Monthly Archives: May 2014

Drugs, sex and boredom: A review of “Scar Tissue” by Anthony Keidis

ScartissuebookAbout the most interesting revelation in the 460 odd pages of “Scar Tissue”, the autobiography of Red Hot Chilli Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis,  occurs about 330 pages into this tedious, self-centered tale.

It’s when Keidis talks about the Chilli Peppers playing as the opening act for the Rolling Stones in the late 1990s.

He writes that opening for the Rolling Stones is a “shite job” despite the opportunity to play with the second greatest band after The Beatles:

“I can’t recommend it to anybody…the fact is the Rolling Stones audience today is lawyers and doctors and CPAs and contractors and real estate development people. This is a conservative wealthy group. No one is rocking out.”

He goes on to describe it as “like going to the Rolling Stones mall”, a “horrible” experience where you play as “85,000 wealthy, bored-out-of-their-minds fans are slowly finding their seats”.

Keidis talks in the same candid, straight-forward style to describe his journey from reckless teenager to petty thief, confirmed junkie and lead singer of one of the biggest rock-funk bands in the world.

It’s an honest, seemingly truthful recollection (as truthful as possible given the amount of drugs consumed along the way) but the problem is its repetitious nature, built on a cycle of drug binges, failed attempts to get clean, and more drug-taking, interspersed with accounts of chaotic relationships, typical rock ‘n roll sexual encounters and tour bus stories.

It’s the complete cliché: Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Sadly, there is very little revealed of the creative process – this mainly involves Keidis disappearing into a room by himself to write songs about his drug-fuelled personal experiences.

As a book about drug use and addiction it offers very little in the way of insight into the problem – apart from the obvious of it being very hard to give up. Many of the observations glamorize drug use, while others sound like the speech bubbles of a true stoner-idiot:

After fifty days of being sober, I thought, ‘That’s a nice number. I think I should honor that number’. I decided it was a good time to do drugs.

On a visit to New Zealand, he bemoans the fact that the country is too small to satifsy his drug requirements. Countless times he smuggles drugs onto planes undetected.

The only things to truly marvel is that Keidis somehow emerges out of his heroin/cocaine/crack/speed addiction and reckless to the point of almost suicidal lifestyle, not only alive, but rich and famous too (and still with that famous six-pack stomach).

Keidis, it seems, is the classic narcissistic celebrity who believes that if you throw in anecdotes about meeting the Dalai Lama, some syrupy thoughts about spirituality and the occasional bouts of healthy living and yoga exercise that you’re actually a decent guy.

Instead, he appears to lack basic humility even after surviving countless week-long drug binges in seedy motels, crossing paths with drug lords and avoiding arrest by police officers.

It got so bad that half-way through the book, I had to stop reading and put on a couple of Red Hot Chilli Peppers CDs to remind myself that they really are – as musicians – an incredibly original blend of funk, rap, rock and have produced countless great songs over the past  almost 30 years.

(For worthwhile, insightful accounts of heroin addiction read: Junkie by William S. Burroughs, Monkey Wrench by Helen Garner, In My Skin by Kate Holden or Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh – you can find reviews of all of these books here.)

 

 

 

Re-reading classic plays: ‘Look Back in Anger’ vs ‘Death of a Salesman’

Look-Back-in-Anger-12944_2

Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson in “Look Back in Anger” directed by Judi Dench

I recently re-read two celebrated plays of American and British theatre, respectively – Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ and John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’.

I enjoy reading plays – though some people find it curious. You can pick them up for a few bucks in book shops, they come in thin, handy-sized paper-backs perfect for reading on the train and you can finish them in a day or two.

The directness of the dialogue – spoken by interesting, intense, quirky characters – can, I find, be very pleasing to the intellect, and an escape from the drab, bored faces of fellow commuters with their fingers stabbing at smartphones.

The last time I read these ground-breaking plays was at university 20 years ago, where I was profoundly affected by both of them.

So I was curious to see what effect they might have on me two decades later.

Look Back in Anger by John Osborne (1956)

The Faber and Faber edition I read featured a red tie draped over an ironing board on the cover symbolising the play’s domestic setting (it was one of the first plays to be  coined a “kitchen sink drama”)  and its exploration of the lives of the working classes after the Second World War.

