Peter Perrett returns to earth from another planet

Rock journalist Nina Antonia said it best. “If there was only one song in the universe and it was Another Girl, Another Planet, I would still have all I ever wanted,” she wrote. Though not a hit at the time, the song, released in 1978 by London group the Only Ones, is now a celebrated classic: a muted guitar intro swiftly blooming into a headlong rush, set to lyrics that make little effort to conceal singer Peter Perrett’s narcotic love affair.

“You get under my skin, I don’t find it irritating / You always play to win, but I don’t need rehabilitating,” Perrett sang. And for decades, Perrett was a man beyond rehabilitation: in a variation of the famous Charlie Watts story about Keith Richards telling the Rolling Stones drummer he had a problem, former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders – one of rock’s most notorious junkies – once paid Perrett a visit to lambast him for wasting his talent.

Thunders died in 1991; Perrett, miraculously, is still alive. After three albums with the Only Ones, who recorded some of the most elegantly wasted rock music ever made between 1976 and 1981, he disappeared into an abyss of addictions: first heroin, then crack. There was a brief reappearance in the mid-1990s, followed by another decade’s silence before a brief Only Ones reunion. “That was my avatar there on stage, it wasn’t really me,” he says.

And now, in what is surely this year’s most unexpected and best resurrection, Perrett has returned, aged 65 and looking about 85, despite a still-impressive mop of rock-star hair. His first solo album How The West Was Won shows his sleepy Sarf London voice and droll humour preserved intact, its title track sardonically declaring his love for Kim Kardashian: “She’s taken over from J-Lo as my number one / Even though I know she’s just a bum.”

The album was made with his sons Jamie and Peter Perrett jnr on guitar and bass respectively. Previously, they’d played for a short time in Babyshambles with Pete Doherty, Perrett’s modern wastrel equivalent. “It was my family who drew me back into music,” Perrett says. “They rehearse upstairs from where I live. I’d hear them rehearsing and they’d come down and say ‘Why don’t you come up and play, Dad?’ “

Perrett hadn’t picked up a guitar in years. “I got refocused and disciplined,” he says. “My life had changed, and I started living a more orderly existence.” Songs poured forth: 40 of them from the summer of 2015, pared down to 10 for just his fifth album in 39 years. “I’ve always believed in quality rather than quantity,” he deadpans, but awareness that his time may be limited means he’s already working on a follow-up.

The Only Ones had reformed in 2007, after Another Girl, Another Planet was used in a British ad campaign. Originally, the song had charted for one solitary week – at number 44, in New Zealand, three years after its release. “Maybe it’s because it’s got a 32-bar intro, with a great big long guitar solo before the vocals come in,” Perrett muses, when asked why, or how, his most beloved song flopped. Or maybe it was the subject matter.

Regardless, it will long outlive its maker. “I’d much rather have a song which people still listen to 40 years later and respect and do covers of, rather than have something which is a big hit and is then forgotten,” he says. “[With] Another Girl, Another Planet you can’t really tell when it was recorded, because I think it’s timeless. I think everything we did was timeless.”

But recruiting the band again wasn’t an option. Drummer Mike Kellie, who died earlier this year, was seriously ill and an earlier foray back into the studio hadn’t gone well. The band gigged for a couple of years before things fell apart again. “I was there in body but not in mind. My mind was back in my room with my various paraphernalia, that I wanted to return to as soon as possible.”

Perrett was also aware of the danger of tarnishing the band’s legacy. He says the sessions the band recorded were “a pale representation of what we were”. In hindsight, he says, “nothing new was going to come out of it because I wasn’t in a state to be productive, or even want to be productive. It always felt slightly nostalgic, and if I’m going to do music I want to do it because I’ve got something new to say.”

Clean at last, with the support of his sons and drummer Jake Woodward, Perrett had a young, fresh band imprinted with his own musical DNA. Nostalgia was replaced with an urge to start anew. “If I’m not feeling my emotions to the fullest extent then I haven’t got that driving force to be in that state. Before, my mind was very distracted and my emotions were numb, and to me that’s not the way to produce your best work,” he says.

Years of abuse have taken a toll on Perrett’s body. “My lungs aren’t that great, but they manage to sing,” he says. “I had to learn how to sing again; it’s like a harmonium where the bellows are a bit squeaky. So I had to find a way of singing where they sounded great again. The one drawback is we’ve got to start gigging soon, and I won’t be able to jump around the stage. I have to conserve my energy to concentrate on singing.”

I ask what has pulled him through. “What’s got me though is basically love,” Perrett says. He’s not joking. His wife of 47 years, Xena, has stood by him throughout. “I’ve shared all my experiences with my soul mate. That’s why I had to have four love songs on the album.” (Although one of them, Troika, might be better described as a paean to a triumvirate: “You must admit there’s strength in numbers,” he sings).

