Beck and forth

BECK looks toasted. Under round vintage sunglasses and a broad-brimmed black hat, the cheeks of one of the most inventive, elusive artists of the last quarter-century are sunburnt. Los Angeles is on fire. The resulting chaos has resulted in him running an hour late to the Capitol Records tower, the circular icon that sits off Hollywood Boulevard like a 13-storey stack of records, rammed through a spindle that protrudes a further 27 metres above.

In the early 1970s, the artist born Bek David Campbell spent his first years only a few blocks from here. Downstairs, in the foyer, there’s a coffee-table history of the building, for which he wrote the foreword. “As a kid, whenever we were returning from some far-flung part of the city in the back of a gas guzzler on a hot smoggy day, I can remember the Capitol Records building always signified that we were almost home,” he writes. Now he’s back.

He’s still boyish at 49, sun-kissed blond hair curling out from under his hat, but looks slightly frail after four months straight of travel. His backside doesn’t quite fill out his black ankle-cut trousers. His handshake is gentle. He says it’s a miracle he woke up at all today, because “today was that day where I was like, OK, I could just sleep for a week,” after flying in from New Orleans. By his own estimation, he hasn’t had a break since 2012.

When Beck’s first single, Loser, appeared in 1993 on a start-up independent label called Bong Load (initially in a custom pressing of just 500 copies, before it took off), he found himself typecast as the epitome of slacker rock: a loose appellation for self-deprecating Generation X indolence celebrated in films like Clerks and Reality Bites. “Slacker my ass,” he snarled to Rolling Stone a year later. “I never had any slack.”

It’s closer to the truth to say Beck is more like a shark who can’t stop swimming. His new album Hyperspace is his 14th overall, including a handful of pre-major label recordings. In between, there’s been a dizzying array of collaborations, side-projects and productions: with David Bowie, Philip Glass, Marianne Faithfull, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lady Gaga and Flume, as well as close peers Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

There’s also God knows how much unreleased material – at least some of which was destroyed by a fire that swept through a Universal Studios lot in 2008, a story broken by the New York Times earlier this year. “They still won’t tell me what was lost,” he says. “It’s frustrating, because I’ve probably released 10 percent of what I’ve made … I have a feeling that my management is not telling me because they can’t bear to break the news.”

FOR Hyperspace, Beck teamed up with singer and hip-hop impresario Pharrell Williams. The album’s electronic textures are a continuation from its 2017 predecessor Colors, which was about as close as he has ever come to a straight-up pop record. But whereas Colors was as bright as its title suggested, Hyperspace is more subtle and existential: take away the synthetic textures, and it’s easy to imagine the songs played on an acoustic guitar.

That, he says, would have been the easiest thing in the world to do. At heart, Beck is a folkie, as early albums like One Foot In The Grave and later triumphs like Sea Change attest. But he was disinclined to repeat himself. “Doing something like Hyperspace is much more of a challenge, and I’m more on my toes and out of my element in having to think my way out of the box,” he says. “I feel a little guilty if something’s too easy.”

After Loser and the accompanying major-label debut album Mellow Gold, Odelay, released in 1996, proved Beck was no flash in the pan. Sturdy folk-blues songs were cut up, rearranged and overlaid with a magpie-eyed montage of samples, as the singer spilled out surrealist poetry like a postmodern Bob Dylan. Where It’s At, with its refrain “I’ve got two turntables and a microphone”, was a hit and won him his first Grammy.

It remains an album full of joy, wonder and invention, yet impossible to pin down. “I remember having a conversation with my dad when I was maybe 11 or 12, after getting an album and being disappointed, because all the songs sounded exactly the same. I remember saying, somebody should make an record where all the songs are completely different, and he said, no one would buy that record.”

It was a breath of fresh air in a dour indie-rock scene that still regarded him with suspicion. “I remember that the music scene was not very supportive. There was a lot of harshness among bands, among critics. There was a lot of judgement, it was a very cynical, and I think my music had a sense of fun, which didn’t really fit in with the angst of the time. So I did feel a little bit like an outsider, in a lot of ways.”

