Still going hard

If you were growing up in the Australian suburbs in the 1980s and early 1990s and had any interest at all in what later became known as alternative music, you have probably heard the Hard-Ons. Against considerable odds – starting with their name – the band once racked up an astonishing run of 17 consecutive No. 1 songs on the independent charts.

It’s tempting to say they’re back. But the priapic Hard-Ons never really went away. They did break up in 1994, but bassist Ray Ahn and guitarist Peter Black (known to all as Blackie), soldiered on as Nunchukka Superfly. They reunited with singing drummer Keish de Silva in 1997, but de Silva quickly became disenchanted and moved on again.

Still, the band carried on, with Murray Ruse on drums and the prolific Blackie singing. Actually, prolific doesn’t begin to describe Blackie: the influential guitarist recorded a song every single day in 2016, adding a cover of Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water on New Year’s Day 2017 for good measure.

It’s de Silva – whose honey-sweet vocals and energetic drumming style was a big part of the band’s appeal – who’s back, with the release of the band’s 12th studio album So I Could Have Them Destroyed today. It’s a welcome return, and the band’s mix of bubblegum pop, punk and metal is well intact, led by a wonderful single, Harder And Harder.

But it’s also not the same. Firstly, the band is now a four-piece, with Ahn and Blackie unwilling to part ways with Ruse. “We love Murray, we love his drumming and we like him a lot personally,” Ahn says. De Silva is now purely a frontman, a role he first explored on the band’s 30th anniversary tour in 2014.

Ahn says the new look suits the band. “What wouldn’t work would be a big muscle-bound guy with his shirt off, doing that stereotypical thing, pacing up and down the stage and screaming into the mic. I don’t think that would suit the Hard-Ons, because we’re way more melodic than that,” he says.

Which is pretty funny, because one of the Hard-Ons’ most successful singles was a collaboration with Henry Rollins, the archetypal muscle-bound punk screamer, on a cover of AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock. “Yeah, but he suited that for that one song,” parries Ahn, quite reasonably.

Despite their name, sound and image, the Hard-Ons, Ahn says, were never really punks. Growing up, Blackie loved classic rock, while de Silva was a James Brown fan. “You know how punks have got so many rules, what you can do and what you can’t do? It didn’t really fit three migrant kids,” Ahn says.

Straight out of Punchbowl, in Sydney’s west, the original trio is indeed one of Australia’s best multicultural success stories: Ahn is of Korean parentage, de Silva’s is Sri Lankan and Black’s Slavic. The three met in primary school in the 1970s, and have sold over a quarter of a million records worldwide.

The Hard-Ons learned to play to their strengths and work within their limitations. “We were friends before we became a band,” Ahn says. “When we started, none of us had to audition or prove ourselves. It was very natural – it was just the three of us, and any shortcomings or extra talents that we had, we formed the band around that.”

Blackie was always a shit-hot guitarist. In time, Ahn became a formidable bass player, but his main gift initially was drawing, and he has been responsible for the band’s distinctive artwork. De Silva, meanwhile, was multi-skilled: he could play piano and guitar, he could sing and write songs, and he was good at all of it.

Then he started playing drums. “I actually said to him, I didn’t know you could play the drums, and he said, ‘Neither did I’,” Ahn recalls. “You know how some people are just naturally talented? I think he just got bored of playing drums and singing, that’s why he quit. But he’d never been just the frontman before, so I think that held interest to him.”

Ahn acknowledges that if you were one of those fans who grew up with the band, your favourite Hard-Ons release might be their delightfully named 1986 mini-album Smell My Finger, or any of a dozen-strong singles: quicksilver pop-punk gems like Where Did She Come From or Girl In The Sweater.

“That’s good for them,” Ahn says. “But we have a duty to our band to constantly make the music that we like. I know some bands go out there and do the greatest hits set over and over again, especially a lot of punk bands. That’s good for them, too. But you can’t really pretend that it’s punk anymore, can you?”

First published in The Age (Shortlist), 10 October 2019

David Pocock leads sporting charge on emissions

Wallabies flanker David Pocock, along with teammates Bernard Foley and Dane Haylett-Perry, have announced their partnership with a scheme that aims to compensate for the carbon emissions associated with travel.

