Saturday, July 31, 2010

Together Alone: The Story of the Finn Brothers by Jeff Apter

Release Date (Australia): 1 June 2010
Rating: 7/10

The hits of Neil and Tim Finn read like a checklist of recent pop history. And to think it all began in sleepy, rural Te Awamutu, New Zealand, where Brian Timothy Finn fell in love with The Beatles, an obsession that would also work its way into his younger brother Neil’s DNA. Based on interviews, critical analysis, extensive research, and the author’s 30+ years of following the Finns, Together Alone is the first biography written about the Finn brothers. This is a story of breakthroughs, breakdowns, sibling rivalry and respect – and some of the best pop songs this side of Lennon and McCartney.

I have been listening to Tim and Neil Finn, in some form or another, for my entire life. My mother is from New Zealand and her influence on this love of mine from such an early age is undeniable – she has been listening to them since the late 1970s. The earliest song I ever remember loving by anyone is “History Never Repeats” by Split Enz. Crowded House, the most famous incarnation of their music, formed the year I was born. I was 12 years old the first time I saw Neil Finn live; it was my second live concert and is a large part of the reason I fell in love with live music. Seeing Neil perform live (and he wasn’t even my favourite - Tim was, is, and always will be) blew my mind. As a child with a hearing loss, I still loved music so much but it had to be loud, which wasn’t always possible without bothering other people. Sometimes listening to music could be a struggle and required concentration. I couldn’t understand the lyrics or hear the individual instruments within a song unless the volume was high. Live music never posed this issue for me: it was always loud. I loved seeing live bands at 12 and still love it beyond almost anything 13 years later. I love that feeling in your heart like your whole body can feel the music. Tim and Neil Finn are a large part behind my early development of a love for music in general. Their songs are still among the most beautiful songs I have heard and Tim Finn, especially circa Split Enz, is one of the most inventive, creative and original songwriters I have ever had the pleasure of listening to.

I read a biography Jeff Apter wrote about Silverchair years ago, despite never being a significant fan of Silverchair. But I loved Apter’s biography: it was written intelligently and with just the right amount of distance and personality. He wrote considerately of Daniel Johns' illnesses and the struggle of those young kids learning to cope with such sudden, incredible fame. This book, as well as his biography of Dave Grohl, really made me respect Jeff Apter as a biographer, which is a difficult thing to do successfully. I was therefore intrigued when I heard he was releasing a book on the Finn brothers. I know far too much about Tim and Neil to be deemed healthy, hence I wasn’t sure how much reading a biography would give me in terms of new information. I was also apprehensive because a lot of people can make it all about Neil – and make Tim look somewhat irrelevant – simply because Neil was the 'successful' one to reach fame in the United States, especially with Crowded House.

“I was endlessly fascinated by music, partly by looking at it through Tim’s eyes, because he was six years older than me and what he was doing seemed incredibly evolved.”

I needn’t have worried. Apter wrote beautifully and carefully of the entire story of the brothers – from family days in Te Awamutu to the early days of Split Enz, from the success of Split Enz after Neil joined to the eventual disbanding of the band, from Tim’s solo career and formation of Crowded House, from Tim joining Crowded House to the end of the band, and the joining of the brothers in the two Finn Brothers projects. He discussed the ups and downs of the brothers' relationship carefully and without bias.

Most importantly to me, Apter wrote of Crowded House drummer, Paul Hester’s suicide with dignity and respect: briefly discussing the aftermath on a personal level for Paul’s family, but largely concentrating on the Royal Albert Hall shows the Finns were scheduled to play the days after his death, with Nick Seymour flying in to join them. These shows meant a lot to the musicians and the fans alike, in a sharing of the grief felt after the shock that Paul was gone and that someone so lovable and funny had decided to leave this world in such a way.

When the curtain rose, a row of three mic stands had been set up in the middle of the stage, along with a solitary snare drum, a nod to the usual Crowded House set-up for “Sister Madly” and a very obvious tribute to Hester.

I have read a lot of music biographies, many of them not very good, but to anyone that has an interest in Tim Finn, Neil Finn, Crowded House or Split Enz, this is a perfect introduction to two men from a tiny town in New Zealand who have created some of the most beautiful pop songs in existence (and worn some of the craziest outfits in existence, too).

