issue 169 - March 1987
Live 1975 - 85
by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Now that Bruce Springsteen has finally received his due from the world it is difficult to find new things to say about him. When he was dismissed as a hype and as a prophet in the wilderness, then there were so many things just burning to be said
But let's add some more hypeable (and inevitably contentious) words to the history. The greatest live performer in rock history has produced the impossible - a live album set that does him justice. Few of the songs here are inferior to their studio incarnations - and some, most notably an extraordinary version of No Surrender, are infinitely superior. The fan could wish for a few different choices - for a couple of the unrecorded but much-bootlegged early songs such as The Guns of Kid Cole or Heart of a Ballerina, or for the magical 1975 version of For You that he played alone at a spotlit piano.
But in general Springsteen knows the strengths of his own material very well and you build up a clear picture of his world. This is the soul of the blue-collar American male laid bare - rebelling exuberantly against restrictions in youth, chasing solace in cars, excitement and sex; then ground down by the rigours of working-class life as drudgery, unemployment, poverty and war all take their toll on hope and human relationships. Bruce Springsteen says what rock'n'roll always wanted to say - but had to learn a lot before it could do it.
by The The
Matt Johnson - code name The The - is one of Britain's most maverick musicians. Uninterested in commercial success, he takes three years to make a record then plasters over it a determinedly gruff voice and the most depressing world view currently available. Yet he still manages to persuade his record company to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars flying him and a crew all over the world to make the video version of this album.
The political content of Infected resides mainly in its opposition to American domination - in Heartland, for instance, which is by far the finest song here, he rounds off a grim picture of UK society in terminal decay with the words 'This is the 51st State of the USA'. In general Johnson's vision is less political than morbid, his eye ever drawn to the sick and the ugly side of life like a medieval moralist. And when you watch the video the uncontrolled sexism of some of his images becomes apparent.
But there are few popular musicians as talented - and there will be few records this year as challenging in their scope and intent
Death of the Rainbow Warrior
by Michael King
by Bengt and Marie-Therese Danielsson
In mid-1986 French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, his country rocked by indiscriminate bombs of unknown origin, claimed 'I am allergic to terrorism'. Yet in Aotearoa (NZ) a year before, French agents had bombed and sunk Green-peace's boat Rainbow Warrior, killing one of its crew members. Could there be a more counter-productive or despicable form of terrorism? The Auckland harbour bombing is the subject of Michael King's book, and his unravelling of events is a valuable contribution to the growing and thoroughly depressing chronology of French crime in the South Pacific. It was published at about the time two old campaigners against Paris's colonial and nuclear exploits in the Pacific chose to release an updated version of their 1974 classic Moruroa Mon Amour under the trite title Poisoned Reign.
While King gives a blow-by-blow account - some of it probably imagined - of Paris's muddled but ultimately devastating attack, the Danielssons use the Rainbow Warrior incident to draw attention to what they see as a much worse example of terrorism in France's 'possession' of French Polynesia. Among all the thousands of words that appeared around the world after the Warrior bombing, the Danielssons rue that they were unable to find 'one single reference to the problems, sufferings and aspirations of the people most deeply involved, the Polynesians, in whose islands 110 nuclear bombs have been detonated'.
Does aid work?
by Robert Cassen
(Oxford University Press)
Between a quarter and a third of all aid projects fail, reveals a new study commissioned by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This academic book looks at seven Third World countries and asks whether aid works. And Cassen's disturbing finding is that while most aid schemes 'broadly achieve their objectives', those objectives may well not include distributing wealth to the poor.
They add that there is no strong statistical evidence that aid leads to economic growth, although it did help to make India self-sufficient in food. For aid to work the receiving government must be committed to reducing poverty.
Although urging some improvements in aid coordination and attention to women, Cassen curiously remains 'broadly positive' about aid. Predictably his study glosses over the damaging role of the IMPs adjustment policies and the World Bank's support of them but it admits that aid is 'a good friend of market forces'.
In Trouble Again
Granta claims to be 'a paperback magazine of new writing'. The publishers describe it as a magazine because an annual subscription to four books makes better financial sense than a one-off sale - as the NI can testify. And NI readers ever quizzical about foreign climes are likely to be attracted to this Granta collection in particular.
As a bunch of 14 short stories it's curate-eggish good in parts Overall the sour taste of outdated material like Norman Lewis' The Shaman Faithhealer of Chichicastenango (the title is the best thing about it) or the inevitable story from behind the rebel lines in Afghanistan (done better every month or so in any quality Western newspaper), is drowned by the sweetness of the quality contributions.
Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish exponent of new journalism, wrote a riveting description of the last days of Haile Selassie in The Emperor. This time he captivates again with an account of the fighting in Angola Or take Martha Gellhorn stranded in Cuba. All she wants to do is go snorkelling, but the bad weather denies her. So she is forced to tour the country, barging into schools and museums with equal energy and sharp leftist, individualist asides
It all makes for easy reading. But the peach of the collection has to be the contribution of Hanif Kureishi, of My Beautiful Launderette fame, writing on racism in Bradford. How this qualifies as travel writing is unclear but with such thoughtful quality you can understand why the editors stretched the point
directed by Clint Eastwood
The ultra-tough Marine sergeant who despises his lily-livered college-educated officers and overcomes the antagonism of the rabble he commands to whip them into line and win their admiration ... You mean you've heard this story before?
Training suddenly gives way to war and the platoon is shipped off to Grenada 'to rescue US students', kill Cubans and depose a Third World Government. Can such a film be worth reviewing, let alone worth watching?
Well, actually yes. True, it has to get a one-star politics rating - its uncritical endorsement of military values and the American Way takes care of that But it is possible to make interesting movies about war that are not pacifist or else on the side of angels like the Sandinistas. And to tar Clint Eastwood with the same brush as Sylvester Stallone would be unintelligent, to say the least.
There are more than a few intriguing touches here in what is anyway an efficient and entertaining update on a conventional Hollywood formula. The Eastwood figure has the hardest macho shell possible but it is starting to crack as his pension looms (and Clint is now quite startlingly grizzled). He gropes his way blindly towards emotional fulfilment, reading women's magazines to try and understand his ex-wife. When he asks her 'did we have a mutually nurturing relationship?' it's almost painful how hard he is trying. This film says a great deal about masculinity - and just occasionally it does so consciously.
Gramsci's Prison Writings
...being the books that explained why Western democracy is conservative
In 1946 Gramsci's Prison Notebooks and his Letters were published in his native Italy. Their appearance had a considerable and enduring impact. The man who had died ten years before in a Mussolini prison, and whose thoughts and sufferings had been forgotten in the lacerations of war, became an intellectual hero.
The Notebooks were Gramsci's 'inner focus'. Fragmentary elliptical (because of the need to evade censorship) and taut with almost obsessive intellectual rigour, they explore Marx and Lenin in a way that nobody had done before or has so originally attempted since. The Notebooks ask why the oppressed support capitalism and, in the case of Italy, fascism. Gramsci finds his answers in the role of culture - newspapers, school curricula, families and, since his death, TV - in securing consent for a social system which is exploitative and unfair. He explains why the oppressed can continue to vote for governments which are obviously class enemies, why universal suffrage has not ended oppression.
Gramsci develops his ideas about culture into an account of how consent is secured. He sees consent being won through a process - involving evolution, change and compromise - which he called Hegemony - describes the ways in which the everyday culture combine to dominate the beliefs by which most of us live: the idea that we are 'free' when we sell our labour; that the West is democratic. The consent of the dominated is a far more subtle and important buttress to the status quo than batons and teargas. Politics cannot be separated from life in the street, the home or the factory.
Only by creating an alternative poplar culture could the Left achieve power, writes Gramsci. The Prison Notebooks insist that intellectuals must participate in popular culture and must intervene in political debates. He understood how vital it is that those who generate culture - social workers, clergy, teachers, journalists - make their ideas available to those who would not otherwise be able to develop coherent political theories. Gramsci has, then, given direction to a new, post-war generation of political activists; his ideas are often the inspiration behind initiatives such as peace camps, creches run by men and equal opportunities policies.
While the Notebooks, clamped to their subject, are edifices of intellectual revolution, the Letters are extraordinary and anguished testimonies to human tenacity. Occasionally querulous, often brutal in their honesty, they never lapse into self-pity but are buoyed up by the urgent need to communicate information and ideas, projects and tenderness. Gramsci had three main correspondents; his ill and increasingly disturbed wife Giulia, to whom he wrote letters of exasperated affection that lapsed into irregular notes of reproach; his mother, with whom he reminisced about a childhood that during the ten long years becomes a memory of lost innocence and joy; and above all the loyal Tataina, his Russian sister-in-law. These three women are his links with the outside world; one by one he feels the links breaking, leaving him locked into 'a mechanism that crushes'.
It makes one sick at heart to read Gramsci's letters, moving as they do from confidence and serenity to the final bitter years when Gramsci knew himself to be without hope, love or a future. The letters become desperate attempts to recreate bonds and understanding. 'I'm a practical person' he writes to Tatiana, frustrated by her perception of him as a martyr to a noble cause. 'When I beat my head against the wall, I know my head's going to break, not the wall. You see a man bound and fettered to something, who won't move because he can't move. Don't you see he has torn his very flesh trying to move?'
His letter to Tatiana goes beyond bearable suffering; it is the bleakest farewell I know of to a world which seems to have forgotten him. 'I must now speak the truth, be frank, even brutal. Nothing is left to you or to anyone. I'm completely empty. In January I felt the last efforts to live, felt the last leap of existence within me. Now nothing can be done.'
Gramsci died at 4.00am on April 25, 1937.
Prison Notebooks and Letter From Prison by Antonio Gramsci.