Earlier this year, musician Heidi Lenffer, from Australian band Cloud Control, launched FEAT. (Future Energy Artists), an initiative that would allow musicians to invest in a solar farm on Queensland’s Darling Downs.

Lenffer was concerned about the carbon emissions generated by her group’s touring schedule and what she saw as her own contribution to the climate emergency. Now, FEAT. is opening up to other sectors and individuals.

When FEAT. was announced, Pocock responded via Instagram – “he was putting enthusiastic emoji responses on a lot of our posts,” Lenffer said – and contacted another songwriter, Jack River, who put the two of them in touch.

Pocock, currently with the Wallabies in Japan for the Rugby World Cup, told the Guardian that “as an athlete, you’re in a somewhat similar position to artists in that there’s no escaping what you do requires travel, and I’m very conscious of my personal contribution.

“To see what FEAT. was doing, and to see people like Heidi getting on with it and trying to harness that energy into actually building the future we know is coming and we all want to see, but need to speed up, that was really exciting.”

Lenffer said that while FEAT. started and would always be identified with the musical community, she was keen for the scheme to expand and be inclusive. “We see allies in other industries as being critical to the success of what we’re trying to do,” she said.

Money invested in FEAT. is being used to buy ownership stakes in a solar farm called Brigalow, near the town of Pittsworth in south-east Queensland. The floor price for investment is low, just $5. The farm will power the equivalent of over 11,000 homes for 30 years.

The former Wallabies captain presented the scheme to his teammates, trying to impress upon them the carbon footprint of a rugby tour. “It’s like any slice of the population. There’s some guys who were interested in it, others didn’t really see it as an issue,” he said.

“I just presented the guys with what FEAT. was doing, giving them an idea of the Wallabies’ emissions this year and suggesting we team with them as a way of investing an equivalent amount into renewable energy.”

He convinced Foley and Haylett-Perry to come on board. “They’re excited about seeing solutions to these problems that we’re facing … It’s ridiculous to think that changing lightbulbs and that sort of things is enough. Those days are over. We need a big system change.”

Pocock has been a vocal campaigner about the climate emergency, and has extended that to direct action: in 2014, he was arrested in a protest against Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine in northern New South Wales.

He extended his support to the wave of school strikes started by Greta Thunberg. “If you look at social change, it very seldom just happens. It ends up taking a percentage of the population actually willing to give up their freedoms and engage in civil disobedience,” he said.

He also highlighted how global heating was already impacting on world sport, with a sharp message for rugby’s governing bodies. “I’m not playing rugby in Australia next year, but round one of Super Rugby is in January next year,” he said.

“Can you imagine, in the last weekend of January, playing 80 minutes of rugby? That’s the way that change is going to happen in sport, when a few players get together – and our player’s unions – and say, hang on, this is an issue that’s going to affect our sport.”

Asked what he would say to those who tell him to “stick to sport” – and many have – Pocock said “first and foremost, we’re all humans, and this is a much bigger issue than sport … It’s an existential threat.”

“Rugby’s a big part of my life and I’m doing absolutely everything I can to be playing at my best to be contributing to the Wallabies working towards us winning the World Cup and taking it back to Australia, that’s what we’re all working for.

“But I really believe that sport is at its best when it’s challenging society to be more inclusive, to be more forward thinking, and hopefully this is an area where sport can play more of a role, because we certainly aren’t getting the leadership from our politicians.

“When young people who are too young to vote tell us their futures are on the line, you’ve got to listen to them. They’re not making it up, they’re listening to the best of the available scientific projections. Ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away, unfortunately.”

First published in The Guardian, 10 October 2019

Tribute to Andrew McGahan, Brisbane Writers Festival

I’ve said for a long time that Praise was to Brisbane literature what the Saints’ album (I’m) Stranded was to music. In fact, I first made this analogy on the last page of my first book Pig City, a book in which I quoted Andrew at several key points.

Why the comparison to Stranded? It seems pretty obvious to me. The rawness. A voice that blew away all the surrounding bullshit – the boredom and stasis and sweat of Brisbane – with short, bullet-tipped sentences.

Demolition girls, nights in Venice. Paralytic tonight, Pig City tomorrow.

Praise described a town I recognised, but hadn’t been in for very long. I got here on Christmas Eve of 1986 on a Greyhound bus. It took a while to find my feet, and my way around. On the surface, there didn’t seem to be much happening. Underneath it was a different story.