In the album’s most telling and triumphant song, Something In My Brain, Perrett describes an experiment with a rat. “He could choose food / Or he could choose crack / Well the rat, he starved to death / But I didn’t die, at least not yet / I’m still just about capable / Of one last defiant breath.” It finishes with a raised fist, or maybe it’s a middle finger: “Now rock & roll is back in me – oh yeah!”

But as he also sings in An Epic Story, it’s too late for repentance of sins. Perrett insists he wouldn’t do anything differently. “It’s sort of embarrassing how many times you have to do something before you learn your lesson, but I can’t really regret it, it’s just me,” he says. “You know, I’m a flawed person, I’m an imperfect human being … The advice I’d give to young people is don’t do what I did, but I wouldn’t change any of my decisions.

“It’s not constructive to think about mistakes that you’ve made and how things might have been different. To have the pleasure of making an album that was the perfect album I could make, for that time, makes me celebrate the past. Even though I can be honest about certain aspects of it, to me it’s still a celebration of survival. You know, lots of my friends aren’t here.”

First published in Spectrum (The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age), 2 September 2017

Neil Finn: Out Of Silence review

Perhaps the first thing the listener needs to do with Out Of Silence is forget about the circumstances in which it was created. For four consecutive Fridays in August, Neil Finn has live-streamed the making of his fourth solo album via his Facebook page, releasing the singles More Than One Of You and Second Nature on the 11th and 18th respectively. The recording was completed in a final four-hour session on the 25th.

Clearly, this approach excited Finn and his fans. But when the process is forgotten, all that is left behind is the music itself: piano-based orchestral pop, with a minimum of drums and percussion. The album is compact at 35 minutes, and complex in its instrumentation and arrangements, scored by composer Victoria Kelly. It is beautiful on the surface and yet seemingly bottomless: these songs are too subtle and densely textured to take in all at once.

But it feels like easy listening; as natural as breathing. Finn’s last album Dizzy Heights, produced by Dave Fridmann with Kelly also on board, was unusually hard work by comparison. And it’s here that you appreciate the craft in these songs and the manner in which they’ve been executed. The songs were recorded quickly, but tightly rehearsed: you may have been a fly on the wall, but that doesn’t mean Out Of Silence was made on the fly.

Chameleon Days exemplifies how Finn can make the most sophisticated pop music sound like the simplest thing in the world. Opening with ghostly vibraphone and strings, it’s joined by Finn on piano, singing in a high falsetto, and one of the album’s few drum tracks. The lyrics shapeshift with the melody: “That must be how the music is meant to be played / The colours change in our lives / We all have our own chameleon days.”

There is so much going on in this song that it feels almost unstable, especially when it hits a surging bridge, with backing vocals doubling down heavily on the beat. But Finn’s piano keeps returning to the hook that keeps it anchored, at least until its final, breathtaking coda, where it’s finally cut loose and allowed to float away. It’s one of his loveliest creations, as good as Fall At Your Feet or Private Universe.

Second Nature is the other track with drums, played at a brisk gallop, and the most familiar in style to Finn’s work with Crowded House. But, as a steady quiver of violin and cello keep pace, male and female backing vocals alternately blend and diverge. It’s the most baroque of pop songs, reminiscent of Andy Partridge’s later work with XTC, but a deserving single, immediate in its appeal.

Other songs are much darker, as Finn goes into territory he’s rarely explored lyrically. The Law Is Always On Your Side is a short but moving piano ballad about a police killing. Terrorise Me is a song inspired by the horrible events at the Bataclan in Paris in November 2015, Finn looking terror straight in the eye and refusing to be cowed: “If you want to terrorise me / Make me hate you in return / Love is stronger when it hurts.”

Finn has often been compared to Paul McCartney – famously the former Beatle deferred to Finn when asked how it felt to be the greatest songwriter alive – but at moments like this, he’s closer to George Harrison: a mystic determined to appeal to our better angels. “I think that we can fight and still be friends / Words are hard to control, and some better left unspoken,” he sings in the opening song, Love Is Emotional.

At the top of it all is Finn’s voice. Of all his outstanding qualities, perhaps it’s his singing that’s the most undersold: completely distinctive, unforced and gentle, whispering melodies only he could conjure in your ear. Out of Silence sees him at his most contemplative and tender, at the most troubled of times. If you missed out on watching this album being born, rest assured the songs will wait for you.

First published in The Guardian, 2 September 2017

NB. Apparently the McCartney story is a myth!

Missing pieces

For five days over late August and early September in 2016, a strange case gripped the Australian media. A family of five abruptly went missing from their rural property east of Melbourne. They left their house unlocked, and all potential trace elements behind: phones, credit cards and identification documents. Keys were left in the ignitions of remaining cars.

