A friend was down from England a few weeks ago and I took her along to a perfectly nice dinner party full of perfectly nice Australians. Perhaps somewhat impolitically, some of the first words out of her mouth were, "TV's crap here."
I was not inclined to disagree, though I made a point of not disagreeing silently, while sagely nodding as if to say, "While this may be true, I'm sure that Australian TV is superior to that of Outer Mongolia, and perhaps Uganda and several other countries as well."
Since I'm out a lot of evenings, and don't have a lot of patience with adverts, and most of all because from where the sofa is positioned, you have to raise the remote way up over your head to get it to work, I've found it too much trouble to give Australian TV a fair go. But tonight, through a concatenation of circumstances, I found myself parked in front of the box for a few hours, starting out with The Simpsons and Neighbours, then on to the News, which as usual was pretty parochial stuff, but kind of comforting, too, in that it didn't leave you alternately horrified and terrified the way American news does, or exasperated and bewildered, the way British news does. Apart from a couple car crashes, thieving politicians, and a "Meanwhile, out there in the rest of the world where stuff really happens" segment, there wasn't much else to talk about except the sports and the weather, which were pretty uneventful themselves.
But then things got more interesting. First a bio of Israel's comatose prime minister, Ariel Sharon, about which/whom I intend to write more later. It was a vaguely left-wing hit piece for the most part, but as with most vaguely left-wing things, it was so ineffectual that it managed to make him look nicer and more interesting than I'd ever given him credit for. That was followed up with the former Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, making his debut as a TV presenter.
"Politics is show business for ugly people," they say, and while Carr is not ugly, merely rather homely, and I mean homely in the American sense, not the British, I think it's safe to say he should have stayed in politics. Except of course he couldn't; having run Australia's oldest, richest and most populated state nearly into the ground through a combination of chicanery and incompetence, he pleaded exhaustion, depression or some form of mental illness to abruptly resign as Premier and rush off to start two new careers, one working for the bank that had helped loot the State treasury, the other in, wait for it, show business.
So tonight he was off to Hollywood to interview Gore Vidal. Opening with the deathless line, "Los Angeles, there's no place like it," he then introduced Vidal as "America's last, lonely dissident and radical." Since Vidal was mostly spouting, albeit far more literately, the same general sort of wisdom beloved of Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and about 90% of the population of the San Francisco Bay Area, I can't imagine he'd be that lonely, but perhaps he doesn't get out much. He is 80, after all, and I couldn't help wondering why he couldn't have appeared on the BBC programme Grumpy Old Men, which I forgot to mention I'd seen earlier. He'd certainly qualify, though the BBC Grumpy Old Men tend to be people, well, my age, with a set of grievances more mundane than the Fall Of The American Empire, etc.
I was quite a fan of Vidal's historical novels back in my historical novel-reading phase, and even if I think he's a bit off on some of his political analysis, he's far more interesting and not quite as didactic about it as the usual left-wing dogmatist. When he sadly concluded that America was destined to end up somewhere between Argentina and Brazil ("and with a good soccer team, at least"), I felt a bit wistful myself, though I wish he would have been more specific so I'd know whether to start practicing my Spanish or my Portuguese.
I was just about to leave the house when I idly flicked the channel on to SBS, the "Special" Broadcating Service I so mercilessly ridiculed the other day. I immediately felt some regret for being so hard on the poor multiculturalist dears, because the first thing I saw was the Velvet Underground playing live around 1966, followed by a quick cutaway to the MC5 and my old friend John Sinclair waxing rhapsodic about "dope, rock and roll, and fucking in the streets." Then there was a good bit of MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer explaining, as baby boomers are wont to do, how all that dope, rock and roll, and f.i.t.s. helped to instill society with a new vision of itself and, of course, stop the Vietnam War. It put me in mind of one of the many notable quotes from Dr. Frank's brilliant new book, King Dork, where the narrator mentions having heard that Abbie Hoffman, aka "Free," had gotten five years in prison for writing Revolution For The Hell Of It. "Which seems a bit lenient if you ask me," he adds.
Then came some great footage of the Stooges, including at least one show I was at in 1973, followed by some equally great stuff with the New York Dolls, and at this point I retrieved the newspaper and found that I was watching a documentary on Punk: Attitude by Don Letts, who'd also done that Clash hagiography, Westway To The World. Lots of people I know or who've met (not always under the best circumstances, as you'll recall from my recent adventure with Pete Shelley) were there sounding off on the History and Meaning of Punk, some tendentiously, some hilariously. Henry Rollins was in particularly good form, getting off one zinger after another, though both he and John Holmstrom might have been annoyed to find that the reviewer from the Sydney Morning-Herald had thought Henry was John and vice versa.
There was Jello Biafra in his "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" and Dr. Frank lookalike era, and in his modern, weightier and non-Dr. Frank lookalike form, expounding, much as Wayne Kramer had, on how important HIS generation had been. Personally, I preferred Wayne even if he is perpetuating many of the myths that make my generation so annoying, because he was more gently spoken, better dressed, and, well, it still is my generation.
The programme only went off the rails when it tried to make the leap from early 80s hardcore (no MDC, I was sad to see, but plenty of Agnostic Front and a teensy bit of Minor Threat) to the punk explosion of the 90s. Predictably, perhaps, since Thurston Moore was one of the commentators, the narrative followed the usual spurious trajectory of, "Everything went quiet in the 80s but there was this huge underground thing happening, and then Sonic Youth emerged and that led to Nirvana and blah blah blah..." with Green Day and Rancid and Blink-182 and Sum 41 all lumped in as an afterthought.
Well, I don't have time to rehash this entire argument again, and face it, all these old guys (even though many of them are considerably younger than me, and Thurston Moore, though he must pushing 50, still looks annoyingly like my little brother back in the early 70s) are starting to sound a lot like baby boomers with their solipsistic and highly revisionist view of history. But get it straight, dildos: Sonic Youth were NOT PUNK. Nirvana were NOT PUNK. SY were alternative college art rock. Nirvana were just plain rock. Both might have borrowed a few elements from punk, a few chord changes and a slight DIY ethos, for example, but... Oh, never mind, I'll take up this argument again if anyone really cares, but honestly, Gilman Street and the East Bay scene were happening right under all those dildos' noses from 1986, and had about 1,000% more to do with keeping punk alive and re-launching it than any of that Sonic Nirvana crap (which is all right if you like it, I mean).
The programme finished up with the old geezers lamenting about how punk's all commercial and has lost its soul now (except for Henry Rollins, who was saying some of that, too, but still cracking jokes like crazy), just like a bunch of old hippies complaining how "These damn kids today just don't know what real music is about," and, appropriately enough, finished up with John Sinclair, wearing a newly minted DKT/MC5 shirt, grousing that, "Today you get paid for being stupider and making people stupider." Coming from one of the biggest potheads in history, I guess that's a pretty damning indictment.