounter in the Auckland urban nightlife (particularly in summer of 2004), and at the same time a prime example of what we may think of as ‘culture’ being a simultaneous channeling of transmission and absorption.
Our story begins on a cool night in January of 2004 at Eden’s Bar, an arch-typically dive-ish club on Karangahape Road (K Road, to the locals). The setting is lighted low and the band is on a short riser in the corner. People are packing in elbow to elbow, despite the humidity, trying to stay out of the way of the billiards players on the opposite side.
Meet Hexed, a mop-topped group of four whose age couldn’t possibly have averaged over 19, hesitantly thrumming their way through their set. Aside from the music being well within the grounds of definitive rock and roll (bass, drums guitar/vocals, keyboard, 4-beat, standard song structure, electric, young, lots of attitude in the lyrics and in the actions of the singer ), the music is melodic and minor keyed. The guitar-playing singer’s eyes are closed as he goes through his lyrics, swaying at times and shyly responding to the calls of a couple of girlfriend/fans at the front of the stage. The tunes remind me of another NZ band out of Dunedin that I used to follow in the 1990s, the Straightjacket Fits.
About halfway through the set, Hexed plays a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”. Here’s where things start to get curious for me. At once, the personality of the singer is transformed. The singer begins to cycle through a series of emulations and gyrations, kneeling on the ground while playing, using the mic stand as an impromptu slide, throwing his head back in drug-crazed ecstasy, shaking his body with the movements of his solo. There is something very strange about this, and I’m sure if you’re reading this and are familiar with American rock music, you have an idea about the peculiarity of it: They were all uncanny reminiscences of the gestures and attitudes from popular film and video footage of the late Hendrix.
The band afterward, another foursome who called themselves ‘the Chicks’, took an approach that was in some crucial ways very different, although many elements remained consistent. Their general attitude was much less melancholy, a strictly executed variant of what members of the r n’ r community on any side of the ocean have deemed ‘the garage sound’. The attitude is more charged, the chords are limited to two or three (maybe an extra in the break), and the general atmosphere is affrontive and decisively fuck-offish. By this time the bar is packed and the girls are yelling and the beer is flying out of the coolers while ‘gold coins’(one and two dollar pieces) are flying into the tills. The singer, all of maybe 18, jumps and arches in his bulging tight white jeans, his hair is over his eyes. He is spitting between vocal phrases, and doing his worst to give us all something like a modified reincarnation of Iggy Pop. The songs are short and the comments between them are abrupt and cocky.
Of about forty bands I had the opportunity to observe in my two months in Auckland, I saw nearly a dozen bands that fit this description of the Chicks. Not to downplay what originality there was, it must be said that each of this type of band was strikingly mimetic of one another, with only the slightest modifications: more or fewer band members, some different amps, maybe the singer played guitar, maybe slightly more ‘riff’ oriented than chord oriented in song structure. Hexed emulated a less affrontive, milder sound, and did not fit directly into this milieu in that it also had elements that were not as much an American emulation as they were perhaps a UK variant. We might say Hexed was more ‘chanson’ than ‘blues’. For the sake of time, I won’t go any further into why I think these two bands should suffice, despite what may be identified as heavily influenced from abroad, as otherwise characteristic of Auckland independent rock bands. I will simply hope that by saying that there is something definitively unsurprising about the way these bands operated, a general feeling for music in this time and place might be partially grasped.
For the sake of analysis, let’s back up to the Jimi cover. In my description of the singer’s on-stage activity, I struggled with whether or not I should use the word “reminiscences” or just go ahead and make the accusation that the movements that so reminded me of Hendrix were outright lifted. In other words, I could have suggested that the actions were borrowed or imitated, and might have implicitly attempted to take away from both the originality and the sincerity of the act. The reasons I chose not to suggest the singers actions were heisted thusly are at least twofold. One is that I don’t actually know whether or not the singer has ever seen footage of Jimi Hendrix on stage. I will say that it is almost impossible to imagine how someone could have escaped it, considering what a staple Hendrix is on local radio and television now. It’s not a great stretch to suggest that his popularity in New Zealand shares close magnitude to the way he shines in the States.