Praise is a bit like that, too. There wasn’t much of a plot, but all the main characters seemed to be in various stages of losing it. That was a good metaphor for Brisbane around that time. Those characters and Andrew’s language were what gave his debut its narrative propulsion.

There was, naturally, a precedent.

“Brisbane is so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely! I have taken to wandering about after school, looking for one simple object in it that might be romantic, or appalling even, but there is nothing. It is simply the most ordinary place in the world.”

That was David Malouf, in Johnno, which I didn’t read until many years later. His book was celebrated, but spoke of a time decades before my arrival in town. I confess I found it harder to connect with, but I suspect that was mainly generational.

In Praise, though, there was this corresponding passage:

“Look at this city. There’s nothing happening. There’s no one on the streets. How can you stand it?”

“Things are happening, you just have to look a little harder. At least no one bothers you. There’s worse places than Brisbane.”

“There’s better.”

To a degree, I was still seeing Brisbane through my Melbourne eyes. After a few more years, I did what so many young people in Brisbane do: I left, this time for Sydney in early 1997, shortly after Andrew’s second novel 1988 was published.

I interviewed Andrew around this time, for a Sydney magazine called Juice. (That would, by the way, be the very same magazine that JB here once paid a personal visit disguised in the character of Jack Podesta, from the Never Fail Debt Collecting agency.)

Andrew was legendarily shy, but that didn’t make him hard to talk to. He was generous with his time and encouraging of my writing. That said, at that stage, he was unsure whether or not he would stick it out as a writer himself. 1988 could have been his last book.

I’d needed to get away from Brisbane, even though it was exploding with new energy. I came back a few years later, my tail between my legs. But I’d also been surprised by my adopted home town’s gravitational pull.

Maybe Queensland, as Andrew wrote in Last Drinks, was an addiction. “Maligned and scorned by the rest of the country – but still, it infected the soul somehow, [demanding] love of those it bore and bred,” he wrote. It got under my skin, too, and I was just a blow-in from the south.

I needed a reason to be back, though, and had an idea centred on the town’s music history, intertwined with politics. Around the same time, Last Drinks came out. Andrew’s book told me I was onto something. Brisbane had started picking at the seamy threads of its own past.

Coming after 1988, Last Drinks proved a few points, perhaps most of all to Andrew himself. He could write a plot, and his dramatic and linguistic range was bigger than anyone realised, himself included.

I wrote about Last Drinks in 2001, in a small UQP journal of new writing called Imago. It wasn’t coincidental, I wrote, that the character of Charlie died in a power station, for the genesis of Last Drinks was in the SEQEB dispute that paralysed Queensland in 1985.

But that, as Andrew explained, was about more than union bashing on Joh’s part. It was about business contracts and big money. Or, as the character of Marvin McNulty put it, “Favours, George. It was all about doing favours.”

A game of mates. A joke. The joke. Marvin was like a cartoon character, but then, Queensland was governed by people who made Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote look like super-brain geniuses. It was a genre-busting mash-up of historical fiction and murder mystery.

That sort of hybrid was a direct inspiration for Pig City.  These days I describe that book, in shorthand, as a book about Brisbane, a love letter to my adopted home town. I’m not sure if Andrew would have regarded Last Drinks as a love letter. You could even read it as hate mail.

But he cared deeply about Brisbane, and this state, even as he describes its shimmer of light and haze and heat and the familiar itch of sweat on his scalp. You had to love Queensland, he wrote, for all its peculiarities and contradictions.

Again, I’m reminded of the Saints. Take it two albums down the line, from (I’m) Stranded to Prehistoric Sounds. Of Brisbane (Security City): “Thirteen hot nights in a row. The cops drive past, but they move slow.”

Like the band, Andrew had expanded his vocabulary. The sentences were getting longer. The writing seethed with atmosphere. The heat, he wrote, “took on a moral quality as well, it sank into your limbs and your heart, made everything slow and confused”.

But there was nothing confused about the prose. Andrew’s vision had sharpened. Time and growing confidence seemed to have given him perspective and clarity on his work, and on Queensland. Last Drinks contained this description of the state’s parliament:

“Queenslanders were always wary of the more sophisticated types – they liked their representatives to be awkward and stumbling. They mistook it for honesty. So much so that the Queensland parliament sometimes bordered on a sideshow collection of the ugly, the misshapen and the incoherent.”

