Saturday, 21 December 2013

Straight Outta Compton!

It was in the mid 2000s that me and the wife went to the US for a holiday. We started in San Francisco, traversed the country for a few weeks and ended our trip with a couple of days in Las Angeles. On the second-last day before we flew back to Australia, I was desperate to do something that I didn't consider to be on the standard itinerary of an LA tourist.

I remembered a TV show I had seen a few years earlier - 'Journeys into the Outside', which was presented by one of my favourite British pop stars - Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker. In the show, Cocker travelled America looking at 'outsider' artworks, which were often of dubious quality, yet always accompanied by interesting stories and colourful, often desperate-sounding characters who created the works.

One of the artists I knew quite well - Reverend Howard Finster - who designed Talking Heads' 'Little Creatures' album cover, but the rest of the artists depicted in this documentary as part of the 'folk-art' scene were new to me.

Someone who stood out from the pack was Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant construction worker who built an impressive interconnecting system of towers (some of which are almost 100 feet high!) in his back yard in the LA suburb of Watts, over a 33 year period. They have henceforth become known as the Watts Towers. Rodia apparently signed his land over to a neighbour and disappeared once the towers were completed and was never seen again. This story sounded intriguing to me and a visit to the towers seemed like a perfect way to spend our last day in LA.

There was a Watts Towers Tourist Centre listed in the phone book which I rang. I explained to the friendly lady on the other end that we were currently staying in Beverly Hills, had no car and were wondering how to get to Watts. She said there was a bus that went directly to the towers but it was not operating that day and the best way to go was by car. She said I could also go via the 'Blue Line' train and get off at Watts Station before ominously adding that this was  not advisable.

The fact that LA apparently had a public transport system was news to me and I felt encouraged by this revelation. Some trepidation tempered my enthusiasm when I looked at the 'Blue Line' train route and noted that Watts Station was only two stations away from the infamous suburb of 'Compton'.

My middle-class white, suburban mind automatically conjured-up sounds and images from the classic NWA gangsta-rap album 'Straight out of Compton' and their stirring call-to-arms anthem 'Fuck the Po-lice'. The media had led me to believe that South Central Los Angeles was the home of indiscriminate drive-by shootings, prostitution and drug deals. Surely, the media wouldn't lie to me?

Further investigation of the town of Watts also revealed that it was the centre of race riots in the 1960s which basically flattened the town to the ground. I noted that the one landmark that wasn't touched during the mayhem was the Watts Towers. An image of an angry African American about to throw a molotov cocktail at one of the towers entered my mind. I could picture his expression softening as he gazed in wonder at the towers, before instantly deciding to spare the artwork and simply torch a nearby car instead.

Surely a town of art lovers couldn't be as bad as we were led to believe? We decided to head to Watts and investigate for ourselves.

The train station seemed clean and well presented like a giant public lavatory. We excitedly stepped on to a train carriage that could have been in any major city in America, but rather incongruously was in LA. It was quite a long journey and the train became full as we got nearer to our destination. I realised as we left the metropolitan centre that my wife Edwina and I were now the only white faces in the carriage amidst a sea of Latinos and African Americans.

We had been to Disneyland the day before and Edwina decided to wear her crisp-new 'Thumper' t-shirt,  as depicted in the movie 'Bambi'. The juxtaposition of this look against the 'Boys in the Hood' Gangsta chic which the rest of the carriage seemed to have adopted made me want to burst out laughing, but I knew I wasn't in any position to risk losing even an ounce of street-cred. Our journey continued without incident except for one of those deaf-mute beggars who seem to exist the world-over that offer you a card instead of the usual elaborate cover story to disguise their alcohol, drug or gambling dependency. I like those stories! Is the card simply a form of laziness, or is it legit?

We eventually made it to Watts Station. I was relieved to see the towers rising majestically from the landscape. They wouldn't be difficult to find amidst the vast blocks of single story housing that seemed to comprise the majority of Watts. After the train crowds dispersed, I was surprised by how desolate the town seemed. My first thought was that everybody was at work, possibly even taking care of the carefully manicured lawns we had just left behind in Beverly Hills.

We walked towards the towers. The town didn't feel any more threatening than some of the tougher areas of Logan City near Brisbane where I grew up. It seemed to suffer from the same lack of infrastructure that left older folks stuck in their homes and bored kids wandering the streets with nothing to do. The only noticeable difference in Watts was a smashed television set in the middle of one street and more security; with bars on the windows and multiple locks on doors. Hardly welcoming!

The road opened up into a park area where the towers were located. On the ground there was a timeline depicting the history of the civil rights movement in the area, which seemed to be presided over by the adjacent towers that stood like wise-old sentinels.

An iron fence surrounded the towers and a few other stray visitors circled the area. Presumably, there would be guided tours of the structures - but not this day. I was thankful for this - after weeks of having tour guides explain on what level we should be appreciating certain landmarks, I was happy to develop my own impressions of the towers. I didn't need any explanation to appreciate the towers - their mad glory and beauty amidst a sea of unremarkable housing was self-evident.

It occurred to me that the towers could only have been made in the time and place they had been. Tight planning regulations these days would certainly prevent any similar unsanctioned displays of creativity. It seemed like the towers were a much needed focal-point for the town, in the same way that a town square might have been in some idealised 1950's America. I'm sure Watts residents have come to appreciate the towers, but direct neighbours presumably must have lived in fear of the spires snapping off and impaling them while they slept. Luckily Rodia seemed to be confident of his abilities even though he built the towers without any plans.

Although Rodia was an Italian immigrant, the towers, to me, seemed to be similar to the work of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, even down to the intricate mosaics, which in this case consisted of broken bits of pottery and even 7up bottle caps. I could imagine him picking up stray bottle tops and bits of ceramics on the way to work, while spending his days planning the next extension to his masterpiece. For all their unique majesty, ultimately the towers seemed to be simply a way for Rodia to make more interesting use of his spare time.

I had been to England and Europe a few years prior to this American trip and had surprised my friends and relatives with some less-than-insightful comments in my postcards. One comment especially stuck in my mind. I described Big Ben as being 'not that big'. Some iconic images are so saturated by media coverage, tourist pamphlets and endless documentaries that their real-life presence can never live up to the weight of the cultural baggage they carry with them.

Our trip to Disneyland was a classic example of this phenomenon. The iconic 'Magic Castle' structure which appears on every Disney product in real life seemed tiny, faded and made out of cheap plywood... There wasn't even a magical flying fairy circling the castle and sprinkling pixie-dust like on all those DVD intros I have watched over the years. One can't help but feel a little disappointed!

The Watts Towers are increasingly being recognised in popular culture and have even appeared on an episode of The Simpson and in the 'Grand Theft Auto' video game series. Like Disneyland, the towers are also presented as 'one man's vision', but to me, the major difference is that Disneyland represents capitalism and the rise of consumer culture to please the masses, whereas The Watts Towers exist for no monetary gain and simply to remind people that there is still a bit of magic left in the world. Let's hope that their growing prominence in pop culture does not result in any of this wonder being diluted for the casual observer.

On my last day in America it felt enormously gratifying that something like The Watts Towers could still exist in modern America and even be appreciated and preserved. After all, isn't the myth of America supposed to be at least partly about the individual having a voice and being able to triumph through ingenuity and hard work? Surely, the Watts Towers are a prime example of this?

Thinking about the towers now - almost ten years later - they tend to mean something different to me. During the last decade I have moved from Brisbane to Melbourne and now feel like I understand the immigrant mindset somewhat. My move was not as dramatic as Simon Rodia's move from Italy to Las Angeles, but I do feel that if you move to a different town later in life you can never feel fully accepted by a native community and escape the culture that defined you during your formative years.

The best you can hope for is to insert some of your own culture into the place that you have moved to - Simon Rodia did this spectacularly with the Watts Towers.

I suppose the towers are 'outsider' art purely by this definition, but to me they are just 'art' and like all good art their meaning changes as the viewer grows older.

I wonder what the towers will mean to me in another ten years' time?


Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Atlantics: 'Bombora!'

I've been an avid op-shopper since I was a teenager. Some people think I visit op-shops because I'm a cheapskate.

Maybe I am.

I believe, however, that there are other motivations behind my passion to paw through other people's garbage.

As a fan of popular culture, I can't resist the allure of marvelling at outdated trends and fashions and wondering what will be considered a fad in future and what will have lasting cultural relevance.