The alarm was sounded by one of the three adult children, around 24 hours after their disappearance, when he disembarked from what turned out to be an ill-fated road trip near Bathurst in central New South Wales, some 800 kilometres from their home. The two remaining daughters were quickly located after they stole a vehicle to escape; one of them later turned up in the back of a man’s ute, to the shock of the driver after he’d driven another hour away. Their mother was found the following day, wandering the streets of Yass, near Canberra; two days later, the father was discovered, safe but dehydrated, on the outskirts of the north-eastern Victorian town of Wangaratta.

The story became a viral sensation. “It felt like a variation on the Netflix show Stranger Things, itself a pastiche on missing people stories from the 1980s,” wrote Chris Johnston, a respected senior writer for The Age. “The strange gaps in the information also read like something out of The X-Files, with its protagonists fleeing from technology but tracked just the same.”

But the real echoes, he said, were closer to home. The road trip gone wrong was a common trope “straight from an Australian horror story”, with echoes of Australian cinema classics Walkabout and Picnic At Hanging Rock, of the legend of Burke and Wills, of foreign travellers stranded in harsh landscapes and unable to find their way home. Either way, the premise was identical: “City folk head into the bush and get lost, metaphorically and physically.”

Bizarre twists – that favourite tabloid phrase – abounded. Marnie O’Neill, writing for news.com.ausuggested that the family might be suffering from a psychiatric condition known as folie à deux (madness of two) between the family’s husband and wife, which can in turn grip the children (folie à famille, a family madness). She wasn’t the only one to speculate that the family was suffering from some kind of delusional disorder, as experts were asked to weigh in.

These were some of the kinder interpretations. One website cut to the chase with its headline “The family that went mad together”. The Australian edition of the Daily Mail found a new angle by posting “eerie” photographs of the family home: “What happened inside the walls of this pretty farmhouse that drove the family out of their minds at exactly the same time?”

Finally, when all members of the family were accounted for, a statement was released: “More than anything, my family and I need time to recover and receive appropriate assistance, including mental health services,” it read. “To this end, we request that media respect our request for privacy.” The statement was reported with a photo of its author leaving a police station in a car, shielding his face from waiting cameras.

Six months later, Mamamia posted a smiling, undated picture of two of the family members, taken from Facebook, which purported to show them “moving on with their lives”. It was accompanied by a link to a Mamamia Out Loud podcast, where a group of women shared their theories about what went wrong after the “bizarre series of events”. The discussion begins with a breathless introduction:

OMG, can we please talk about the [name withheld] family mystery? Someone needs to call Sarah Koenig, seriously, this is the weirdest story. Can Sarah Koenig please make season three of Serial about this?

I’ve decided not to identify the family, although the story will be instantly familiar to many Australians and to anyone overseas who was following the news at the time. Personally, I avoided most of the reportage. It felt gratuitous, prurient. Beyond the immediate urgency of finding the family safe and well, everything else seemed like voyeurism. This was a deeply private matter and they were not public figures.

Whatever happened to them, it needn’t and shouldn’t define them in the public gaze any more than in the eyes of their extended family, friends and community – all of whom would have just been grateful and relieved to have them back. They have a right to rebuild and get on with their lives without the judgment or scorn of strangers, and without their name being reduced to a byword for craziness.

After all, I thought at the time, it’s no less than I would want for myself. Almost exactly six months before their disappearance, I headed into the bush and got lost too.

ON THE evening of 22 February 2016, I scrawled a note to my former partner, threw a handful of clothes and possessions in the car, and took off into the night. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going: north, south, east or west. Somewhere along the way, I fired off three tweets that were unfortunately reflective of my state of mind before deactivating my social media accounts.

I drove all night, pausing only at a truck stop by the side of the highway to rest at around 2 am. The noise of the generators, and the adrenaline overloading my system prevented me from sleeping. I drove on, pulling up again in a country town, watching the sun rise from a sleeping bag on the local sports oval, then got back in the car and kept going.

By later that morning, the adrenaline had worn off, the car was labouring and I began to feel the weight of exhaustion, the magnitude of what I was doing and the distress I was causing for others. I switched on my phone, which was flooded with messages, called home and was persuaded to check myself into the nearest hospital. In between, my face was on the front of news websites. I’d been officially declared missing.

If I was sure I knew what was going on in my head at the time – and I’m still not – I wouldn’t explain it to you, much less why. I was, however, carrying lethal means of self-harm within the car, to say nothing of the fact that, while stone-cold sober, I drove a 28-year-old vehicle for more than 12 hours and close to 900 kilometres in a highly agitated and distressed state without sleep, food or water. By the time I was admitted to hospital, I’d barely eaten in 48 hours.

