Yarrabah gets the band back together

Yarrabah, an Indigenous community about an hour’s drive south of Cairns, is sometimes referred to as paradise by the sea. Although only just over 50 kilometres from far north Queensland’s tourist capital, it’s isolated, separated from the city by Trinity Inlet on one side and, on the other, dense tropical rainforest that covers the rugged Murray Prior range. The town was not connected to electricity until the 1960s.

Before that, Yarrabah was an Anglican mission, established in 1893. Over the ensuing decades, Indigenous peoples from across far north Queensland and South Sea Islanders were forcibly relocated here to live alongside the local Gunggandji people. Families were torn apart: the town’s mayor, Ross Andrews, estimates around 80 percent of the community is comprised of the Stolen Generations and their descendants.

Unsurprisingly, Yarrabah continues to struggle with the knock-on effects of profound intergenerational trauma. But in recent years there’s been something of a sea change in the outlook here, brought about by a revival of a relic of the town’s colonial and missionary past: the Yarrabah Brass Band, which was originally established in 1901 to accompany church hymns.

After the mission’s closure at the turn of the 1960s, by which time Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones had gained as much of a foothold here as anywhere else in the world, the brass bands withered. In 2012 a local, Greg Fourmile, revived the concept with the support of jazz musician James Morrison, then the artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival, who pioneered the Yarrabah Band Festival in 2013.

Fourmile says that even though the bands were imposed upon his people, along with Christianity, they became a source of pleasure and nostalgia: many townsfolk had fond memories of their uncles and grandfathers performing. Reinvigorating the concept was a form of paying tribute. “A lot of the members had family in prior brass bands leading up to today, so for them it’s like carrying that torch.”

Now, though, the brass – which is better able to weather the effects of the tropical humidity – has been augmented by woodwind instruments, and even guitars and drums in a nod to the power of rock & roll. “It’s a stage band,” Fourmile says. “It’s come full circle now, so you’re chucking in your guitars and everything else, making it more inclusive.”

The new artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival is singer Katie Noonan, and the 2016 Yarrabah Band Festival was the biggest yet staged, headlined by a genuine icon in Archie Roach and 21-year-old Jessica Cerro, better known as Montaigne. On Saturday, there were close to 3000 people here, and while the majority were locals, there were whitefellas too; visitors from the surrounding towns of Cairns, Innisfail, the Atherton Tablelands and beyond.

It’s a reflection of the community’s desire to present a new, more open face to the world: In the 1970s and ’80s, a permit was required to visit here. Andrews says the festival brings energy to the community, and that the music is a source of healing. “There’s been trauma here for many, many years, and the music and performing arts that the festival provides is a kind of a therapy.”

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Archie Roach, Yarrabah Band Festival. Photo: Andrew Watson

This is Roach’s story, too. Introducing Took The Children Away, he stops to address the crowd. “People ask me if I get sick of singing this song,” he says. “And I say, no, because every time I sing this song, I let a little bit of that pain go. And one day all that pain will be gone, and I’ll be free.” Roach’s voice has a guttural edge these days, but he still reaches for spiritual highs; when he hits the chorus of the song that made him famous, voices in the crowd shriek and cry out.

More upbeat are the Bay Boyz, a local R&B trio chosen by Noonan to support the headliners after a Battle of the Bands the night before. It featured 20 acts (“I’ve never seen a mic stand so low,” says Noonan, marvelling at the performance of a four-year-old girl). The Boyz are serious – they even have a manager, Zane, who pushes a card into my hand and speaks of bigger things.

They also have the pipes, the moves, and are beside themselves with excitement at this first career break: Michael “Mikey Boi” Yeatman says this is only their second performance. The Bay Boyz exemplify a town that’s turning its gaze outward – their music is inspired by all the big names of their chosen genre – but as brothers Benjamin (BJ) and Thaddeus (TJ) Johnson add, country music is what they grew up on.

Later, a group of nervous school children, on stage for the first time, perform a song by local rap artist Dizzy Doolan. The words are trenchant and speak of ongoing problems in the community. Doolan says the kids could have chosen any song, but chose this one: “Stop the violence, make a change / Stop the violence, be on your game / Stop the fighting, stop the drugs / Put your hands up, show me some love.”

The song was workshopped by Doolan as part of the community’s artist-in-residence program, led by traditional owner and songwriter Elverina Johnson – who is also the mother of BJ and TJ – alongside the Briscoe sisters, Deline and Merindi. The workshops, Johnson says, “aim to inspire the kids to tell their own story about where they come from and who they are”.

The results are giving Yarrabah a sense of pride. Earlier in the evening, the night’s MC David Hudson opened proceedings with a cover of Paul Kelly’s Special Treatment. The song’s final verse sings of the far-reaching consequences of cultural dislocation and disempowerment: “I never spoke my mother’s tongue / I never knew my name / I never learnt the songs she sung / I was raised in shame.”

Deline Briscoe says that culture of shame is slowly being broken down. “Our parents were looked down upon and told to be ashamed of things, especially anything to do with culture, and then it just kept getting passed along,” she says. “So seeing these kids get up and dance and do songs in their language, and being proud of that, is really groundbreaking.