There always seems to be a plethora of troll dolls, Rubik's cubes and suits with wide lapels on display at most op shops; sentinels of a bygone era reminding shoppers of the impermanence of existence. Once they were icons of style and modernity, but now they're relegated to ironic party and fancy dress status.

Some major trends surprisingly don't even make an appearance as second-hand attire. Where are all the 'Choose Life' and 'Go-Go' shirts from the eighties? I've never seen one in an op shop in all my years of perusal. I assume they are simply being cherished by ageing 'Wham!' fans.

I  have never seen a second-hand 'Hypercolour' t-shirt. Whoever came up with the idea of making a shirt that changes colour when you sweat was obviously a fool, but his genius was convincing a manufacturer that this was a good idea. I can only assume that the chemical reaction from the sweat caused the material to disintegrate.

The golden age of buying second-hand vinyl records from op-shops also seems to have passed. Surely, most vinyl would have been dumped in the mid-eighties when CD's became the dominant audio format?  The unexpected resurgence of vinyl-listening in the past decade has decimated the supply of the few great rock records that remained in op shops and unfortunately now all we seem to be left with are copies of 'Mrs Mills' House Party' and old Rogers and Hammerstein musicals.

It's still possible to still find the occasional unexpected classic.

I purchased the album 'Bombora' by The Atlantics in the late 90's from an op-shop. I think I paid a dollar for it. I didn't know who the group were at the time, but the simplicity of the artwork really spoke to me. The cover features a lone surfer on top of an enormous wave. It's a black-and white shot washed out in aqua with the band and album title in italics and the names of the songs featured prominently on the left-hand side. The record seemed international, but the song title 'Surfers Paradise' gave the record away as being uniquely Australian.

I instantly loved the back-cover glossary of surfing terms such as 'hang ten' and 'waxing up' and the individual description of every song on the album. In my mind they seemed to be the words of some middle-aged, cigar-chomping, plaid-suited company-man who was saddled with the task of describing something he didn't understand to kids that weren't into surfing.

The record itself came in a paper sleeve - always a sign of quality - and was made from the type of vinyl that was thick but brittle - If you bent it far enough it would snap.

The music has an endearing primitiveness to it. The whole album is completely instrumental and has an unquantifiable youthful exuberance and optimism. As you would expect from a 'surf' band, the guitars drip with reverb and the playing, whilst flashy, is not too over-the-top, with a wonderful naivety to the songs and arrangements - they even do a cover of 'Green Sleeves', which brings back pleasant childhood memories of waiting for the ice-cream man.

Drummer Peter Hood is credited as adding electronic 'gimmicks' to the album. While these are rather subtle, they do add an air of 'exotica' to proceedings. Bosco Bosonac's bass is quite prominent for an album from the early '60s and has that unmistakable 60s tone. How did they get that tone? Is it played through a guitar amp?

I didn't know it at the time, but the producer of the album, Sven Libaek went on to produce soundtrack music for underwater filmmakers Ron and Valerie Taylor, which was also used to great effect in the Wes Anderson film 'The Life Aquatic'. The Atlantics would be a perfect group for a future Anderson project. Here's hoping.

One thing that sets The Atlantics apart from other surf bands is a folky 'Greek'  flavour to their music. The guitarist, Theo Penglis is presumably of Greek descent and certainly must be responsible (at least subliminally) for this aspect of their music. My friends and I used to wonder if 'Theo Penglis' from The Atlantics was the same 'Theo Penglis' who starred in the soap opera 'Days of our Lives' in the 1980s. In the internet age, this would be an easy thing to find out, but, you know what? - I don't want to know! (I want to believe that it is)

The Atlantics are now such a part of my internal musical landscape that I don't want to know any hard-cold facts about them. I don't need to know whether they got on or not, or if they made any money. I don't need to know if the rumours are true that one member lives in Coburg (where I live) and I don't need to know how their reunion shows supporting Chris Isaak went.

When I listen to The Atlantics I'm reminded of the back cover of the Jonathan Richman album 'Having a Party With Jonathan Richman' in which producer Brennan Totten describes Richman's music as 'making him nostalgic for a time that never existed.'

The Atlantics make me feel this way! Almost everything I know about them has been produced in my own imagination and almost certainly has no connection to what things were like at the time the album was recorded - fifty years ago!

I haven't seen a copy of 'Bombora' around for years. I hope this is because people are holding on to it and cherishing it in the same way a Wham! fan might hold on to a 'Choose Life' t-shirt and not because they have all disintegrated like all those Hypercolour t-shirts.

Those Wham! fans might not fit into their 'Choose Life' t-shirts anymore, but I still listen to my 'Bombora' album.

Long live The Atlantics!



Saturday, 5 October 2013

What Happens on Tour - Stays on Tour (Part II)

There were a couple of years in the mid 2000s where I was in a bit of demand to play in wedding bands. All-up I probably played at about half-a-dozen weddings in various permutations with musical partners-in-crime that I had met over the years. We mostly played at weddings where people knew us and what to expect. This usually involved some hastily learned covers, a couple of our more sensitive and romantically inclined originals and a fair amount of good-natured ribbing of the bride and groom.

One wedding we played was an exception to this rule and involved a band I played bass in at the time called 'Gentle Ben and His Sensitive Side.' Because we had something of a country slant, an acquaintance of lead-singer Ben's thought it might be a good idea for us to play at a relative's wedding in rural Goondiwindi. They were wrong... so very wrong.

Probably the major problem for us being an acceptable wedding band was the type of material we played. We knew half a dozen covers that would be good for weddings, but our original material certainly seemed inappropriate. For a start, where most bands I had previously played in involved songs about 'boy meets girl, boy loses girl and secretly pines for her in his bedroom,' Gentle Ben and His Sensitive Side had songs about 'boy meets girl, boy loses girl and then wreaks swift and bloody revenge on the parties involved.' This, in my opinion, does not bode well for a young couple planning on starting a new life together.

It was a case of Deja-vu as we once again set off in a HiAce van for a doomed musical mission. The band Gentle Ben and His Sensitive Side consisted of three members from Biro - Dylan, Nick and myself, plus Ben Corbett from local insane garage punksters Sixfthick. Ben had a great stage presence, which the rest of us lacked and thankfully was less myopic and prone to sleepiness than previous Biro singer John. It was a combination that shouldn't have worked - yet somehow did - like bacon and maple syrup!

Accompanying us on this musical mission was a sound guy, who, for the sake of protecting the guilty, I shall simply call 'Mr McGuffin'. The journey to Goondiwindi was pleasantly uneventful. Drummer Nick had valiantly tried out a new catch-phrase 'Can we stop for a piss and a pie?' but unfortunately it had not been as successful as the classic 'I'm dying back here!' from the Biro days and has since been relegated to the mists of time. I mention it here simply for historical reasons, but also in the hope that it may one day be resurrected.

The reception was at The Royal Hotel and we arrived just in time to set up. Mr McGuffin optimistically ordered a bottle of red wine presumably to share with the rest of us, but unfortunately we were all sticking to beer. This left McGuffin to finish the bottle by himself. Little did we know that this was the nexus point of the evening and our fates had now been sealed.

We were hired to play two sets for the night and the first set initially went rather well, mainly because we played our half-a-dozen covers first up, which left the last half of the set comprised of original material, which we played to increasingly diminishing returns. The dance floor cleared and everybody slunk over to the bar - except for McGuffin, who was visibly and disturbingly animated behind the mixing desk after presumably finishing off the bottle of red wine by himself.

During the intermission, we were approached by the matronly mother of the bride who insisted that we played material in the second set that was more similar to our meager collection of covers. She adopted a threatening tone and said 'After all, I'm the one paying you!'

I've never responded well to threats, so I didn't mind so much when McGuffin stumbled over and tried to dance with the bride's mother. She was visibly repulsed by his advances and told him to 'go away'. I was secretly pleased with this unexpected turn of events.

We played our second set and failed to generate any spark of interest from the wedding guests - except this time we didn't even have McGuffin to spur us along. He was now slumped in a semi conscious state in a chair at the front of the stage with his arms hanging limply by his side. We finished the set and quickly retired to the public bar to avoid any eye contact with the bride's mother.

The public bar felt like a time warp and I imagined myself to be at my old, crappy local pub The Mansfield Tavern in about 1989. The rusty penny dropped for me at this point and I realised that young people in the country really don't care about country music and would much rather ape perceived trends in the big city such as Metal, Hip Hop and Techno. I told myself that this is at least partially the reason why we didn't go down well that night.