You could call it a cry for help or one long scream. It doesn’t matter: what does is that I didn’t follow through when I could have or, mercifully, hurt anybody else. According to Mindframe, which provides guidelines to the media about the reporting and portrayal of suicide and mental health issues, approximately one in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness each year. I’m far from alone.

This story, however, is not mine. It’s about how we talk about mental health and people in crisis, particularly in the frenzy of modern news reporting, when social media can and often does run ahead of the news cycle, when difficult ethical decisions are made in real time – often before facts are fully established – in an age of clickbait, confessional storytelling, declining revenues and minimal editorial oversight.

“Every time a journalist makes a decision around how to report on either mental illness or suicide, they’re making a judgment call based on the facts about the story that they have in front of them, so the application of the guidelines can be variable,” says Jaelea Skehan, chair of Mindframe’s media advisory group and director of the Hunter Institute for Mental Health.

Mindframe’s National Media Initiative began in 2002, with the aim of building collaborative relationships between the Australian media and the mental health sector to promote suicide prevention and to encourage accurate and sensitive reporting of suicide and mental health matters. It also conducts guest lectures in most journalism schools across Australia, including in compulsory law and ethics classes.

In the 15 years since, most media outlets have adopted conventions such as the listing of emergency hotlines at the bottom of stories. To avoid the risk of copycat behaviour, methodology is rarely mentioned; phrases such as “committed suicide” are avoided in favour of “taken his/her own life” – if suicide is noted at all. There is a fine line between breaking the stigma of an awful phenomenon that claims more than 2,500 Australian lives a year and glamorising it.

But reporting on what are complex and often unknowable circumstances, the warp speed of modern journalism, the concomitant time pressures on its practitioners, the amplification of social media and the capricious demands of editors who oversee different newsroom cultures and values all mean that the variability Skehan refers to occurs both across and within organisations, sometimes wildly.

“Now more than at any previous time, when you talk about the media you have to ask who are you talking about,” says Margaret Simons, until recently the director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. “Nevertheless, leaping in and generalising, I would say reporting around the subject is better than it used to be, but it’s still nowhere near good enough.”

She points out that mental health exists at the interface of many news stories: homelessness, for example, and domestic violence. She castigates Melbourne’s Herald Sun, which last summer ran a months-long campaign that cast a handful of people sleeping rough in the vicinity of Flinders Street Station as a public menace. “I think their reporting on homelessness has been disgraceful, particularly since they’ve also done some very good reporting on domestic violence. But they don’t seem to join the dots between the two.”

Mindframe, she says, has made a difference. “Particularly among younger reporters who’ve been through journalism courses in recent years; most of them would have been introduced to the complexities of mental health reporting. It doesn’t necessarily mean the culture of the newsroom supports them, or all of them are equally sensitive, or remember what they were taught. But at least they’ve had to think about it.”

Since Mindframe’s establishment, however, the social media revolution and the collapse of traditional media business models have meant the organisation’s best attempts at education are arguably lagging behind structural and institutional forces beyond its control. Similarly, the Australian Press Council, which regularly reviews its own material, has not updated its guidelines on health and medical reporting since 2001.

“I have definitely noticed that as I read mental health stories, I’m increasingly cringing,” says Melissa Davey, Melbourne bureau chief at Guardian Australia, formerly of the Sydney Morning Herald. She identifies two other pertinent issues: the loss or outsourcing of experienced in-house subeditors, especially from Fairfax’s ranks, and the diminishing numbers of specialist reporters.

It’s a sensitive subject for Davey, whose own family has been affected by severe mental health issues. She draws breath sharply when she brings up the case at the top of this story. “Everyone’s editors wanted to know what was going on there, and wanted approaches made to the family.” She attempted to make contact with one of them using Facebook’s Messenger service. She says it’s something she has dwelled upon ever since.

I CAUGHT up with some of the news surrounding my own disappearance in the weeks that followed. All of it was to some extent inaccurate, having been pieced together entirely from Facebook and Twitter. My partner had been advised by friends not to comment, particularly to television networks, so no one had much to go on. I read the stories with a sort of morbid detachment; I couldn’t afford to get too caught up in it.

One piece threw me, though. It was in the Daily Mail, and there at the top were screenshots of the three tweets I had broadcast (and later deleted) when in the middle of an emotional crisis. No link to helplines was provided. This was two months after the event: I’d come across the story accidentally, in the course of searching for an old article I’d written.

I looked at my profile picture and the awful words alongside it for several minutes, with an odd sensation of being outside and looking down on myself from a distance: the face, those words belonged to me, but I barely recognised them. What I recognised was that in writing them, I’d inadvertently cast myself as the Road Runner: I’d lit a firestorm on my trail, with coyotes in pursuit.

