Love’s shadow

A piece of paper stuck to the entrance of the Coburg RSL in Melbourne reads “cash only (dark ages)”. It’s not much warmer inside than the freezing July night outside. A lonely few returned servicemen and their wives prop up the bar. At the far end of the hall is a makeshift stage, instruments and amplifiers waiting for a crowd that would never normally be here. Images of soldiers watch like sentries overhead.

The first person I see is Melbourne singer and songwriter Jen Cloher, one of the main reasons a large crowd will soon pour through the doors. The other is her partner and lead guitarist in her band, Courtney Barnett. Cloher is stirring two large vats of pumpkin and black bean soup for the soon-to-be huddled masses. “Gotta serve something to warm up the troops,” she says cheerfully.

She’s on first. Her bass player Bones Sloane, who also plays with Barnett, plays the opening notes of a new song, Regional Echo. “We’ve got a new album coming out,” Cloher says when it’s over, to polite whoops from the crowd. “We’ve got a launch coming up in a couple of months and all that jazz.”

“August,” Barnett says.

“September 8 at the Howler [in Brunswick],” Cloher corrects her sternly. “Are you my manager now too, Courtney?”

“It’d be a bit disorganised,” drummer Jen Sholakis quips.

“Imagine if Courtney was my manager,” Cloher says, the crowd giggling awkwardly. “She’d be like, ‘I’m about to play to 20,000 people in Chicago and I have to organise a gig for Jen at the Corner Hotel in Richmond.”

I MEET Cloher the next day for lunch in Thornbury. Asked why she decided to play in a decaying RSL – part of a month-long residency of sold-out gigs being staged by the independent label she runs with Barnett, Milk! Records – she says it’s a symbol of an older, inner-urban Melbourne disappearing fast under the pressure of gentrification that Barnett captured in her song Depreston.

“We see parallels between something like an RSL, which is a community-run not-for-profit voluntary organisation and Milk! Records, which is quite similar,” she says. Cloher talks about community a lot. In a dark period early last year, while Barnett was touring overseas, she volunteered with the Friends of Merri Creek, raising $25,000 to plant indigenous shrubs and trees for the native blue-banded bee to pollinate.

In a blog post published on Medium, she also wrote of the importance of mid-career artists who could no longer rely on the support of radio and media to find their own artistic community of peers and fans, slowly building the profile of Milk! Records “to the point where we can just announce a show, sell 900 tickets and no one needed to know about it beyond our mailing list and social media”.

In the same post, she also wrote candidly of the envy she felt towards Barnett, who is 15 years younger (a subject they addressed on the duet Numbers). In 2013, Cloher released her third, highly acclaimed album In Blood Memory, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Australian Music Prize, only to watch as Barnett’s career took off in the wake of the viral success of her single Avant Gardener.

For Cloher, it was a difficult time. It’s another freezing day outside. “You know, it’s winter, and I did two of these [alone], watching Courtney’s career from afar,” she says. “There were some moments where I was literally sitting at a table with friends weeping, going, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ … Most human beings would stop that relationship and go, this is actually not good for my mental health.

“But I think that would have been a really premature response based on the short-term pain of missing someone and feeling very lonely. And being on the road touring with someone – it’s not what people think it is. It’s not a holiday with a few gigs. It’s relentless lack of sleep, late nights and early mornings, and I’m amazed that Courtney came through it relatively unscathed, because it’s fucking hard work.”

I point to the wedding band on her finger, and ask if she and Barnett married overseas, when Cloher joined Barnett for a stint on the west coast of the United States. “We haven’t got married,” she says. “We feel very much married, but the law in this country won’t permit us to get married, so we’re just wearing the wedding bands and calling each other wives until the law catches up.”

In a way, their union was preordained. Barnett first saw Cloher at the Falls Festival in Hobart, when she was still in high school. “Will you marry me?” she yelled at Cloher (who says she didn’t hear her from the stage). Later, when Barnett moved to Melbourne, they became acquainted. “We led very different lives when we first met, so I don’t think either of us thought it would be a plausible option,” Barnett says.

Both have since written extensively with and about each other – love songs, some devotional; others humorous. Barnett’s Pickles From The Jar writes of their chalk-and-cheese personalities: “We couldn’t be more contrary if we tried.” It culminates with these lines: “You say Christopher, I say Walken / You love, I love Christopher Walken / I guess at least we have got one thing in common.”

CLOHER’S new album is self-titled and features her nude on the cover, back to camera, cradling her guitar. The meaning is so obvious it hardly needs spelling out. “The main objective was to be as honest as I could be. Unflinchingly so,” she says. In several songs, she addresses her jealousy and admiration of Barnett with the same emotional honesty of her Medium post.

“I checked in with Courtney when I was writing the first draft of these songs [and] she was like, just go for it,” she says. “That’s the great thing about Courtney. She gets that it’s not our relationship; it’s just a song. It’s a little picture postcard of one aspect, but no one will really ever know what our relationship is … The more open and transparent you are, the safer you are. There’s nothing unsafe about telling the truth.”

Later, I ask Barnett if a song like the lead single Forgot Myself – which features the lines, “There’s only so much you can say in a text / Reading between the lines is hazardous / A slow reply can really mess with your head / I was feeling kinda free, now I’m desperate” – caused more than the usual degree of angst around the dinner table when she got home.

“I’ve never really taken offence to it because it’s all honest,” she says. “I get the parts that might seem a bit brutal, but I think it’s very fair and intelligently spoken, which just makes me love it. So, I don’t think so. And she was pretty open about writing them around me and singing them, so I heard them develop over time as she sat around writing.”

FOR a number of years between her first and second albums, Cloher left Melbourne to care for her mother in New Zealand, who was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. The long goodbye – as the illness is colloquially known among support organisations, carers and family members – took the wind out of Cloher’s career, although it gave her many songs.

One of them, Hold My Hand, revolves around a circular conversation between her parents. Her mother asks her father how they met. He explains: “Well my dear, it was cold / Shivering, nearly snow / You wore my favourite coat.” But her mother forgets the story as soon as it is told: “Did I dear? I forgot / Did our love begin there? / How did we meet again?”

Love, Cloher says, is not merely a reward, or a balm we use to soothe. The last song on her new album is called Dark Art, and it is about selflessness: “The other side to love’s joy is shadow / Jealousy, fear, loss, anger, sorrow / If we never stay to sit in love’s shadow / A part of you will always be hollow.” It could apply to caring for an ailing parent as much as it could to supporting a partner in their career.

