What is Middlebrow? David Gray’s White Ladder 20 Years On


Image: David Gray, White Ladder (ATO Records, 2000)

In the autumn of 1998, struggling 30 year-old singer-songwriter David Gray, recently dumped by label EMI, bunkered down in his London apartment to make a last-ditch album with friend and drummer Craig “Clune” McClune. The recording process, which took place in Gray’s bedroom studio, was intimate and a little haphazard. Years later, Gray would recall his cat jumping on an old AKAI sampler, putting it temporarily out of commission.

The album that emerged, titled White Ladder, eventually became one of the best-selling releases of the early oughts. It comprised a series of acoustic-guitar-led compositions featuring Gray’s throaty voice; romantic, lightly mystical lyrics and rousing choruses. The songs on White Ladder were both emotionally honest and structurally sound, if somewhat less than original and occasionally cloying. The most overt artistic inspiration was the ethereal vibe of Astral Weeks/Veedon Fleece-era Van Morrison. Gray even went so far as to weave (with attribution) melodies and vocal lines from the Morrison standards ‘Into the Mystic’ and ‘Madame George’ into the album’s nine-minute closer, an overblown cover of Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’.

In addition to its confident song-craft, White Ladder was notable for a subtly contemporary sonic palette. Gray’s mellow strumming and gravelly voice mixed seamlessly with electronic samples and skittering keyboard beats, in a tastefully restrained nod to both the ecstasy-fuelled British rave scene of the 1990s and more downbeat electronica creeping onto the edges of modern pop. White Ladder sounded like the kind of soulful, soothing album ravers might keep in their CD changers for Sunday morning comedowns or that suburban dinner party hosts could put on as an unobtrusive soundtrack.

When Gray originally released White Ladder on his own IHT Records in November 1998, such ubiquity was some time in the future. Despite being embraced early in Ireland, where it spent six weeks at number one, White Ladder failed to chart in the UK. Nonetheless, Gray’s momentum built over the next two years. A gig supporting Robbie Williams on tour boosted his profile, as did a remix of White Ladder’s ‘Please Forgive Me’ by house DJ Paul Hartnol that became an Ibiza staple. The tide really began turning, however, due to the attention of an influential fan—Dave Matthews, leader of the eponymous American jam-rock band renowned for being both massively popular and held in universal critical contempt. Mathews decided that a re-issued White Ladder would be the first release on his brand new independent label ATO.

Upon its second release in May 2000, the album debuted at no. 69 on the UK album chart, climbing steadily as a result of word-of-mouth, consistent touring and the strong performance of a string of singles, particularly a reworked version of opening track ‘Babylon’, a UK number five hit. White Ladder finally reached the top spot 15 months later, in August 2001. It would go on to spend 123 weeks in the top 40, selling over three million units in the UK alone. White Ladder proved even more buoyant in Ireland, becoming the best-selling album in the nation’s history, with an estimated one third of the households owning a copy.

No sooner was Gray finally tasting long-elusive mainstream success—his CD’s flying out of stores faster that they could be shipped, sold-out shows from Melbourne to Madrid—than a nasty backlash against him began fomenting. The principal charge, which held the ring of truth, was that he was boring.  Gray’s square looks—simultaneously boyish and daddish—and lack of a particularly strong style or personality outside of his music didn’t help in this regard. Nor did the way he waggled his head from side to side while performing, closing his eyes while crooning earnestly.

As alluded to earlier, the second and perhaps terminal, knock to Gray’s reputation as a ‘serious’ artist was a growing association of White Ladder with the aspirational middle-class. It is a byproduct of an eroded but enduring class system that there is almost no surer death knell of cultural cachet than achieving widespread popularity among Britain’s economically stable and voraciously consuming societal middle-strata of white-collar workers and their families. Commercial artists depend heavily on the pounds of these people, yet risk losing credibility if their work is seen as tailored to the tastes of middle Britain. Numerous television shows and movies have skewered the putative conformity, status signalling and quiet desperation of this silent majority, most memorably Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s contemporary hit The Office. If David Brent had cited his favourite current album, it might well have been White Ladder.

Through no fault of his own, Gray was transitioning in the public mind from a talented outsider to the middle-brow balladeer whom Rolling Stone derided as “a darling of the Chardonnay-and-chinos set”. If this all seems petty and unfair, it was. I’d hope that as a skilled and hitherto under-rewarded songwriter, the pleasures of having millions of new fans, financial security and unprecedented freedom, drowned out the naysayers in Gray’s mind, though he is reported to have struggled with both his unexpected success and critical responses to it.

