Saturday, 30 January 2010

Not The Nine O'Clock News

I am, to the best of my knowledge, the only Huey Lewis and the News fan that I know. This has been the case since I lost contact with my friend Marcus in 1989 with whom I shared an unnatural obsession for Back to the Future; a film heavy with Huey including a cameo from Mr Lewis as a proto-American Idol talent scout. Though I doubt he’d admit it now, Marcus and I were very proud to be Huey fans, because it set us apart from everyone else at school – and in a good way. Whilst our peers were earnestly trying to understand their older siblings’ Genesis and Sting albums, we knew that it wasn’t hip to be so square.

As well as mainlining the band's best albums, Sports and Fore!, we both had the video compilation Fore! and More - eagerly described by one Amazon reviewer as ‘clips of the guys being themselves, clowning around and having a good time. Don't be surprised if you laugh out loud at their antics!’ Quite so. From watching these clips I decided that my favourite band member was Mario Cipollina; the lanky bass player rarely seen without a cig hanging loosely from his lower lip and who clearly influenced Nick Cave’s look throughout the 1990s.

The News' Mario Cipollina: thank you for smoking

As with all pre-teen obsessions my Huey love was over as quickly as it started. Marcus came back from a holiday loaded with INXS and Def Leppard tapes whilst I betrayed my retro-Fifties double denim past with the Pet Shop Boys and Kylie. However one enduring legacy of my Huey days remains; to this day The Power of Love is always the very first song I play on any new audio equipment I buy, and has graced every walkman, tape deck, turntable, mini-disc, cd player, car stereo and iPod I’ve ever owned.

Given all of this you’d expect that I’d be reasonably excited this week with the (ahem) news that Huey and the gang are visiting Australia in March as part of their Still Workin’ for a Livin’ tour. And I am… I mean I was… until I saw that tickets for the gigs start at $125; ‘Gold Class’ is $149. Now I’m not averse to paying silly amounts of money for concerts, even for the right kind of has-been, but the idea that it’s reasonable to charge the same as Leonard Cohen for a pushin' 60 Huey and some of the News (sadly Mario is long gone…) is faintly ridiculous.

Huey et al: note relative coolness of Mario to speckled-suited others

I’ve still never seen them live, so there is part of me that wants to go, just for the same kind of nostalgic silliness that took me to see Def Leppard (thanks again Marcus) with a friend’s mum in 2008. Yet, to put this in even sharper perspective, the Go-Betweens’ ever-dapper Robert Forster has just announced some new Australian dates - ticket price: a mere $33 of your Australian dollars. I’d wager I’m the only person in Australia weighing up these two as competing options.

Sadly $125 feels like a step too far and it looks like I’m destined not to feel the Power of Love live, hear the Heart of Rock and Roll still beating for myself or have another conversation about how Ray Parker Jr ripped off I Want a New Drug for the theme from Ghostbusters. This is a shame, because given the amount of once-cherished credibility I’ve lost amongst sniffy music lovers defending Huey’s name it would have been nice to show the hip that deep down I’m still happy to be square.

Tickets for Huey Lewis and the News are available here. For the more discerning listener, tickets for Robert Forster’s Australian shows can be purchased here.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

If You Ever Step on My Patch, I'll Bring You Down

It's almost three months since we moved into our little house and I thought I'd mark the occasion by posting some pictures of the veggie garden that I've had on my camera all summer. As I said back in November, it was pretty tough getting the patch started but things are moving along quite nicely now, even with the lack of rain and me being (reasonably) obedient of our council's draconian watering conditions. Anyway, let's make like they do on all those reality shows and have a look back at the journey...

Day 1: we inherit one weed-strewn former car park from the previous owners. It's fair to say that gardening was not one of their priorities.

Top soil on Day 1; fine dusty grit with a texture like freshly ground peppercorns

Day 2: Measuring up. Following the word of our gardening lord, Peter Cundall I set up a crop rotation system with six beds (1.5m x 1m each) in a 3m x 3m square. I also mapped out another 2m x 1m bed for herbs. So I don't waste any time I plant a few seeds and seedlings in tubs in the back yard.