At the time of Last Drinks, Peter Beattie was the premier. Beattie, never one to maintain the rage for long, had encouraged a rapprochement with the state’s history. Federally, though, Pauline Hanson was the member for Oxley, Bill Hayden’s old federal seat.

The prime minister, John Howard, had won power in 1996 on a slogan perhaps many have forgotten: “For all of us”. Liberal historians saw it as a modern appeal to Menzies’ “forgotten people”. Others heard a dog whistle: “For all of us – but not for them.”

Hanson had been disendorsed by the Liberal Party prior to Howard’s election, but her narrative – incoherent though it was then, and remains now – was an early expression of white victimhood, co-opted by Howard to devastating effect.

The narrative goes that the opening of opportunities to those who had been marginalised – women, Indigenous people whose ownership of the land had been recognised in the Mabo and Wik decisions – posed a direct threat to the country’s white colonisers.

And for those who’d come across the seas, our plains were no longer so boundless, and we weren’t about to share them quite so willingly, as Howard made clear post-Tampa: “We will decide who comes into this country, and the circumstances in which they come.”

This was all grist for The White Earth – for many, Andrew’s greatest book. It’s hard to argue, even if the scene of a Neo-Nazi rally on the Darling Downs, country that Andrew knew intimately, seemed to me to be a slight overreach at the time.

Fifteen years later, it looks downright prophetic. We haven’t had a Neo-Nazi rally on the Downs yet, to my knowledge. Instead, we had one on St Kilda Beach.

Not that The White Earth was any kind of polemic. Andrew by then had moved to Melbourne with his partner Liesje, but his language, shapeshifting and subtle, remained rooted in the strange poetry of Queensland. This was some new kind of (Deep) Northern Gothic:

“The great House groaned, a long, anguished sound, the wrenching of timber and stone. And then, with slow majesty, the blazing line of the roof began to sag inwards. For a tortured moment it held, and then thunder filled the air as it collapsed from one wing of the House to the other. Flames exploded from the windows, and a great fireball belched out through front doors and across the garden, black with smoke and flying debris. Then only a great bonfire remained, roaring within the roofless walls, towering up into the night, and defying the rain-drenched sky.”

He eschewed poetry and subtlety in Underground. The book sees Canberra obliterated in a nuclear attack. There was a glee in Andrew’s writing at this point, not just at the idea of metaphorically obliterating Canberra, but pushing the limits of what he could get away with.

“True, normally I’d be wary of being so overtly political with a novel,” he wrote on a website attached to the book. “But this no longer seems the time to be polite or indirect in fiction, or artfully diffident. It’s time to confront the danger of what’s going on here, head-on.”

The book was, he told me in an interview at the time, “a very cartoonish kind of thriller, chock-full of conspiracy theories”. Published in 2006, with the Cronulla riots still fresh, Underground was a worst-case scenario of where a never-ending war on terror might be taking us.

Not that he was Nostradamus. A new values-based citizenship test featuring Donald Bradman was already on the agenda. But how could Andrew somehow predict a scenario where, for a time, no one even wanted to play cricket with us?

That interview was the second and last time I spoke to Andrew. I lost touch with his work after that, as his work shapeshifted again, into science fiction and the Ship Kings series for young adults. And I went back to driving cabs, for a long while.

But my acknowledgement of my debt to Andrew is long-standing. I’m not sure if Pig City would have existed if not for Last Drinks, and I’m not sure I would have started writing seriously at all, particularly from and about Brisbane, if not for Praise.

I couldn’t have imagined, 15 years later, I’d be asked to pay tribute to him here. I’m honoured to, but I also wish there’d never been such a reason to do so. Perhaps we should pay tribute to the living more often.

Quoting the Saints one more time, his work hit me like a deathray, baby, from above.

Speech for Andrew McGahan tribute at Brisbane Writers Festival, 6 September 2019

Ben Folds: “I dreaded that song coming out”

Ben Folds has what appear to be perfect piano-playing hands. They’re large, with long, elegant fingers – until you look closer and inspect the damage. “My left hand’s fucked,” he says, raising a beer with it. He lowers the glass, then vigorously shakes out the hand, from the elbow down. There’s an audible click. “Good to go for the next couple of hours.”