While not kind or flattering , backlash in the culture industry is a phenomenon worth taking a close look at for what it can reveal about the societies in which in takes place, in particular the fragility of public taste and its links to identity formation. These issues are too many and complex for me to unpick here, but for those interested I would recommend Canadian music writer Carl Wilson’s excellent book Let’s Talk about Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, which tackles the meaning of musical identification through the lens of responses to his compatriot Celine Dion. And have another listen to White Ladder. Nearly 20 years on, the backlash largely forgotten, it remains a solid, rewarding album that sounds surprisingly fresh.


‘Just Like Honey’, the best-known song on The Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1985 debut album Psychocandy, begins with an echoing, minimalist beat (drummer Bobby Gillespie famously used only a snare and a floor-tom). The song’s vintage effect, referencing not alternative rock but The Ronettes 60s girl-group classic ‘Be My Baby’, gives way to squalls of feedback and guitars that buzz like a dentist’s drill. Its a glorious, assaultive racket that would be alienating were it not revealed as a protective layer frequently pulled back to glimpse an underlying substrate of satisfyingly-conventional, dreamy pop.

Formed in Glasgow in 1983 by brothers (and songwriting partners) Jim and William Reid, The Jesus and the Mary Chain have an important place in the history of British indie music. The band is regarded as the progenitors of the noisy, introspective art-rock sub-genre known as ‘Shoe Gaze’, although their swagger and volume identified them with the contemporary post-punk movement. While his presence in the JAMC was short-lived, Gillespie would become an icon in his own right as a songwriter and the irascible founder of legendary dance-rock group Primal Scream.

The JAMC influence has extended also to the other side of the Atlantic. Nirvana, in particular, appear to have absorbed their heavy-quiet-heavy formula and layering of pop melodies with instrumental violence, as, to some extent, did Dunedin bands like Snapper and High Dependency Unit.

Film viewers will recognise ‘Just Like Honey’ from Sophia Coppola’s moody, Tokyo-set May-December romance, Lost in Translation (2003). The song plays over the melancholic final sequence in which Bill Murray rides in a cab through the streets of the futuristic metropolis. It was used widely in the movie’s promotion, meshing indelibly with its sense of quiet yearning.

I’m only a casual JAMC fan and unfortunately missed their concert last year, but have always loved the intensity and beauty of Psychocandy.  I picked up a lightly-used copy of the LP (NZ pressing) at the store Needle in the Hay in Hamilton which, as well as records, has a tasteful selection of home furnishings (they’re not paying me in any way to say that!).

Run, River and Thinking about Joan Didion

Joan Didion

Run, River

Vintage (1961, various reprints)

Paperback NZD 30.00

Joan Didion, Run, River, Vintage, first published 1961 (1994 Printing)

Joan Didion’s 1961 debut novel Run, River (also her first published book) begins with what is known in the film business as a ‘cold open’: a tantalising incident that occurs before the title sequence. In this case, an act of explosive violence takes the reader by the throat from the very first line. While mercifully short, this scene triggers a circular narrative that will eventually return to the moment of calamity. The story bridging this ellipsis is far from interstitial, traversing many literal and emotional seasons, while exploring the culture and history of the novel’s inland California setting. The result is an epic in the guise of a domestic melodrama, a ‘Great American Novel’ crammed into the svelte 260-page frame of a novella.

Now in her ninth decade, Didion is a deserved literary and cultural darling, largely as a result of her non-fiction. In a versatile 60-year career, she has cooly eviscerated the excesses of the ‘Summer of Love’ generation, chronicled the darkness and light of Californian life, called-out folk devils and institutional bias, invented the modern genre of the ‘first-person’ confessional essay and been a memoirist of late-life trauma and endurance. To her critics, however, Didion’s greatest success has been patenting a highly manicured image of her own glamorous and privileged life. As the hagiographic recent Netflix documentary failed to reckon with, Didion the eternally chic waif is revered at least on parr with Didion the tenacious reporter and crafter of crystalline sentences. These two facets of identity are indeed so thoroughly entwined, its difficult to know which is dominant in the estimation of Didion’s many (and there are many) acolytes. Caitlyn Flanagan has written most elegantly on this duality in the Atlantic.

Joan Didion. Image: Julian Wasser/Netflix.

While fiction (she is the author of four novels) has occupied a good amount of Didion’s creative energy, her output as a novelist is, all considered, an alloyed success and much less influential than her journalism and personal essays. While it is impossible to give this body of work the treatment it deserves in this space, it will suffice to say that her novels share an elegant, if relatively unexceptional, literary realism, and a tendency to focus on the morays and characteristics endemic to her native Californians.

A rural valley near the State Capital (and Didion’s hometown) of Sacramento is where Run, River begins in earnest in 1938. The area, we learn, is home to ‘twelve generations’ of ‘ranchers’, affluent agriculturalists descended from the pioneers who had made treacherous journeys across the great deserts of the South-West and the fearsome Sierra Nevada and Carson mountain ranges by wagon in the early nineteenth century. The most notorious story to emerge from the ‘pioneer trail’ was that of the Donnor-Reed Party, real-life travelling companions of Didion’s ancestors, who set out for what is now California in 1846, many dying miserably on the way.

