Robert Newman, CBGB's Gallery, New York

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The Independent Culture

No one could expect nor would hope for military precision from a bunch of liberals, gathered to honour a journalist, in a venue that helped spawn the punk revolution.

No one could expect nor would hope for military precision from a bunch of liberals, gathered to honour a journalist, in a venue that helped spawn the punk revolution. So it was no surprise that there was some delay to Robert Newman's contribution to the launch of the fighting fund for investigative journalist Greg Palast. Palast, who will be familiar to Newsnight viewers as the man in the pork-pie hat, has become a high-profile media campaigner for the left with his reports into the Enron scandal, the presidential election fiasco in Florida and his monitoring of the Bush family's financial activities. The latter issue means Palast is now having to fight legal actions made against him.

The proceedings got off to an on-message start with the Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping imploring us to put down our Starbucks and not let Bush play on 9/11 to recapture the White House. Sadly, things went downhill from there as delays, technical hitches (thus ended cartoonist Tom Tomorrow's contribution) and noise from the bar threatened to make the evening feel like an Al Gore "victory" party. The evening had an old-style pub-cabaret feel and some of the acts were suitably questionable, including the world's angriest comedian, or so it seemed, Rick Shapiro. The act involved a lot of screaming, but then he had been waiting a long time to come on stage. Surely only a duel between Palast and Matt Drudge, his fellow journalist and pork-pie wearer but political opposite, could have saved proceedings?

I had my doubts that Robert Newman could pull off his act in front of an unsettled crowd. He had to tailor his show, "From Caliban to the Taliban: 500 years of humanitarian intervention", into club-style shorts - and quickly. It was a disjointed evening and his carefully constructed material could have suffered the same fate. I have little doubt that Newman would rather have been reading from his book, The Fountain at the Centre of the World, as he will be doing for much of his US tour. It is telling that much of the dialogue is written as reported speech, not in quotes. This is, I think, indicative of where Newman is in his career, that his emphasis has moved away from talking to writing. That's not to say that his performing has suffered, however, and his messages - about the global economy, US interventionism and the trap we set ourselves by creating a PR version of the world - come out effectively in both book and show.

And that was pretty much how it was on this evening. Of course he was preaching to the converted, but thanks to the activities of Palast and film-maker Michael Moore, the converted and the aware have grown in number. Though this was not the best showcase for any performer (nor intended to be), Newman had the effect of turning the crowd's enthusiastic cries of "Woo, yeah" to every anti-Bush sentiment to a more revelatory "Yes, yes!".

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