Surely, Cloher must have wondered when she would finally get her turn. “Growing up means suffering,” she says firmly. “The human experience is full of suffering, and yet we have this weird idea that life should never have any hard times, that it should just be this lovely rainbow paradise.” She quotes another line from her album: “Life is the great leveller. No one will escape.”

The previous night at the RSL, the band tore through a song by the Go-Betweens, Love Goes On! Uncharacteristically, Cloher forgets a few lines: “The people next door got their problems / They got things they can’t name / I know a thing about lovers / Lovers don’t feel any shame / Late at night when the lights are low / The candle burns to the end / I know a thing about darkness / Darkness ain’t my friend.”

But, as the chorus goes, love goes on anyway.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 29 July 2017

Smart collaboration bears “ego fruit”

In a world where the natural environment is under siege, it takes a shift in mindset to find comfort in the despoiled surroundings of our urban cityscapes. David Bridie, leader of enduring Melbourne chamber-pop group My Friend the Chocolate Cake, points out that often the most spectacular sunsets occur in polluted cities.

He speaks of crossing the West Gate Bridge, glancing down at the petrochemical plants and docks below. “It could be this grim industrial landscape, but from a certain point of view it’s just absolutely beautiful,” he says. And so was born a homage to the late, great Australian realist painter, Jeffrey Smart (Silver City): “We search out sanctuary, we search for stillness / We grasp at anything that’s out of the way / Sometimes the only thing to make it all spark / Is see the world through the eyes of Jeffrey Smart.”

Music entrepreneur Paul Cashmere, CEO of website Noise11.com, knew Bridie. He also knew Stephen Rogers, Smart’s archivist, and put the two in touch. Rogers was a fan of Bridie’s solo album Act Of Free Choice, though he thought “like everybody else” that My Friend the Chocolate Cake was “the world’s worst band name”.

But he loved the song – “You have to love the line, ‘shipping containers on the Cahill Expressway’” he says – and offered the group free access to Smart’s images, which are extensively used in Silver City’s accompanying video. “I don’t think they could believe we’d let them do that, but they treated them with absolute reverence.”

Towards the end of Smart’s life, Rogers convinced the artist to spend $45,000 digitising film transparencies of his work, against the wishes of some of his friends who thought it a waste of money. With the video, it paid off. “That stuff we did 20 years ago was used, and I could provide an image in five minutes.”

The song is the lead single from My Friend the Chocolate Cake’s seventh studio album, The Revival Meeting, their first since 2011’s Fiasco. Despite the long time lag – Bridie fits the group around multiple other solo projects, soundtrack work and his not-for-profit label Wantok Musik – it’s up there with the group’s best early work.

“We weren’t sure we were going to do another record, and then we were,” Bridie confesses. “Then we sort of effortlessly moved into that mode … I wasn’t sure whether we had it in us to do a really strong record. I didn’t want to be a band that just put out a record so that we could go on tour again.”

Part of the band’s initial reticence, but also drive to carry on, was provided by the passing of Andrew Carswell, whose mandolin and tin whistle playing was a crucial part of the band’s sound. Before his death, Carswell had recorded some parts with Bridie for another project, but they ended up on three of the album’s songs.

Carswell’s passing was tragic, and shouldn’t have ended the way it did. Like Bridie, he had Hepatitis C, practically an epidemic among Australian musicians of a certain age. But where Bridie is now thankfully clear of the illness, for Carswell it caused terminal complications.

Bridie explains Carswell’s own act of free choice. “He wouldn’t mind me talking about it in this way, because Andrew was going down really fast at the end; it was really awful,” Bridie says. “He was in a lot of pain and there was no future in it at all, and so he took himself up to the hills and did himself in.

“It wasn’t a problematic issue for him, it was just totally common sense. He loved living and he had a great life, and so it was actually a really beautiful death in its own way, but unnecessarily messy.” Carswell’s widow has since become active in Andrew Denton’s Dying With Dignity campaign for legal euthanasia.

Bridie says the lyrics of The Revival Meeting reflect a band that’s “at an older stage of our career and life”. He and cellist Helen Mountfort formed the band at the turn of the 1990s, when their other celebrated band Not Drowning, Waving was still a going concern.

Not Drowning, Waving was a pioneering group, championed by Peter Gabriel, and unfortunately saddled with the “world music” tag, primarily thanks to their album Tabaran, recorded with George Telek and other musicians from Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, a connection which Bridie maintains to this day via Wantok Musik.

But, he says, it took half a truck just to get Not Drowning, Waving’s gear to rehearsals, and the idea of My Friend the Chocolate Cake was that everyone could get to practice taking their instrument on a tram (except for Bridie, who played piano, meaning early rehearsals were usually at his parents’ place).

It’s not an easy time to be a middle-aged artist in an industry obsessed with youth and in a shrinking media landscape. Chocolate Cake are fortunate to have an audience that’s loyal to the point of being rusted on: friends bring other friends; parents take their children; this writer, in a very un-rock & roll move, once took his mum.

Rogers draws a parallel between the work of Bridie, his band and “Mr Smart”, as he still calls his former employer and, seemingly, everyone else. “A little bit like Mr Bridie, Mr Smart was very true to his craft, even when the particular sort of art he was making didn’t sell,” he says.

“He was a realist, and in the 1960s everybody wanted abstraction – he just couldn’t bring himself to do abstraction. He could do it, he just didn’t like it, and so he stuck to his guns, and worked away at perfecting it. A little bit like Mr Bridie, I think he’s always done what he wanted to do or what mattered to him.

“Longevity, I think, is to be admired. Working at your craft, making your music or your art as well as you can and getting better each time – that’s got an awful lot to be said for it, rather than the shock of the new and the search for the avant-garde.”

Smart was a classical buff – a lover of Wagner especially, with over 2500 CDs in his library, 300 of which he kept in his studio to soundtrack his painting. Rogers isn’t sure whether he would have liked My Friend the Chocolate Cake’s music, but is certain he would have enjoyed the tribute, which he would have called “ego fruit”.

“That was his phrase!” Rogers says. “When somebody would send him a nice fan letter or he’d get a nice reference somewhere, he’d send you a copy and say “look at this ego fruit!”