At the heart of this slim novel are two families of friends and neighbours: vivacious orchard owners and state politicians The Knights and the more reserved, hardworking hop-farmers, The McClellans. At age 17, the beautiful but painfully shy Lily Knight is seduced by her childhood friend Everett McClellan and the pair elope after an intense, furtive courtship. Despite an almost pathologically deep connection, the marriage is often an unhappy one. Everett can be distant and uncommunicative, while Lily’s insecurity and aimless life as an affluent housewife cause her to embark on a series of  infidelities. Most pernicious is an entanglement with freewheeling schemer Ryder Channing, onetime suitor of her unstable sister-in-law, Martha. In unravelling this skein of relationships and loyalties, Didion expertly evokes the claustrophobia of being caught in an unchanging and stale social-familial set.

In addition to their self-inflicted wounds, the Knights-McClellan’s way of life comes under increasing pressure from economic and social changes reshaping California, in particular the arrival of newcomers from the Eastern states, industrialisation and creeping suburbanisation of their previously isolated locale. These developments bring great opportunities for the ranchers as large freeholders, while subtly eroding their traditional lifestyle, a tension Didion explores without it ever seeming inorganic or didactic.

The racial and class divides of life in the semi-rural West are rendered here in intricate and illuminating detail, in particular the complacent contempt of the ‘Pioneers’ for the wave of ‘Okies’ arriving from the South and Mid-West, a distinction that will be superseded by the mass immigration and diversification of the 1950s. A poignant early passage conveys the characters’ sense of growing obsolescence, as Lily recalls the disdain her son Knight had expressed that she ‘did not seem to realise that there were paperback bookstores in Sacramento. She and his father never seem to get it through their heads that things were changing … bringing in a whole new class of people who lived back East, who read things, who had never heard of the Knights or the McClellans’. Didion is also insightful on the ranchers’ almost intimate yet uncomfortable reliance on the labour of Mexicans (or ‘wetbacks’ in the slur de jour). While often highly esteemed individually, collectively they are reflexively disdained as shiftless and infantile, a jarring reminder of the deeply ingrained racism behind the ranchers’ genteel facades.

The Knight-McClellan’s own dissatisfaction, rather than any of these external forces, poses the most fundamental threat to the clan. The true enemy of their happiness is a toxicity that develops due to members of the later generations like Lily who harbour modern aspirations toward companionate marriage and self-actualisation and push ineffectually against a hidebound environment in denial of liberating forces such as divorce, birth-control and female professional empowerment. At its core, Run, River is a story of generational decay, but a laudably ambivalent one. At only 27, Didion  was already wise enough to realise that the historical and cultural conditions that once sustained her ‘pioneer’ ancestors dominance had by the mid-twentieth century become obsolete and were perhaps not all worth preserving in the first place.

Best Albums of 2017

In 2017 I discovered an array of interesting artists and recordings, many of them from the past. Generally, I wasn’t as engaged with new releases, though it was a strong year for popular music. Here is a short list of the most striking and enjoyable new albums I encountered this year:

Jay-Z, 4: 44 (Roc Nation/UMG)

Celebrity love rat Jay-Z returned in June following a period of extended banality with 4: 44, his strongest release in years. Backed by a gorgeous (if somewhat obvious) sample-bed by Chicago stalwart No ID, Jay was more willing than ever to let the facade slip on his thirteenth studio album. My favourite is the somewhat maudlin bonus cut ‘MaNyfaCedGod’ featuring a beautiful hook by James Blake.

The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic)

Philadelphia indie-auteur and studio obsessive Adam Granduciel’s latest record was his most meticulous and assured, channelling classic rock touchstones like Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and Dylan, while achieving some of the cleanest production you’ll likely ever hear on record.


Miguel, War + Leisure (Bystorm Entertainment/RCA)

The slinkiness of Miguel’s futuristic R&B records transcends his often-obnoxious sexual posturing (the exception being the classic modern love-song ‘Adorn’). I haven’t had time to fully digest War + Leisure, but it already feels like his most relaxed and complete project. ‘Pineapple Skies’ is the ‘Sexual Healing’ remake we never thought we needed.

Kamasi Washington, Harmony of Difference (Brainfeeder)

The critical consensus seems to be that Washington’s A Harmony of Difference is inferior to the jazz bandleader’s breakthrough 2015 three-disc set The Epic. While the highpoints of that album were sublime, in my opinion its choral droning and noodling generally overstayed their welcome. At a lean 25 minutes, Harmony of Difference, originally composed as the soundtrack to short film shown at the Whitney Biennial, is equally appealing while much less of a slog.