Folds, whose sweet, sometimes earnest, often irreverent songs with his group Ben Folds Five were a staple of late-90s alternative rock radio, has just released a memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs. In it, he describes the piano as “living-room furniture” – expensive and heavy, and therefore manifestly unsuitable for rock & roll, which is supposed to be portable.

But, he says, if you look at the handful of notable pianists in rock history – Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John, John Cale – “they all had to sacrifice their piano to a degree. Stand on it, attack it, sacrifice it, to show that you’re on Team Rock.” Folds’ hands have paid the penalty.

His right hand isn’t much better. In late 1984, a pumped-up jock on a wrestling scholarship beat him to a pulp the night before his exams at the University of Miami. The weedy Folds – then a budding percussionist – tried to hit back, only to slam his fist into a cinder-block wall. Crippled, he failed the exam the next day, then threw his drums in a lake.

The story sums up Folds’ self-deprecating approach to his memoir, which has brought him to Australia for a book tour that culminates with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival this weekend. “If I put something in the book, it’s because I suspected there may be a good chance that a liability was an asset towards my occupation,” he says.

If anything, Folds is a proud member of Team Dork: a bespectacled boy next door. He remains in-between, an outsider, a status he acknowledges he’s actively cultivated. A musician, he says, is “branded and tethered by the personality they exude through their songs”. Folds’ brand is awkwardness.

Today, his work spans high and low culture. Since 2017, he’s advised the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC. From 2009 to 2013, he was a judge on an NBC talent contest, The Sing-Off. He’s collaborated with Regina Spektor and satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic, authors Neil Gaiman and Nick Hornby, and actor William Shatner.

He realised he’d found his own voice when he started using words like “stupid” in songs. “It’s very freeing to hear how awkward that is, and to feel how that resembles life, suddenly,” he says. “It’s not on the stage anymore – the guy’s fallen off the stage, and then you can relate to that person.”

In a chapter ironically titled Cheap Lessons, he writes about his best-known song, Brick: taking his first girlfriend to a clinic for a pregnancy termination. He fills in the stuff that isn’t in the song – the two jobs he worked to pay it off, the final year of high school both he and his then-partner both mostly missed, their sympathetic parents, the emotional aftershocks.

“I dreaded that song coming out,” he says now. “I tried to talk the manager and label people out of it: that it wasn’t a hit, it’s upright piano, it’s out of tune.” At the time it was written, though, “the point wasn’t to reveal myself; the point was to write the best song I could. Consider me almost a songwriting sociopath. I do not give a shit, as long as it’s a good song.”

A Dream About Lightning Bugs is Folds’ take on what it means to be creative. The title is drawn from the first dream he can remember, of catching fireflies as a child, which he uses as a metaphor for songwriting. Making art, he writes, is about “following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others”.

Like Brick, the point isn’t to reveal himself. A late chapter in the book concerns a mental health breakdown and recovery. Most other rock memoirs would make a whole book out of this. Folds doesn’t dodge it, but doesn’t wallow, either. “Everyone hits the bottom, it’s actually not special to do it,” he tells me. “That’s the dynamics of life, you go up and down. It’s OK.”

Instead, much of A Dream About Lightning Bugs is centred on childhood, where the seeds of creativity are sown. As an obsessive two-year-old growing up in North Carolina, he says, he would spend up to eight hours a day listening to records. “I probably would have been called functioning Asperger’s or OCD or ADHD or something like that.”

On his 2004 collaboration with Shatner, Has Been, Folds received a valuable lesson on what he calls “The Death of the Cool”. Shatner challenged him at length to define what the term meant: ‘“Benny, listen to me, what is ‘cool’? Benny! Listen. What is ‘cool’? You don’t understand!’”

It was an ideal Folds says he was still caught up in, as he battered his hands on the keys. Being cool, he says, has “damn near ruined pop music”. He’s called his songs “punk rock for sissies”, but no genre was more rule-bound than punk. “Adding too many chords – terrible thing to do. Care about what you look like – terrible thing to do. There was a lot of lying going on.”

Eventually Shatner’s persistent questioning made sense. “He was saying that he didn’t want to be held to some stupid kiddy standard; he wants to make something for him that speaks of his life, and what’s cooler than that?” Folds says. “A 75-year-old man doesn’t give a shit, just does not give a shit, and he’s the coolest motherfucker on the planet.