And Bridie and Smart, he says, have something else in common. “Mr Smart’s art is very hard, in terms of the avant-garde world; it’s very hard to pigeonhole. He sort of stood to one side of your mainstream art market. He was a realist working in a classical tradition and stayed true to his craft.

“David’s a little bit the same … [My Friend the Chocolate Cake] has that bittersweet melancholy with a slight twist of humour, which was often what Mr Smart’s art was about. Often, as Mr Bridie points out, celebrating what’s around us. You know, we live in the cities; we don’t live in the billabongs.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 21 July 2017

Lifeline 13 11 44

The Hummingbirds’ Simon Holmes, 1962-2017

The tragic news that Simon Holmes, founding singer and guitarist of Sydney band the Hummingbirds, passed away a week ago broke on Wednesday night, via the band’s Facebook page and a beautiful tribute by his friend, writer and fellow musician Tim Byron. Byron recalled that one of Holmes’ favourite sayings was “hurry up and wait”, a line Byron said he took from Brian Eno, but also was a key lyric in the chorus of Blondie’s hit Sunday Girl.

“Hurry up and wait” is a military phrase, meaning that a soldier has to hurry to arrive at a given destination only to then wait around for hours or days for something to happen. A lot of rock & roll is like that. An Australian band on tour in the 1980s could drive all day, flat out, to get to a venue in time for soundcheck before waiting the rest of the night to play.

The Hummingbirds’ career was true to their name and their sound; like a blur. They were here and they were gone, leaving just two albums and a clutch of glorious singles behind. They were flushed with early success, and in the years since spent a lot of time waiting to be rediscovered: a rare reformation show at Newtown Social Club a year ago with their contemporaries the Falling Joys quickly sold out.

The Hummingbirds were on the cusp of the so-called alternative music explosion, but Australian rock historian Ian McFarlane quotes the band’s stated aim was to be “the ultimate pop band”. From their first single Alimony, released by independent label Phantom in July 1987, they got pretty close. The Hummingbirds loved nothing more than harmony on top of melody on top of guitars.

They could be slightly ramshackle live, but the songs were great, even if early on they sometimes struggled to get from one end of them to the other. Still, they were a breath of fresh air, not least due to the presence of guitarist Alannah Russack and bass player Robyn St Clare, Holmes’ former partner and mother to his son Milo. The mixed-gender group stood out in a suffocatingly macho rock scene.

Their first album LoveBUZZ, released in late 1989, was named after a Nirvana single originally recorded by Shocking Blue (who were better known for their song Venus, which itself is better known for Bananarama’s version). Recorded by Mitch Easter, famous for his work with R.E.M., the album crossed over from the alternative charts to the mainstream thanks to the single Blush, which peaked at No. 19.

That might not sound like much now. But in Australia at the time it was a harbinger of what was to come, paving the way for Ratcat and, later, the Clouds and Falling Joys, all of them before Nirvana’s Nevermind rewrote the radio playbook for the rest of the 1990s. The Hummingbirds were hurried up into recording a follow-up album, va va voom, which bombed. A couple of EPs later, they broke up.

Before that, they supported INXS on a run of stadium gigs and toured Europe and North America, which in themselves added up to a lifetime’s worth of stories. Holmes wasn’t a music snob: Byron recounts his love of Yes, whose albums (along with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin’s) he once ruined by trailing them behind him on a bicycle after hearing the Sex Pistols, only to live to regret it later.

Holmes remained involved in music throughout his life, via production work with other 1990s acts including the Fauves and Custard, working at Sydney record store Half a Cow, playing in many other part-time bands, and via a weekly radio show on Sydney station 2SER, which he co-presented with son Milo.

Holmes was just 55 when he died, and there are simply no words for that. He is survived by his partner Justine and their daughter Maisie, as well as Robyn and Milo, and won’t be forgotten by anyone who loved, lived and breathed music as he played it.

First published in The Guardian, 21 July 2017

Ed Kuepper honoured with re-naming of Brisbane park

The cultural contribution of Ed Kuepper to the city of Brisbane is set to be formally recognised, with a park close to his childhood home in the south-western suburb of Oxley set to be named in his honour.

Ed Kuepper Park – the sign for which is now being made – adjoins Oxley Road and Lawson Street. The name was approved by the council after a petition by local resident Maurice Murphy quickly gathered more than 800 signatures.

Kuepper, who was born in Bremen, West Germany before migrating with his parents to Australia in 1960 aged four, co-founded the Saints with singer Chris Bailey and drummer Ivor Hay in 1973. The group wrote many of their classics in the Kueppers’ garage.

Their single (I’m) Stranded and the subsequent album of the same name, recorded in 1976, is recognised as a cornerstone of the punk movement, even though the band was quick to disavow any association with it.

The band recorded two more internationally lauded albums for EMI, Eternally Yours and Prehistoric Sounds before splitting in late 1978, although Chris Bailey continues to record and tour using the Saints name.

Kuepper went on to the post-punk Laughing Clowns and a prolific solo career, nudging the top 40 with his 1991 album Honey Steel’s Gold and its accompanying single, The Way I Made You Feel.

He is touring in October under the name The Aints, a wry moniker he used on three albums in the early 1990s.

Murphy said councillor Steve Griffiths, of Moorooka ward, had not previously heard of either Kuepper or the Saints, but had been supportive and helped him through the application process.

On top of the park, there are further moves to have the Saints’ pivotal place in Brisbane’s musical history recognised.

John Willsteed – a multi-instrumental contributor on the Go-Betweens classic album 16 Lover’s Lane – has applied for state government funding to mark the band’s second rehearsal space, on the corner of inner-city Petrie Terrace and Milton Road.

This was a share house for Bailey, drummer Ivor Hay and Jeffrey Wegener, who went on to be a virtuoso drummer with the Laughing Clowns. It became a rehearsal space for the Saints and a place to play, since no one in Brisbane would book the band.

When someone hurled a brick through the front window in protest at the noise, it was boarded up with plywood, with Kuepper daubing the words “Club 76” on it.

Despite the club’s location, directly opposite police headquarters in what was then a notorious police state, Kuepper said the club was actually shut down by health and fire inspectors.

“I know that sounds funny, but it was because we didn’t have adequate toilets – there was only one toilet downstairs. And also the fire department; there were just issues in terms of general safety.

“What brought things to a head was … There wasn’t a lot going on in Brisbane at the time, so we starting get a whole bunch of people [we didn’t know] crashing it and we started experiencing problems.