Some 15 year-old hood-rat approached me at this point and slurred something about drugs. I think he was trying to buy some off me. I certainly would have had qualms about selling drugs to a 15 year-old, but even moreso, if I did have any drugs, I would have taken the lot myself at this point to escape this nightmare scenario.

Of course things just got worse from this point. Someone from the wedding party informed us that McGuffin was having an altercation with another member of the wedding party and that they had some sort of personal history together. This seemed highly implausible to me. We were in the middle of nowhere! It was as if Stanley had discovered Dr Livingstone in the middle of an African savannah and then decided to get in a drunken pub brawl with him.

Unfortunately, Ben was sharing a room with McGuffin, so we left it up to him to sort out the problem. I was sharing a room with Dylan and we hastily retreated back there with a couple of drinks to calm our nerves. Once inside the room, we would have happily boarded ourselves inside, if we only had wooden planks and nails at our disposal. The feeling of antagonism from the wedding party, whether real or simply perceived, felt similar to a rampaging zombie horde. If either myself or Dylan were religious people we certainly would have prayed for Ben that night - it was either that or actually try and help the guy out - and we certainly weren't doing that!

We woke early and went to check on Ben and his unruly charge. Ben looked like he had spent a month detained in Guantanamo Bay. He wearily explained that he had managed to get McGuffin back to the room but then McGuffin had decided to redecorate by projectile vomiting on the bed and various parts of the room. Ben said he had done his best to clean it up and dispose of the sheets, but we all decided it was best if we got going as soon as possible.

As if to confirm the fact that we were in hell, the news advised us that today was the hottest temperature recorded in 60 years. This was not the best time to be in Outback Queensland.

We ate a quick breakfast and hurriedly tried to settle our account with the wedding party. We were racing to finish the transaction before the maid got to Ben's room and discovered McGuffin's atrocities. I had never seen Ben write up an invoice so quickly. He really should have been an accountant! The invoice was handed over and the wedding party decided to settle in cash. Time was running out as they counted out the money into our shaking palms. In the corner we could hear the clock ticking. Could it be that we would get away with this scott-free?

The last $50 note was about to be placed in Ben's hand when our luck ran out. Suddenly a blood curdling scream emanated from upstairs. Ben and I looked at each other. Without uttering a word we knew we had been discovered. The maid burst into the room and described the crime scene she had uncovered with an accusatory tone which I personally found offensive. After all, an establishment which acknowledges that 80 per cent of it's alcohol sales consist of Bundaberg Rum must be used to this kind of thing, right?

Ben sheepishly handed over $50 for cleaning expenses and we dishearteningly packed up our gear and prepared to leave town.

Thankfully the air conditioning worked in the van and the drive home was relatively spirit-lifting. Even McGuffin didn't look too worse for wear.

To help us forget the horrors of the last twenty-four hours we had AM radio to comfort us. 4KQ was playing the 'Sounds of the 70s Saturday' and we all took turns doing bad Mick Jagger impersonations. As this story took place in the year 2004, none of us had smart phones, so we also entertained ourselves by indulging in some obscure rock trivia. None of us could remember who sang the song 'Shouldn't We Talk it Over in Bed?' which plagued my mind for the entire journey.

I eventually got dropped off at my house in Lutwyche. It was so hot that I had to sit under the house to cool off. I sat there drinking a warm beer while watching my dog panting and drooling on the concrete with half-closed eyes...

Suddenly, it occurred to me...

I hurriedly sent a text to Dylan...

'Grayson Hugh!'

Sunday, 8 September 2013

What Happens on Tour - Stays on Tour

I wish I could say I've had a lot of requests to write about my years as part of the Brisbane music scene in the 90s and 00s - but I haven't had a single one. This is probably lucky, because I really don't remember much. It used to surprise me how much someone like Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones remembered about his career when he seemed to spend most of it in a drug-addled coma - but then I realised that journalists and the public did a lot of the work for him, when they carefully documented the rise and continued success of one of the most important bands of the twentieth century - Keith just had to fill in the blanks!

Most bands I've been in have been almost completely unheralded, so it's a lot harder for me to remember the details, even though I have remained a lot more sentient than Keith for most of my career. Whenever a book comes out about the Brisbane music scene, I always go to the index to see if I rate a mention. Alas, to this date, I have discovered nothing. I don't feel too bad about this, because briefly skimming these tomes in the bookshop has revealed a lot of the stories are basically historical revisionism dressed up as fact. To the victors go the spoils, I guess.

I sometimes wonder why bands I was a part of were never as successful as some of our contemporaries. Then I remember the answer is pretty clear. Brisbane in the late 80s and early 90s really did have something of an inferiority complex after years of being mocked by the rest of the country for being a 'banana republic' under the conservative reign of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. No bands really expected to be successful without moving to Sydney or Melbourne and even those that did often found it difficult to get attention outside of the Brisbane 'goldfish bowl'. Those that succeeded managed to either rise above their inferiority complex or use it to their advantage.

The good news is this marginalisation left Brisbane musicians free to do whatever they liked and not adhere to any pre-conceived template for success. To my mind, Brisbane, to the rest of Australia was like Canada is to the US. There is a self-knowingness and maybe a self-consciousness that could not be manufactured in any of the 'major' music centres. The Saints and Go-Betweens could only have come from Brisbane in the same way that Neil Young and Leonard Cohen could only have come from Canada.

I was in a band called Biro in about 1995 that had enough of a local following to warrant recording an EP which caught the attention of the Mushroom indie-offshoot MDS. In our typical suspicious and self-destructive manner we greeted their offer to press and distribute our EP with shrugs and puzzled inquiries as to why they would want to do that.

I think MDS were still riding the popularity of the 'grunge' movement at the time and we loosely fitted into their definition of what an 'indie' band should be. In our minds (and especially lead-singer John's mind) we were trying to create classic AM radio rock, but our musical inability and cheap lo-fi recordings were misinterpreted by MDS as an artistic statement rather than sheer incompetence.

To give us a bit of credit, though, The A&R guy from MDS, whose name was Karl, was not particularly encouraging. It felt like he considered us something of a long shot and whenever we would meet, he would always tell us how good Gold Coast band Pollen were. We were not familiar with Pollen at the time and were much more eager for Karl to start kissing our asses rather than theirs. I even remember going to a Mushroom A&R night where we saw all our mates who worked at Rockinghorse Records being plied with fine ales and free CDs, while Karl begrudgingly gave us a six-pack to drink in the corner. Surely we were supposed to be the artists making the product that these people were going to sell?

Anyway, eventually we got offered a tour of Melbourne and an opportunity to play the MDS Christmas Party. We grudgingly decided to do it, but by this time we were on the verge of breaking up, mainly because lead-singer John was disappointed that the rest of the band couldn't play his bubblegum pop as well as the 1910 Fruit Gum Company. John never did find those musicians to work with and the lesson I took from this, friends, is to learn to appreciate what you've got rather than what you don't have.

We hired a van for the journey to Melbourne. We had never travelled interstate before. Instead of hiring the standard 'rock' van of the day - a Toyota Tarago, we opted for a cheaper option which I think might have been an old Toyota HiAce. We wanted to give the impression of a cool rock band on our first interstate tour, but instead we evoked the spirit of a bus full of special education children heading out on a day trip. It didn't help our pride to have the name of the rental company spelled out in large red letters on the back of the van.

Only myself and John were capable of driving and the fact that John was severely myopic meant that we had to ask a friend Kristy to come along and help with driving duties. I believe Kristy was something of a fan of the band before heading out on tour with us, but I bet afterwards, if her fandom had not waned, then at least her respect for us as functioning human beings would have certainly diminished.

We travelled the inland route along the Newell Highway which is apparently the shortest way. John Drove until dusk until the constant squinting and adjusting of his glasses caused us to unanimously decide that someone else should take over driving duties. Kristy took over the next section of the trip and I managed to get some sleep until my shift.

I groggily awoke in the kind of sick and disoriented haze you feel after napping in the middle of the day. By this time it was about midnight and I took over driving duties with all the enthusiasm of a trucker who has been awake for days, realises he is out of meth-amphetamines and still has 500 miles left to go.