“You hear it less these days. When I was growing up, ‘shame’ became more like a swear word, we weren’t allowed to use that word in any context, even if we were joking. Now, everyone is just building each other up.”

First published in The Guardian, 8 November 2016

Singing in Gunggandji: the Wiggles at Yarrabah

In a classroom of excitable primary school children in Yarrabah – an Indigenous community that lies across Trinity Inlet, an hour’s drive south-east of Cairns – language and culture teacher Nathan Schrieber makes a grand entrance in traditional garb, using biraba, or clapsticks, to call the kids to attention.

“Are youse ready?” he asks. “Are you set? Then we’d better get some Wiggle action in here!”

And from a side entrance, in they come – Anthony (in blue), Lachy (purple), Emma (yellow) and Simon (red). Schrieber asks the children to make them welcome. With that, the Wiggles bursts into Rockabye Your Bear, a song the children have been learning for weeks in the local Gunggandji dialect.

Most of them already seem to know all the songs in English, as the band runs through a short set of hits. Emma leads the Whirlybird. Simon, of course, does Simon Says. Captain Feathersword charges in, and falls over. For the finale, everyone stands to Do The Propeller.

A short time later, the band returns and sings Rockabye Your Bear again, this time in Gunggandji, accompanied by Schrieber, his sister Elverina Johnson, elder Uncle Daniel Murgha and the children. It’s being filmed for the upcoming TV series Wiggle Wiggle Wiggle, which will stream in more than 190 countries. One of the kids cheekily asks Anthony if he likes fruit salad.

The Wiggles are here in Yarrabah at the behest of singer and the Queensland Music Festival artistic director, Katie Noonan, as an adjunct to the fourth annual Yarrabah Band Festival, which will be headlined on Saturday by Archie Roach and Jessica Cerro, better known as Montaigne.

There’s also the Yarrabah Brass Band, a crucial part of the Yarrabah story: a revived relic of its history as an Anglican mission. The brass band was first established in 1901 to accompany hymns (brass, unlike other instruments, being better able to withstand the sauna-like humidity of the tropics).

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The Wiggles and Katie Noonan with staff and students from Yarrabah State School and Nathan Schrieber (far right). Photo: Andrew Watson

The music stopped when the mission folded in the 1960s, but in 2013, QMF got the band back together and, despite its colonial heritage, it’s proven a popular initiative. Meanwhile, the Yarrabah Band Festival has become a platform for local artists, with nearly 20 bands – drawn from a community of roughly 2,500 people – competing on Friday night for the chance to join the headliners. One act will be selected by Noonan.

But even though the Wiggles aren’t performing at the main event on Saturday, they are, by some distance, the biggest stars to ever appear in Yarrabah. “From the day that we found out, the kids, you couldn’t contain them,” Schrieber says, adding that the children were sceptical. “They were jumping out of their skin. We told them, ‘The Wiggles are coming’, and they were like, ‘The real Wiggles? They’re coming here?’”

Mostly, he says, they knew more about them than he did. “They wanted to know about Emma and Lachy. Actually, they beat me, they were like, ‘Yeah, they’re married’. I didn’t know that.”

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Yellow Wiggle Emma with Katie Noonan and children from Yarrabah State School. Photo: Andrew Watson

Then Johnson came to him with the idea of translating Rockabye Your Bear for the kids to sing back to the band. “We just sat down one afternoon and translated it,” Schrieber says. “The funny thing is, in our language, we didn’t mean it to match, but it almost fits rhythmically, exactly the same. It’s amazing how these two separate languages and cultures have come together.”

It’s part of the Wiggles’ job to smile, but today the smiles are perhaps wider than usual. Like rock stars – one of the band’s sound technicians wears a T-shirt mocked up to mimic the Ramones’ famous logo, another depicts the band crossing “Wiggly Road” – the band don’t often get the chance to get this close to those they entertain. “I reckon we’ll remember this more than any entertainment centre gig,” Lachy says.

Simon adds: “Intimacy with the children is something you can’t recreate. It’s incredible being up on stage in front of 10,000 people, but just having a couple of hundred children there, singing and joining in with us is pretty wonderful.”

First published in The Guardian, 4 November 2016

Suzanne Vega: two hits are better than none

Fame froze Tom’s Restaurant in time. Situated on 2880 Broadway, a block from the Cathedral of St John the Divine in Manhattan’s affluent, intellectual Upper West Side, its pink-on-blue neon signage formed many of the exterior scenes for Seinfeld, and it’s been coasting on its reputation as a pop-culture tourist attraction ever since. Framed photographs of the cast line the walls.

Peruse the menu and it’s casually noted, almost as a footnote, that the restaurant was also the setting for a song by “Susan” (Suzanne) Vega: the indelible, acapella Tom’s Diner. The misspelling is not lost on its author. “Whenever I go there I still have to pay for my whole breakfast, and they’re still kind of bad with the service,” she says, rather tartly. “So between you and me, I prefer the Metro Diner these days.”