“It was interesting to me to have someone who was just void of judgment of whether something was acceptable or not in indie-rock that year – with certain people, with certain magazines, who wear certain clothes. And the not-being-cool brand, if you will, was working for me. So I had to acknowledge that.”

First published in The Guardian, 29 August 2019

Aldous Harding Live @ The Metro

“Shut up,” hisses a patron to the bartenders talking at the back of the Metro. This is no time for idle chatter. Aldous Harding is close-picking her way through The World Is Looking For You, one of only two selections from her breakthrough album from 2017, Party – five minutes of spidery folk that Harding performs alone, seated, with just an acoustic guitar.

In a mid-sized venue, most artists would get away with something like this towards the end of their set. Not the beginning. But Harding’s set is more like a high-wire act. She walks slowly onstage, without fanfare, seats herself, and just waits, as though psyching her audience out. The entire room is full and still. Not a soul lingers at the bar. Not a phone is raised.

When it’s over, there’s an exhalation, then an ovation. Harding rises as her four-piece band arrives. She’s wearing a loose-fitting, burnt-orange trouser suit and black porkpie hat. Another close-picked triad of notes opens Designer, the title track of her brilliant third album, before the song opens up to reveal a surprising palette of instrumental colour, including a flugelhorn.

And then she breaks the spell. She walks off stage to speak to the sound engineer, then back. “Hi,” she says. “So, having a bit of a ’mare up here … How’s that? It doesn’t sound like anything to me.” Suddenly, the audience is unsettled. Harding’s New Zealand brogue is reassurance, at least, that she hasn’t dropped in from some distant planet.

But it’s the sheer otherness of Harding that captivates the audience, which spans sexualities, colour and at least three generations. There is something about what she is doing that is not just fresh but new. Nothing about her songs is obvious – trying to unpack the metaphors in her lyrics is like wrestling with a Rubik’s cube – yet the language seems oddly universal.

Still, she’s wobbling, up there on the wire. “I apologise, I like to provide a drama-free service,” she says. Zoo Eyes hangs in the air with its impenetrable central question: “What am I doing in Dubai?” But Harding composes herself, then floors everyone with Treasure, a song that sucks all the air from the room.

She thanks everyone for “standing by while I’m trying to claw my way back to some kind of normality”, and the band sidles into The Barrel, Designer’s lead single. It’s as strange a song as has ever been written but its groove is full of latent energy, its melody insinuating and insistent. The crowd is moving now, and the song’s brief spike of electric guitar brings cheers.

Harding apologises afterwards, and says she’s not feeling herself. By this, I take her to mean that her issues with the onstage sound, whatever they are, are making her self-conscious, and therefore unable to fully inhabit the songs as she’d wish. But, as she gurns and grimaces and rolls her eyes, she is still riveting.

Harding has at times reminded us that her theatricality – including the multitude of voices in which she delivers her songs – is a persona, a show. Those voices, whether on the husky, Nico-like drone of Damn or her falsetto on Gerry Rafferty’s Right Down The Line, are rich in nuance and controlled to perfection.

But as alien as she appears (at times, in both her androgyny and otherworldliness, she’s reminiscent of Hunky Dory-era Bowie), watching Harding perform is to be touched by something that’s deeply human. What’s moving is her vulnerability, her willingness to take risks and to fail. Her bravery is underlined by her ending the night with a new song, Old Peel.

Blend is the only other song from Party, and Harding dances, her movements as lithe and elegant and perfectly timed as the music. Her band stands and takes in yet another ovation before Harding returns, solo again, to play Heaven Is Empty. It’s a death rattle of a song, Harding’s voice suspended in mid-air over a couple of wide-spaced chords.

And outside the room, at the empty bar, a staff member can be heard firing up a vacuum cleaner.

First published in The Guardian, 27 August 2019

Birding with Paul Kelly

Down by the mouth of Laverton Creek, at the Altona Foreshore Reserve in Melbourne’s west, songwriter Paul Kelly is watching about 150 gannets as they mass on Port Phillip Bay. From where we stand, even through binoculars, the gannets are just big white blobs on the water, about 500 metres offshore.