I emailed the journalist concerned requesting that the tweets be removed. The editor emailed back, noting that stories were normally not altered, but acquiescing seemingly on the grounds that I had asked nicely. They were replaced with an extra bullet point at the top of the piece: “There are reports he earlier posted a series of worrying tweets.” Helplines were added to the bottom of the copy.

Most other stories were well intentioned. I was a missing person, and the overriding concern was that I be found. It was hard to escape the feeling, though, that to some I’d ceased to be a human being: I was a story to be “got”. At least one piece referred to me in the past tense. The publications to which I’m most grateful are the ones for which I do the most work, as they all decided not to report the story at all.

What to do, though, when social media is racing ahead of the news cycle? Such a frenzy, Simons says, “will have journalists acting both as participants and also feeding off it, and a lot of that can happen before [a situation is] even clear”. Engaging an online audience often extends to the moderation of comments on stories, the inclusion of which may be dangerously inappropriate in such circumstances.

We have also become conditioned, in an age of overexposure, to want to know everything. (It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that a few editors were keen on what I’ll call the “Oprah” version of this story; naturally, a first-person tell-all would also have been cheap to commission.) “We can end up in a very precarious position where a story can quite quickly go from being in the public interest to not being in the public interest,” Skehan says. “We have this blend between traditional and digital and social media, and it means that people can forget when lines are being crossed.”

Every case is different, each presenting editors and journalists with a new set of considerations and complexities. And every media organisation faces another question, if it stops to ask itself this question at all: when to pull back? “At what point, when the initial story is over and the person is found, do we need to continue to stalk and hound and look for every single tiny detail associated with that story and try to summarise it in a headline?” Skehan asks.

This is especially the case when reporting on public figures. Sporting identities including former Essendon AFL captain and coach James Hird, former Olympic swimmer Grant Hackett and another celebrated AFL footballer, Lance Franklin, have found themselves the subject of heavy public scrutiny in recent times. All have received varying levels of support – or endured different degrees of intrusion.

Franklin, who took time away from the sport with depression (something that, in any other job, we would call sick leave), was treated with the most sympathy. Hird, who had been at the centre of a years-long scandal over the use of performance-enhancing supplements that eventuated in 17 players being suspended for 12 months, was admitted to a psychiatric facility in January 2017 after an overdose of sleeping tablets.

Hird and his family had learnt to live with media camped outside their home; now the cameras followed them to the clinic, where Hird’s condition was the subject of rolling updates as drawn-looking family members came and went. A familiar scene ensued: Hird’s wife, Tania, reading a prepared statement asking for the family’s privacy to be respected, in front of a scrum of cameras and microphones.

There is no common law tort of privacy in Australia, a subject that has been examined by successive law reform commissions. In 2004, years before the phone-hacking scandal, model Naomi Campbell successfully sued the English tabloid the Daily Mirror after it pictured her leaving a rehabilitation facility, in a three-to-two majority ruling that Campbell’s right to privacy, in that instance, outweighed considerations of press freedom. “You could argue the same with the Hird case,” Simons says.

Hird later wrote – by editorial request from the Herald Sun, but seemingly on his own terms – about his experience: “Everyone has a breaking point and I reached mine after years of continual stress … In 2002, I fractured my skull and required multiple metal plates in my head. I, for one, would prefer multiple skull fractures to the feeling of deep clinical depression.”

I have read Janet Malcolm’s excoriation of her craft (and mine) many times over. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” reads the famous opening sentence of The Journalist And The Murderer. Malcolm goes on to talk about the “catastrophe” suffered by the inquisitor’s subject:

On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist – who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things – never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.

It is the most uncomfortable truth any serious writer of non-fiction must acknowledge. This is not to say that journalists as a group lack empathy or consideration: “I think we get an incredibly bad rap when actually we really, really care about getting it right,” says Davey, and it’s obvious that she does. The point, though, is that a journalist’s first duty is not to our subjects. It is to our readers. I am no different.

In their study Black Saturday: In The Media Spotlight, Denis Muller and Michael Gawenda (Simons’ predecessor at the Centre for Advancing Journalism) examined the thorny issue of gaining informed consent from people who are traumatised. What practical meaning does informed consent have when the subject is in shock or distress? And how can a journalist assess the subject’s capacity in this regard? Survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires, they wrote, “described themselves as being in a kind of daze in which they were responding to questions while disoriented by a sudden and violent displacement, worried about the fate of friends or property, agitated by lack of knowledge of what had happened to their towns and communities”.