Vega remains best known for two songs: Tom’s Diner and Luka, both top-10 US hits from her breakthrough 1987 album Solitude Standing. Some with longer memories may recall Left Of Centre, from the soundtrack of John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink, or Marlene On The Wall, from her self-titled debut. These numbers still turn up on hit compilations from the ’80s.

But for those who have kept up, they are merely the underpinning of a rich, remarkably consistent solo career by a songwriter’s songwriter. In the years following the punk explosion on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Vega was at the forefront of the Greenwich Village folk revival, but her drily delivered, acutely observed visions of New York are as gritty as her late friend Lou Reed’s.

She tours constantly, partially because the streaming age means she has to “for cash flow”, but also because she loves it: “I started performing when I was 16; it’s what I do.” She also continues to make records, the latest being Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers, the tragic American author whose Southern Gothic classic The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter captivated Vega as a teenager.

Some of the songs were written decades ago, before Vega had a record deal. In 1981, she adapted McCullers’ short stories into songs for a one-act play for her college thesis. Thirty years and many rewrites later, the expanded 90-minute production, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, had a six-week run in New York. In a page-boy wig and pinstripes, Vega bore a striking resemblance to her heroine.

But while the songs were uniformly well-received, Vega still wasn’t satisfied with the script, which hadn’t captured the context in which McCullers’ greatest work was produced: a Southern woman determined to mix it among New York’s literati. “It was a little too abstract,” she says. “I’ve always thought of Carson as a kind of timeless person, but the production was not rooted in anything.”

This time, she’s been more specific. An Evening With Carson McCullers is broken into two acts, the first set in 1941, the year after The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was published when the author was just 23; the second in 1967, in the months before her death at the age of 50 after a brilliant but tumultuous life blighted by alcoholism, disability and suicide attempts. It was a character that Vega found rewarding to play.

“I loved how independent she was, especially as a young woman – her fearlessness in what she wrote about; her lack of inhibition,” she says. But McCullers had a pitch dark side, exacerbated by the bottle; one song, The Instant Of The Hour After, pictures a late-night drunken argument with her husband Reeves: “The pulse in your neck, how I’ll know it, right to the end / How I love you / How I loathe you.”

While the script tells McCullers’ story, the songs are among Vega’s best character sketches. One song, Harper Lee, records McCullers’ annoyance at being compared to the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, bragging “She only wrote the one book; I’ve written more than three”, elevating herself above a string of other more celebrated writers: “I have more to say than Hemingway / Lord knows compared to Faulkner, I say it in a better way.”

“She might not have found that very funny, but I would hope she would know I mean it affectionately,” Vega says. “She was a difficult person to be married to, a difficult person to be friends with, but ultimately I think there’s something very endearing about her, and childlike – naive, and yet wise. So I think she’s still a sympathetic character, in spite of her also being a pain in the ass.”

Vega’s empathy for others has distinguished her songwriting since her earliest years. Luka is told from the perspective of an abused child; the emotional tug of Tom’s Diner – following several verses of deceptively banal detail – hinges on the ringing of the bells of the nearby cathedral, as she remembers the voice of a lost friend, “And of the midnight picnic once upon a time, before the rain began…”

The song has since been covered and sampled dozens of times, most recently by Britney Spears and legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder. “I’m just astonished at the variety that keep coming,” Vega says. “The Britney Spears version, I remember thinking wow, this really is something special, and then I learned that it was her idea, she was a fan of the song, so I was very tickled.”

The song has left another, more troubling legacy. In the late ’80s, engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg, who pioneered the development of the MP3, heard the original version and thought its minimalism might be a foolproof way to test the new technology. Vega remained unaware until many years later, when she was dropping her daughter Ruby off at nursery school.

“One of the parents, who I didn’t even know, turned to me and said ‘Congratulations on being the Mother of the MP3,’ and I said ‘Excuse me?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I just read about it in Business Week,’ she says. Vega later travelled to the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, where Brandenburg played her the first, raw MP3 version: “It sounded like something from The Exorcist.”

Ironically, the song that continues to provide her with her most consistent stream of income is the one that upended the record industry. “I guess the ’80s were just not going to go on forever,” she says. “It was such a bloated time period, and so much money was wasted that I could see it coming, in some ways, as a kind of correction.”

Vega has adapted well to changing circumstances. With the publishing rights of her records owned by A&M, she started her own label, Amanuensis Productions, and re-recorded roughly three-quarters of her catalogue in a series of four albums she called Close-Up, divided by theme: Love Songs, People And Places, States Of Being, and Songs Of Family.

Apart from reclaiming ownership of her own material, the themed approach and intimate, not-quite unplugged productions served two purposes: it introduced her later work to those who lost touch with Vega after her hit-making period, and stripped the originals of some of the production tricks of the time in which they were made. Many of the new versions are superior to their predecessors.

She’s also engaged with her fan base on social media. “At the time I did [the Close-Up albums] I was trying to get 100,000 people on Facebook that I could stay in touch with. Not everybody on Facebook buys, though – if all of them bought a CD I’d be in great shape, but it doesn’t work that way. They’ll like a picture of my dog, but they won’t buy a complete CD.”