It was a couple of hours into my shift before we realised we had made a wrong turn. I still don't know how it happened, but in the pre-GPS era and with a dodgy service station map in a dimly-lit van, I suppose it could happen easily enough. We realised we were heading through the town of Hay in rural Victoria. This certainly was off the beaten track, but it was a mistake that was correctable. What was more concerning were the thousands  of eyes staring at us from the darkness and no sign of any civilisation in sight.

To this day I still have not seen that many kangaroos - and they were absolutely entranced by the headlights of our van. I learned another lesson that night - even if the road signs suggest that you travel at 80 kilometres an hour, it is probably not advisable to do this in what amounts to a large juggernaut travelling through a herd of some of the largest and fastest kangaroos I have ever seen.

Of course, I eventually hit one. An incredibly large specimen bounded from the side of the road and landed squarely on the front of the van on the driver's side. I can still recall his eye mere centimetres away from mine as we hit. It looked startled, apologetic and maybe even a little embarrassed. We ground to a halt, caught our breaths momentarily and went out to assess the damage. Amazingly, the kangaroo got up and bounded away into the darkness. I suspect  he didn't make it very far, but none of us were game to check.

I felt bad that the first thing I considered was the state of the van and the $700 excess we would have to pay, rather than the wellbeing of the kangaroo and it made me wonder if maybe I was some sort of sociopath. The looks on everybody else's faces reassured me I was not the only one more concerned with the van. John, meanwhile pretended to be asleep for the whole incident, which made me consider that maybe he was the sociopath!

The driver's side of the van was pretty beaten up and the headlight was dangling above the road like an eye that had been plucked out of it's socket. We all wondered if we could continue with one working headlight. Luckily, upon inspection I found that the light could easily just be clipped back in to position. This lifted our spirits considerably and we limped along in the darkness towards Melbourne. This time very slowly.

We were all shattered by the time we reached Melbourne from hours of fretful vigilance. Nick, the drummer, had been asleep for several hours stretched along the back seat of the van, snoring intermittently. He stirred as we entered the CBD and immediately exclaimed in an earnest voice 'I'm dying back here!!.' It was as if he had been the only one suffering on the entire journey. We all burst out laughing. Nick, as he is prone to do, had accidentally lightened the mood once again. 'I'm dying back here' is now one of Nick's catch-phrases. One of many, I might add.

Our first stop was Port Melbourne, where I think the MDS offices were at the time. We took great delight in showing Karl the damage we had done to the van. Karl, must have been considering the possibility that we were hopeless cases. This is probably the point where his fears were confirmed.

It's funny, but the thing I remember least from this tour was the shows we played. I think the night we got there was the MDS Christmas Party and as far as I can remember we played well. I remember Mushroom boss Michael Gudinski being there and looking happy enough. Someone said Kylie Minogue's manager bought a copy of our CD, which was impressive, but I would have preferred if Kylie bought one herself. We also saw Pollen play for the first time. They had a slightly better position on the bill and were certainly more professional than us. I remember liking them but being annoyed during their set when Karl leaned over and said something like 'That's my boys!' I felt jilted and wondered 'When are Biro going to be your boys, Karl?'

Later in the evening, after a few beers, someone from Pollen came over to advise that our guitarist Dylan was about to get into a fight with drummer Nick. 'Just let 'em go' I wearily advised him. I thought it might be good to sort out any lingering issues from the trip down. I still don't know who won - if anybody.

Another thing we had failed to organise in our naivety was accommodation. Again, we relied on the increasingly put-upon Karl to sort this out for us. The day after the Christmas party I awoke in what looked like a converted church with sunlight shining through the stained glass window onto my weary, bloodshot and hungover eyes. I had spent the night on the couch and had no idea how I got there. Furthermore, I didn't remember any of the people who were gathered around the breakfast table. They eyed me suspiciously. Hopefully I was polite enough to them, but I fear it may have been the start of my decade-long career as a bad house guest/occasional musician.

I often tell people that we supported The Fauves the next night, but thinking about it now, I don't think we did. I know we definitely went along to the gig which was at The Public bar and was for the launch of their 'Everybody's Getting a Three Piece Together' single. I don't think The Public Bar is a venue anymore, but I went there about a year ago and was shocked at how small the room is. At the time it seemed like The MCG.

That night, our more worldly friend David McCormack from Custard, who was our guitarist Dylan's brother, arranged for us to stay at his friend Mish's house. Someone else had bailed us out once again! I think Mish worked at The Public Bar at the time and I distinctly remember all of us huddled in our broken van outside her house waiting for her to finish her shift. We were so soft back then that we couldn't even stay 'til closing time. The piteous look on her face as she ushered us inside is etched on my brain forever.

We all went to sleep almost straight away. Mish and some of her friends stayed up until dawn partying. I was slightly annoyed by this at the time, but beggars can't be choosers. Luckily, I managed to get Mish back a few years later on a tour with a different band, by dancing in her loungeroom and playing the bongos at 3am whilst continuously slamming the front door in an attempt to fix the broken lock. I told you I was a bad house-guest!

Maybe we only played one show during our entire visit? I certainly remember having a lot of down-time and thinking what a lovely and cosmopolitan city Melbourne was. Now that I actually live in Melbourne, I hardly see as much of it as I did when I was just a tourist. That's what happens when you live somewhere - you take it for granted.

Anyway we headed back to Brisbane without incident. The faces of the rental car people were distorted in anguish as we pulled into the driveway. I've damaged rental cars since then and I don't remember any of them being as mad as these guys were. It was very unprofessional conduct on their part. Apparently, the van had been rolled somewhere near Sydney by the last people who hired it and now it had been trashed again on it's phoenix-like rise from the ashes.

For some reason I actually had $700 to pay the excess, but now the band owed me. We decided the best course of action would be to play a final gig as Biro and pull out all stops. We booked a show at Babble-On which was a popular venue in the city at the time and invited all our close friends and contemporaries to play with us. This included Custard, Cow and Robert Forster from The Go-Betweens who graciously sang a couple of our songs with us. The room was packed and it was an incredibly fun night.

I remember looking into the crowd and wondering 'Why are we breaking up again?'

Then it dawned on me 'Oh yeah - that trip to Melbourne!'

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Hanging Rock

I went on a little birthday trip to the country last weekend. My sister came down from Brisbane and I thought it would be nice for us to breathe the country air and enjoy the wide open spaces instead of listening to drunk people swearing on public transport.

My initial plan was to head to a town called Daylesford, which is about a one-and-a-half hour drive from Melbourne. I was secretly looking forward to lauding my inner-city superiority and refined sensibilities over the simple townsfolk, but I was disappointed to find a neat little village with a pleasant main street that looked like it was out of a storybook. I was also shocked to find it full of sophisticated, urbane townspeople and well-behaved children.

We had a great meal at 'The Daylesford Hotel' that was better than the average pub-fare and afterwards checked out the shops on the main street. A visit to the large antique store called 'Brick Lane' unfortunately triggered the until-now dormant 'consumerism' gene in my five year-old daughter Clementine and she became obsessed with the idea of visiting 'K-Mart' to buy some figurines. This was simply not going to happen due to the sheer impracticality of the suggestion. My wife and I decided the best idea was to get Clementine out of town as fast as possible and distract her with our other plan for the day - A visit to 'Hanging Rock'.

It was about a half-hour trip from Daylesford to Hanging Rock. I was looking forward to a coffee when I got there because I was sleepy after lunch and a nap on the freeway whilst driving seemed like a bad idea. Typically, I didn't know what to expect when we arrived at the rock, because I had done no research for the trip. When I travel I don't like to think about it - I just wanna go!

On the way to Hanging Rock I was starting to have doubts that it was the same famous landmark from the Australian movie 'Picnic at Hanging'. Surely there was more than one Hanging Rock in Australia?

As we approached, however, there was no doubt in my mind it was the right one. Hanging Rock appeared majestically on the horizon like a mini Uluru and was instantly as iconic as a still from the movie.

We had no idea how long it would take to climb. Our plan was to observe from the comfort of the cafe located at the base, but two reasons compelled us to attempt the summit, even though by this time it was getting late in the day. Firstly, you can't see much from the base unless you enjoy pondering trees. Secondly it costs $10 to even enter the park! The Ebeneezer Scrooge in me insisted that I get my money's worth.

A sign thankfully informed us that it would take a mere 50 minutes to reach the top and return. I found this surprising, as the movie suggested that I might get lost for days and return bloody and dishevelled, hallucinating and clinging desperately to life. The thought of this appealed to me, but I doubt the rest of my entourage felt the same.