When a person is in crisis, comparatively little thought may be given to the state of mind of those closest to them. For 24 hours, my former partner – a private person with no media experience – found herself fending off inquiries and requests for photographs. At the same time she was trying to liaise with police, with no more idea than anybody else where I was or whether I was dead or alive.

Dr Stephen Carbone, leader of policy, research and evaluation at beyondblue, says anyone experiencing a mental health crisis is not going through it alone. “Their loved ones are going through the same emotional turmoil, particularly if they’re bereaved. It’s especially painful when people have been bereaved by suicide; it’s a very confronting and challenging type of death for people to deal with.”

“When someone is in a state of a distress and concerned about the welfare of someone else, then their cognitive abilities can be impacted,” Skehan says. “If media are asking them to comment, they’re actually asking them at a time in which they are incapable of doing it in the same way that they would if they weren’t in the current situation.”

On the other hand, as Simons argues, it is also the media’s job to help people tell their stories. This becomes particularly difficult when reporting on subjects with potentially reduced capacity: the homeless, for example. “Would the journalist be entitled to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to tell your story because you’re not in a position to make that decision’? That could be insulting, and equally ethically questionable.”

Then there is the issue of verification. Muller and Gawenda quote one frustrated reporter lamenting that the demands created by the 24/7 news cycle, and the insatiable appetite for it, means that “what is fact right now can be proven to be fiction 20 minutes later … Obviously there are some things we are going to, with all good intentions, publish that in an hour or two, or the next day, [are] going to be found to have been incorrect.”

Social media, of course, only stokes the blaze. Journalists, now trained to embed tweets in their stories, can find themselves updating reports from what is often little more than a rumour mill in close to real time, with precious little opportunity for fact-checking. “It’s one thing if we know that a Facebook post has come from an organisation and that’s their statement; it’s another if you’re getting a bunch of random strangers speculating or making comments that we don’t know are true and then turning that into a story,” Davey says. This is exactly what ensued in my own case: without wishing to diminish anyone’s genuine care or concern, the effect was to turn smaller players into heroes while central ones, including my former partner, remained mute.

“If a person has disappeared, you’ll be updating it by the hour,” says Simons. In the case of the missing Victorian family, she says, “There were a lot of people reporting episodically, and gradually everybody became aware there were mental health issues involved. I think the tenor of the reporting did change a bit. But they were already a long way down the rabbit hole by then, and that’s partly the rolling deadline issue.”

IN AN essay for The Saturday PaperMartin McKenzie-Murray explored in further detail the rare phenomenon of the folie à famille raised by Marnie O’Neill. He noted the police had refuted the wilder suggestions in relation to the family: of mob debts, drug-induced psychosis or cult membership. “What remained was a curiosity so intense we somehow felt entitled to resolution.”

We only had questions, McKenzie-Murray said, questions mostly responded to with speculation, which he then only added to. Eventually he admitted: “All of which is to say, we do not know. And perhaps that’s fine.” His conclusion is freighted with guilt: “Our curiosity turns people into puzzles to be solved, and people like me assume the role of solving that puzzle for readers’ entertainment.”

Johnston notes that the case was an extreme one, and it’s unfair to generalise about the reporting of mental health based on it. In many respects this is true. But it also serves as a perfectly distilled example of how the institutional and structural pressures on journalists can very quickly lead them, and their readers, into places they may never have intended to go, and to things that were no one’s business to ever know.

Johnston acknowledged as much in a follow-up opinion piece. Stories about the family, he said, all “rated through the roof online”. And because there were few facts to go on, “the fantasies took hold”. Again, the piece was accompanied with a photo of the man at the centre of the mystery leaving the police station, protecting his face from view, proffering only a middle finger to the camera.

Leave me alone, it says.

Johnston was sympathetic. “They’ve had reporters – including us – knocking on their front door every day since last Thursday, but they were patient and understood they needed the media to help find their dad as much as the media needed them to try to explain to a growing mass of confused, engaged readers what had happened.” I respectfully disagree: while the media might have needed the clicks, the family owed readers no explanation whatsoever.

And did the family need the media? “With all due respect to journalists, it’s not their job to solve a missing persons case, other than if they’ve been asked to support the police,” Carbone says. “If you’re already half out of your mind with worry, the last thing you want to deal with is questions from complete strangers who obviously don’t really care about the person; they’re just after a story.”

Simons takes a more pragmatic view. “The police regularly turn to the media for help in finding missing people. I’ve been a journalist for 35 years; one of the main ways in which police look for missing people is to cooperate with the media in getting pictures and descriptions out there, and sometimes that can be very beneficial.”

The problem arises when such stories take on a life of their own. “It became clear part-way through the saga that it was a very domestic, very intimate familial build-up of psychological issues that got the better of them, possibly briefly, in the end. Now it is up to the family to figure out how to go on,” Johnston concluded. I can relate to this. Psychological issues can get the better of any of us briefly, sometimes in terrifyingly destructive ways.