The action takes place in a flat in the English Midlands in the 1950s. The chief protagonist is Jimmy Porter – the quintessential “angry young man” who feels he has no place in English society. Without a war or a cause to fight for, he takes his existential frustrations out on his sweet-natured flat mate Cliff and timid, anxious girlfriend Alison. His principal aim is to spark some kind of fight or reaction from Cliff or Alison and later Helena – a posh actor friend of Alison – who comes to visit (and replaces Alison as Jimmy’s girlfriend in a weird love triangle).

JIMMY (on a rant): Oh heavens, how I long for a little ordinary enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm – that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! (He beats his breast theatrically) Hallelujah! I am alive. I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we have a game? Let’s pretend we’re actually alive….look back in anger

And so he goes on – ranting and rallying against the boring weekend papers full of the same vacuous people and meaningless stories; trying to stir some kind of emotional response from his wife ironing away like some kind of Lady Macbeth trying to remove every bit of dirt or discomfort from her life. Alison at first won’t respond to Jimmy’s taunts about her stuck-up brother Nigel or her parents that hated him or how he is sick of being cooped up in a flat on another dreary Sunday. Only through accidental violence (play fighting with Cliff), can he draw a howl of pain and a reaction from her.

There are plot twists – a pregnancy, the death of a friend, family revelations – but it all feels quite artificial and staged. Jimmy is just an angry man crying out for attention or looking for a fight, using what ever horrible means to spark a reaction:

JIMMY (to Alison): If you could have a child, and watch it die. Let it grow, let a recognisable human face emerge from that little mass from indiarubber and wrinkles. Please – if only I could watch you face that.

In the end, I just wanted Jimmy to shut-up – even when he was played by the fantastic Kenneth Branaugh alongside Emma Thomson as Alison in a TV adaptation directed by Judi Dench (You can watch the whole play in full on YouTube).

It just didn’t ring true. It felt like a silly, dated soap opera – though with the occasional memorable bits of dialogue thrown in the mix.

Verdict: 3 out 5

(At university, we watched a version of this play with the great Welsh actor Richard Burton in the lead role – so perhaps I should track it down and give it another chance.)

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949)

Kate Reid and Dustin Hoffman in "Death of a Salesman"

Kate Reid and Dustin Hoffman in “Death of a Salesman”

The story of 60-year old Brooklyn travelling salesman Willy Loman who can no longer sell and who cannot face the reality of his own past mistakes and self-deception. It’s also a play about what it means to become worthless in society and how the great American Dream (your own home, family, prosperity) can turn to dust.

WILLY: The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighbourhood. The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should have a law against apartment houses.

Willy Loman carries some of the anger of John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter – but whereas Jimmy is young and can change, Willy Loman is a broken man, a classic study of failure and of redundancy, with little hope of redemption.

While set in a different era, Death of a Salesman is a timeless classic and has lost none of its power.

David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross – about real estate salesman fighting for their jobs (made into a superb movie with Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin and Alec Baldwin) owes its central theme – meaning through work – to Arthur Miller’s ground-breaking play.

As journalist working in an industry with an uncertain, constantly-evolving future – the fear expressed by Willy Loman of “still feeling – kind of temporary about myself” rings true.

Indeed for many working people, the fear of becoming redundant because of technology or of being replaced by cheaper labour in far-off countries is very real as is the sense for older people of waking up 30 years after a career and wondering where all the years went and why you’re still struggling to make ends meet.

death of a salesmanThis fear is brutally expressed in one of the great and awful moments in modern theatre when Willy finds himself begging his boss, Howard –  the son of the man who first hired him – for his job:

WILLY: You mustn’t tell me you’ve got people to see – I put 34 years into this firm, Howard,  and now I can’t pay my insurance. You can’t eat the orange and throw  the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.

Earlier in this scene, as Willy arrives at Howard’s office determined to get a desk job in the city, he finds his boss demonstrating a primitive dictaphone that records his son’s voice.

Replace this device with a smartphone or an iPad and you have a modern day fable.

Verdict: Five out five

(Make sure you watchthe 1985 TV adaptation starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman and John Malkovich as his son Biff.

Edward Snowden vs the NSA: who do you believe?

edward snowden2Conservatives, spy chiefs, President Obama, right-wing administrations, the Abbott government: they were all choking on their corn flakes when the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in journalism, was handed to the UK’s The Guardian  and the Washington Post for their articles about the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) based on the leaks of Edward Snowden.

Even more galling for them would have been that the Pulitzer Prize was awarded in the category of “public service” for the newspapers’ “aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy” – since they consider Snowden to have done a great disservice to the public, even putting unnamed lives at risk.