The walking paths to the summit were incredibly well maintained and there was no hint of any discarded garbage that you would expect from a popular tourist attraction. It seemed like our $10 entry fee was being well invested, but I couldn't help wondering if the walking tracks, cafe, tourist centre and car park were around before the film 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' made the site famous. The novel is a work of fiction, but it's true that the rock has always been a popular spot for visitors. Something about the well-worn tracks and blue arrows pointing the direction seemed to take something away from the 'authenticity' of the experience. I would have preferred to be hacking my way through the bush with a machete, but I doubt the park rangers would have approved.

Every party that attempted the climb seemed to be aware of the movie. People were yelling 'Miranda!' at the top of their lungs - except for one boy at the summit who yelled 'I'm the king of the world'... Wrong movie, kid, but I can see where you're coming from.

I remembered from the visitor centre that Hanging Rock is quite a popular place for bands and events. There was a poster of 'Bruce Springsteen' who had played there a few months earlier. It occurred to me that Bruce seemed like a weird fit for the surroundings. Perhaps 'Miranda', the girl who tragically never returned from that fateful picnic would have found her way down the mountain if she had only followed the sound of 'Born in the USA' blasted out of a 50 thousand watt sound system?

I had considered going to see Leonard Cohen play at Hanging Rock and I think he would have been more appropriate. There is something mythical and spiritual about Leonard's music, which is the feeling that Hanging Rock can inspire if you are willing to look past the consumeristic aspects.

A few simple plaques announced some landmarks on the ascent, including a memorial to a boy who presumably committed suicide. It struck me as an odd place to try to commit suicide, as there aren't any sheer drops. It seemed more likely to me that you could just injure yourself really badly. My sister, who is a nurse, pointed out that it's really easy to kill yourself just by falling down a few steps. This was reassuring as we ascended a rocky staircase below the hanging rock that the site is named after.

At the summit there was an engraving by T. Scott from 1866. I found this impressive and it helped me consider what the surrounding land must have looked like back then. T.Scott certainly would have reached the summit the hard way! If I squinted I could probably make out that the cleared farmland surrounding the rock was once again heavily-wooded forest. If I blocked my ears I could drown out the noise of the distant freeway and imagine a time before cars.

Still, by 1866, the Wurundjeri people, who are the traditional owners of the land, would have been long-since driven out by white settlers. It made me realise the importance the area has had for them for thousands of years. How did they feel about T.Scott desecrating their sacred initiation site? What do they think about the novel 'Picnic at Hanging Rock?'... Do they like Bruce Springsteen?

On the way down I considered the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock. Surely one of the main themes seemed to involve the contrast of the young, innocent, European schoolgirls with vast, unknowable and untameable force of nature? The girls were just a blip in history. The rock will be forever a mysterious sentinel and will still be around long after we're all gone. I felt kind of sad that we tried to tame it with a cafe and visitors centre, but then I realised that one day all those things will be gone as well - but the rock will still be there!

In all of my ponderings on the way to the summit and back, I realised by the time we hit the carpark that the person who had really had the most pure experience was Clementine. She had thoroughly enjoyed herself on a visceral level. She had no cultural, filmic, literary or historical precedents to judge her experience on and still had a wonderful time.

As I went to put Clementine in her car seat, the mystical energy of the rock seemed to dissipate and the modern world seemed to once again reclaim my daughter.

"Can we go to K-Mart now and buy some figurines?" she said.

I felt momentarily disappointed - Then it occurred to me... Maybe K-Mart has a copy of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' on Blu-Ray!

Saturday, 6 July 2013

David Sedaris: Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

I've tried many artistic pursuits during my time on this planet - to varying degrees of success. I've tried to write songs, paint pictures - I even tried to direct short films. I think I learned the most about myself and the artistic process through trying to make short films.

It made me realise my strengths: I think I'm good at coming up with concepts and articulating them. It also made me realise my weaknesses: I'm not particularly good at executing these concepts and explaining to others what needs  to be done to help realise my vision.

This is not a good attribute for a director!

My final film project at university was quite a big undertaking. Unfortunately, I went into it trying to micro-manage every aspect of the production, instead of trusting others and explaining what needed to be done. I'm a bit like Kevin Rudd in this respect. Hopefully, now that Mr Rudd is Prime Minister again he's changed his ways - Unfortunately, I don't think I have.

When making a film, it's quite easy to expend a lot of effort on a good idea with the results still ending up lousy. I have experienced this first hand. It made me respect the work ethic and imagination required to make something truly 'good'. Now that I'm older, I think this experience also made me see art differently than most people my age. I should, by now, have hardened into a dismissive, crotchety old grouch - and god knows I can be at times - but I have also become more accepting and encouraging of most people that pursue an artistic path. Unlike the majority of internet trolls, I don't bother commenting on things that don't fall within my realm of interest. It's not for me to say whether 'One Direction' have any artistic merit, as I am not a ten year-old girl. I can accept this!

I've followed David Sedaris for a few years and have always found his work amusing, touching and accomplished. I'm envious of him to a certain degree. He's become part of the cultural zeitgeist through merely articulating his thoughts about his life and the world. After being unable to control a group of half-drunk university students to make a film, a solo artistic pursuit which still manages to resonate with people sounds greatly appealing to me.

I am by no means a Sedaris completist. I've read 'The Santaland Diaries', 'When You Are Engulfed in Flames', 'Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk' and have an audio-book of 'Naked'. I've enjoyed all of these. I'd love to see Sedaris do a live reading one day, because I think the gleeful campness of his delivery in 'Naked' really puts my own internal monologue to shame when I'm reading his novels.  'Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk' is perhaps a silly diversion, but elements of it turn up in his new book 'Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls.' In 'Owls', Sedaris' usual self-reflective essays are interspersed with stories in which he adopts a character. Aside from these amusing diversion, though, the rest of the book is classic Sedaris.

The book get's a respectable four stars out of five on Amazon, but I found it interesting reading some of the comments - particularly the negative ones. It feels like a lot of readers aren't willing to accept that Sedaris as a writer can develop. Certainly, his earlier work created a lot of interest because of his unique world view as an obsessive-compulsive gay man with a wry sense of humour, addiction issues and a bizarre extended family. This, combined with a well-documented stint as a Christmas elf has provided Sedaris with a wealth of material to draw from for his books.

Some of the comments in Amazon have accused Sedaris of running out of ideas, but I think these people are simply unwilling to accept that Sedaris' world view might have changed now that he is a successful 'grown-up' in his 50s. For a start, he's now famous and has managed to kick his alcohol and drug addictions which have been well chronicled in 'When you are Engulfed in Flames'. I personally think it's hilarious that now he has defeated these particular demons, his obsessive-compulsiveness and self-destructive properties have been better utilised cleaning up garbage in Cornwall, which he documents in the story 'Rubbish'.

His attitude towards his family also has softened. Instead, he seems to have channeled that vitriol towards political and social targets. In 'Obama!!!!!', Sedaris discusses being an ex-pat American and how his then home of Normandy in France assumed this meant he was bigoted and racist. Elsewhere, he adopts the point of view of a gun-toting psychopathic redneck in 'I Break for Traditional Marriage' and the persona of a dim-witted plackard-wielding Tea Party member in 'Health-Care Freedoms and Why I Want My Country Back.'

The political jibes are funny, but I concede that it's dangerous territory for someone who is known for essays about his personal life. Also, I'm sure that anyone picking up a Sedaris' book would be sympathetic to his world-view already and it reads a bit like a case of preaching to the converted. As persuasive as he can be, I don't think Sedaris is going to reform any right-wing nut-jobs any time soon. They probably would've stopped reading way before they got to these stories anyway.

In my opinion, Sedaris' real strength is seamlessly tying together disparate themes. I especially enjoyed the story 'Laugh, Kookaburra', possibly because it involved a visit to Melbourne, the city where I live, but mostly because he contrasts the feeding of a Kookaburra with a childhood memory of singing with his sister that ends with a punishment from a wrathful father. A visit to the doctor to get a colonoscopy - surely a most gruesome premise for a story! - in 'The Happy Place' is handled delicately, when a suggestion by the anaesthesiologist to think of a 'happy place' delves into a reverie about what the happiest places in his life have been.