Such episodes, once experienced, become an inescapable part of one’s history: to be navigated; learned from; hopefully avoided; eventually accepted. If we’ve become the subject of wider attention along the way, we return to the world in the knowledge that it knows more about us than we might ever have wished it to. We put on our mask and get on with our lives, trying to resolve our inner battles behind closed doors.

We are all puzzles. Few people are as consistent as they appear, or would have others believe. We shapeshift; we project different versions of ourselves to our bosses, colleagues, partners and friends. Sometimes we lose sight of ourselves along the way. The puzzle of who we really are when we are most vulnerable is the missing piece of sky in the jigsaw that is hardest to complete. It’s also the most intensely private.

First published in Griffith Review 57: Perils of Populism, 1 August 2017; extracted in The Guardian, 13 August 2017

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Paul Kelly: Life Is Fine review

In the A–Z of Paul Kelly’s career – something he spent some 550 pages discussing in his excellent “mongrel memoir” How To Make Gravy, which obliquely discussed in alphabetical order the inspirations, motivations and memories lurking behind more than 100 of his songs – attention always turns back to his third album, Post, the one where he found his true songwriting voice.

Post was recorded as a solo album in 1985 but it featured the core of his band the Coloured Girls, later renamed the Messengers. It was this album and the ones that followed (Gossip, Under The Sun, So Much Water So Close To Home and Comedy) which cemented Kelly’s stature. Gossip, especially, was towering, packed with an astonishing 24 songs that never flagged.

Those albums were made a long time ago, and Steve Connolly, the guitarist whose stinging, economical leads were the linchpin of the Messengers, died tragically young in 1995. Kelly has made more than 20 albums since then, all of them studded with gems – but while he has surrounded himself with great players, he has never had a band with quite the same chemistry.

Life Is Fine is an unabashed attempt to recapture the feel and energy of some of those early records. Restlessness has seen Kelly take some odd detours of late: his last album was a collection of songs he’d been asked to perform at funerals; before that, a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music.

This time there’s no concept weighing the songs down. It’s just a Paul Kelly album, and a very good one at that.

Kelly has learned to play piano in recent years. Playing a new instrument can invigorate a songwriter; it takes things back to basics (in a reversal, Nick Cave, who’d previously composed on piano, learned to play guitar for his albums with Grinderman). Simplicity is at the heart of Finally Something Good, My Man’s Got A Cold and I Smell Trouble. The latter, especially, is one of Kelly’s best songs in years.

He’s also in good form lyrically. The stomp-and-grind of My Man’s Got A Cold is sung with relish by Vika Bull, who’s fed up with her lover’s pathetic man-flu: “He’s off his wine and bread / He even said no to head!” Vika’s sister, Linda, gets a turn too, singing an old song, Don’t Explain. It’s a kiss-off from an older woman to a younger man: “If one night you’re lonely, and I have other company, don’t complain.”

Their contributions, singing songs written from a female point of view, are welcome. But Kelly’s voice is at its sweetest on the lovely Petrichor, with not much more than a little steel guitar for company. On I Smell Trouble, he’s riddled with anxiety, the song building on a minimalist piano line, with Peter Luscombe playing his ride cymbal as though he’s skipping rope and could stumble at any moment.

Firewood And Candles is another gem. Ashley Naylor, stalwart guitarist for Even and the RocKwiz house band, plays a riff that instantly recalls Connolly’s snaking line on one of Kelly’s greatest rockers, Sweet Guy. But where Sweet Guy was bitter in its irony – a dead-eyed story of domestic violence – Firewood And Candles is exactly as its title suggests: a warm song of home and hearth.

Kelly’s in a good place here – but if that makes Life Is Fine sound glib, it’s not. In what could be a reference to Courtney Barnett’s Elevator Operator, the narrator of the closing title track finds himself 16 flights up, contemplating suicide, only to step back. Life, as Connolly’s premature death showed, can be as fine as those thin, wiry leads which the guitarist threaded through classics like Before Too Long. And it comes at you fast.

First published in The Guardian, 13 August 2017

Jen Cloher: Jen Cloher review

There’s an old, inconclusively attributed aphorism that talent borrows and genius steals. Genius is a word used far too loosely, particularly in the arts, but there’s no doubting this: Melbourne singer–songwriter Jen Cloher is a thief of the highest order. Or this: that her fourth, self-titled album is a work of real brilliance, a brave, ambitious and moving follow-up to 2013’s outstanding In Blood Memory.