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Release date (Australia): 1 November 2009
Rating: 9.5/10

“This story didn’t begin as a book. I simply wanted to know – for myself and my family – what meat is. Where does it come from? How is it produced? What are the economic, social and environmental effects? Are there animals that it is straightforwardedly right to eat? Are there situations in which not eating animals is wrong? If this began as a personal quest, it didn’t stay that way for very long...” Jonathan Safran Foer

I am a vegetarian. Let’s just put that out there. I find there are generally two types of reactions to this statement: either the person firmly (read: rudely) states their beliefs as to why meat is necessary for good nutrition and I must be very unhealthy or the person feels the need to tell me how they “barely” eat meat at all and they’re “pretty much” a vegetarian. Either way, I hate it. I hate these reactions because I just don’t care if you eat meat. I stopped eating meat when I was eight years old because I strongly disliked it. I might have become vegetarian as time went on for the animal aspect, but it’s impossible to know. I think that’s why I never thought seriously about trying these foods again as I grew older to see if my tastes had changed. But I’ll never know if I would have the willpower to stop eating red meat, chicken and seafood solely because I don’t like the idea of eating animals.

I have often felt that my vegetarianism matters more to such people than it does to me.

I do, however, like Jonathan Safran Foer. A lot. Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close are two of my favourite books in existence. Their beauty, humour and originality still astound me each time I read them and I love recommending them to anyone that will listen to me at the bookstore I work at. I somehow managed to be unaware of his writing of this book until it arrived in the store as a new release. I was thrilled when I realised what the book was, because Jonathan Safran Foer writes in such a beautiful way that I assumed it would translate effortlessly into non-fiction and make the dry, often harsh, facts of meat production more readable. Again, I was lucky to be right about this.

Cruelty depends on an understanding of cruelty, and the ability to choose against it. Or to choose to ignore it.

Despite being a vegetarian myself, I was relieved the book was not an argument for vegetarianism – I don’t like forceful opinions or being ‘told’ what to think, regardless of whether I agree with the person or not. If anything, the book was an argument against factory farming and the way in which animals are treated in such cruel ways, but this is presented in a factual manner without much of the judgements that are usually thrown in with any discussion of eating meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy. Jonathan Safran Foer freely admits his own varying degrees of vegetarianism over the course of his life and by no means states that this is the way in which human beings should live.

On average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime.

The only minor issue with the book, for me personally, was that it was purely focused on the American meat industry, which doesn’t necessarily provide complete relevance to non-American readers. This is not surprising, given that Jonathan Safran Foer is American and researching even just Western world would be an almost impossible job to undertake. I like the fact that he allows the factory farmers, animal activists and many other people to speak for themselves.

Eating was carefree. My grandmother made that life possible for us. But she was, herself, unable to shake the desperation.

What I loved most about the book was the personal aspect; for example, Jonathan discussing his grandmother who only survived the Holocaust by eating repulsive things from rubbish bins and then her future of savouring food like she was constantly preparing for war. It was these stories interwoven within the often devastating facts that made this easily the most amazing and intelligently written discussion of eating animals that I have ever come across. I struggle to see how anyone could read this book and be the same person they were when they started it.

Food matters and animals matter and eating animals matters even more.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Favourite Author Focus: Henry Rollins

When I was 11 years old, I started to gain an interest in the music my older brother was getting into. The first song I really liked was “Come As You Are” and it’s because of that song that Nirvana is the first band I felt a passion for (other than Split Enz). I didn’t really know who Kurt Cobain was when he died; I didn’t know his music or his words that only couple of years later I would completely fall in love with. Within the next few months of this ‘discovery’ of Nirvana, my brother played me a few other songs he thought I might like; I wasn’t particularly interested in most of them. I just listened to Nirvana incessantly. Then one day not long before turning 12, I walked past my brother’s room and heard a song playing and stopped dead. I went and asked him what it was and he said, “I’m not sure. It’s the second song on that single I played you the other day. All I Want. It’s by The Offspring, I don’t remember what this song is called.” I picked up the single and checked the track listing. “Way Down the Line. It’s called Way Down the Line.” That day changed nearly every aspect of my life to come. It’s because of that band, that song, that I became enamored with music with no return. I had to know everything about them; I learned the lead singer and bass player had a record label – and I had to know all of the bands on that label. (Oh, AFI, how much amusement you have given me over the years and how you changed my life.) It’s through that obsession of knowing everything about that one band and the musicians that they associated with and the music they were associated with by others that I fell in love with a little thing called punk rock.

