Monday, May 23, 2016

Wintec Press Club: Dave Dobbyn edition

The Wintec Press Club lunch is held three times a year by the Wintec School of Media Arts and is hosted by Steve Braunias. The star-studded guest list always features big names in politics, media, entertainment, sport, business, law and the arts. I have no idea who they were on Friday 13 May, the first lunch of 2016, because I was away being famous at the Auckland Writers Festival that afternoon. So Joshua Drummond was subbed in off the bench. Josh stood in for me in August 2014 when Rachel Glucina was the guest speaker. His entertaining report on her performance was cruel but, I am told, fair. It has been read 8477 times so far.

The speaker this time was Dave Dobbyn. Josh reports:

After all were sat down, and food served, Steve Braunias took the stage and launched into opening remarks. He started by bidding a heartfelt “good riddance” to Mark Weldon, which was greeted with toasts and cheers by all.

He also undertook a recap of previous Press Clubs, saying that their theme had been that journalism is doomed. “It’s United Video,” Steve said. “But good news, we’re all saved – we’re merging with Video Ezy.”

There was something dark and apocalyptic about Steve at the beginning of this Press Club, like a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher coming down from a ketamine high. He talked of the strange nihilism that seems to be overtaking America, with the unstoppable rise of Donald Trump: “New Zealand operates in a vacuum, too. She’ll be right, envy, accusations, a profoundly felt sense of moral outrage.”

He spoke too of public shaming, citing Richie Hardcore’s recent Twitter trial, judged and executed by a bunch of self-righteous first-stone-throwing assholes (my words, not Steve’s) and Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. He made the point that mass public shaming used to be the preserve of journalists; now the power has been democratised and handed to social media.

More important matters! Best-dressed man went to Steve Newell, for irony reasons. Best-dressed woman (“nothing that would make Lizzie Marvelly baulk!”) went to “a vision in white”, Amanda Gillies. More shout-outs: the Two Dons – Rowe, expert on dope; Brash, cannabis reformer, who had graciously accepted Steve’s invitation to Press Club with the remark that Dave Dobbyn was an “odd choice”.

Then came the feature presentation. Dave Dobbyn, “a household name, like Jif”, drew a huge laugh. I missed a bit of this part because I had other stuff on my mind. The pudding had just come out and at least two people at my table hadn’t even touched theirs. Fuck’s sake! Just send it back if you don’t want it! I hate seeing food wasted, especially good food, and I wish that it wasn’t such a social faux-pas to ask people for their leftovers. Giovanni Tiso was at my table and he’d gotten stuck into his pudding. Good on him. I’d never met Gio IRL [editor’s note: older readers, this means “in real life” as opposed to online] and, like everyone else I’ve ever scrapped with on Twitter and then actually met, he was a charming and altogether lovely person. I liked him immensely. Hi, Gio.
Dave Dobbyn! Steve’s parting remarks were that he’d seen DD Smash – or was it Th’ Dudes? – while the friendly bloke next to him popped amyl nitrate under his nose. “I love you, Dave,” Steve said.

Dave welcomed us all to our perch at the Ferrybank Lounge, next to the Waikato River, “a slow meandering eddy of loveliness and arsenic”. He started with talk of the early days, playing four forty-minute sets of covers a night, in booze barns, and later, a 62-school tour. He took a moment to mourn the booze barns – “Roll on the automatic car!” he said, to cheers – and said how this experience taught him and his band to love what they were doing and be really good at it. He was endearingly unselfconscious about this last bit, which was brilliant, because it’s quite rare in New Zealand hear from someone who is good at what they do and who quietly, modestly, knows it.

He talked about an early rivalry with Hello Sailor, whom his bands measured themselves against, the manager (label?) who took 32 years to figure out how to pay them, refusing to play for a bunch of communists in Wellington, and being called a bunch of faggots for their outrageous outfits in the early days. “The whole New Zealand music industry was under the cultural cringe” he said. His band’s power to overcome was that they knew how to build something that was strong – simple, structurally sound, pop songs.

Dave touched on his influences, speaking of the “clawing despair, sadness, and loss in towns like Whakatane” – this being back in the Muldoon 70s and Lange 80s. He said “Welcome Home” was written at a pivotal time for him, politically, and that it hinges on the fundamental acceptance that in New Zealand we are all immigrants. He’s a Bernie Sanders fan, it turns out.
Speaking about the nexus of entertainment and journalism, Dave was enlightening. He made the point that journalism and music are both industries that have been savaged by the digital revolution but which are finding new ways of surviving – and sometimes even thriving – in a new, turbulent ecosystem.

Procrastination reared its head: “The bugbear of my songwriting is finishing.” He said of journalists that you’ve got to get used to talking to people at 7 a.m. who think they’re really funny.
There is, he said, “an expectation that as writers and musicians, we’re not going to get paid”. The trick is not to do it for the pay, and hopefully the pay will come. “It’s mostly for love that we make records. It’s not about money. It’s about culture.” He warned, for both writers and musicians, that the quality of what you can do can easily be overshadowed by crap. Unsurprisingly, he was critical of both the mechanisation of the music industry and the dross it produces: “I find it really difficult [listening to the music] in a mall – it all sounds like a truck reversing.”

It was time for a tune. An exclusive Dave Dobbyn concert! He played a sweet song with a tricky melody – I don’t know the name of it, but it was a 25th anniversary song for his wife. Steve approached the stage and retreated quickly when Dave suggested another song – this one was “Singin’ Through the Storm”.

Question time! A few good ones, too. About the Queen Street Riots: “Muldoon had just been booted out, thank God, and there was lots of tension. There was no security, people were drinking cask wine. I think the fatal mistake was the [police’s] decision to turn the whole thing off, and then the heavy-handed reaction of the riot squad.” Dobbyn had called the riot squad wankers: “I wish those riot squad guys would stop wanking and put their little batons away.” He said that the judge let him off charges of inciting the riot because the dictionary had multiple definitions of the word “wanking”, some less offensive than others.

I asked if he ever got sick of waiting on hold to any government agency, given that he’s responsible for at least 50 per cent of their on-hold music. He said that fortunately he didn’t have to wait on hold because other people tended to manage taxes and such for him, but he’d had the occasional person suggest that they’d strangle him if they had to hear “Loyal” one more time down the phone.

Steve returned to the lectern with tears in his eyes, the hints of darkness from before quite gone. His closing remarks started, as they always do, with “What have we learned?” The conclusion was that we had learned that – unlike with Rachel Glucina, whose philosophy was “If people want shit, let’s get the biggest shovel we can find” – that quality is important, that truth has value.

“I just want some truth,” Dave had said at some point in his speech. I’ll be cheesy for a seconds and proclaim that I think this impulse is what brings both the best songwriting and the best journalism.
Dave was a fantastic speaker. He was no orator, but it worked. Like the river outside, his voice meandered, sometimes mumbled, but there was power there, and often poetry would appear in the stream, like the flash of a leaping fish.

The last song Dave played was “Be Mine Tonight.” It had the entire audience clapping and singing along. Press Club can occasionally tend towards cynicism and the ironic appreciation of decay and despair, but this time it was joyous, starry-eyed – a bunch of New Zealand’s top media talent yowling along to New Zealand’s foremost pop singer, the way we all do. A slice of heaven.

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