Days 3 - 10: digging in a drought. After several days attacking the ground with a spade and a fork someone at work suggested I buy a mattock ("my mother is 83 and swears by her mattock.") The mattock allowed me to scalp the weeds from the surface but still I could only get down to about 15cms depth - halfway to the 30 cms recommended by Gardening Australia. Note the pile of weeds and old tree roots found during my excavation. Not quite as exciting as Raiders of the Lost Ark...

Day 14: When the rain comes... one weekend of pouring rain makes light work for Mint Custard. With the topsoil turned the rain soaked into the stubborn hard soil underneath and softened everything nicely. In one day I was able to turn all the soil to 30 cms, mix in two bags of cow poo, many handfuls of chicken poo and a sprinkling of blood and bone. The worms went mental...

Day 28: with the beds marked out and the gospel according to Saint Peter strictly obeyed the first seeds are planted. Broadly I have one bed for carrots and beets; one for potatoes; one for corn and zucchini, one for onions, leeks and tomatoes; one for lettuce and pakchoi and one more that should be for beans but December is a bit late to get started so I leave it bare...

Day 42: hot vegetable action. I become amazed at how easy it is to grow lettuce and pak choi. I remain frustrated that everything else is painfully slow and needs more water than I have at my disposal.

Day 49: New Year's downpour followed by heatwave causes garden to spring into life. I'm tempted to give up my job and sell lettuce for a living. I start giving away pak choi to everyone I know.

Day 49: Mr Fishhands, our Hitler Tache-sporting scarecrow device is dwarfed by the Children of the Corn

Day 70: Mint Custard v the Drought. As you can see there is much activity in the patch these days. Things are going mostly OK, and the marigolds look pretty too. However we're probably still a few weeks away from real excitement. Several days of 40+ heat and very little rain has caught up with my delayed start to summer planting and the growth spurts of many of the veggies has slowed down to a trot. Still most things are still alive, and I've bought mulch to try and keep some of the moisture in...

Day 77: Mr Fishhands, King of the Corn Children amongst his giant offspring. Don't worry, I'm sure he'll be fine...

Now we're up to date I'll try and keep you posted on the latest comings and goings in the patch. If you have any advice or tips for a junior gardener I'd be happy to hear them. And hey, if you need any Pak Choi...

(with thanks to the lovely Jim Noir for today's title. Check out Jim's work on Myspace or watch the video to My Patch here)

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Now I Know my ABC...

I’m not as much of a Luddite as some but I must admit I find it hard to embrace Google’s now default predictive search function. The ‘helpful suggestions’ it makes as soon as I start typing into the little box do nothing to help me keep up the delusion my searches are interesting and unique and not what several million other people are looking for at the same time. It’s also slightly creepy to see some of the things that I’m a mere slip of a lazy typing finger from bringing to my screen.

I noticed today that this function leaps into action even after one letter is typed, which got me interested as to what it brings up first for each letter of the alphabet. Unless being top of the list is something you have to pay for I’m assuming the results reflect the most popular searches by Australians right now (I was using

For your distraction I’ve listed all the default words below. For anyone not au fait with the Australian way of life I’ve added a guide so you can see what it is people here mean when they say they still haven’t found what they’re looking for…

A - ANZ (a big Australian and New Zealand bank)
B - BoM (Bureau of Meteorology, for well-informed inane chats about the weather)
C - Commonwealth Bank (another big Australian bank)
D - Dictionary (for spelling things)
E - Ebay (for selling things)
F - Facebook (for wasting time)
G - Gmail (for people too old for Facebook)
H - Hotmail (for people too old for Gmail)
I – i-tunes (for people who actually pay for music)
J - Jetstar (Qantas’ budget airline. Fondly referred to in our house as Shitstar)
K - Kmart (shop for cheap crap and feel slightly dirty)
L - Limewire (for people who don’t pay for music)
M - Myspace (for wasting time if you are in a band)
N - Ninemsn (to the internet what Channel 9 is to quality television)
O - Optus (penguin-exploiting Australian telco)
P - Poptropica (“a virtual world for kids to travel, play games, compete in head-to-head competition, and communicate safely” apparently)
Q - Qantas (Shitstar’s older, dowdier parent)
R - Real Estate (‘crack smoking, fudge packing, satan worshippin motherfuckers’)
S - Seek (“I’m looking for another job to hate”)
T - Ticketek (‘transaction chargin’ kitty pettin, baby kissin corporate rock whores’)
U - Utorrent (for people who don’t want to pay for anything)
V - Virgin Blue (Branson does Shitstar, with better advertising)
W - White Pages (for people who haven’t heard of Google)
X - Xe (see how much money you don’t have in another currency)
Y - You Tube (where weirdos of the world congregate to swear and spell badly)
Z - Zoo Weekly (another big Australian wank)

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Jimmy Jimmy, Oh!