It is hard to think of a figure that divides public opinion  more than Edward Snowden: “hero”, “whistleblower”, “traitor”, “treasonist”. These are the words used to describe the 30-year-old former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and NSA contractor, now in hiding in Russia.

The US government has charged him with espionage and revoked his passport, at the same time Norwegian parliamentarians Snorre Valen and Baard Vegar Solhjell have nominated Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Australia’s attorney general George Brandis called Snowden “criminally dishonest, treacherous and having put Australian lives at risk” in a speech in parliament. In response to Brandis, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam called Snowden a “whistleblower who I hold in highest regard”.

Where you stand on Edward Snowden defines your views on things like individual freedom, the right to privacy, the role and responsibility of government, access to information and democracy itself.

The Snowden leaks uncovered a hidden world of secret government activities in the US, UK and Australia including:

  • the bulk collection of phone records of US citizens by telecom Verizon including calls made to other countries, regardless of whether they are suspected of wrong-doing.
  • that the UK and US governments had access to user data held by Google, Facebook, Intel and others, including audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs.
  • that the NSA monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders including German chancellor  Angela Merkel, – a supposed Western ally
  • That the Australian government listened in on the phone conversations of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s and his wife.
  • that the NSA “spied on the staff of prominent human rights organisations” including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch;
  • that there were programs like Prism or  XKeyscore, clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining programs, which use sophisticated techniques to screen “trillions” of private communications.

These leaks highlighted the secret activities of the NSA, depicting it as a shadowy government organisation resembling “Big Brother” as described in George Orwell’s hugely influential 1949 novel “1984”. It was this book which coined the adjective “Orwellian” to mean official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation.

It is not that surprising then that in the wake of the revelations about the NSA, sales of Orwell’s prophetic dystopian novel skyrocketed.

I regard Edward Snowden as a hero, an incredibly brave man who has sacrificed his own personal freedom to expose a government organisation obsessed with power, secrecy, data and control. Were it not for Snowden, the full extent of NSA activities and those of its UK and Australian counterparts would never been known.

But what of the other argument – the one that beats its fists against its chest proclaiming Snowden  a thief, traitor and criminal?

My own newspaper, the Australian Financial Review published an interview with General Keith Alexander, a spy and former head of the NSA, who not surprisingly slammed the Edward Snowden leaks.

This of course is the equivalent of asking the CEO of McDonald’s if he agreed that hamburgers were healthy.

According to General Alexander, the NSA is a “noble organisation that is “protecting our civil liberties and privacy” and that saves lives.

He says the very reports that won The Guardian and Washington Post the Pulitzer Prize are wrong and that it is a “fabrication” and “misperception” that the NSA is “listening into everyone’s calls, and reading everyone’s emails”.

General Alexander says the NSA has been “demonized” and painted as a “villain” by these very articles. when in fact the NSA is full of “honest, well-intentioned, hard-working, and patriotic people”.

The actions of Edward Snowden and the subsequent reports by The Guardian and the Washington Post, General Alexander says “have put so many lives at risk”.

The job of the NSA, General Alexander says, is to “stand watch” over our safety, which he says it does within legal means.

Of course he cannot actually tell us  the details of what the NSA is doing because that would compromise its role. In essence, we just have to trust him and the NSA.

Or if not him, then perhaps UK foreign minister William Hague who said in an interview that reports British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was gathering intelligence from phones and online sites “should not concern people who have nothing to hide” – a phrase that could have come straight out of an Orwell novel or perhaps the East German Stasi or KGB.

So do you believe General Alexander that the NSA is acting responsibly that the “overwhelming evidence falls in favour of the legality and legitimacy of what NSA has done”?

Or do you believe Edward Snowden, when he says the NSA is intent on “gathering intelligence where ever it can, by whatever means possible”?

There is of course a third view  – that you accept that the NSA  and other secretive government agencies are – as Snowden says – acting way beyond their remit, but in the name of protecting its citizens, that the end justifies the means.

But if you do, then you must also accept that your right to individual privacy is gone and that you are comfortable with the idea of a “Big Brother” watching over you as you type your email or make a phone call.

Perhaps it’s worth remember these chilling words of O’Brien, a member of the inner party who attempts to trick Winston Smith, the doomed hero of Orwell’s 1984:

There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’

 

A very grainy Penfolds grange confession

grangeI confess, I once accepted a bottle of Penfold’s Grange at a business lunch.