“It started to get violent, there was a degree of unpleasantness, so we would have stopped anyway, had we not been planning on moving out of town.” The band left Brisbane for Sydney, then London shortly afterwards.

The Go-Betweens have already been officially immortalised in Brisbane via the Go Between Bridge, which links Hale Street in Milton to Montague Road in South Brisbane.

Willsteed said it was time the Saints were given similar credit.

“When we look at Brisbane’s cultural history in the last 50 years, internationally, the Saints [and] the Go-Betweens, whether we like them or not, they’re the names that always come up, so I think they’re inextricably linked,” he said.

“We have some kind of international reputation, thanks very much to them, and so I think we really should acknowledge it. People come from overseas knowing that this is the place where the Saints and the Go-Betweens came from.”

Willsteed said that if successful, the application would fund a mural on a wall along Upper Roma Street, a stone’s throw from Club 76 and around the corner from the location the cover photo and parts of the film clip for (I’m) Stranded were shot.

Kuepper said he was flattered, saying he thought it was important generally that artists were recognised in any city’s history.

“When I was a kid, I liked being pointed towards where certain things happened. A friend of mine was living across the road from Tony Worsley, who was a local hero, a 60s garage singer [with The Fabulous Blue Jays].

“That kind of thing really impressed me. So yes, I do think it’s nice having little plaques around to point out that such and such a person did this at a certain place, or this incident happened here or there. Be it arts or history, I like it.”

First published in The Guardian, 10 July 2017

By Joh, it could be Trump!

For Queenslanders of a certain age, there is so much about the rise of Donald Trump that seems eerily familiar. For 19 years, his prehistoric ancestor ruled the swamps of Australia’s deep north – a hillbilly dictator who beat up protesters and confounded the media with complete gibberish while a dark web of corruption flourished behind him. Thankfully, Joh Bjelke-Petersen didn’t have the codes, or a Twitter account.

At the time, the sheer lunacy of Bjelke-Petersen seemed beyond the reach of satirists, despite there being numerous comedic imitators of Joh’s folksy, stammering idiosyncrasies. These days, it’s getting harder to convince people who weren’t there that certain things actually happened, such as police being sent to university campuses on pre-dawn raids to rip condom-vending machines from toilet walls in 1987.

When he was eventually rolled by his own party, Joh locked himself in his parliamentary annex for days, phoning Buckingham Palace seeking Her Majesty’s intervention. If that’s not enough, imagine the corpulent figure of Russ Hinze – the minister for everything – bent at the waist, peering through the keyhole with tears streaming down his cheeks, beseeching his master: “Joh! Maaaate! It’s over!”

For many of those who lived through it, though, Bjelke-Petersen’s iron-fisted rule was no laughing matter. Apologists for his regime occasionally wave away the vast and vicious corruption uncovered by the Fitzgerald Inquiry that ignominiously ended his career as a victimless crime. Those people need to read Matt Condon’s extraordinary Three Crooked Kings trilogy and count the bodies.

The truly nasty, brutish side of Joh’s regime is mostly sidestepped in Joh For PM (yes, that really happened too), a musical comedy by playwright Stephen Carleton and composer Paul Hodge. What’s striking about it, 30 years after his downfall, is how prescient it is, as though this utterly reactionary figure was some kind of seer. References and parallels to the present day are deliberate, frequent and often uncanny.

Southern journalists, for example, are described thus: “They come up here and write fake news. We need someone to build a wall between us and them!” There’s also his press secretary Allen Callaghan (a show-stealing turn by Kurt Phelan), who describes himself to his boss as “Henry Higgins to your Eliza Doolittle”. Callaghan teaches him to “feed the chooks”, telling him “It’s good TV to try to keep them confused.”

It’s as if the satire has somehow had time to catch up. Some of these songs seem to have written themselves – The White Shoe Shuffle, for example, which skewers the so-called white shoe brigade of Gold Coast developers, and which cleverly riffs on the jitterbug of Wham!’s contemporary hit Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Don’t You Worry About That, similarly, nods to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.

It’s campy, glorious fun, and if it has a weakness, it makes Joh, who’s well played by Colin Lane, look dumber than he was. As one song points out, much of his rise, from local member to minister to deputy to premier – thanks to his predecessor Jack Pizzey dropping dead of a heart attack – seemed accidental, if not divine intervention. But you don’t stay premier for 19 years without ruthlessness and rat cunning.

Joh had both in spades. Like Trump, it’s easy to make him look like a bumptious fool, but it’s perfectly possible to be a bumptious fool and a dangerous megalomaniac at the same time. To suggest that Joh was largely directed by those around him – his wife Flo (Barb Lowing, whose song Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy is a highlight); Callaghan; his pilot Beryl – is a mistake.

But Joh For PM also gets one thing right: his progeny are all around us. Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter (who described the aforementioned condom-vending machines as “despicable things that would do nothing to help prevent the spread of AIDS, but would encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon”), Jacqui Lambie, Clive Palmer, and even Kevin Rudd have all taken a lead from Joh’s dinosaur footprints.

The show was greeted with a standing ovation at The Powerhouse. Among them was Mike Ahern, who briefly replaced Bjelke-Petersen as National Party premier and whom Queenslanders can thank, along with the late police minister Bill Gunn, for having the political and moral courage to institute the Fitzgerald Inquiry that resulted in their party being cast into the wilderness for decades.

Famously, Ahern promised to implement Fitzgerald’s recommendations “lock, stock and barrel”. He didn’t survive long enough as premier to fulfil his pledge, and is an almost forgotten figure today. Described as a “sneaky Roman Catholic” by his devout Lutheran adversary – a line that had him visibly shaking with laughter – he had every right to feel vindicated, both by history and by this highly enjoyable play.

First published in The Guardian, 8 July 2017

When sorry is the hardest word

The federal health minister Greg Hunt, human services minister Alan Tudge and assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar are lucky men. The three have been spared contempt of court charges after issuing a grovelling, if belated apology to the Victorian appeals court, chief justice Marilyn Warren and her colleagues Stephen Kaye and Mark Weinberg.

The apology was reluctant: only last week the two ministers and Sukkar, via solicitor-general Stephen Donaghue QC, expressed half-hearted regrets for making potentially prejudicial remarks about an appeal that was before the court. They accused the judges of being “hard-left activists” who were “divorced from reality”. Hunt accused the court itself of being a forum for “ideological experiments”.