Haim, Something to Tell You (Polydor)

Reviews of this band of LA sisters’ highly-anticipated sophomore record were mixed—some critics accusing it of being wan and overproduced in contrast to their fresh debut. For me, the album’s subtle compositions, joyfulness, retro flourishes and summery harmonies were an untrammelled pleasure.

Michael Kiwanuka, Love and Hate

This criminally under-appreciated British singer-songwriter is probably best known for composing the theme song to the HBO series Big Little Lies. Hopefully this anonymity soon changes, because Kiwanuka’s second studio album has it all: muscular song writing, elaborate but unfussy production and emotional honesty.

Fazerdaze, Morningside (Flying Nun)

Kiwi Amelia Murray’s full-length debut Morningside is named for the Auckland neighbourhood where she recorded it in her bedroom. Murray has been attracting rightful attention overseas for this gorgeous low-fi pop album, anchored by her rhythmic guitar playing and lovely voice.

Cyhi the Prynce, No Dope on Sundays (Good Music/Sony)

Kanye West associate Cyhi the Prince has taken nearly a decade to release his debut album, but its worth the wait. As its title suggests, No Dope on Sundays blends gangsterism and religious confessions. Executive produced by West, it flirts with soul samples and boom-bap nostalgia while always sounding up-to-date.

Book Review: Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine

Joe Hagan

Paperback, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017

40.00 NZD

In the spring of 1970 Jann Wenner, the 24 year-old editor of Rolling Stone, sat with his beautiful wife Jane in a darkened theatre while their guests John Lennon and Yoko Ono wept in sadness and frustration at the sight of Paul McCartney singing on the roof of the Apple Building in the newly-released concert film Let it Be. Soon after, Lennon would grant Wenner an exclusive interview on the bitter unravelling of The Beatles, his ramblings transcribed verbatim over many pages of the ascendant magazine. Having attained what he wanted, Wenner abruptly released a book version of the interview, contrary to his agreement with Lennon, who was incensed by the betrayal. Although the two men never spoke again, following Lennon’s 1980 murder, the ever-opportunistic Wenner would position Rolling Stone as the premier defender of “his friend John’s” image and legacy.

This episode is well chosen to open Joe Hagan’s capacious and often scabrous new biography Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine. It speaks eloquently to the character of a man who would again and again deploy his charisma and capacity for sycophancy to win people’s trust, only to jettison them at the point sufficient value had been extracted. The Wenner whose messy, largely unselfconscious life Hagan chronicles over 500 pages is difficult to like—selfish, dissipated, a dilettante and social climber whose rise from groupie to media mogul leaves a trail of financial and emotional wreckage in its path.

This lack of personal charm is not in itself a problem—it is no great insight that a successful biography need not be enamoured with its subject, indeed, some of the best are sharply critical. What does matter is whether the life being examined is worthy of the author’s analysis and the reader’s attention. In this case, the answer is a resolute yes. It is hard to imagine a life and times more suitable than Wenner’s for elucidating what Hagan astutely frames as a ‘parable of the age of narcissism’. Hagan is of course referring to the era of identity and celebrity-obsessed pop culture that began in the 1960s and continues to traverse new frontiers of digital vanity. Wenner is a fitting antihero for this narrative, a ‘principal architect of the rules of modern self-celebration.’

The story of how Wenner came to occupy this dubious cultural role begins in earnest in Northern California in 1967. A man named Chet Helms makes the mistake of inviting the twenty-year old unemployed journalist, whose sole professional experience is a brief stint at the irreverent (and quickly defunct) Sunday Ramparts newspaper, to start a hippie magazine that would be sold in record stores. To the extent there is one, Helms’ plan centres on a list of addresses sourced from a radio contest that will be used to solicit subscriptions. Like many of Wenner’s non-famous associates, Helms quickly finds himself outmanoeuvred as the energetic Wenner proceeds to plan and realise a publication (using the list) without him. Some years later, Jane Wenner will recall encountering the hapless Helms serving her ice cream in a Bay Area store.

The resulting magazine, launched by Wenner using money borrowed from friends and family—principally Jane’s wealthy parents—would be music-oriented in the vein of New York-based Crawdaddy and England’s Melody Maker, but in contrast to these fan-service sheets, focus a critical and edgy lens on the ‘entire culture’ then being spawned by rock and roll and the post-war baby boom. A name proved elusive until Wenner’s early mentor and collaborator, veteran Jazz critic Ralph Gleason, came up with Rolling Stone after Bob Dylan’s song ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.