'Day In, Day Out' is a story about a friend's seven year-old son, who has taken to copying Sedaris' to such an extent that he even starts taking notes in the same manner. This leads Sedaris to reflect on the diaries he has been keeping over the past 35 years and how his writing has evolved. It's amusing that he recalls what drugs, people, and mental states have affected the tone of his writing, but more than anything, it makes me appreciate that he treats writing like a craft in a time when craftsmanship really is under-appreciated.

I don't think Sedaris is beyond criticism, but I think some of the online negative comments on Amazon miss the point. I like the journey more than the destination and I can't think of a time when I wouldn't be interested in what Sedaris has to say. Every book is like visiting a friend and sometimes friends say things that you don't necessarily want to hear - but it's always great to see them!

Of course, I understand the appeals of nostalgia and how certain art can remind you of a particular happy memory or time of your life and how you wish certain memories would just be frozen in time forever...

Heck, after writing this blog I'll probably put a vinyl record on from my collection that is simply duplicates of tapes I owned when I was 15...

Maybe I should just go out and buy a tape player?...

Do they still make wax-cylinder gramophones?

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Lousy Neighbour

There comes a time when everyone should try living alone. I suggest doing this before you irreversibly fracture friendships with housemates, or worse, let them witness some of your more unpleasant personal habits. The beauty of living alone is that you can let these bad habits blossom. Personally, I was able to fulfil a life-long ambition of eating a whole roast chicken while watching TV in my underpants in the first week I moved into my own flat. This is something I would not have attempted in a share house.

The flat I moved into was in an old art deco building called 'Shawn' at Petrie Terrace in Brisbane. I revelled in my new-found independence even though ultimately 'Shawn' was a strange place to live. There were eight flats in total and they were all incredibly narrow, which resulted in my friends dubbing my new abode ‘the corridor’. It was like living in a shipping container with toilet facilities. In the whole time I lived there, I don’t think I had any furniture besides a beanbag. Whenever I invited people over, we ended up standing around awkwardly in close proximity to each other. Eventually this was no longer a problem, because when word got out about the way I lived, people stopped visiting. As I didn't spend much time at home in those days, the size of the unit didn't bother me. It was really just a place to store myself while I wasn't working or socialising. Also, the bedroom was a decent size and it had a great bathroom.

Although there were eight flats, there were only two parking spaces. These were assigned on a seniority basis. The car owners that had been living there the longest got the spots. As I was the latest tenant to inhabit the building, I was resigned to parking my old, increasingly beat-up Toyota Corona station wagon on the street. This was not a major concern for me, as the love affair with my first automobile was rapidly coming to an end. 

What was more concerning about the parking arrangements at 'Shawn' was the tenant who moved in under my flat a few months after I started living there. He was a council worker who drove a large yellow bulldozer. I know this because, even though I rarely saw my downstairs neighbour, he always parked his bulldozer on the street every night below my bedroom window. This would not have necessarily been a problem if the light from the top of the bohemoth was not exactly aligned with my bedroom window and he consistently forgot to turn it off. The incessant flashing yellow light made my bedroom feel like a crime scene and, to be fair, it often looked like one, but it was not exactly conducive to a good night's sleep!

I gave him the benefit of the doubt the first few times it happened, but he consistently parked the enormous vehicle in the same spot and always left the light on. Was he trying to inflict some kind of mental torture? Maybe he was trying to drive me out so he could take over the upstairs apartment. It seemed unfathomable to me that someone could drive around in such a vehicle as if it was their everyday personal mode of transport. Did he drive it down to the shops on the weekend to get the paper? It was really weird.

I started leaving notes under the windscreen wipers begging him to park somewhere else, or at least turn the light off. The notes seemed to have little to no effect, even though they grew increasingly more hostile. I rang the Brisbane City Council and asked them what I could do about the Bulldozer, but they seemed to think that as it was a commercial vehicle, there wasn't much that could be done. The final chance to have open negotiations with my neighbour on the issue were negated one afternoon when the council cracked down on illegal parking in the street and gave every car on the road a ticket - except the bright yellow bulldozer. This meant war!

The following night I was woken by the bulldozer approaching and the familiar sound of the reverse signal beeping as the vehicle lurched up on the sidewalk. The engine shuddered to a standstill but the light still flickered rhythmically outside the window like an all-seeing eye.

Incensed, I lurched into action. Tonight was payback time! I rummaged around in the dark to find something that would cover the light and send an appropriate message to my tormentor. I found the perfect thing - an old pair of underpants! I raced outside, clamoured on top of the mighty yellow beast and fastened the underpants securely to the light. I realised instantly that the underpants merely dulled the light's impact, so I searched around for something that would more successfully do the job. I grabbed an old box from near the garbage bins. This time it did the trick. Almost immediately after I had covered the light there came a round of applause from neighbouring houses. It was nice to know that I wasn't the only one who was at the end of my tether and I felt vindicated as I lay in bed that night in the bliss of total darkness.

The next morning I awoke and went outside to examine my handiwork. The box had blown off the light during the night - but it was no-longer flashing. The insulation the box provided must have caused such intense heat that the plastic light had melted. My underpants were now fused with the yellow plastic and the resulting mess looked like someone had encased a pair of underpants inside a yellow jelly mould. This wasn't something I had anticipated - yet I found it pleasing. I felt a little bit dangerous.

My feelings of hostility towards my neighbour and glee at the demise of his light did not really subside until about a week later. I saw the man in the tiny backyard of Shawn playing with his two children. I hadn't realised before that he had kids. They were laughing and running around the clothesline where it was rumoured a lot of underwear went missing at night. It occurred to me that a lot of activity in Shawn seemed to revolve around underpants. Nevertheless, a father playing with his children was quite a touching yet sad little scene. I was still mad at the guy but, irritatingly, he now seemed more human.

I think about this neighbour quite a lot. Whenever I read some mean online commentary thoughtlessly and hastily sent off into the aether without thinking of the situation or the feelings of the recipient, it reminds me of myself, thoughtlessly vandalising someone's property without having the courtesy or courage to confront the person about the issue face to face. I stopped living at Shawn in the year 2000 and since then I think people have become even more socially isolated and insensitive. Maybe the internet makes us all a bit dehumanised.

If I'd gotten to know the guy I might have found out he was just a poor working stiff who was a bit down on his luck.

Maybe he was a really good father who couldn't afford a place big enough for his kids to stay over.

Maybe he came home so exhausted from work that he never remembered to turn the light off on top of his bulldozer.

One thing I do know for certain...

He was a lousy neighbour!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Review: Trevor Ludlow and Greg Brady live at Long Play 8 June 2013

The irony was not lost on me as I entered the modest theatre at the back of the well-equipped and friendly little bar known as Long Play in North Fitzroy. A handful of the faithful had gathered to witness a show by one of rock's great enigmas, Trevor Ludlow, while a thousand kilometres away in Sydney a bunch of other 1990's warriors called Custard were celebrating the long weekend with (presumably) much fanfare and adulation.

Trevor Ludlow is still best-known as a co-writer on one of Custard's biggest hits 'Girl's Like That' (don't go for guys like us). I'm not sure what his actual contribution to the song entailed, but I presume the fabulous wealth generated from that song made it possible for Ludlow to pursue a more esoteric and certainly less commercial solo career. I personally admire his bravery and unwillingness to follow musical trends. Tonight I was eager to see if Ludlow's self-imposed exile had in any way dulled his musical sensibilities. Could rock's JD Salinger deliver another 'Catcher in the Rye?'

Last known 'live' pic of Trevor Ludlow circa 2007
A hush descended over the audience as Ludlow took to the stage. At first I was a little disappointed at how time had ravaged this once youthful vision of manhood. It was like winning a ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and discovering that the legendary chocolate maker was simply a frail and frightened old man.

Upon closer inspection, though, it was obvious that Ludlow was still fit and healthy. His once sinewy Iggy Pop-like physique had now been replaced with a body that was more muscular and toned. His hair, which is now shorter and thinner had greyed in a pleasing and dignified manner. It certainly accentuated Ludlow's striking and determined gaze as he peered mischievously at the audience.

Accompanied simply by electric guitar, Ludlow's unique, powerful voice and remarkable lyrics were allowed to take centre stage. His new material was encouragingly upbeat and his set ran the gauntlet from pop to surf, country and some unusual Syd Barrett-esque psychedelia. It was good to see Ludlow experiment with some new guitar tones and it bodes well for future releases.