Demonstrating that January remains slow news month for most Australian journalists there has been a disproportionately large amount of coverage here of the Conan O’Brien – NBC - Jay Leno brouhaha currently making waves in the US. For those not in the loop (anyone who isn't American or doesn't have cable) here is a short story to bring you up to speed:

Old, unfunny man hosts iconic late night TV show. Old man leaves to host new, unfunny TV show in earlier slot. Freaky looking, slightly funnier man takes over iconic late night show. He is very happy. TV network spends US $50 million building a new set for iconic late night show. Ratings for both shows fall through their respective arses. TV network panics and tries to move old man’s new show back to iconic late night TV show’s spot. Freaky looking, slightly funnier man gets upset, refuses to move iconic late night TV show on principle. TV station and freaky looking, slightly funnier man go at it like
Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. People start to watch iconic late night TV show again. TV station pays freaky looking, slightly funnier man and his crew a silly amount of money to terminate their contract. Old, unfunny man gets his old job back. The world shrugs / gets upset because they prefer freaky looking, slightly funnier man.

Outside of
his mock three-way stoush with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert I’ve never really embraced Conan and his Robin Williams-style of mania. However I did have some interest in the fate of the Tonight Show because of possible implications on one of my new televisual treats, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, which risked being bumped or even cancelled if Conan’s show had been moved back. With Conan stepping aside we get to see more of Jimmy doing that thing what he do…

And what he do, exactly? Well, ostensibly the same thing that most American late-night-fawning-star-interview-house-band-audience-participation-pop-culture type shows seem to do. Such programs (Letterman, Conan, Leno, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel etc) are so formulaic that Garry Shandling’s sublime
Larry Sanders Show was pretty much ready-made before they even started writing the gags.

It’s a formula that many around the world have tried to copy, notably Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton in the UK and Rove McManus in Australia. All three had ratings success but with weekly shows and precious little competition. Their US counterparts run parallel and in competition with each other five days a week, 52 weeks a year, meaning star guests and material are spread precariously thin.

This might explain why I have developed a fondness for Jimmy Fallon’s take on the genre, which is to fill the gaps between his opening monologue and the mutual back-slapping interviews with some moments of quality silliness reminiscent of his old days co-hosting Weekend Update with Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live. The result is more late night community radio than polished television chat show which contrasts nicely with some of the very-famous-indeed guests.

Following in the footsteps of shows like
Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and Shooting Stars, LNWJF is proudly daft. Audience participation games are mostly pointless, pleasingly confusing and with desultory prizes. Many skits have no punch line or purpose and are played (unless Jimmy can’t help himself, which he usually can’t) straight faced. Like the early days of Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out pleasure is derived from continual repetition of seemingly unfunny concepts til they eventually batter you into submission (the weekly ‘Shout Outs’ make no sense at all the first time…)

Despite all the Conan hoo-ha Late Night is undoubtedly aided by having NBC as its parent network. As the home of 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation and Saturday Night Live the show has a deep pool of comedy talent to draw on at will. There are many cameos by SNL alumni, past and present – which is unsurprising given Jimmy’s past and having SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels as Executive Producer.

Stylistically some of Late Night’s best moments mirror the SNL Digital Shorts; clever and funny pre-records which allow Jimmy’s hammy comedy style to shine and give the talented crew a share of the spotlight. Check out their pre-Christmas series the Real Housewives of Late Night featuring Jimmy and co as their own wives (including a scarily feminine AD Miles) or the recent inspired Video Vision Fire Safety skit.

Integral to the show are
The Roots, Jimmy’s adopted house band who put the funk up every other house band on TV. The rapport between them and Jimmy - especially leaders Tariq and Questlove - is genuine and their ability to give musical backing to every idea on the show provides the glue that holds it all together.