In 2010, in a thoughtful blog post for the New York Times, Vega wrote about being a “two-hit wonder”. She said that the demeaning description “makes me look as though somehow I managed to squeak out those two songs and then shuffle back to being a receptionist”. In fact, the songs have had exactly the opposite effect on her life: “they have been my passport out of life in an office”.

What’s to complain about? Being a two-hit wonder is better than one, or none. “I see people at the gigs and I say, OK, they know me for Tom’s Diner, or they know me for Luka, and that’s fine with me. However they come is fine.”

A shorter version of this piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2016

The Laurels: Sonicology

The Laurels started life as a shoegaze band in thrall to the British sounds of the late 1980s and early 90s: Ride, Swervedriver and, most obviously, My Bloody Valentine. Their first album, Plains, was all Fender Jaguar and Rickenbacker guitars, played at deafening volume (with liberal use of tremolo arm) and, while it wasn’t exactly original, the Sydney band had close to perfected the approach.

Four years on, Sonicology sees the Laurels taking a slight left turn. The band still love MBV’s Kevin Shields, but this time it’s his work with Primal Scream circa XTRMNTR that finds an Australian echo. These are densely psychedelic wall-of-sound collages with clear dance floor and hip-hop leanings – minus the paranoid political edge that made XTRMNTR a classic.

Instead, the Laurels sound more like 24-hour party people: there’s a pronounced Madchester / baggy rhythmic influence, particularly the Happy Mondays, and there’s a lot going on. On top of layered guitar tracks, several songs feature trumpet, flute and saxophone; Some Other Time even features a bulbul tarang, a south Asian instrument which translates from its Punjabi origin as “waves of nightingales”.

That’s a pretty good description of Sonicology. It’s highly melodic, but not easy to assimilate when everything is coming at you at once. Give it time to settle, though, and there are songs here – and good ones too: the clipped funk of Trip Sitter, at the album’s centre, is a highlight; so too the rubbery bass line that underpins Frequensator (song titles, perhaps, are not this band’s strongest point).

There is still the sense that the Laurels are following, rather than leading the pack. While the reference points remain British, Sonicology positions them clearly as part of the new wave of Australian psychedelia spearheaded by Tame Impala. The lyrics? “When you see sound / Sine waves marching / Oscilloscopes darting / It will be all you ever need,” they burble on Frequensator. They’re cosmic, man.

At times, they slip into banality. Mecca, which features the lines “I’ll tell you something that I’ve told nobody / I really want for you to know / That this life and this time / Is everything that matters most” makes you wish they’d taken another leaf from Shields’ playbook (not to mention the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, the godmother of this sort of psychobabble), and buried the words altogether.

But words aren’t really the point here. Sonicology is all about pills ’n’ thrills, and if you find yourself with a bellyache (or earache) afterwards, that doesn’t take away from the fun of listening to it. It’s a good trip, while it lasts.

First published in The Guardian, 14 October 2016

Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen: Death’s Dateless Night

Most of us have a song that we’d like played at our funeral. Some of us aim for the transcendent: spiritual songs that, we hope, might say something to those we leave behind about our approach to life. Others who take the exercise (and themselves) less seriously prefer a more mordant strain of philosophy: Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, by Monty Python’s Eric Idle, is a popular choice.

It was while driving to a friend’s funeral with Charlie Owen, one of Australia’s most expressive guitarists, that Paul Kelly had the idea to record an album of such songs. Death’s Dateless Night features 12 bare-bones, intimately recorded tunes, with a cathedral-like ambience that echoes the sparseness of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

This could have been compelling, if only Kelly had a fresh set of songs to fit. He is now 61 and, while he’s not quite staring mortality in the face, he’s had enough brushes with it over the years and certainly farewelled more than his share of friends before their time. If anyone could take a hard look at a topic no one much likes talking about and have something worthwhile to say, you’d hope Kelly might.

Instead, there are re-recordings of a couple of originals (Nukkanya, from 1994’s Wanted Man, and Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air, from 2005’s Foggy Highway) and a few traditional numbers (Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor, which Welch has also recorded; The Parting Glass), with the remainder of the album padded out by covers. Some are standards; others are songs by contemporaries and peers.

This is a low bar for a singer and songwriter of Kelly’s stature to get over. The strengths of Death’s Dateless Night are his warm, empathetic singing and Owen’s always tasteful playing. Its weakness is its lack of ambition: this is an easy listening album about a difficult subject, with neither Kelly nor Owen extending themselves. It’s pleasant, but far from essential.

Should an album of songs about death be merely pleasant? Of course, Death’s Dateless Night could have been depressing and that would have been no more effective, or even interesting. But, instead of offering redemption, Kelly’s versions of Don’t Fence Me In, Bird On A Wire and Let It Be feel redundant, even trite. He’s not adding anything new to these songs. Then again, who could?

The songs that really sting are the less familiar ones, written by artists with whom Kelly shared a more personal connection. One is Good Things, by the late Maurice Frawley, who played in Kelly’s first band, the Dots. Owen’s moaning steel guitar perfectly complements Kelly’s plaintive, haunted vocal and two-chord acoustic shuffle. Singing one of the finest songs of his lost friend, here Kelly is hanging on for dear life.