Only when Warren warned the trio there was a prima facie case of contempt against them did they withdraw their remarks, which were published on the front page of the Australian, and apologise unreservedly. As is so often the case, sorry is the hardest word to say.

Most reasonable people would regard an apology as more effective and more sincere when it’s not said under the very real threat of jail time, the end of one’s career and bringing down a government all at the same time. But let’s step away from this unusual case and consider the predicament of the human services minister, Alan Tudge, who might be thinking about whether he owes a second apology.

Tudge and the social services minister Christian Porter have presided over the roll-out of Centrelink’s automated debt collection system, otherwise known as robo-debt. The manifold failings of the system have been exhaustively documented. The massive #notmydebt social media campaign precipitated a Senate inquiry, which released its findings on Wednesday night, and a critical report by the commonwealth ombudsman.

Let’s recap briefly some of the system’s most egregious flaws. The income averaging method, which wrongly assumed recipients of welfare benefits to be working all year. The reversal of the onus of proof onto often vulnerable individuals to prove they did not have a debt, often necessitating hours or days spent searching for documents so old they were no longer legally obliged to have kept them even for tax purposes.

The rapid unleashing of debt collecting agencies onto those effectively accused of welfare fraud, often before individuals had been correctly contacted. The automatic imposition of a possibly unlawful10% debt recovery fee. The psychological trauma experienced by people slugged with often large debts they had no idea they owed (and in many cases did not owe).

Not to mention the overwhelmed and intimidated who paid up regardless, just to make the whole thing go away.

Then there’s the trauma experienced by equally overwhelmed Centrelink staff, whose agency has been cut to the bone by job cuts. For those in need of assistance, it means lengthy waiting times caused by inadequate resources. For those whose unfortunate job it is to eventually answer their calls, it means dealing with stressed, frightened and understandably angry people. All day.

Porter is on record as saying this debacle is not a matter for apology. “What we have is a responsibility to the taxpayer to make sure that we are paying people exactly what it is that they are dutifully required to receive and no more and no less,” he said. No reasonable person would dispute this. Unfortunately, the automated system has ensured no such thing, often seeking to take far more than the government is owed.

How much more? The Senate inquiry heard that in New South Wales alone, $18m of incorrectly calculated debt has been waived so far, out of 42,750 claims that are being reassessed. That is some stuff-up.

Any one of the many thousands of taxpayers who have been issued with a false debt notice – who have felt threatened, destabilised, stressed or depressed; who have had their time wasted; who have been made to feel like criminals for having the gall to fall back on a safety net that is designed to support them in times of genuine need – might reasonably feel they are owed an apology by an system that let them down by seeking to extort money they didn’t owe.

The former Queensland premier Peter Beattie made an art form of the political apology, deploying it as a tool of first rather than last resort to defuse the many scandals that dogged his government. This willingness to concede error kept his approval ratings high enough to allow him to eventually hand over power (some might say a hospital pass) to Anna Bligh. Before then, Beattie won three elections handsomely.

Apologies make us better people. Acknowledging and owning our failings gives us the chance to learn from them and grow, and it helps people we may have hurt to at least feel heard and understood. This applies to governments and nations as much as it does to individuals: witness the Rudd government’s apology to the stolen generations of Indigenous people.

If Tudge and Porter lack the empathy to examine their own consciences, a simple reading of the politics might help them understand why an apology might be in order. The government is well behind in the polls. Robo-debt has made victims of tens of thousands of Australians. Going after pensioners, many of whom comprise the “base” which the Coalition has endlessly pandered to, is an especially bad idea.

For now, Tudge, Hunt and Sukkar can be thankful the court of appeal has accepted their apologies and, in so doing, spared their jobs and with them their government from an ignominious demise. If Tudge and Porter remain determined not to give the people they have wrongly accused the same courtesy, they may not find them so forgiving at the ballot box.

First published in The Guardian, 24 June 2017

Sweet Lorde

I’M told I can call her Ella: Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor is quite a mouthful. The single-syllable name by which she is better known, though, is a nod to old-fashioned aristocracy, with a silent “e” on the end to add a feminine touch. Lorde – the 20-year-old New Zealander whose hands the late David Bowie once took in his as he told her that her music sounded like listening to tomorrow – is not one for airs and graces, except for her impeccable manners.

The only problem has been pinning her down for an interview that’s been scheduled and rescheduled multiple times. On the eve of the release of her second album Melodrama, Lorde, her harried publicist tells me, is being pulled in a thousand different directions. Now, though, she’s relaxed, almost effusive. “It’s truly time for this record to come out,” she says. “I don’t feel like it’s being prised from my hands or anything. I’m just excited for people to get a feel for it and live inside it.”

Yet in February, in the days before the release of the album’s first single Green Light, she had found herself so racked with anxiety she struggled to get out of bed. “I wasn’t sure if everyone was just going to turn on me and be like, this is terrible, we hate it – go back, take it back!” There had been times, she confesses, when had wondered whether she might start baking cakes for a living, or just hone her skills in the garden at home.

Second albums are notoriously difficult; all the more so when they follow successful debuts. Green Light was the first new material from Lorde in nearly four years, after her first album Pure Heroine made her a global superstar at 16. Royals, released as a single from the preceding EP The Love Club, topped the US charts for nine weeks, winning her Song of the Year award at the Grammys; the album sold 1.5 million copies worldwide from its release in September 2013 to the end of that year.

Lorde doesn’t play an instrument, and needs collaborators to help bring her music to life. On the first album, she was paired with New Zealand songwriter and producer Joel Little, and while she started work with him on a follow-up, co-writing Green Light, the creative partnership soon began to run dry. “I don’t want to be as good a writer as I was last time,” she says. “I want to have improved, and to improve across the board takes time, takes practice, it takes messing it up a bunch of times.”

She was subsequently introduced to Jack Antonoff, who had worked with Taylor Swift on her album 1989, and it was with him that Lorde found a new musical direction and energy. He also cracked the whip as Lorde battled a serious case of writer’s block: a memorable text exchange which the singer posted on Twitter features Antonoff telling her to write “beautiful soul crushing lyrics all day. nothing else … happiness is for tourist write you little fucker” [sic].