When I was 14 and I had access to the internet and international online sites where I could order CDs that were impossible to find (or ridiculously expensive) in Australia, I could finally gain access to numerous albums I’d been wanting for a while. I also decided I wanted to learn more about the ‘classic’ punk bands from the 1970s and 1980s. Two of these were Black Flag and Minor Threat. I learned what straight edge was, a movement which still fascinates me a decade later. But more importantly, I learned of the most recognisable ex-lead singer of Black Flag: Henry Rollins. By this time time it was 2000 and Henry was in Rollins Band and, to be honest, the first thing that made me want to know more about him was his tattoos. I became obsessed with tattoos when I was 14 and just never moved past it. Luckily for me that I did develop this obsession, because delving further into the brilliance of Henry Rollins is easily one of the best things I have ever decided to do.

In the last ten years, I am yet to come across someone whose intelligence surpasses Henry Rollins’. His musical talent, his knowledge, his ability to work with such intense energy at all times, his writing, and his love of travel are only a few of the reasons why I find him truly amazing. The fact that I can sit and listen to him talk for three hours and still not want him to stop really does show his incredible ability to speak and keep his audience interested. As a lover of books for my entire life, finding out he wrote books based on his journals was wonderful to me. The first Henry Rollins book I read in early 2001 was Smile, You’re Traveling. It was the latest of his books when I decided to order one from Amazon to see what his writing was like, but I mostly chose to order it because I loved the title. This book was largely focused on the writing and recording of Rollins Band’s last album and, despite the fact that I’m not even a huge fan of Rollins Band, I still managed to finish this book wanting to read everything else Henry Rollins had written and would write in the future. The way he writes about travelling makes me want to get on a plane then and there and go somewhere I’ve never been before and experience a whole new world. As it turns out, all of his books do this for me.

Not long after this, I read Get in the Van and Black Coffee Blues. Get in the Van became my favourite then, because I loved reading about Black Flag and the things that happened in that era - not only of Henry’s life but also of music itself. Black Coffee Blues more fully introduced me to Henry’s wicked sense of humour and even for that alone, I loved it. See a Grown Man Cry, Now Watch Him Die kind of broke my heart. Reading about Henry witnessing the murder of his friend Joe Cole was heartbreaking. You can tell he was in a (particularly) dark place in this book, but despite the anger, violence, loneliness, and pain held within this book, it only made me love Henry more. Broken Summers is my all-time favourite of his books now. I didn’t even know who the West Memphis Three were until I read it but I read the book (and far too many websites about the WM3) in two days because it intrigued me. I am also a nerd for loving this book the most, because of the mentions of Ryan Adams, Tim Armstrong, Lars Fredrickson, Dee Dee Ramone, Iggy Pop, and so many others involved in the recording of the Black Flag cover album they did for the West Memphis Three. More recently, A Preferred Blur is quite similar to Smile, You’re Traveling – Henry generally talks about travel, touring (doing spoken word shows), and all of his usual suspects: religion, music, current affairs, the Bush administration, life. His travels to Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria interested me because I haven’t travelled to any Middle Eastern countries as yet. There are numerous other books Henry Rollins has written, but these are some of my favourites. Really, I could write about him all day.

Thank you, Henry Garfield, for becoming the man that is Henry Rollins and in many ways changing my life: my outlook on music and travel, as well as my ability to push myself further to accomplish the things I feel I need to do.

“If I lose the light of the sun, I will write by candlelight, moonlight, no light. If I lose paper and ink, I will write in blood on forgotten walls. I will write always. I will capture nights all over the world and bring them to you.” Henry Rollins