From the start, an ethos of professionalism characterised the enterprise. This ‘very slick’ magazine, Wenner boasted in a letter to a friend, was perfectly positioned to successfully exploit the emerging ‘youth market’. On this count he was dead right. Wenner had stumbled across what Hagen describes as ‘the bounty of the biggest, richest generation in the history of the planet’. By 1964 Time was already reporting that teenagers, rarely perceived as a distinct or marketable group prior to 1945, boasted an annual income from part-time work and parental allowances of 12 billion dollars, a figure that would continue to rise.

What is more, to Wenner’s incalculable advantage, San Francisco happened to contain the cultural scene ripest for co-option. By the mid-to-late 1960s, this once sleepy city had become the epicentre of the nation’s bourgeoning counterculture and jam-rock scene, dominated by its seven ‘indigenous’ bands: The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Rolling Stone thus originated, unlike many harbingers of celebrity-oriented vacuity, in the crucible of genuine cultural ferment. For a time, it was indeed the journal of the zeitgeist, cannily reflecting back to the remnants of the ‘Woodstock Nation’ generational obsessions with authenticity, self-expression and anti-authoritarianism. To do this, in the late-1960s and early-1970s, Wenner assembled a team of some of the freshest and most original voices in late-twentieth century American journalism. The star that burned brightest in this firmament, becoming a perverse moral compass of the magazine was Hunter S. Thompson, the drug-addled non-fiction auteur whose peculiar brand of first-person reportage invented the ‘Gonzo’ subgenre of the New Journalism. Another breakout contributor of the era was photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose lurid, intimate portraits of the famous and debauched did more than anyone to define the modern template of celebrity image-making. Both artists had complicated, at times toxic, relationships with the Wenners. Lebovitz, who comes across in Hagan’s account as neurotic, self-destructive and boundary-challenged, became entangled with both Jann and Jane in a love triangle it would take years to professionally and emotionally extricate herself from. Thompson fell out with Wenner over petty expense claims right around the time that his not inconsiderable talent entered a fatal tangle of writer’s block, self-hype and substance abuse.

While this halcyon era of Thomson and Lebovitz eventually came to an end, Rolling Stone was destined to evolve and prosper. As hippiedom curdled into sinister excess and then commercialism, the magazine would gleefully leave all pretensions to countercultural relevance behind, instead embracing increasingly bland, yet incredibly lucrative corporate-friendly content. From the late-1970s, Wenner relocated the magazine from the Bay Area to Manhattan and began successfully courting ‘premium’ cigarette and automobile advertising contracts while putting lascivious spreads of television celebrities and teen idols on the cover as often as Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger.

In Hagan’s telling, Wenner the junior mogul surfs these cultural and political upheavals as a kind of monster Id, a cocaine-snorting, vodka-guzzling, confidence-betraying supplicant to the powerful and cool. Throughout, he evinces almost no consistent journalistic ethics other than a readiness to weaponise the cultural cachet of Rolling Stone to reward friends and marginalise foes, real or imagined. Pals like Michael Douglas and Bono are given carte blanche to edit their already fawning profiles and retouch photographs prior to publication, while Wenner himself frequently interferes with record reviews in service of commercial and personal conflicts of interest.

To a shocking degree, in the 1970s and 80s Wenner would prostitute the magazine’s editorial perspective to the Democratic Party as politics temporarily supplanted music as an obsession and vehicle of social climbing. Rolling Stone became an effective adjunct of the doomed 1972 George McGovern campaign as a well as the successful runs of Jimmy Carter in 1978 and Bill Clinton in 1992. Scattered moments of journalistic and literary excellence emerge from the magazine despite, rather than because of, this cynicism and lack of objective standards, beginning with a somewhat brave evisceration of The Rolling Stones’ sordid tragedy at Altamont, contrary to the wishes of his idol Jagger. Other highlights include Thompson’s early contributions, a pioneering series on the civil litigant and radiation poisoning victim Karen Silkwood, a scoop on life of on-the-run Patty Hearst, Tom Wolfe’s reporting on NASA that became The Right Stuff (1979) and the pre-publication serialisation of his novel Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). Then there are the backfires, including the embroidering of putative ‘non-fiction’ articles by coked-up reporter (later Hollywood sleaze merchant) Joe Ersterhas and most seriously, the now-retracted 2015 story by Sabrina Rubin Erderly alleging a pack-rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house that likely never happened.

In keeping with its theme of celebrity worship, these journalistic triumphs and failures seem somewhat secondary in Hagan’s biography to the doings of a cast of famous names who flit through the narrative as both Rolling Stone subjects and associates of the Wenners. This line up of the bold and the beautiful includes arch-frenemy Jagger, nemesis Paul Simon, Atlantic Records honcho Ahmet Ertegun, entertainment Svengali David Geffen, socialites Diane and Egon von Furstenberg and jet-set photographer and hanger-on Jean Pigozzi, to name a few. Hagan’s portrayal of this demi-monde is entertaining, sensitive and often illuminating, as are the (often rueful) comments of its surviving members on the excesses and grasping of the Wenners. Most of those still alive have sat down with Hagan for interviews during preparation of the book and this depth of research and access is one of its greatest strengths.