Ludlow's between-song banter, while amusing, can at times be frustratingly self-deprecating. His lack of ego is part of his appeal, but when you're writing songs of his calibre the 'act' does reek a little bit of false-modesty. A touching rendition of Willie Nelson's 'Crazy' ended Ludlow's brief but enjoyable set and left the few lucky audience members baying for more... But the night wasn't over yet!

After a brief interlude, Brisbane's Greg Brady took to the stage. Brady appeared to be of the same vintage as Ludlow and legend has it that the two met when Brady bought a guitar amp off Ludlow in the early 1990s through the Trading Post newspaper. They have been firm friends ever since.

Brady's set was less song-oriented than Ludlow's and he seemed to spend a lot of time layering guitar parts on top of each other using two complicated-looking loop pedals. At times Brady's expression made it look like he was unsure how these pedals worked and was simply hoping for the best, but his professionalism as a performer left the audience guessing as to whether this was the case.

Archival photo of Greg Brady (date unknown)

I am less familiar with Brady's oeuvre than Ludlow's, but his sweet pop songs were timeless and could have easily fit into any Flying Nun bands' set list, with a subtle hint towards the songwriting of the 60s. The audience was equally as delighted with Brady's performance and I enjoyed both performers immensely.

Afterwards it would have been easy for Ludlow and Brady to simply go off to a quiet area and 'decompress' after the intensity of the gig, but ever the professionals, they were soon spotted in the front bar talking to patrons for a considerable time. I contemplated approaching the pair (especially Ludlow) to question them about their long and sometimes rocky careers in music, but I thought better of it - I have found through trial and error that it's often not wise to meet your idols, as the truth can often not live up to the myth of the man.

Later, as I was leaving, I spotted Ludlow standing alone on the street corner with his guitar and amp waiting for a cab. It made me realise what a lonely life rock and roll can be, but I was also struck by the powerful image of one man and his guitar against the world. I realised Ludlow was part of a long rock tradition and he would not have been out of place in the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s or swinging London in the 1960s.

Sometimes a guitar and the truth is all you need. Trevor Ludlow is the real deal and his legend is as true as the words on this page.

Long may he play!

Saturday, 1 June 2013


I recently broke my winning streak of not having been to the doctor for 25 years. I know going that long without seeing a doctor is nothing to be proud of (but I was). If I remember correctly, the last visit was for an ingrown toenail. This most recent visit was for something much more nebulous and difficult to define... anxiety.

The image I have of myself is of a rascally Jimmy Buffett-type - laying back in my hammock strumming my six string somewhere on a secluded desert island. There is probably a parrot somewhere nearby. The only concern I envisage myself having is how to get out of the hammock so I can mix my next Margarita.

It is a difficult thing to accept that this image is not accurate - perhaps it has become something to strive for.

I suppose this charade first began to crumble when I became a father. Over the past forty years I'm glad that I managed to fend for myself to some degree, but looking after somebody else and the constant vigilance required, as well as attempting to be something or a role model can be quite taxing.

You could say it made me slightly anxious.

Still, my wife Edwina is a stoic and reliable person and sensible often to an annoying degree. She is also a health-nut. I took comfort in this, as it made me realise that my daughter Clementine would always have somebody healthy around and it left me in a position to be a little more liberal with how I treated my body.

Several weeks ago Edwina was diagnosed with a condition that required a hospital stay, surgery and a long recovery process. For the short term at least, Edwina would no longer be the epitome of good health.

This made me anxious.

The period from diagnosis to deciding on a course of action, surgery and a brief hospital stay all happened within the course of about a week.

This was a lot to process in a short period of time... and it made me anxious.

I suppose one of the hardest things to deal with was how Clementine would react to her mother being sick. She is only four years old, but surely she would be aware of what was going on? Keeping up a brave face for her as well as dealing with the logistics of Edwina's recovery would be difficult. 

I think at this point my brain reacted in the same way as the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey did. The reason HAL went haywire was because he received two conflicting sets of instructions and had to keep the real reason for the mission secret from the crew, which in my case was Clementine. Thankfully I don't consider the crew expendable. I honestly needed to sit down, take a stress pill and think things over - but I didn't know it at the time.

Things came to a head about two days before Edwina was to go into hospital. I was sitting on the couch. As it was the day before pay day, there was nothing in the house to drink. Up until this point I think I had been self-medicating with alcohol in an attempt to relax, but this night I was completely sober.

I was feeling a bit agitated. Edwina's mother was coming down on Saturday to help look after Edwina which was a relief, but it also made me very aware of the fact that all my family lived 2500 kilometres away and I would be looking after Clementine for a couple of days by myself while also having to check on Edwina's progress.

Sometime around six pm something in my brain just snapped. I was distracting myself by playing the guitar as I often do, as well as watching the TV. I couldn't think of anything to play on the guitar and the TV suddenly sounded quite distant. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. It was almost audible and very rapid. My mind was in a feedback loop of negative thoughts. I felt a fear that was akin to being pulled out of the audience at the circus, forced to do a triple summersault on the trapeze before realising there was no net and no-one there to catch you. I was hoping none of this was apparent to Edwina, who was standing only a few feet away making dinner.

I came to the unprecedented decision to go and see a doctor. How would I get out of the house without being detected? How had I managed to make Edwina's problem suddenly something about me? What a selfish asshole I was!

Now I was really anxious.

Like some sort of late 19th century English gentry, I delicately explained to Edwina that I was feeling 'poorly' and was going to the doctor. She has never seen me go to the doctor in all the years she's known me, so she knew something was up. I knew I couldn't drive myself so I rang my brother-in-law Jeremy to drive me to the nearest doctor. He also sounded concerned but rushed straight over, god bless him!

As it was about 7pm at this stage, no normal GP clinic was open and we had to go to the 24 hour clinic a few blocks away. It was the sorriest looking bunch of people I had seen in a long time and didn't help my general mood, even though Jeremy was doing his best to keep me calm. We both looked gobsmacked at a mother ignoring her two children fighting a few feet away. The older child pushed the younger child over. The younger child started crying. The mother picked up the child that had been pushed, almost wrenched her arm out of her socket and gave her a smack... That's justice for ya!

Eventually I was ushered into a room with a weary-looking doctor who seemed to be praying for retirement and was sick of dealing with irrational mothers who punish children for being victimised. He listened patiently to my story and then prescribed me something I hadn't heard of. I probably wasn't in there for more than ten minutes.

It wasn't until I got to the pharmacist that I found out what he prescribed was an anti-depressant. I wasn't depressed, I thought (well, not any more than usual). What I needed was something to stop my heart jumping out of my chest and my head exploding. Hadn't I explained this to the doctor?

Sure enough, after taking the medication I managed to get some sleep but woke up still in an agitated state. Sure this time it was only a 7 instead of a 10, but is that really a great result? This time I was shaking and probably rocking back and forth a bit, while trying to distract my mind with some 24 hour news-cycle television. Random acts of senseless violence and an increasingly ridiculous and depressing election campaign did little to soothe my mind. I considered going for a walk, but I thought that was a step too far. The thought made me realise how those random strangers you see walking the streets at these hours must feel. I wasn't ready to become one of them. 

The thing that really eased my mind was ringing in sick for work. The beauty of working in an office that is open 24 hours is you can do this sort of thing at 3 am and then just sleep the rest of the day away. As it happens, the giddy thrill of a day off can ease even the most intense anxiety. It's such a shame that the reason was genuine and I hadn't just had too many beers with my mates.

The next day I went to what looked like a more 'respectable' clinic and luckily encountered a younger, less jaded and more sympathetic doctor who prescribed me Valium. I'm no scientician, but I know this is the sort of thing I needed, especially at this point after not having eaten for a day and only having two hours' sleep.

I took the medication as required, was able to handle dropping Edwina at hospital, looking after Clementine and generally getting on with things. It felt good to be normal again and Edwina's surgery went perfectly. It must be noted that my sister Karen was a bit of a hero as well. When she heard I was freaking-out she flew down the next day and stayed with me and Clementine while Edwina was in hospital. The weird thing is we actually had a good time for those couple of days! Karen got to do some shopping, Clementine and I 'camped out' in the living room and we went for a trip to St Kilda. 

Edwina came home and as far as I was concerned I was back to normal. My brain wanted to celebrate. It told my body that what I needed to do was drink 18 beers and 12 cups of coffee, which my body was gladly obliged to do. The old Jimmy Buffett personality was re-establishing itself.

