Graham Reid | | 2 min read
Constructed like a song-cycle about the urban struggle and real world in New Zealand's emotional and physically assaulting 21st century, this is a short but finely focused collection by Auckland singer-songwriter Greg Fleming.
It is just 10 songs in fewer than 40 minutes . . . and it opens with the already weary-sounding City's Waking Up.
This isn't some golden dawn in the glamorous City of Sales but a thorazine shuffle from the halfway house past home-going clubbers then into some shapeless and time-frozen netherworld by the harbour . . . and time spent just waiting.
And waiting for . . .?
But – if we allow the notion of a day-in-the-life concept – we get characters reflecting on doing life different (and not ending up driftless on the title track) through the meds and depression, one of those headline-grabbing and pointlessly tragic local robberies (the character-driven short story of Liquor Store) and . . . and . . .
This is a world where the lost and losing still have a cellphone with images of a former partner's face available as a ghost of the past; where the promise of life is reduced to memories and advertisements holding out the unattainable; where the way of surviving is the numb of medication; where living in a caravan park doesn't mean you don't understand the greater political agenda which has relegated you there; where “minimum wage in a tourist town” (Sick of This Shit) is a fate to be grateful for . . .
This is strong stuff . . . and the band name should alert you to the agenda, which is blunt in the distortion and fury on Sick of This Shit (astutely referring to the media culture of brief self-serving engagement with "the poor" for a soundbite).
But, over this collar-grabbing album, these issues and stories are leavened by Fleming writing each piece as discreet snapshots.
He shuffles perspectives from the musical move between intimate (the acoustic folk but narrow-range telephone-line vocal on the bitter Life is Short) with his ability to change gear between filthy fury at what this country has become . . .
And on to a melancholy empathy for his characters.
The Working Poor band here deserve recognition too: Andrew Thorne and John Segovia (guitars), Nick Duirs (keyboards), bassist Mark Hughes and drummer Wayne Bell.
References then: Waits, John Prine, Mose Alison, Guthrie, Sam Hunt and the now rare social conscience of New Zealand Herald journalist Simon Collins (whom Fleming shares a massive media company with) are all on a similar chessboard . . . and this Monopoly board of winners and losers in this game of chance we call life-as-we-know-it.
Fleming's lyrics of Liquor Store should appear in any new collection of contemporary New Zealand poetry -- alongside Ghost Town by Miriam Clancy. Because within 3.32 he tells us more about the pathetic and stupid “kids from around here” doing a dumb robbery with a “Made in China” plastic gun than any uni-poetry post-grad could ever do.
A not-even-news story delivered acoustically from within a character: “Closing time they break in the door . . . third time, six months . . . this ain't no ATM, you want money then try working on the weekend . . . I do what they say, name-tag on my shirt, they start calling me Sanjay, till's open . . . I live up on the second floor, my mother, my brother, my wife and three kids . . . TV came out to the store . .”
The final song Our Little Gang For Sophia is another miniature: this about a friend who committed suicide. In this instance it is a famous friend (“You know her name”) but he underplays the connection to give it universal meaning: “Our little gang . . . will never be the same . . .”)
And it just, tellingly, falters to a halt because the silence beyond is incomprehensibly sad.
Very rarely is the personal so poetic, the poetic so personal . . . and the personal so political.
These are postcards from a place you don't want to be.
But they are from where you and I live.
And Fleming/Working Poor bring them home . . . uncomfortably.
And available from here.
And it's cheap. As you might expect.
There is more about Greg Fleming at Elsewhere here