The other, more serious reason I did not make these accusations, is that there is no necessary line of intent that is visible to the observer, and an attempt to draw one could be potentially dangerous, possessive, and at least arrogant.
What does that mean? Well here is a problemitization of the accusation of ‘lifted’ when it comes to things like influences in music and other arts. As far as anyone can safely say, playing Jimi’s music in exactly the right way, meaning that you have a ‘true’ understanding of how that music is supposed to be played because you have a ‘true’ intuition about what it means, necessarily means that you will have to move and sway the way Jimi did. This is because his music is not a simply a succession of thick and chaotic, electric soundwaves. With the possibility of other things, it is also a body of highly suggestive inference. For some more than others. To be within the identity of Jimi Hendrix you would act the way Jimi Hendrix acted when you played what Jimi Hendrix played. You would understand what Jimi understood.
In this sense I propose that there is no necessary cart or horse. The action can produce the music or the music can produce the action. Either way it is a composite of physical and mental interaction that ultimately conveys something that a lot of other people have wanted to identify with. Some famous examples include Prince, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Paul Allen, and they have each emulated Jimi according their own respective best judgement (which may have included the acknowledgement somewhere that they were not in fact Jimi Hendrix).
So what is the relevance of all this? I think the relevant catch here is that to be Jimi one has to know what Jimi is, to possess his identity. And how is that accomplished? Well, that’s him there on the TV and the radio. What he does there is what he is. (This makes me want to quote Forrest Gump). What people are, what groups of people are is assessed by the structures, or, for the CHID trophy, the narratives we are able to abstract (extract) as their meaningful substance. We view snippets of activity and paint a world, including the behaviors necessary to realize that world. The experience of Jimi is not just the notes that a young boy might read on a tablature grid in Guitar Player magazine, it’s also the closing of the eyes and swaying and the drinking and drugs and the hot women and the early death. Each of these little items are what makes a Jimi Hendrix, and to play a Jimi cover correctly, in other words, to play a Jimi cover with an understanding of what is behind the music is to be the things that we know comprise the identity of Jimi Hendrix. It is to move away from the exteriorized meaning of Jimi, in any verbal, speakable sense, and move into the oneness of the function of Jimi. Hence blurring the line between the borrowed and the being, regardless of whatever rights or appropriateness we may determine for that situation.
And we can think of a swaying of the body or a closing of the eyes as a building block of these kinds of behaviors/perpectives. Small, often untextualized or verbalized traditions of behavior constitute the appropriate behavior of people who have appropriated for themselves the role of a rock and roll star.
This kind of narrative trade has been going on since Adam has been in contact with Eve (sic). For my purposes here, we should go back briefly to the preceding 20th century decades and look at a few examples of how people incorporate these building blocks of identity into their understanding of their own history. Of course we’ll stay close to rock and roll to keep things interesting. I promise to keep it brief though, so hang on.
New Zealand in the fifties witnessed what were called Bodgies and Widgies. That’s Enzed for ‘rockers’ or ‘greasers’ and their female counter-types. Arthur Manning, a respected research psychologist of the era, wrote an oft-cited epitaph in 1958 called “The Bodgie—A Study in Psychological Abnormality”. Teen rebellion had not yet been normalized to the extent that we see it today. People were really scared. He cites “The Problem: criminality and delinquency”, he says that Rock and Roll is somehow inextricably connected to this plague of misbehavior (there were actually some muggings and a murder, in which a nineteen year old boy was hung). He says, “Of 30 youth surveyed, 30 were enthusiastic about dancing, especially of the Rock and Roll type. It was felt that type of dancing made them feel happier.” (7-17)
Let that sit for a moment, and we’ll move to a different type of document altogether. For the 60s, I want to use a nostalgic bit by NZ author Jane Tolerton. In her light hearted retrospect 60s Chicks hit the 90s, we see a perfect list of these building blocks used to construct for us an entire decade. Check it out:
The sixties of popular memory resonates in phrases and words: suburban, neurosis, Zephyr Six, women’s lib, sexual revolution, psychedelic, ban the bomb, Swinging London, Carnaby St., pop culture, the underground, mini-skirts, maxi-skirts, hot pants, youth culture, far out, the Twist, pop music, pop art, Beatlemania, Happen Inn, yippies, the Hippy trail, peace and love, youthquake,…[and so on] (9)
After that, there is little need to belabor the point. Each phrase is a heavily charged point of inference. Sadly they have all gotten the bad rap of being clichés. But actually there are useful in this case as the bricks of a world construction. In this case it is an historical world, one that is removed in time from the one we consider to be our own, but that is incidental.