The other triumph is Pretty Bird Tree, by the Indigenous singer/songwriter LJ (Lawrence) Hill. It’s as powerful as anything by Archie Roach or Kev Carmody and it’s to be hoped Kelly’s version draws more attention to Hill’s exquisite talent. The original finger-picked melody and arrangement is preserved, and Kelly’s voice is at its most yearning as he retells Hill’s heart-stopping narrative.

It might say something about the strength of these two songs that they easily outshine the better-known material that dominates the rest of the album. Alternatively, perhaps the other songs simply suffer for their overfamiliarity. Either way, it’s hard not to wish for more from someone who, at his best, has written so fearlessly about life, death and everything in between.

First published in The Guardian, 6 October 2016

The Pixies make peace with their past

Charles Thompson, the singer, guitarist and songwriter of the legendary Pixies, remembers the pivotal moment. It was 2010, and the band was eight months into a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band’s second full album Doolittle. At that point, the reformed group had been playing their greatest hits for six years – almost as long as the time in which it took the Pixies to release five of the most celebrated albums in indie rock between 1986 and their acrimonious split in 1993.

The band would begin with a few B-sides to throw the audience off-balance, then hit them with Doolittle in its entirety – in sequence, as contracted, almost note-perfect (“that was one way we really kissed the audience’s ass”, he notes) followed by an encore, and Thompson – better known by his stage name, Black Francis – was getting more than a little restless.

“I found myself spacing out,” he admits. “I [wouldn’t] know if we were in the first or second chorus, I’d have no idea. It didn’t happen every night, but it happened from time to time and to me that was a real turning point personally where I was like, ‘OK, enough of this shit! Let’s make some new songs!’ ”

Bands reforming and making new material after a long layoff is often a fraught process. For the Pixies, perhaps the defining American guitar band of the late 1980s, it was like returning to base camp, only to turn around to scale Everest all over again.

Not that Thompson would see it that way. You might expect him to be weary, if not downright prickly, about discussing the band’s past: he’s on the hustings to promote the band’s seventh album Head Carrier, following 2013’s “second debut” Indie Cindy. That record was a somewhat piecemeal affair, released as three EPs before being compiled as an album, and recorded without the band’s bass player Kim Deal, who had been opposed to recording new material and who walked out on the sessions.

The subject of Deal is inescapable. She remains a totemic figure: her beaming smile and apple-pie vocals offset Thompson’s sandpaper howl, her enormous charisma overshadowing the other members. In a band that was a riot of colour – Thompson’s screams, Joey Santiago’s surf-and-space guitar and David Lovering’s busy, inventive drum patterns – Deal was the rock; her steady, undemonstrative playing keeping the Pixies more or less earth-bound.

But her songwriting was suppressed by Thompson’s, and after the band’s split, she found huge early success with the Breeders. Thompson, meanwhile, changed his stage name to Frank Black, pursuing a solo career as his old band acquired almost mythic status.

None of this raking over old coals bothers Thompson in the slightest. He’s in what he calls his “atelier”, an art studio not far from his home in suburban Massachusetts, is booming with bonhomie, and as comfortable with discussing the Pixies’ past as their present.

He’s also self-deprecating. When Deal announced she was leaving the band (over dinner, the night before the recording of Indie Cindy was to begin), Thompson and Santiago simply got up and walked away. It was, he says, typical Pixies: “[We] had occasional blowouts and arguments and threw things at each other, but that was very much the exception to the rule,” he says. “We’ve always been very diplomatic, and I guess the flip side is that people are passive-aggressive.”

He cheerfully owns this trait himself. “Look at the way that the band broke up the first time!” he hoots. “ ‘Oh OK, here’s a fax, I’m going to type up a fax and send it off to the powers that be. Goodbye, thank youuuuuu!’ That’s just kind of our personalities.”

Deal has been replaced by Paz Lenchantin, from A Perfect Circle and Billy Corgan’s Zwan, and she fits the sound and look of the Pixies to a T (whether the group’s rabid fan base would even accept a male bass player is an interesting question). Aware of the shoes she’s filling, Lenchantin has encouraged a rapprochement with the band’s past, writing the music for and singing All I Think About Now – a song she encouraged Thompson to write as a thank-you note for their erstwhile bass player.

Her presence has certainly made playing in the Pixies fun again – “We really like her, she’s given us a whole new life and we’re very grateful to her,” Thompson effuses – but even so, the musical as well as personal dynamics are inescapably different. “A band is who they are a lot of times, and the chemistry never really changes,” Thompson says. “It’s very difficult to change the original blueprint. Even though people grow older, it’s hard to escape the psychological imprint of the beginning.”

Perhaps the tension with Deal was part of the Pixies’ magic. But it was also something that had to be constantly worked around, until it became unbearable, and it’s here that Thompson’s aversion to conflict again emerges.

“In hindsight you can say that, [that] the tension that existed added to or altered the flavour of the final result,” he says. “There are so many examples of creative conflict going on between people in a group that affects the result in a positive way. So I think that’s totally valid, but I can’t say that I’d want to pursue it. I don’t really want to enter an enterprise in conflict, you know. There’s plenty of conflict to go around in human interaction; I don’t need to seek it out.”