Toward the end of narrative in 1995, Wenner, long prolifically unfaithful with both men and women, finally acknowledges his homosexuality as dominant. Scandalizing the entertainment industry, he ‘comes out’ publically during the act of unceremoniously dumping Jane for a young male model. It is a bittersweet moment, marking the end of a remarkably successful connection that was instrumental (yet undeniably deep) and the beginning of a more honest and mature lifestyle for Wenner with his new lover, Matt Nye. Had this occurred in the context of another life it might seem more like an act of bravery, but the revelation appears here as yet another instance of at-all-costs impulse gratification by a man unable to stay faithful to anyone or anything. It is fitting, if melancholy, that his decades-long muse Jane, a graceful, stylish and intelligent, if somewhat idle woman whom Annie Lebowitz memorably describes as the ‘only one standing still in all these speedy lives’, would find herself ultimately discarded like so many others in Wenner’s orbit. That Wenner is primarily a slave to his appetites, gay and straight, is reflected only too clearly in recent accusations of harassment leveled against him by male employees as part of late-2017’s ‘me too’ moment of cultural reckoning with sexual assault and impropriety in the workplace.

Overall, Hagan must be commended for a highly readable, at times incisive and always unsentimental biography of a prickly subject, the generational and cultural landscape that made his rise his rise possible and which he helped principally shape. While a parable of the age of narcissism, Hagan’s biography is never dull and itself far from shallow.

Book Review: Huế 1968

Mark Bowden

Huế 1968: A Turning Point in the American War for Vietnam

Hardcover, Grove Atlantic, 2017 (37.95 NZD)

Mark Bowden, Hue 1968, Grove-Atlantic Press, 2017

In the early hours of 31 January 1968, the first day of Tet, Vietnam’s national holiday to mark the lunar New Year, PAVN and Vietcong soldiers launched a coordinated assault on the city of Huế. For days, National Liberation Front forces had been massing nearby while operatives infiltrated the civilian population in preparation for the surprise attack.

This strike was one of more than a hundred launched on cities and towns inside South Vietnam as part of a synchronised action known to Vietnamese as the General Offensive and Uprising and to westerners as the Tet Offensive. While shocking and often deadly, most of these attacks were repulsed quickly and failed to engender the popular uprising their advocates expected would tip the conflict irrevocably in the favour of the Hanoi government.

Huế differed crucially from the other Tet assaults on several counts. For a start, the target was no ordinary base or village, but the graceful second city of Vietnam, seat of its Nguyen Dynasty and the national capital from 1802 to 1945. Carried out by relatively small deployments, the attacks elsewhere presented shocks rather than existential threats to allied positions. Their greatest impacts were on morale and international perception. By contrast, an unprecedentedly large occupying force of roughly 10,000 rapidly overwhelmed the scantily defended Huế —a city of 140,000 largely unaffected by the war to date and considered far less likely to be attacked than the American base to the north at Khe Sahn. By 8am, a National Liberation Front flag flew brazenly atop the tower of Huế’s imposing citadel. While a popular uprising also failed to materialise amongst its urbane, largely neutral citizenry, the symbolic victory for the National Liberation Front was enormous.

This seizure of Huế and the ensuing bloody thirteen-day struggle by American and South Vietnamese troops to regain control of the city is the subject of Mark Bowden’s new book Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. Bowden is a veteran journalist who spent many years at the Philadelphia Inquirer and has written a series of acclaimed and best-selling works of narrative non-fiction. Best regarded amongst these releases is Black Hawk Down (1999), an account of the disastrous 1993 US intervention in Somalia resulting in the Battle of Mogadishu, turned a few years later into a gripping Cinéma vérité-style feature film. Bowden also wrote Killing Pablo, the inspiration for Netflix’s dramatically inert retro drug-trafficking series Narcos. My favourite of Bowden’s books is perhaps his least substantial, Finders Keepers (2002), an urban parable about a Philadelphia ne’er-do-well whose life dramatically unravels after discovering a million dollars in cash dropped by an armoured truck in 1981.

In tone and subject, Bowden’s new work clearly sits alongside Black Hawk Down. That book offered a grim picture of what can happen when the antiseptic, air-power-dominated operating plans of the modern military break down. Huế 1968 demonstrates to an even greater degree the primal horror (as well as the unthinkable courage) endemic to sustained close-quarter combat. Its 500 or so pages consist in large part of an hour-by-hour, street-by-street account of relentless, terrifying, grinding urban warfare as large, closely proximate forces square-off for control of Huế. On one side of the battle were 3 battalions of the US Marine Corps, 4 US Army battalions and 11 ARVN (Army of the Republic of South Vietnam) battalions, on the other 10 National Liberation Front battalionsThe conflagration quickly levelled the beautiful city and caused the deaths of thousands of troops and civilians. Such intense, intimate conflict was a rarity at that point in Vietnam and not had been experienced by American troops since Seoul in 1950.