My love is not unconditional just yet. There are still things wrong with LNWJF, not least some of the fawning interviews, with Jimmy happy to pump up a few egos or promote any old tat as great. An over-reliance on showbiz mates often leaves some guests covering little more than how fun it was to work together. Also, it may be a Late Night tradition, but please scrap the monologue. Jimmy can’t do them and why should he when there are other things he can do so much better? Fallon’s goofy personality is both his blessing and his curse (he was eloquently described by Tracy Ullman this week as the guy you’d invite out with a bunch of girls because he’d make you laugh but wouldn’t try to shag you) but ultimately there is much to like. His producers could do a lot worse than allowing him even more freedom to take Late Night somewhere totally new and not force structure upon him for tradition’s sake.

Having stepped into Conan’s old chair at Late Night the same time as O’Brien replaced Leno, Jimmy Fallon is slowly finding his feet some six years after quitting Saturday Night Live for a film career that never quite happened. I for one am glad he’s going to have more time than Conan did to prove himself the right man for the job.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Palin, by Comparison...

I’m greatly enjoying the second collection of Michael Palin’s fastidiously kept diaries, published late last year under the title Halfway to Hollywood. Starting in 1980 just after the release of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and wrapping up in 1988 as he’s preparing for the first of his televised circumnavigations, it’s both a gentle bit of time traveling and a generously candid account of the business of comedy in the Eighties.

Even from within the eye of the Python creative storm Palin is remarkably astute about the quality of his many (and they are many) varied projects. Within the first few months we see comedy epic
Time Bandits ready to start filming, the first seeds of what was to become Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life starting to sprout and the fascinating account of a train journey north, through England and into the far west of Scotland recording a series on railways for the BBC.

Within Palin's highly readable accounts there are interesting glimpses of self-doubt, made all the more juicy through the reader’s hindsight about the fate of these pieces of work. During filming of the railway documentary he finds himself in Grosmont, North Yorkshire (which holds a special significance in the Custard family memory as the place where our rusty old car broke down signalling the end of our first ever family holiday on day 1). Equally cursed by Grosmont Blues, Palin offers the following confession:

Woke at four to the silence of the countryside. For a moment or two, lying there in the pre-dawn in the isolation of this tiny North Yorkshire village I was seized with a crisis of confidence. What I was doing seemed so unreal. I am not a documentary presenter; I have no special knowledge or authority to talk about railways or even a special skill in getting people to talk. I have been chosen mainly because of what I have done in the past, which has made me into a reasonably well-known TV figure, but more precisely I’ve been chosen because Ken senses in my personality something which the viewer will like and identify with.

So there I am, lying listening to a cuckoo which has just started up in a nearby wood as the grey gives way to the gold creeping light of another hot day trying to bring into sharp and positive focus this ephemeral ‘personality’ of mine which is my chief qualification for this job. How I wish I were dealing in something more finite – like the skill of an engine driver or a cameraman. Something which you can see, feel, touch, switch on and off. But no, for an hour on national TV I am to be everyone’s friend – the traveller that millions are happy to travel with.

It's quite sweet to see that the then 37-year-old Palin had no idea that being everyone's favourite tour guide was to be his career for the next twenty years. Even nicer is the stark contrast with many of today’s television stars – outwardly brash, flush with confidence; as if a place on our screens and in our homes is theirs by right. It's hard to imagine those two-bit celebrities given their own shows because they were on reality TV or are related to someone famous (yes, people like you, Antonia Kidman) questioning whether they merit their airtime.

I also find Palin’s candour inspiring because, as advanced in career years as I am, I still haven’t identified any of those absolutes - something you can see, feel, touch – in my own work life. Apart from the fact that I've never set anywhere on fire or physically assaulted a colleague I've never quite understood the real reasons why I've remained reasonably gainfully employed over the years. If the man who brought us cross-dressing lumberjacks, redefined Spam for at least two generations and recast the Spanish Inquisition as inept torturers counting fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, fanatical devotion to the Pope and nice red uniforms amongst their weaponry can still have self doubt about his skills then who am I to question the way the world works. Personally I find it quite nice that even a Python can admit to a crise de confiance because it shows no matter what line of work you're in there are good days and bad days and it's probably best not to fret.

Ever the most publicly beneficent of the Pythons (it's hard to imagine Eric Idle or John Cleese campaigning for sustainable transport) Michael Palin remains one of the nicest people in showbiz. Find out more reasons why in Halfway to Hollywood, out now in a lovely shiny hardback through Weidenfeld & Nicolson.