Lorde has described Pure Heroine as a portrait of the artist in her mid-teens, and she’s equally unabashed about characterising Melodrama, with its self-aware title, as a document of her life on the cusp of her third decade. She aspires to make records like Kanye West and Bowie, artists whom she says “are wonderful at building these universes to live inside, there are whole different species that populate it, and the geography is totally unlike anything in the real world. It’s so vivid and so involved.”

On Green Light, the signature elements from Royals are there – wide open spaces, with Lorde’s voice all but carrying the melody by itself – but, like the singer’s life, it accelerates into something that’s far more extroverted, and rather less innocent. The singer growls about ordering different drinks from the same bar with a lover; she knows “about what you did, and I want to scream the truth”. She says the song tapped into what she calls the “night-time energy” she had been feeding on.

Night-time energy? She laughs: “It’s a nice way of saying just staying out really late and being quite naughty.”

MAKING comparisons between Lorde and the young Kate Bush is both easy and lazy. Both were teenage prodigies (Bush wrote The Man With The Child In His Eyes, from her debut album The Kick Inside, when she was just 13; Wuthering Heights, from the same album, came a few years later), they bear a superficial resemblance to each other at the same age, and both have been the subject of tributes and parodies: “The most Wuthering Heights day ever”, in which thousands of fans around the globe dance in flowing red dresses in homage to Bush’s first worldwide smash, is now an annual event; in a sure sign that Lorde had officially made it, Royals was turned into Foil by career musical satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic in 2014.

But perhaps there are deeper parallels to be made. Asked for a song that never fails to move her, Lorde nominates Bush’s 1985 hit Running Up That Hill. The song, like much of Lorde’s music, is deceptively simple, relying on a tribal beat and heavily stacked vocals for impact. “It’s very minimal, but it sounds huge, cavernous,” she says. She speaks of its “modernity”, saying that if she heard the song drifting across a festival ground, she would be drawn to whatever new artist might be singing it.

That huge sound hints at something Lorde also aspired to in the making of Melodrama: maximum volume. “Jack [Antonoff] said to me once, ‘My favourite music is just all the stuff that you would want to play really, really loud,’” she says. The point is not to blast the listener into submission as much as it is to draw them into a song’s vortex. “You wouldn’t hear Running Up That Hill in the background and be content with it down low. It grabs you and it holds you for five minutes.”

She is an earnest student of pop, with a hunger for new sounds and classics alike. Right now, she’s enthralled by Paul Simon, for entirely different reasons to Kate Bush: Simon makes quiet music. Listening to him taught Lorde a new lesson: “He’s always existing between about a 4 and a 7 [out of 10] in terms of how much energy he’s expending. The lyrics are almost spoken – there’s such a delicacy to how he sings. He’s able to impart such joy or pain without ever really breaking a sweat.”

Like most adults three times her age, though, she is convinced her own formative years were a golden era for music. “Futuresex Lovesounds by Justin Timberlake had just come out, the first Lady Gaga record was out, Tik Tok by Ke$ha was the biggest song in the world.” Lorde perceived what few saw below pop’s shiny surface. “I think I really understood how to infer with it. It was like, oh – there’s a lot they’re not saying, but I can hear it, and I can sort of interpret it, and that’s the special stuff.”

Pure Heroine appeared at a time when many pundits were proclaiming the album dead as an artistic format in an age of downloads. Around her childhood home, though, Lorde grew up on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. “It really taught me what an album was, and drew me to that medium. A lot of my peers don’t really place a lot of value in that, but I do. That’s such a great example of building a universe to live inside.”

WHO KNOWS what Lorde is like when stays out late and gets a bit naughty, but the answer is probably like most 20-year-olds. In conversation, she’s sweet and often startlingly wise. She speaks of dealing with sudden fame “probably like being a parent, you go in blind and do the best that you can”. She remains grounded by the same things that keep most of us tethered to the planet: family, friends, and home, which remains Auckland, though she spends much of her time in New York.

Pop stars don’t have to be swept away by the current of charts and tabloids. Lorde simply gets on with her life, living as anonymously as she can without being a hermit. She mentions Frank Ocean, the R&B singer “who’s totally not a public figure at all and hasn’t played a show for this record [last year’s Blonde] and has done, like, one interview.” Her audience, she says, are more likely to be interested in what drum sounds she’s into than what she had for breakfast.

A recent New York Times article noted that when she did become aware of being noticed, she would defuse attention by raising her finger to her lips with a soft “shh” and a small, conspiratorial smile. “I still feel like so much of my personal life is mine. At the end of the day people don’t really know what I do every day, apart from when I’m going around working. I think there is an element of, ‘oh, she goes to New Zealand and we don’t really know what happens’, and I do find that really precious.”

The same Times profile, though, related a story of Lorde being kicked out of a Greenwich Village recording studio she had been commuting to after it was booked by U2. She is part of Taylor Swift’s squadron of girlfriends, along with Antonoff’s partner Lena Dunham, creator of Girls. The most surreal moments, she says, are the awards nights: “You know, the Grammys or Brits or Golden Globes, and everyone is so stupidly famous – like, ‘oh, that person was on TV when I was growing up’.”

Does she ever feel like she doesn’t belong in their company? “I don’t feel imposter syndrome because no one is under any impression I belong,” she deflects. “It’s like, ‘Who let her in here?’ Or, ‘She’s very lucky to get to be around us.’ I feel ridiculous being there, for sure, but I do feel like myself.” Like Ella.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 16 June 2017

Descent into the Maelstrom

The drama of the dysfunctional band has long been a staple of the rock documentary form. In a case of life imitating art imitating life, films from Some Kind Of Monster (which sat in on Metallica’s group therapy sessions) to End Of The Century (which chronicled the tragically bitter life and death of the Ramones) play like a reprise of the intra-band bickering so perfectly satirised in This Is Spinal Tap.

As the credits roll on Spinal Tap, Marty DiBergi, played by the director, Rob Reiner, asks bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) whether playing rock & roll keeps you a child. I was reminded of this watching Descent Into The Maelstrom, the story of Radio Birdman, as this brilliant, influential and notoriously volatile band squabble over their history and their legacy.

For the uninitiated, a brief snapshot: formed in 1974, Sydney’s Radio Birdman were, alongside Brisbane’s Saints, Australia’s first and most lasting contribution to the punk movement. Like the Saints, they had a brief and extremely turbulent existence, breaking up in in the UK in 1978 while making just their second album. Their massive influence saw them reform for the first time in 1996, only to almost immediately break up again.