I think the treatise by Arthur Manning is interesting because it illustrates not only that the media imagery of Rock and Roll had permeated the homes and influenced the behavior of the children of New Zealand almost as soon as it was happening in the States and in Britain, but also that the reactions to it are in many ways a part of the act itself. There is hardly a known feasible way of drawing the line of intent (what were ‘his own thoughts’ and what was informed or appropriated) on the part of Manning or his sympathizers. Where did his reaction come from? How could it have been so similar to the reactions in the US without being a simple emulation of reactions in the US?
This is not to say that there are certain actions and reactions that are simply going to make sense, even in the proverbial vacuum. It is quite conceivable that R n’R would have been blamed for this stuff no matter what. It is also somehow conceivable that listening to Tuti-Fruti would make you want to murder an old man.
So how does culture cross an ocean? Well, it doesn’t, of course. There is no such thing as culture. But there are narratives and identities, the little building blocks that people extract from their exteriors, the building material of their perspectives, the cedar of their behavioral guideposts. And these narratives can move as fast as light in the form of the transmissions that are pushed into the lives of any that have the ability to receive them.
Of course this article is much too short to really get at the meat of the nut I’ve chosen to crack. To suggest something as provocative as there being no such thing as culture is truly a hit and run effort. Mary Louise Pratt does string together some of the bones of this idea by making problematic the vaporous, almost magical way people tend to use the concept of culture. In attempting to unravel the changes that occur when people start using “other” people’s techiniques and ideas. Her work was focused on the literature that started coming from Aztec documents as they appeared after colonial conquest, particularly a piece by one Guaman Poma who had adopted western writing and illustration technique in an effort to use it as a way of ‘writing back’ to the conquistadors. She offers that, “If one thinks of cultures, or literatures, as discrete, coherently structured, monolingual edifices, Guaman Poma’s text, and indeed any autoethnographic work, appears anomalous or chaotic. […] If one does not think of cultures this way, then Poma’s text is simply heterogeneous.” Here we see that she feels quite comfortable in drawing the line of intent. In this case, that is something that is much less dangerous, given the documents involved. But what is more important is that we are seeing the destabilization of a concept whose usefulness in its older, Weberian (Web of Life, the supernatural cloud that binds) sense, has required transformation. The magic, lifeless edificial cloud of culture is dissipated into actionable tools: hand- and head-holdable identity bricks.
So when we of the US go to places like NZ and we say, “Wow, American culture has really taken hold here!” What are we saying? I don’t portend to answer that question totally, I just want to suggest that ‘culture’ itself isn’t actually coming over at all. What is coming across the Pacific are little digestible bits that people in other places are for whatever reason attracted to. And its important to note that the same process happens here, stateside. They/we absorb these bits in some way, the meaning of the bits becomes a part of who they/we are in the sense that they/we decide to emulate it or react against it (which is a form of emulation), and the behavior that results starts the cycle (albeit permutated) all over again for the new observers.
Manning, Arthur. The Bodgie: A Study in Psychological Abnormality. 1958, Reed Press.
Tolerton, Jane. 60s Chicks Hit the 90s. 1994, Penguin Books, NZ.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Arts of the Contact Zone. Taken from the CHID 498 Course Reader, Winter, 2004.
Not cited, but still useful:
Yska, Redmer, All Shook Up: The Flash Bodgie and the Rise of the New Zealand Teenager in the Fifties, Auckland, 1993.
Bannister, Mathew. Positively George Street: Sneaky Feelings and the Dunedin Sound. 1999, Reed Books.
Churton, Wayde Ronald. Have you Checked the Children Lately?: Punk and Post-Punk in New Zealand, 77-81. Put Your Foot Down Publishing, 1999