Also, with Edwina back at home, we were delighted to be able to go to the movies together while Clementine was at Kindergarten. It was like we were dating again! It just so-happened that the new Star Trek film was starting. I was overjoyed.

We sat in the dark with our 3D glasses, ice cream cones and a giant coca-cola which, as usual, I drank most-of before the movie even started. As I sat watching the dramatic opening sequence of the film, I could feel dread building up inside of me and my heart beginning to race.

"Of for fuck's sake!" I said to myself. "I've been waiting three years for this film! Now get out of the stupid volcano, Spock and make with some witty dialogue!"

The weird part about anxiety is it seems to have almost nothing to do with your rational mind and luckily this time I was able to beat it into submission and enjoy the rest of the film. 

The old anxiety did rear its ugly head on one more occasion, though. I went to Brisbane for a bit of relaxation and had a panic attack on the flight. It seemed to revolve around the fact that I wouldn't be able to get to my pills between the safety instructions and cruising altitude. Again, this makes no logical sense, but when we got to cruising altitude I felt slightly better.

One of the reasons I went to Brisbane was for my father's book Launch. Mum and dad thankfully picked me up from the airport when I wasn't expecting them to and we went back home to get ready. About two hours before the launch 'The Fear' struck again. Was I subconsciously trying to sabotage family members' major life events?

I grudgingly told my parents what was up and they booked me in at the local GP where I got my prescription refilled and insisted on a blood test to make sure there was no physical cause for my anxiety. Luckily, we were all able to make dad's book launch and I took a certain delight in watching him sweat-it-out on stage instead of me.

When I returned home I got the results of the blood test. Everything was normal and I was glad to discover that technically I'm not even an alcoholic. The doctor took great delight in noting that one of the things I was tested for was syphillis. I also found this hilarious, but was also secretly disappointed that I obviously don't elude a 'ladies man' machismo akin to the likes of Errol Flynn.

So I'm not taking any medication at the moment for the condition and hope to keep it that way. My strategy is to just try and cut down on coffee and don't drink as much. Maybe I'll even curtail my planned visit to the cinema to watch the reportedly brutal and vomit-inducing remake of Evil Dead.

Looking back, I find the whole thing puzzling. The incident makes me embarrassed. It feels like such a white middle-class problem, especially when I consider I'm not living in a stressful environment, there are no military drone planes flying overhead everyday and my physical health is probably better than most people my age.

Maybe that's the problem -  I live in such a stress-free environment that when something truly stressful comes along I can't cope and the walls of Xanadu come crashing down. I think I might hire someone to poke me with a stick at random times during the day to keep me in a state of constant vigilance and a low level of anxiety; then when something truly stressful happens I'll be ready for it.

The best scenario would be for nothing stressful to happen to me for the rest of my life, but this seems unlikely. I have taken a few lessons away from the experience and have certainly become a little humbled. The best thing to keep in mind is that you can talk yourself out of these states and I am especially grateful to have understanding people around.

It feels good to be normal again - well at least what I consider normal. I think I'm ready to go back to my hammock now and strum my guitar for a while. Maybe I'll skip the Margarita...

Ok, maybe just one!

Monday, 13 May 2013

Day Dreaming in the Outfield

I was walking back to my house the other day past the local primary school. It was lunch-time and the children were playing various games in the large, open fields. The voices of the children merged into a cacophony. I was surprised when one of the voices seemed to rise above the background noise and addressed me directly.

"Hey mister, can you get the ball for us!"

I looked around and noticed an AFL ball on the ground a few feet away from me. It had somehow managed to be kicked over the ten-foot fence that surrounded the school. I was impressed that a small child could manage such a feat.

"Sure, thing," I said, trying to act casual.

A wave of fear washed over me as I picked up the ball. I could see a dozen anxious young faces eager for me to lob the ball back to them over the fence. These children were unaware of my chequered past when it came to ball sports and my particular ineptitude when it came to eye-hand co-ordination.

I decided the best course of action was to simply throw the ball over the fence. There would be no way that I could successfully kick or punt the ball, so a casual throw towards no child in particular seemed to be the best course of action. Luckily, on this occasion, my deception worked. The ball was successfully caught by one of the school children and I continued on my way, with my pride in tact and the children none the wiser when it came to my secret sporting shame.

The incident did drag up painful memories from my own childhood, though. The deepest emotional scar that I've received from playing ball sports was probably in early high school when my class was playing softball as part of a PE lesson. I worked out early that for ball games like softball or cricket, the best place for the non-sporting types was somewhere in the outfield where the ball seldom went. On this one occasion I was unfortunate enough to be day-dreaming in the outfield when a stray ball came my way and I was the only one in a position to catch it.

The familiar feeling of dread enveloped me as the ball approached. It seemed to eclipse the sun as it hurtled ever closer to my catchers' mitt. A brief glimmer of hope and a feeling of self-worth overtook me as the ball came in contact with the soft leather glove. Unfortunately, my reflexes were not fast enough to secure the ball and it bounced from the glove and landed on the ground with a sound which, to me, sounded like a large iron prison door slamming.

The resulting cries from my team-mates has forever been etched on my brain and is recalled every time I find myself in a position of failure.

"GOOD ONE LUDLOW!!!" they all shouted mockingly in unison.

I looked up and noticed my classmates rolling their eyes, sticking their tongues in their cheeks and moving their limbs uncontrollably, as if to imply that I suffered from some motor-neurone disorder - at least that's what we'd call it in this more enlightened, politically-correct era.

Unfortunately, things just got worse from this point. Already enraged, I picked up the ball and lobbed it at the pitcher. For some reason, I thought throwing the ball using a catcher's mitt would work. It didn't. Instead or travelling through the air in a gentle arc back towards the pitcher, the ball instead travelled vertically downward as if thrown by some alien who was unfamiliar with how earth's gravity worked.

The resulting spectacle from my teammates was an amped-up version of the previous scene. Limbs were flailing wildly, eyes rolling uncontrollably and tongues contorting faces into ghoulish and frighteningly inhuman caricatures. The teacher didn't jump in to defend my honour and instead just shook his head in disbelief. To be fair, I can't blame him, but the whole incident seemed to signal the end of my sporting career. The iron door seemed to have slammed forever.

Strangely, my strategy of hanging around at the back of the pack actually worked on one occasion. This time the game we were playing was touch football and I was hanging around mid-field with hands in pockets, probably imagining what it was like to be an astronaut, whilst getting the occasional disapproving stare and shake of the head from the coach.

Suddenly, someone from the opposing team broke through a hole in our defences and headed towards our goal-posts. This was my chance for greatness! I didn't have any ball skills, but I knew the one thing I could do was run. Everyone else gave up, but I thought to myself 'I can do this!' and ran confidently against the opposing team-member. Several feet from the touch line I managed to intercept the rogue opposition player and stopped him from scoring a try.

There was a triumphant cry from my team-mates and a weeping and gnashing of teeth from the opposition. I briefly discovered what it must feel like to be a sporting hero and the even more giddy thrill of gloating at another team's misfortune. I was made man of the match. It was my one-and-only sporting triumph.

I think I learned the wrong lesson from this victory. I probably should have learned about the value of working as a team and always trying to do my best, but instead I learned that just by hanging around, sometimes you can just be in the right place at the right time.

At some point in my teenage years I gave up day-dreaming about being an astronaut and instead pursued the more realistic career path of becoming a rock star. I applied the lessons I learned from sport in pursuing this goal. Instead of aggressively becoming a virtuosic singer-songwriter and dynamic stage performer, instead I took up the bass guitar, as nobody else seemed to want to play this instrument and it seemed an easy way to get into a band. Looking back now, I suppose you could say it was a search for an identity, but it's hard to know even in hindsight what the motivation is for most adolescents. All I know is that I was comfortable with this new identity, but I was still standing in the outfield.

I still play music and write songs, but it doesn't define me in the same way as it used to. I know I'm a man in my forties and the outward mask that I display to the world does not fit as well as it used to. Maybe that's why I write this blog, as a way of finding a new identity to hide behind. Even then, being a blogger is hardly the most ambitious writing assignment. I'm still waiting patiently in the outfield, but maybe this time I have the skills to catch the ball.

One thing I've learned over the years is that everybody plays a character to varying degrees. People try and project an image of themselves that they are comfortable with other people seeing. The reason for this is simple:

Everybody drops the ball occasionally, but nobody wants to do it in public.