Monday, September 14, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“HOW BIZARRE” by Simon Grigg (Awa Press, $NZ38)

Do you like watching car crashes?

Perhaps you like watching car crashes in slow motion?
If so, then How Bizarre, subtitled “Pauly Fuemana and the Song that Stormed the World” is the book for you. Its woeful tale is one long, slow car crash.
Somebody asked me if I was “going out of my comfort zone” is reading this book. Nearly all books are within my “comfort zone” (horrible, cliché phrase!), and there was very little in this book that made me feel uncomfortable. But it certainly is outside my general range of interest, as I am no follower of pop music (or hip-hop or rap or rock or what-have-you). I certainly have little knowledge of, or interest in, the New Zealand recording industry.
On the other hand, the tiny amount I knew about Pauly Fuemana’s one-hit wonder “How Bizarre” piqued my interest. It came out of South Auckland’s Polynesian and Maori culture, with Pauly (of mixed Nuiean and Maori descent) having originally been part of his brother Philip’s combo, ironically named the Otara Millionaire’s Club (OMC). “How Bizarre” managed to gain a big following. Between 1995 and 1997 the single was successively No. 1 in New Zealand’s pop charts, No. 1 in Oz and finally, and most lucratively, No.1 in the USA.  No New Zealand recording replicated this feat until Lorde’s Royals seventeen years later.
I’m not under the illusion that popularity means quality and (pardon me) my own repeated listening to “How Bizarre” revealed nothing but a harmless pop with a simple rhythm and a mildly ironical lyric and a reedy and slightly off-key voice out front. (The thin, reedy, wobbly voice was even worse in the follow-up “Land of Plenty”, even if it had a better lyric.)  On the other hand, massive sales say something about public taste – even if that taste is ephemeral – so into Simon Grigg’s book I plunged.
Simon Grigg is an industry insider who ran youth-oriented nightclubs and dance-clubs in Auckland and owned some recording labels. He had a hand in developing the career of the excellent jazzman Nathan Haines. At various times he was Pauly Fuemana’s promoter, mentor and adviser; and though he was never formally Fuemana’s manager, he sometimes took on that role too.
Grigg lays out his attitude to Fuemana’s story from the start, remarking in his introduction: “Pauly, born Paul Lawrence Fuemana, had in 1995 found himself at the beginning of a tumultuous rollercoaster ride for which he was neither mentally nor emotionally equipped, and in which his worst enemy was often himself.” (p.4)  
We know at once that this is going to end in tears.
Perhaps we should also be warned that we are not going to get the whole story, either, even if Grigg is an insider. There is virtually nothing in this book about Fuemana’s childhood and adolescence, which are covered in two pages. Hints that Fuemana might have been involved in youthful crime are kept vague and general. In fact there isn’t a great deal about Fuemana’s family. There are only a few snippets about the singer’s relationship with his older brother Philip; and very occasional mentions of his wife Kirstine who was, eventually, the mother of his six children. One has to assume that a number of people chose not to speak to Grigg.
Grigg’s focus is on the making of the single “How Bizarre”, how it affected the local music industry and how it affected Pauly. His take is that the record’s success was as much the work of its producer Alan Jansson and his recording techniques as it was of anything Fuemana contributed. Often writing like a promoter, Grigg talks up the importance and cultural impact of the (pop) music industry and has the alarming habit of referring to every second musician he names as “legendary”. Sometimes Pauly gets completely lost in this narrative, as when Grigg devotes all of Chapter 8 to the music publishing and recording companies in Australia whom he hustled.
There is much detail on attempting to secure lucrative contracts for Pauly with major international recording companies. There is much detail on how the eponymous song was recorded, re-recorded, refined, improved, targeted to its audience and finally released. This involves the following interesting observation:
A great single, a killer pop record – which is what a musician and producer are invariably trying to create, even if they position it as underground and alternative – almost always needs to be carefully nurtured and slowly matured, over a long period.” (pp.34-35)
There might be (and there are) great claims for “How Bizarre” as representing an underdog Polynesian culture, but in the end there is the admission that the real aim was always to produce a big-selling pop song.
I admit to finding some of the tale both fascinating and tatty. As Simon Grigg earnestly discusses how he hustled up appearance for Pauly on Australian TV’s “Hey, Hey It’s Saturday” show, or on Britain’s “Top of the Pops”, I realise at once how important this was for the promotion and sales of the record, but also how tawdry such (mimed) appearances always were.
I also, of course, take a bitchy pleasure in the unflattering thumb sketches Grigg sometimes gives of NZ showbiz people who cross his and Pauly’s path, as in the following, wherein Grigg adopts a give-with-one-hand, take-away-with-the-other approach:
Standing on our left was the Maori entertainer Howard Morrison. Notorious for his crankiness and slightly unpleasant attitude towards those he regarded as lesser beings, the ageing and recently knighted Morrison was still indisputably one of the greatest entertainers New Zealand had ever produced.” (p.183). After which, Grigg tells us that Morrison snubbed their proffered handshakes and insisted they call him “Sir Howard”.
Two things are painfully clear to me from this book, and they both contribute to my judgment that we are watching a prolonged car crash.