But, like Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, guitarist Deniz Tek and singer Rob Younger keep getting back together, because there will always be a baying audience somewhere for them to play to. Both are intense, serious men and aside from stalwart keyboard player Pip Hoyle, few have been able to stick with them. But that volatility was key to the original six-piece band’s combustible chemistry.

If you are already a Radio Birdman tragic – and tragics will be the first in line to see Descent Into The Maelstrom, directed by Jonathan Sequeira – you’re unlikely to find out anything new here. There’s no pre-1978 live footage you won’t have seen already, and the story is familiar. It’s held together over one hour and 50 minutes by interviews with the band and close associates; thankfully, no bigger stars are lined up to obediently sing their praises.

Don’t let this lack of new information put you off, though. What makes Descent Into The Maelstrom work is the brutal honesty of the band members as the wheels fall off their so-called “van of hate”, as the Kombi driving them around that ill-fated 1978 UK tour was dubbed. It wasn’t the usual combination of drugs and booze that did them in: it was poverty, depression and poisonous internal dynamics.

Visually, the lack of new footage is compensated for by hundreds of stills and delightful storyboard artwork by bass player Warwick Gilbert (of whom a gonzo reviewer once wrote “a Warwick is something you light if you want to start a war”). Given that Gilbert was the first to leave the band – twice! – his heavy involvement indicates that Birdman’s music remains bigger than the egos that made it.

Which brings us to the music itself. Deniz Tek was a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he brought his first-hand experience of the Stooges and MC5 to Australia in 1972 (there’s a photo of him as a teenager in aviator shades, right in front of the Five’s Rob Tyner). Radio Birdman were combative, confrontational, hated by the musical establishment, and changed the lives of thousands who saw them perform.

In their slipstream came hundreds of bands, dozens of whom became embedded in the Australian rock landscape: Midnight Oil, the Sunnyboys, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Lime Spiders, the Hard-Ons, Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, and on and on. Hoyle gets the last word, and it’s a killer: “I don’t think there’s an Australian sound to Radio Birdman. I think there’s a Radio Birdman sound to Australia.”

He’s right. And few of those bands, even on their best nights, could summon the heart-attack inducing excitement of Radio Birdman in full flight. (For proof, track down the double live album of the band at Paddington Town Hall in December 1977, their last performance in Australia before departing for England: it is, in this writer’s opinion, the best live recording released by an Australian band.)

As such, what started as a cult phenomenon has continued to attract generations of converts to the cause. Descent Into The Maelstrom won’t exactly be an eye-opener to the Birdman faithful but, along with the band’s reissued box set of recordings, it’s a documentary that will ensure their legacy remains: hewn in the living rock, as Nigel Tufnel once observed.

First published in The Guardian, 10 June 2017

Cash Savage and the Last Drinks: The Zoo, 19 May 2017

When future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau wrote his instantly infamous review of the man he saw as “rock & roll future” in 1974, the more personal, vulnerable elements of his enthusiasm were drowned out by his own hyperbole.

Landau caught The Boss at a time when he needed to be reminded of why he fell in love with music in the first place, and he quoted a line from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic: “I’ll tell you about the magic that will free your soul / But it’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock & roll.” He concluded that as long as the magic still existed, his mission was to tell a stranger about it.

No one would be so foolish as to predict rock & roll’s future more than 40 years later. But I found myself reminded of Landau’s review, on a couple of levels, while watching Cash Savage and the Last Drinks tear through their set last Friday to maybe a hundred or so disciples. Savage – barefoot, black jeans, black T-shirt, greasy black hair, black Telecaster, cowboy belt – may be the best rock star we’ve got right now.

The sparse crowd is initially reserved, hanging back several metres from the stage. Savage opens the set ambitiously, with the agonised slow dance of One Of Us. Within 45 seconds, the stage has been rushed. “We are alone / We are all alone,” she croons, and instantly, we’re not. She sings in the most gender-indeterminate voice the other side of Anohni: where Anohni is most often compared to Nina Simone, Savage’s deep growl and wild shriek is like a reincarnation of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, of the Gun Club.

This comparison is not new. Any similarities, however, are supposedly accidental. In one of those strange examples of convergent musical evolution, Savage claims not to have even heard the pioneering early 1980s punk-country-blues band until she became sick of being asked about their influence, and investigated them for herself. (“Then it was like, where has this band been all my life?” she tells me later with a grin.)

The Last Drinks include some obvious traditional elements – Kat Mear’s fiddle, Brett Marshall occasionally on banjo – and on beautiful ballads like My Friend, they’d tear up any folk/blues festival stage in the world. But theirs is no Antipodean alt-country try-on. By the second song, the murderous thump-and-grind of Let Go, Savage has dropped her guitar. She’s poised on the edge of the stage, death-staring the crowd, preachin’ the blues like Pierce and Robert Johnson before her.

This is the kind of classic pose only a true believer can pull off. Ann Powers once wrote of the young PJ Harvey (circa To Bring You My Love) that she was “bent on touching rock’s magical core”. Savage does this repeatedly, particularly as her set nears its climax with the closing one-two punch of Run With the Dogs and The Hypnotiser – careening songs that tear through the room and take everybody with them.

Savage’s presence and songwriting is matched by a wonderfully sympathetic band. Joe White, one of three guitarists on stage, is a standout with counter-melodic leads alternating with sheets of noise. Mear is possibly even better: she sometimes leads, but more often hers is the band’s locomotive breath; another rhythmic force propelling the songs over the tracks laid down by Chris Lichti’s bass and Rene Mancuso’s drums. And they can all sing, often in huge chain-gang choruses.

Just to be clear about this, no, Cash Savage isn’t rock & roll’s future. Who knows if there even is one? But whether she’s aware of it or not, she carries its spirit and history within her, and as long as there are performers with her conviction and commitment around, it lives on in the present. And after a month spent running from my own dogs, which had been barking and snapping at my heels, she reminded me of why I fell in love with it in the first place, too.

First published in The Guardian, 22 May 2017

We can be heroes

“We don’t need another hero,” sang Tina Turner, in the theme song to the third instalment of the Mad Max franchise, Beyond Thunderdome. She couldn’t have been more wrong. In a world beset by tyrants, terrorism, geopolitical instability, rampant financial inequality, a resurgent nuclear threat and runaway climate change, we need all the heroes we can get. Marvel – the comic book franchise turned cinematic juggernaut – has always understood this.