Thompson knew that some fans and critics would view the Pixies’ new material cynically. Then again, they couldn’t win: previously, others disdained them as a cash-in for not writing it. It’s the price the band have paid for their unblemished first incarnation.

In the end, he couldn’t care less. “We’re not going to get into this abstract conversation with each other about, like, ‘Dude, is it valid?’,” he says. “It’s like, yeah, whatever the fuck! Of course music is valid. You just kind of get on with it.”

First published in The Age (Spectrum), 24 September 2016

(I’m) Stranded turns 40: the song that changed Brisbane

The ABC news radio announcer’s incredulous tone said it all. “An unknown band from Brisbane, by the name of the Saints, has earned rave reviews in England for a record it made itself,” he said. It was September 1976, and the words, complete with the plummy delivery, were loaded with cultural cringe – all the more so for the fact that the band hailed from the backwoods of Brisbane.

That record, (I’m) Stranded – dubbed “Single of this and every week” in a hyperventilating review in the UK’s Sounds magazine – turns 40 years old this month, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed Brisbane forever, both from within, and in terms of its external perception. And it was true: outside of a small clique, the band was all but unknown in its hometown at the time of the song’s release.

The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster once wrote that punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia, for two reasons: we had Joh-Bjelke Petersen, “the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservative that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against”; and we had the Saints, the “musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart” that gave a city that usually chased music history its own place in it.

Australia didn’t even have its own national anthem in 1976. (I’m) Stranded was more like an anti-anthem, with its central theme of alienation. The singer, Chris Bailey, with the gritty sneer of a young Van Morrison, is marooned “far from home”. The literal meaning was actually more prosaic, the song’s music coming to guitarist Ed Kuepper on a midnight train home to the Brisbane’s far-flung suburbs.

Then there was the video, which begins with the unintended metaphor of drummer Ivor Hay kicking open a door. The band are playing in an abandoned building on inner-city Petrie Terrace, Bailey singing in front of a fireplace with the words “(I’m) Stranded” daubed above in red letters, which would form the backdrop for the cover of the Saints’ debut album of the same name, released in February 1977.

The cover is as much a harbinger of the Blank Generation as the first Ramones album. But there are no uniforms in sight, much less leather jackets. The band stares sullenly back at the camera, a large hole in the floorboards beneath their feet in front of them. In the ensuing years, countless bands and fans – including Brad Shepherd (then of the Fun Things, later the Hoodoo Gurus) and Mark Callaghan (the Riptides, later Gang Gajang) – had their own photographs taken in front of that fireplace until the building’s eventual redevelopment.

The Saints were seers. They’d formed in mid 1973, the same year as the release of the first New York Dolls album and Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, and while they hadn’t beaten the Ramones onto record (the New Yorkers had released their first album four months earlier), they were ahead of all the UK punks (the Damned’s New Rose was released a month later, in October 1976) and Sydney’s Radio Birdman.

But arguably more important than chronology and the Saints’ place in the bigger scheme of things was their determined independence. There were no venues to play in Brisbane, so the band hired out suburban halls. No local record company was interested in what they were doing, so they hired out a local studio, paid for the recording themselves, and put out the song on their own label, Fatal Records.

This fact was noted in Jonh (John) Ingham’s review in Sounds: “This Queensland combo had to record and release on their own label; for some reason Australian record companies think the band lack commercial potential. What a bunch of idiots.” EMI in London – partially in an attempt to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Sex Pistols – duly instructed its baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the band.

In the wake of the band’s inevitable decampment to England in early 1977, a local scene began to take root in Brisbane. There were archetypal punk bands like the Leftovers and Razar, whose song Task Force was the first in a long line of singles to take aim at the local police state. Then there were the more cerebral Riptides, the Apartments and the Go-Betweens, soon to leave for England themselves.

All had been inspired by the Saints’ willingness to “seize the sea of possibilities” spoken of by another seer, Patti Smith, a couple of years earlier. Brisbane now has a Go Between Bridge, as well as Bee Gees Way on Redcliffe Peninsula, where the Gibb brothers began their performing career. But (I’m) Stranded was a foundation stone in Brisbane’s cultural history for which the Saints deserve similar recognition.

First published in The Guardian, 14 September 2016

Kim Gordon at Bigsound: “This is not an essay”

At the end of her opening keynote address to Brisbane music industry conference Bigsound, former Sonic Youth bass player Kim Gordon told a packed theatre of a calamitous acoustic show the band performed in 1991 for Neil Young’s The Bridge School, a non-profit education organisation for children with severe disabilities.

The band, which relied on the fiery interplay between guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, had never played acoustically and was performing for a mainstream audience. Fearing disaster, Gordon brought a guitar ready-made to destroy: “I had a feeling things were doomed to fail.”

Halfway through a cover of the New York Dolls’ Personality Crisis, with the band unable to hear themselves onstage, a frustrated Gordon swore into the microphone, smashed the waiting guitar, and walked off. Then she saw the kids in wheelchairs backstage looking horrified, and felt awful. Neil Young’s then-teenaged son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, rolled up to her.