I’m not convinced Paul can even see the blobs through his binoculars, which he refers to as “Kellogg’s brand” – something he got out of a packet. Kelly has taken to watching birds in recent years, but, in the field, frankly, he’s a noob.

With us is Sean Dooley, editor of BirdLife Australia’s quarterly magazine. Sean and I have been watching birds almost all our lives; we met in early 1983. I rib Kelly that he would have been playing in his first band the Dots back then, but Kelly corrects me: he’d already broken the band up. I don’t think he likes being reminded about the Dots.

Lately, Kelly has been touring a stage production, Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds, now an album and his 25th studio recording: a collection of poems set to a neo-classical pop score, co-written and arranged with composer James Ledger, multi-instrumentalist Alice Keath and the Seraphim Trio. It’s an avian extension of 2018’s Nature, which became his second album to hit No. 1 on the ARIA charts. (The first, Life Is Fine, was released the year before.)

Kelly tells us that he remembers magpies from when he was a kid, growing up in Adelaide. The last song on the album, The Magpies, is adapted from a poem by a New Zealander, Denis Glover:

When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm, the bracken made their bed

And quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies said.

“That’s the sound I remember most,” Kelly says. “I was aware of birds but I wouldn’t know which bird was which. In some ways, I’m probably not that observant. Maybe I had my head more in books. But yeah, they were the birds I most remember most vividly, swooping and screaming.”

Kelly and Dooley have been acquainted for a while. They met at The Kick, a motley collection of Melbourne artists who would gather together in winter for the simple joy of chasing a footy around an oval. Dooley was writing comedy for Channel Seven’s Full Frontal back then and would occasionally sneak a bird-themed sketch through.

Dooley and I are lifelong Collingwood tragics; Kelly’s team, naturally, is the Adelaide Crows, but he’s got his well-worn black-and-orange Rockdogs Community Cup scarf. He can play a bit. “He’s bloody hard to tackle,” Dooley says. “He’d run at you, like he wanted you to tackle and then he’d sell the candy and just sort of shimmy around you.”

At home, Kelly says, he’s got a treasured copy of Judith Wright’s poetry about birds, two of which – Black Cockatoos and Thornbills – made it on to the album. “The thing I loved about Judith Wright’s book was that at the same time as the lightness, there’s also always the cruelty, the savagery, the threat of danger from the natural world.” He quotes from Thornbills:

Oh let no enemies

Drink the quick wine of blood

That leaps in their pulse of praise.”

Dooley loves the song. The skittering, bouncing music reminds him specifically of yellow-rumped thornbills, he says, one of 12 currently recognised Australian species. “It’s that synaesthesia,” he enthuses. “I was visualising the birds, the music suited what these birds do.” Even I look at him a little doubtfully at this point.

“Well, that’s a tribute to her words,” Kelly says politely. But Dooley’s not wrong, either: look along the fenceline of any paddock in south-eastern Australia and you may well see a flock of yellow-rumped thornbills, tiny balls of feathers, skittering and bouncing along, like Alice Keath’s banjo and Tim Nankervis’ cello moves through the song.

It’s freezing cold. Kelly kindly lends his Rockdogs scarf to me. On the shore, there are dozens of stilts – elegantly ridiculous black-and-white waders with bright pink legs that are, well, like stilts. Further away is a lone yellow-billed spoonbill, a bit bigger than an ibis, with a bill that is indeed yellow and spoon-shaped. Offshore, the gannets are starting to take flight.

“There’s still so much more to discover about birds,” Kelly says. “Like the gannets, when they fish, they fish by gender – the males fish at different times to the females. Just, why? Why is that happening? And they’ve been around for so long, they were around long before humans.”

The white blobs are rising in the air, circling now. But they no longer look like blobs: on the wing, they’re as streamlined as arrows and just as lethal. Gannets have spongy plates at the base of their dagger-like bills that cushion them on impact as they dive into the water, and nostrils that close over to stop water rushing in.

One by one, they wheel in flight, close their wings, and plummet vertically into the bay face-first, from a height of around 80 metres. Plumes of water geyser from the surface, before they struggle back up for air and hoist themselves aloft again.

And the three of us fall silent, just watching, with no music except for that made by the birds themselves, warbling away as they keep a wary eye on us, too.

First published in The Guardian, 25 August 2019