It’s a testament to Bowden’s powers of pacing and description that the rhythms of battle, painstakingly recounted, never lose their ability to fascinate and shock. One of his narrative’s key accomplishments is the sheer number of individuals—both Vietnamese and American—whose perspectives, gleaned from over a hundred interviews, are woven into the story. This dramatis personae includes lowly teenage infantry soldiers (‘grunts’), their crafty, beleaguered commanding officers, earnest socialist revolutionaries, terrified city dwellers, journalists and political operatives. The breadth of Bowden’s informants is an asset, providing a panorama of the battle, although it means he is only able to furnish minimal detail about each person. Few characters are subsequently fully fleshed out individuals in whose fate the reader is deeply invested. In some ways, this broad scope makes sense—many of the soldiers in particular were young and unformed, with relatively few prior experiences for excavation, while excessive focus on back story would have distracted from the main action on the battlefield.

Nonetheless, a few individuals burn themselves onto the reader’s memory. Particularly vivid are Alfredo Cantu “Freddy” Gonzales, a young Chicano soldier from Texas whose composure under fire is staggering; Jim Coolican, a resourceful officer assigned to an elite unit of the unfairly maligned ARVN, swaggering Marine field commander Ernie Cheatham, Nguyen Dac Xuan, a buddhist poet-turned-zealot and Front enforcer and Steve ‘Storyteller’ Bernston, a Marine corps PR-journalist doing double duty as a frontline soldier. Bowden must also be commended for the incorporation of information from Vietnamese civilians and former Liberation Front members, having spent time in the country working with fixers and interpreters to gain their stories. If the Vietnamese characterisations are in general shallower than those of US military personnel, its understandable given lingering political sensitivities of researching the war there.  This trickiness probably accounts for fewer former ARVN personnel, long  marginalised within Socialist Republic of Vietnam, appearing as informants.

A lack of political and strategic context is another aspect of the book that seems both a strength and a weakness. Bowden’s tight focus on the battle means the life and death momentum rarely dips and he commendably avoids editorialising and digression. His single-minded attention to detail, however, allows for very little analysis of the circumstances and evolution of the conflict itself or of wider operational strategy, save for somewhat repetitive criticisms of General William Westmoreland and President Lyndon Johnson. While I am far from a military historian, the absence of a strong overview appears to account for some distortions, in particular overstated claims Bowden makes for the overall importance of the Battle of Huế  as a single event in what was  extremely complex, long-running and varied war. Any historian who has employed case studies understands the pressure to ascribe particular external significance to discreet events they are concentrating on for purposes of narrative compression. While horrific, Huế is correctly not widely regarded as a pivotal battle in the de-centred, sprawling conflict and Bowden’s book, contrary to his assertions, will likely fail to change its status among those with strong knowledge of the war.

When analysis finally does appear, in the form of a ponderous epilogue, it feels shallow and unearned. We receive little more than the orthodox liberal repudiation of the geo-politics of the war and rote hand-wringing over its mismanagement. Short shrift is given to the sincere, if possibly incorrect, belief of some veterans that victory was eminently possible, as well as their touching bitterness regarding the loss of domestic political nerve which resulted in ultimate abandonment of erstwhile South Vietnamese allies to a vengeful police state. What’s more absorbing is a truncated run of pages at the end dealing with societal re-integration and the long-term impacts of the war on some of the many individuals mentioned in the book. The life-trajectories Bowdon is able to follow-up are fascinating and sometimes sad and deserve further elaboration, although would warrant another book altogether.

While flawed in the respects mentioned, Huế 1968’s few shortcomings are outweighed by the vivid, once-in-a-generation depiction of war it provides. The book isn’t for the faint hearted, but I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

A Record Fit For a Queen

For decades an aura of mystery surrounded Duke Ellington’s largely unheard composition The Queen’s Suite (1959). Ellington had been moved to create this ‘private’ recording following a 1958 meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, gifting a single copy of the completed project to Buckingham Palace the following year. Sequestered thereafter as a chattel of the Windsors, the album would be commercially unavailable until 1976, two years after Ellington’s death.

The famously opaque Elizabeth has not publicly commented on having inspired one of the musical masters of the twentieth century, and now at age 91, it seems unlikely she will. While the Queen’s feelings on the meeting and the resulting music are unknown, what is certain is that at the time he crossed paths with Britain’s royals, Ellington was himself an aristocrat, albeit of a different kind. For more than three decades, he had sat at the zenith of the music industry, a position owed not to the caprice of a noble birth but to unsurpassable talent and drive.