First, Pauly Fuemana simply could not handle his sudden (and brief) fame. The book comes close to saying that he was mentally unbalanced. He had a very short fuse and was prone to outbursts of anger. More than once he is reported as threatening people with physical violence should they cross him in even the most minor ways. While Grigg regards “Stole My Car”, the cheeky parody of “How Bizarre”, as amusing and as something which ultimately promoted the sales of “How Bizarre”, Pauly Fuemana flies into a rage, seeing the parody as an affront to his dignity. (p.99)
Pauly was also a fantasist who had the imagination of a boastful little boy. He frequently made up extravagant and silly stories about himself to impress gullible journalists. At one point he claimed to have been a hitman for the mafia, the better to build up his image as a hard man. To an Aussie journo, he said that when he toured the South Island, the Third Reich and the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses outside his motel (p.33). Obviously the fantasy here was that he was some sort of pioneering bearer of Pasifika culture. He had barely established a recording career when he was demanding huge sums of money, as he clearly thought he should now be earning it like Elvis. At his first signing with a major label, he demanded money up front and a BMW (p.62). He also had the habit of making big plans for a touring career that he wasn’t able to sustain. We see him talking big with unimpressed studio musicians – who had been hired simply to mime to one of his TV appearances – about how he is going to offer them a huge salary to become his regular backing group. Inevitably the sums Pauly did earn were quickly burnt up in big-ticket items the singer couldn’t really afford.
Then there was the matter of sex and drugs. Grigg is very, very discreet in how he reports these things, but he does retail an anecdote of Pauly being impressed by the prostitutes’ business cards that are pasted in London telephone boxes, and ordering up a bedraggled old hooker to his hotel room, because he thought she would look like the glamorous studio photo on the card (pp.147-148). As for drugs, Grigg presents himself as the forbearing and wise person who steered Pauly away from the stuff. He tells a story of trying to prevent Pauly from snorting cocaine on a launch cruise which affluent recording industry trash took on the Waitemata (pp.83-85). When eventually Pauly dies in 2010 (in his fortieth year), Grigg refutes rumours that drugs had anything to do with it and ascribes Pauly’s death to a complicated auto-immune disorder.
There are also tales of Pauly, after making a scene or indulging a fantasy, crawling back to Grigg or to other industry people and tearfully asking forgiveness for his bad behaviour. But this simply reinforces the impression of an immature kid out of his depth, and the car crash proceeds to take its course.
Second, when all is said and done, this book comes as close as the author dares to saying that Pauly Fuemana had a pitifully small talent in the first place, even as pop singers go. This may sound an extravagant claim on my part, but I beg you to read the following passages in which Grigg talks about how the recordings were produced:
Sina Saipaia, who appeared in the revised lyrics as Sister Sina, sang the backing vocals and was a dominant voice in the chorus’s duet. This had proved necessary. Pauly had a brilliant and distinctive, almost nasal rapping style, and he could talk-sing in an infectious and quite charming way, but his singing voice was not strong enough to stand on its own. In truth he was never able to sing a lyric in tune. His vocals needed to be carefully placed in the mix to hide their weakness: they were flat unless almost spoken or mixed in with another, stronger voice. This would remain a serious and vexing problem, which Alan [Janssen, the producer] had to repeatedly battle and overcome in the recording and mixing process. For some songs on the album he quietly brought in a session vocalist, whose vocals were mixed into Pauly’s to bring them back into pitch. Pauly didn’t know and the vocalist was uncredited and sworn to secrecy.” (pp.44-45)
Pauly’s delusion that he was also a skilled drummer produced only “a formless bundle of random drum sounds …. Pauly could not play a drum kit, keep a rhythm or produce a passable beat. Despite this he looked pleased with himself and seemed to think he’d done well. This was an illusion he would suffer from often. He was simply unable to see something he’d created for what it was, convincing himself of its artistic and commercial worth even if it had little or none.” (p.75)
Pauly claimed credit for a dance-mix version of “How Bizarre”, in the production of which he was not even involved. Pauly, in other words, believed that the image of himself, created by studio wizardry, really was himself.
Grigg notes briefly that after Pauly and Alan Janssen finally parted “Pauly would never again replicate, or come close to replicating, the success of his first hit song. Without Alan he was unable to write or produce a record that would enter the charts or gain radio play anywhere in the world.” (p.211)
Grigg does note a couple of occasions when Pauly produced passable performances in front of live audiences. But running through the book is the promoter’s FEAR that Pauly will get too many chances to perform live and inevitably disappoint listeners, because he was, on his own and outside the recording studio, clearly a woefully inadequate performer.
I emphasize that in noting all this, I am not being a grumpy old anti-pop-music sod, but am recording faithfully the things that Grigg says and the tone in which he says them.
Probably a book like How Bizarre could have been written about any number of pop performers who are really sold on their synthetic image, and whose real singing abilities are merely incidental to the hype. One still pities Pauly Fuemana for his delusions.

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