Marvel was born in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War amid the rise of worldwide fascism. In the 78 years since, it has given the world unforgettable characters that have spoken to our collective anxieties, including Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and teams including The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy – enjoying its greatest successes during especially troubled times.

This weekend (May 27), Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art opens an exhibition that celebrates the history of Marvel and its transition from comic-book cult to the screen. Patrons will be able to enjoy an ongoing retrospective of films in the gallery’s two cinemas before wandering through rooms filled with fantastically detailed costumes, sets, rare memorabilia and gorgeous key-frame art works that served as the films’ storyboards.

Much of the detail will never have been seen even by the most dedicated fans. Amanda Slack-Smith, the show’s curator, points to the top of the petrol cap on Captain America’s motorcycle – a lovingly carved death’s head with octopus tentacles – which never appeared on screen. “There’s so much they do [that] nobody’s really meant to see,” she says. “But they do it because they love it.”

Captain America is one of Marvel’s foundation characters and, as Slack-Smith calls him, the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though the first film released by the franchise was Iron Man in 2008. His resurgence through the films The First Avenger (2011), The Winter Soldier (2014) and last year’s Civil War is particularly interesting as the US grapples with its own spectre of authoritarianism.

Slack-Smith says the pulse underneath all of Marvel’s superheroes is that they have a conscience. They wrestle with their abilities and place in the world and are accountable for their actions, giving them a core of integrity  an audience can relate to.  “I think we like characters that have strong moral centres.”

Of Captain America, she says: “I think the films in particular have managed to contemporise him, because those values are still needed in a modern world – they’re just harder and the world’s gotten greyer. I mean, why have we got this rise of superheroes? There’s this need for someone who can step up and do what needs to be done, but have a conscience about it.”

Ryan Meinerding, playing card no. 2, (detail); concept art for Captain America: The First Avenger. Photo: copyright Marvel.

The decade following the September 11 terrorist attacks  saw more than 50 Marvel characters adapted for the screen, accelerating as computer-generated imagery (CGI) technology began to make the Marvel Universe both more possible and plausible to viewers. In this parallel universe, Slack-Smith says, viewers are provided with the visceral release of characters who can solve end-time problems with an almighty thwack.

“I think we all feel disempowered,” she says. “We don’t feel that we can save the world, and our avenues to even impact on the world are quite stymied. But you can experience this kind of catharsis of a world with these large characters that can step in and solve things without having to deal with them in your real life. That’s the beauty of a fantasy – the fantasy doesn’t have repercussions.”

Marvel’s world taps into a need for transformation and transcendence that goes back to ancient gods: Stan Lee, the now 94-year-old creator of most of these characters alongside Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko,  was open about the world of Asgard’s basis in Norse mythology. “It’s the same need for these grand narratives and the hero’s quest,” Slack-Smith says.

The other main focus of the exhibition is Spider-Man, who first emerged in 1961, presaging the next golden era of the superhero. Elvis Presley, by then, was in the army; the Beatles were yet to conquer the world; the hot war of the 1940s had turned icy cold. A more complex cast of characters for a more rebellious, uncertain era was called for.

The Cold War brought forth a central ethical question: how do we use, or not use, lethal and potentially civilisation-ending force? High school student Peter Parker gets his superpowers through a bite from an irradiated spider; his guilt over his failure to save his uncle Ben from a burglar motivates his actions. But, as his uncle tells him, with great power comes great responsibility.

The ’60s saw a wave of disaster films filled with terrifying invading forces, often gigantic and inhuman. “Everything was bigger,” Slack-Smith says. “You know, giant ants! You can understand the need to respond with a level of might, but also the need to exercise self-awareness: yes, you can have that power, but you need to actually think about how you use it.”

Spider-Man became Marvel’s most beloved and enduring creation, according to Slack-Smith, because audiences could identify with him. “One, he’s a teenager, so those issues are relatable to a younger audience … And because he was the nerd! He was smart, he was flawed, he was picked on, and he has to wrestle with the fact that he potentially allowed his uncle to die, and that’s what guides his moral compass.”

Of course, there will always be boys to watch boy’s own adventures. But what about the super-heroines? “I cannot wait for Captain Marvel to come out,” Slack-Smith says, referring to the film starring Brie Larson, due in 2019. Captain Marvel – another post-holocaust character who emerged in 1968 – went through many iterations before the appearance of Carol Danvers as Ms Marvel in 1977, to be played by Larson.

Danvers fits a new age of super-heroines for an age of female Ghostbusters and Felicity Jones’ celebrated role in Star Wars: Rogue One. “We need to redress the balance, let’s be honest,” Slack-Smith says. “A lot of the films are drawing on stories from the ’60s, so that balance wasn’t naturally imbued. But I think there’s a realisation that girls want to watch those adventures as well.

“And if we’re talking diversity we have to talk more broadly than just gender; we have to talk about the diversity of everybody, and I think there’s a whole wave of people going, ‘I want to look at me’. Maybe that’s the other thing about Spider-Man as a character – he’s got a mask on. He could be anybody – he could be male; female; he could be an alien; he could be green.”

And, as a famous frog once said, it’s not easy being green. The Incredible Hulk serves as an expression of pure, primal rage, but like other characters in the Marvel universe, it’s a power he has to wield with care. Slack-Smith points out that Hulk’s character doesn’t exist in isolation. “The relationship between him and Black Widow takes her character in a direction that you don’t expect, even though he hasn’t changed.”

Marvel itself is a classic example of the transformation of a cult into a cultural phenomenon. “If this is part of a cycle, it’s a long cycle,” Slack-Smith says. Marvel has films scheduled through to 2020, with no sign of waning enthusiasm. “Guardians of the Galaxy II coming out just blew that out of the water,” she says. “Are people tired of superheroes? Ah, no.

“You’ve got to look at the audience. You have people our age, who have kids in their teens, and it’s a family moment. You take your kids to see the films, and you both enjoy them, and there’s a linking. The number of people who I’ve talked to who have gone, ‘oh, I can’t wait to take my son to that, my son’s really into superheroes at the moment’ – people want to relate.”

And, just like the creators of the characters who were really creating fantasy archetypes of  themselves, we all want to be heroes. Just for one day.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 26 May 2017