Edward Kennedy Ellington (he was nicknamed ‘Duke’ during childhood for his courtly manner) was born in Washington D.C. in 1899. In the early 1920s, he moved to New York, settling in Harlem and becoming prominent later in the decade as the leader of the orchestra at the now-legendary nightspot The Cotton Club. For nearly 50 years, Ellington  toured the world with his orchestra, while writing and recording prolifically.  Although Ellington’s claim to fathering jazz as a popular art form is strong as any, he was known to chafe at the creative ghettoization implied by the genre label, preferring the more encompassing ‘American music’ to describe his oeuvre. Working frequently with songwriting partner Billy Strayhorn, Ellington is credited with over 1000 songs, many of which have become standards. In 1958, he was sixty years old and enjoying an extended phase of late-career approbation. Two years earlier, he had appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Duke Ellington, b. 1899 d. 1973. Image: Wikipedia Commons

The circumstance of Ellington’s meeting with The Queen was relatively unexceptional. Two scheduled performances at the Leeds Music Festival had brought Ellington’s orchestra to the Northern English industrial city in the early winter of 1958. To celebrate the centennial of the music festival, the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Mary Pearce, had organised a gala reception at the Town Hall on the evening of October 18, the event’s last day, inviting the 32 year-old Queen Elizabeth and her handsome former naval commander husband, Philip, to be the Guests of Honour. The royal couple, in particular Philip, were Ellington fans, as was Elizabeth’s father George VI. Earlier that day, the Duke of Edinburgh had attended one of his performances with composer Benjamin Britten.

It is not surprising then that Ellington was among the performers from the festival invited to meet the royals at the reception. This encounter took place quite late in the evening, following their final performance. Wearing a tailcoat  and white silk shirt, Ellington was at the end of a long line of musicians waiting for an audience with Elizabeth. As a result, he enjoyed a longer conservation with her than the others.

In his memoir, Music is my Mistress (1973), Ellington remembered being initially nervous in the presence of The Queen, who was calm and dignified. But when asked the innocuous, if banal, question of whether this was his first time in England, Ellington recalled ribbing Elizabeth flirtatiously that “my first time in England was in 1933, way before you were born. She gave me a real American look; very cool man, which I thought was too much.”

So apparently impressed was Ellington by the young  Queen’s poise (and, it seems, her beauty) during their brief exchange that the jazz master told her that he was sure “something musical would come out of it. She said she would be listening … so I wrote an album for her.” Finished the following year, that album is a suite of 6 themes, each inspired by a marvel Ellington had witnessed during his life and extensive travels.

Now is a good time to admit that as a whole I’m not overly laudatory or even familiar with the Queen’s Suite , which has a reputation as middling among Ellington’s output. I’ve never owned the record. But the album contains what is easily one of my favourite compositions for jazz piano, the three and a half-minute-long ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’. In Music is my Mistress, Ellington expanded on the beatific experience behind this tune, which occurred while he was on tour in Florida:

“One evening we were a little late leaving Tampa en route to West Palm Beach to make a gig. The weather was wonderful and it was just about sunset when, halfway across Florida, we passed a bird. We didn’t see it, but we heard its beautiful call. I asked Harry (Carney) if he heard it and he said, “Yeah.” We were a little too pushed for time, and going too fast to stop or go back and thank the bird, so I pulled out my pencil and paper and wrote that lovely phrase down. I spent the next two or three days whistling it to the natives, and inquiring what kind of bird it could have been that sang such a beautiful melody. Finally, I was convinced it had to be a mockingbird. I made an orchestration around that melody, titled it “Sunset And The Mocking Bird” and included it in the Queen’s Suite as one of the “beauty” experiences of my life.”

Like any jazz tune worth its salt, ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’ has been covered by several artists over the years. These are my three favourite recordings of the song:

1. Duke Ellington, ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’, The Queen’s Suite (1959).

The original and arguably the most swinging version. I’ve always found Ellington’s piano something of a paradox in that it seems simplistic and heavy-fingered, yet stirring. The snaky clarinet gives the track an almost eastern sound.

2. Tommy  Flanagan ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’ Sunset and the Mockingbird (1997)

Tommy Flanagan’s interpretation of ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’ is the title track of the Harlem pianist’s 1997 set at New York’s famous Village Vanguard jazz club. The relatively unsung Flanagan is an immaculate pianist and his interpretation adds complexity and nuance to the tune.

3. Wynton Marsalis, ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’, Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra Live in Cuba (2015)

Multiple Grammy winner Wynton Marsalis is the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Centre—arguably the finest orchestra working today. On this version from the recording of a concert they gave in Havana in 2010, its thrilling to hear the beautiful refrain played on Marsalis’ controlled trumpet.