Unlike former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell I do distinctly remember the occasion and the circumstances of receiving the Grange.

It was in the winter of 2007, a year or so before the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers that ignited the US sub-prime mortgage crisis and the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), when money was still flowing like…err…fine wine.

The venue was La Grillade, an upmarket restaurant in Crow’s Nest on Sydney’s North Shore famous as much for its succulent steaks and extensive wine list as for being a favourite venue for the big wigs media execs from nearby Channel Nine.

“Let’s get a bottle of Grange” I remember the already sloshed media man proclaiming as he flashed an intoxicated grin around the room and his gold-plated corporate credit card.

There were four of us at the table at the back of the restaurant and large amounts of alcohol had already been consumed.

This was back in the days when the long, boozy lunch was still part of a journalist’s weekly repertoire, before concepts like “the 24 hour news cycle” and “social media’ ruined all that.

The group consisted of myself  (very drunk), my colleague at the same North Shore publishing company where we edited our respective mortgage broking titles (also drunk) and our hosts, the very cheery media man (pissed, loud and notoriously bad at holding his alcohol) and his client, a gold-watch-and-necklace-wearing businessmen of Eastern European extraction, a classic self-made Aussie battler, riding the wave of easy money.

It was one of those gray, Sydney winter’s days when the thought of spending the afternoon carving into a perfectly cooked steak in a cozy expensive restaurant with someone else footing the bill sounded like a good idea.

Our host’s line of work? He ran a mortgage broking outfit targeting credit-impaired borrowers via ads which ran on the horse racing channel – classy!

The point of it all? A big boozy lunch hopefully in return for a favourable article about our host’s mortgage business, a modus operandi not uncommon in the ethically challenged world of trade publishing.

The bottle of grange made its star appearance late in the proceedings. Plied with countless beers beforehand, it was wasteful gesture in the extreme. More so because not only was I unable to appreciate the expensive drop, but I distinctly recall leaving the table without finishing my glass or helping our hosts polish off the bottle (surely a worse crime than denying ever receiving the bottle in the first place, Barry?).

Even more bizarrely, the last thing we drank was Sambuca, a licorice-flavoured liquor, which would have washed out what little my taste buds remembered of the dark red Grange nectar.

So I have no recollection of how good it tasted. For all I know, it could have come out of a cask. Still relatively new to the excesses of corporate lunches (I would soon learn) I also knew nothing about this so-called mystical Grange. All I comprehended at the time was the price – about $1200.

As the sun sunk from view, the cheque was ordered and duly paid. We said our goodbyes amid back-slapping, laugher and nudges and winks from our hosts.

My colleague and I made our way grimly back in the cold to our St Leonard’s office, an uphill walk after an over-indulgent meal with expensive steaks sloshing uneasily amidst the alcohol in our stomachs. I confess I felt out of it.

The irony: neither of us wrote a word about our host and his mortgage broking company that advertised on the racing channel. Or about his office lined with sporting memorabilia. Or his desire to be a larger-than-life mortgage lender in the mould of Aussie John Symond.

Later in that same year I bumped into our host at another function, the Melbourne Cup. It was another boozy affair. Bob Downe was the host and did his “Kevin 07″ impression. It was a different era.

Two years later with the financial crisis in full swing, I read on the NSW Fair Trading website of a mortgage broker that had narrowly avoided going to jail after being found guilty of taking advantage of his clients and pocketing huge commissions for each home loan he granted. His business was placed in the hands of administrators and was eventually wound-up.

It was our host and Penfolds Grange purveyor.

The latest edition of Penfolds Grange, the 2009 vintage, was recently released for sale.  According to Penfolds chief marketing officer Simon Marton the Barry O’Farrell fiasco increased its luxury cache. Wine experts say it’s still a good drop (you’d hope so at $785 a bottle) – but not of the quality of previous vintages.

Clearly, it’s also not in the same league ast the 1959 bottle that brought down a NSW Premier.

But is it any better than the 2003 vintage I drank six years ago at a long lunch in Crow’s Nest. I wish I could tell you.

(A further note to this sordid tale – the restaurant La Grillade didn’t fare so well either. It shut it’s doors in December 2011 after apparently losing the patronage of its media clientele. It re-opened under new management and still bears the same name. A marbled wagyu steak sets you back $55).