“Everyone has a bad day sometimes,” he said.

Gordon repeatedly told the audience that her address was a poem or incantation, not an essay, and it was: a series of vignettes that interrogated the co-dependent relationship between the artist and the audience, based on a premise by critic Greil Marcus: that artists who submit to the whims of their fans by only giving them more of what they have already accepted are only able to confirm, not to create.

It was a portal into the approach of Sonic Youth who, after emerging from New York’s No Wave scene, slowly built their own bridges to pop through the 1980s. The classic video for Kool Thing saw them flirting with mainstream acceptance, while subverting it. It was a song that had them on the brink of stardom, but which they refused to build on as bands they encouraged and inspired, like Nirvana, rushed past them.

Gordon’s address began in the hippie dream of the ’60s, describing how the communal relationship between artists and audiences was punctured by race riots, the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont, and the Manson murders. The concurrent emergence of a more challenging generation of performers including the Doors, the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges, she said, effectively deconstructed the idea of popular music as entertainment.

“[Iggy Pop] walking out onto the audience, breaking glass, smearing peanut butter on himself – was this a stage show? Was this rock music or real life? His estrangement of the audience’s expectations created something new. He gave people something they had never seen.”

She later spoke of an infamous Public Image, Ltd concert she attended at New York venue the Ritz in 1981. There, the band played behind a screen, onto which images were projected, obscuring the “stars” as shadowy figures. The audience rioted, throwing chairs at the screen and forcing the band to flee. “For whatever reason, PiL fucked with our heads,” she said. “We were there because of their audacity, but then couldn’t accept what they were offering: it was [either] too much, or too little.”

Her point was that that an audience’s need to be entertained was an artistic dead end. “What is a star? Suspended adulthood? A place beyond good and evil? Someone who you want to believe in? A daredevil? A risk-taker, going to the edge and not falling off – for you?” Was a performance, she added, “transcendence, or just a distraction from daily life, humdrum, pain, humdrum, boredom, humdrum, aloneness? A nice transition that doesn’t end? A day at the beach, a trip to the mountains? An unending kiss, leading to nowhere – or somewhere you never dreamed of?

“That’s what I want to feel when I go see someone play,” she said. “Something fall apart – until it becomes something else.”

First published in The Guardian, 7 September 2016

 

Henry Rollins: “I seek not to squander”

Henry Rollins likes to talk. Actually, saying Rollins likes to talk is a bit like saying an anteater enjoys ants, or a boxer doesn’t mind getting into a punch-on. On top of countless books and a column in the LA Weekly, his spoken-word performances can run upwards of three hours. On average, he says, he writes about 1000 words a day, a habit he describes as “awful, it’s just ridiculous”.

So it seems odd that a man with as much to say as Rollins could ever run out of lyrics, but it happened. “It was trippy,” he says. “I woke up going, ‘Wow. Am I done? And I soberly assessed it and went ‘Damn. I’m done.’ And I stopped.” He phoned his manager to inform him and hasn’t written a song since. That was more than 10 years ago now.

He has no interest in playing the old songs either; not those by the Rollins Band or Black Flag, the pioneering West Coast hardcore punk/metal band he fronted in the early 1980s. “It must be nice to be able to go out and play Satisfaction and Brown Sugar and all of that every night and have girls lift their T-shirts up and have everyone roar with approval but that’s not how I’m going to live my life,” he says.

Rollins, who is touring Australia again – it’s practically his second home – likes to keep moving. He spends most of the year on the road, which allows him to observe his first one from a distance. He says he’s still angry, though frankly he sounds pretty chipper and, at 55, he’s driven by his own encroaching mortality: “I know I’ve got more years behind me than ahead of me, and I seek not to squander.”

So he keeps saying yes to things. He’s been in more than 30 films, including last year’s Gutterdämmerung, in which he appeared alongside Grace Jones and his hero, Iggy Pop – ironically, the film was silent – and hosts a weekly radio show for KCRW in his hometown of Los Angeles. (Perhaps it’s helpful to note at this point that the young Henry Garfield was diagnosed with hyperactivity in fourth grade.)

But what does Rollins still have to be angry about? By his own admission, he’s a rich, white, heterosexual, educated American dude who has been spared what he calls the American beating. “I live in a really nice neighbourhood [in the Hollywood Hills] with ridiculously famous neighbours,” he says. “I call the cops and they show up in about 40 seconds and they call me ‘Mr Rollins’.”

It’s a far cry from the days when the LAPD routinely harassed Black Flag and their fans, often shutting down shows. More seriously, Rollins has seen the extreme violence of America close up too: in 1991 he bore witness to the still-unsolved murder of his best friend Joe Cole, who was shot dead in an attempted robbery.

Success has mostly insulated him from further trauma. On this tour, he’ll be talking (a lot) about the American election but doesn’t fear the result personally. “With my economic altitude, I don’t feel any of this. Donald Trump’s gonna suck if you’re brown, black, lower middle-class or poor … I’m just going to enjoy the tax breaks that rich guys get from guys like him and keep on grooving.”