Cloher is, as anyone paying attention to these things knows, Courtney Barnett’s partner. We can’t ignore the elephant in the room, because Barnett’s guitar playing is a key component of Cloher’s band, and the pair have already written extensively both with and about each other. They are, however, completely different stylists. Where Barnett will use 300 words per song, Cloher might use 30 and be equally profound.

Cloher has stated the lyrics are crucial to understanding this record, and the melodies and song structures are secondary. On one hand, this is true – but it also sells the music, and her incredible band, somewhat short.

But let’s get back to Cloher’s light-fingered tendencies. On the opening track here, Forgot Myself – a song about what happens when you lose sight of your own needs in service of your lover’s – she quotes one of rock’s totemic songs, Satisfaction: “You’re riding around the world / You’re doing this and signing that … I’m driving in my car / Your song comes on the radio / And I remember what I always forget – loneliness.”

In between, Barnett – clearly the subject of the song’s helpless devotion – bends a repeated two-note refrain that bottles up both the song and Cloher’s frustration, creating an explosive push–pull tension. Throughout the album, Cloher’s combination of envy and admiration at seeing her younger partner shoot past her to global fame is expressed with extraordinary emotional candour.

The thieving doesn’t stop there. “I don’t wanna / I don’t think so,” she murmurs on Kinda Biblical, a lift from Sonic Youth’s Kool Thing. It’s a songwriting trick Cloher frequently played on In Blood Memory, too. Both albums are stuffed with instantly recognisable references to rock history that have shaped this otherwise idiosyncratic talent’s worldview. But Cloher has developed a style that’s entirely her own.

The themes of the album are physical and emotional distance. Cloher takes direct inspiration from the Triffids, specifically their 1986 album Born Sandy Devotional, to paint her own vast landscape of Australia circa 2017 through the fish-eye lens of her relationship. The brushstrokes are broad, but Cloher has a poet’s eye for telling, tiny details and the musical ear of a life spent wallowing in the finest rock & roll.

The Triffids’ connection is made explicit on Great Australian Bite, a nod to Australian artists who had to leave home to find an audience: the tyranny of distance is what proves our own existence to ourselves. But, as the late David McComb once observed, we’re on stolen property: “Let’s hope Uncle Archie [Roach] can pay the rent,” Cloher says.

Like McComb, Cloher has developed a facility for lyrics so evocative that they could only have come from here. Regional Echo ghosts in on a shimmering Bones Sloane bassline and slowly expands into a sound grand enough to fill a cathedral, with an unsettling Christ-like metaphor to match: “Bat swaying on the power lines / Wings open in surrender, this is how you die.”

It’s followed by Sensory Memory, an almost unbearably intimate portrait of domestic discord following a lengthy separation. A breakfast of tea for two and soldier toast masks the tension “Of the things we never say / Distance has a funny way of slowly making you someone that I don’t know.” Barnett’s guitar elaborates on an exquisite vocal melody, spiralling over and around drummer Jen Sholakis’s martial rhythm.

On Analysis Paralysis, Sholakis is superbly nuanced as she and Sloane lock into cruise control for seven minutes. Here, the motorik groove and Barnett’s deceptively aimless noodling captures our national stasis over same-sex marriage: “I pay my fines, taxes on time / But the feral right get to decide / If I can have a wife. If I can have a wife?” The question is repeated and left hanging, shot through with disbelief.

Then there’s Shoegazing, which sounds like Patti Smith fronting the Rolling Stones – a sexy mid-paced swagger with a venomous bite: “Most critics are pussies who wanna look cool / Those who can they do, those who can’t review / What’s hot today is forgotten tomorrow / All that you’ve got is your joy and your sorrow.” (Hey, it’s a fair cop.)

Strong Woman, meanwhile, is the kind of song PJ Harvey hasn’t written since Rid of Me: all knotted guitars and bolts of feedback, driven at a tearaway tempo by Sholakis. Cloher touches on her childhood – of gender indeterminacy and discovering her sexuality – and finishes by paying tribute to her late mother, casting her as a Maori warrior: “Kia kaha, be proud, stay strong, go on.”

This is a more challenging album than In Blood Memory, which was brief at 33 minutes and seven songs. At 50 minutes, more is demanded of the listener this time around, and the songs take longer to stick. The rewards, though, are deeper. It’s a less visceral, more subtly hued record: the band can billow big clouds of noise, or hold back as the song demands. Nothing is wasted; everything is played for effect.

It finishes with just Cloher and a few plucked acoustic guitar notes on Dark Art. It is the simplest and saddest of love songs, and beautiful in its selflessness. “The other side of love’s joy is shadow / Jealousy, fear, loss, anger, sorrow / If you never stay to sit in love’s shadow / A part of you will always be hollow.” Cloher, though, has surely sat in her love’s shadow long enough. This album is a masterpiece.

First published in The Guardian, 11 August 2017

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