If Hillary Clinton wins, he says, “Trump fans are going to be very dangerous losers. And, if he wins, liberals will be very whiny and hilarious losers. There’ll be lines out of Starbucks, people wanting quadruple lattes; there’ll be more hand-wringing, more poetry – that’s a liberal on a bad day. The angry Tea Party person on a bad day, you lock and load, and go find a Muslim or brown-skinned person.”

But Rollins doesn’t see it as his job to reach out across the aisle. When he speaks, he knows it’s to his flock. “I call it preaching to the perverted. I saw Dinosaur Jr seven times last year [and] I didn’t go there to throw things and go ‘boo’; I went to rock out.” His opponents, he says, “might be waiting for me outside with a sidearm but they’re not coming in”.

I ask him if he’s scared for his country. “No. America gets what America deserves. America’s a tough place full of tough people and I’m an example of a tough American. If you can’t take a punch in the teeth, you should move to Canada.”

First published in The Guardian, 6 September 2016

Robert Forster: Grant & I

Fifty pages into this long-awaited memoir, songwriter, critic and author Robert Forster gets very meta. “If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could start here,” he writes. It’s 1978, and he and Grant McLennan, the co-founders of the Go-Betweens, are driving from Brisbane to Sydney for the first time. After crossing the Tweed river into New South Wales, McLennan dashes into a shop, and emerges triumphantly waving a copy of Playboy, which was banned in Queensland at the time.

Of course, this being the Go-Betweens, they’re reading it for the articles – in this instance, Bob Dylan’s first full-length interview in three years, which McLennan ecstatically reads to Forster as the car races past cane fields on their left, Mount Warning on the right (“Cue thundercrack,” Forster says). The Go-Betweens always were the most self-referential of groups, as well as the most literate. Grant & I would make the most bookish of buddy films.

That’s not to say they were square. “On many occasions dark rock bands would encounter the Go-Betweens expecting namby-pamby, book-besotted, cocoa-drinking wimps, to find themselves partied under the table. We were a rock & roll band,” Forster declares. Yet it’s both a strength and a weakness that this often very moving book avoids the cliched recounting of rock & roll excess – until those excesses inevitably begin to catch up with them.

The obvious stylistic inspiration for Grant & I is Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which centres on her enduring friendship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. But whereas Smith’s book skirts around her years of fame (like Dylan’s Chronicles, another reference point), Forster revels in his: each album, each single of the Go-Betweens’ career is lovingly charted – if only they had actually charted. This is a tale of cult stardom, of missing hits and hits-that-missed.

At one point, Forster writes of “the lengthy entry in the rock encyclopaedia that we felt the group deserved”. With Grant & I, he has all but written it himself. Some of the best passages of this book are clear-eyed critiques of his own band’s work as they navigate the usual artistic pitfalls: grinding poverty, unrecouped advances, unsympathetic producers, and drum machines used to tame a true original, Lindy Morrison, with whom Forster was in a relationship for eight years.

The heart of the book, though, is about a close friendship with someone who remained unknowable: a “naive boy” who kept a close watch on his inner life, only to pour it out in songs such as the revered Cattle And Cane and its companion, Dusty In Here. Both songs reference McLennan’s father, who died when he was six. Yet as Grant & I (and the band’s career) unfurls, McLennan recedes; as his friendship with Forster is attenuated to a few words or glances, it’s easy to lose sight of him.

And in this, there is an omission. The shadow of heroin hangs over this book, but we don’t know of it until Forster drops the bombshell of his own diagnosis with hepatitis C, a likely consequence of his own dabbling with the drug. It’s well known in rock circles that McLennan was a long-term user; Steve Kilbey’s book Something Quite Peculiar speaks bitterly of McLennan introducing him to opiates, and the journalist Clinton Walker has also written of his habit.

It’s obviously a charged topic. Yet towards the end, as McLennan begins to fall apart physically and emotionally – alcohol, Forster notes, was “eating him out, destroying him, and he knew it”, and songwriting sessions between the pair occasionally lapsed into therapy – it’s impossible for anyone familiar with the Go-Betweens’ story not to question the toll it took not just on McLennan, but on everyone in and around the band, not least his best friend.

The awful ending is already known and, as Forster has conceded publicly, McLennan’s death at the age of 48 from a heart attack came as a shock, but not a surprise. That’s another rock & roll cliche, and it’s to Forster’s credit that he avoids it in the beautifully written final chapters, which still manage to build tension leading up to the tragedy that finished the band 10 years ago. “I’ll carry it on,” Forster says, a promise to ensure the group’s legacy is not forgotten.

Behind the legacy lies enmity: Morrison and violinist Amanda Brown, who fought and eventually settled with Forster and McLennan for a share of songwriting royalties, are acknowledged at the funeral with just a nod – and, if there’s something missing, it’s an epilogue. If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could end here: the surviving members leading the first walk across Brisbane’s Go Between Bridge, with Streets Of Your Town the soundtrack – the bridge an act of belated recognition that, cruelly, took the death of one of the city’s finest poets to bring about.

First published in The Guardian, 29 August 2016