Odelay’s 1998 follow-up Mutations, with its bossa nova, Tropicalia and country inflections, was recorded live in the studio as Beck continued to fend off suggestions he was a novelty act. “It was to show, these are real musicians, real songwriting, it’s not tricks, it’s not smoke and mirrors”. At the time, he says, “even my label, the reaction from a lot of people around me was, this is experimenting, these aren’t real songs.”

Other, older musicians thought otherwise. Mutations included three tracks originally solicited by Johnny Cash four years earlier, when Beck was just 24. Intimidated, he got cold feet and kept the songs (Sing It Again, Dead Melodies and Canceled Check) to himself. “In retrospect, I don’t think they’re terrible, and they would have been better if he’d sung them,” he says. Cash ended up covering one of Beck’s earlier songs, Rowboat, anyway.

Now, Beck recognises he was onto something. “Even though I knew nothing and was just an inexperienced kid, the instincts of youth were strong, and what [I was doing] was maybe an ethos of a time to come … It was this giddy, beautiful moment of discovery, and I would go back maybe and just give that kid permission to just keep going with that, and see where that goes.”

That might suggest Beck self-consciously limited himself. But after Mutations came Midnite Vultures, a garish, playful album of sexed-up R&B, then Sea Change, usually regarded as his best work next to Odelay. Written quickly, it was a luscious, lugubrious piece of introspection following the breakup of a nine-year relationship. He’s been flitting somewhere between these two extremes ever since.

Slowly, the rest of the pop world caught up. “A lot of it can sound quite conventional compared to a lot of music now, it’s not outlandish,” he says. “But at the time it was completely outlandish. My thing was, OK, we can have a Jew’s harp, a fuzz guitar and a samba beat all together. And that’s the era we live in now – there’s no rules, there’s nobody minding the store. The more far-fetched the idea, the better.”

BECK was born into art. His father David Campbell is a celebrated Canadian composer and arranger; mother Bibbe Hansen (Beck later took her surname), was one of Andy Warhol’s Factory “superstars” in the 1960s. They separated when Beck was 10. Bibbe is Jewish, Campbell a Scientologist, as is Beck’s ex-wife, actor Marissa Ribisi, with whom he has two children, son Cosimo (aged 15) and daughter Tuesday (12).

This has led to persistent speculation and curiosity about Beck’s own beliefs. “I think there’s a misconception that I am a Scientologist. I’m not a Scientologist. I don’t have any connection or affiliation with it. My father has been a Scientologist for a long time, but I’ve pretty much just focused on my music and my work for most of my life, and tended to do my own thing … I think it’s just something people ran with.”

It hasn’t been an easy year for Beck: he filed for divorce from Ribisi in February, and it’s tempting to think that might account for Hyperspace’s more downbeat mood. (The album was named after the arcade game Asteroids, which itself was based on a scene from Star Wars: if your spaceship faced an unavoidable collision, you could escape by hitting the hyperspace button, and end up anywhere on screen.)

But it’s no Sea Change, and it would be a mistake to attribute the source of these songs to his current state of mind. The first song recorded with Pharrell Williams, The Everlasting Nothing, was written seven years ago; they’d been meaning to get back to it ever since, but were consumed by other projects. “It kind of had this elegiac, hymn-like quality but with 808 beats, and it just didn’t seem to fit with what was happening at the time.”

Another song, he says, was written about a friend who overdosed in a motel room two blocks away, over 20 years ago. “For some reason, it came out now. And something I went through two years ago, I might be able to articulate in a song 15 years from now … That’s just the mystery of craft. You are serving a master, in a way. Sometimes it doesn’t completely feel like it’s up to me.”

He says he views the songs on Hyperspace as “portraits of a different way of trying to just transcend our everyday. And maybe what I was thinking about with this record is how underneath all these choices and differences, we share a lot as just flawed humans trying to do the best we can to get through…” – he pauses and chuckles – “this thing called life, as Prince said.”

Now he’s back in LA, part of him may want to sleep for a week, but “I can actually go into the studio, and that’s very seductive to me. There’s such a finite amount of time, so I’m always 10 steps behind where I’m trying to get to. And we’re in a time, with streaming, where people want more content, so the artists that are really in the eye of the culture are constantly putting out music.

On the cusp of 50, he feels like he’s just getting started. “You hear a song on the radio, even something like [David Bowie and Queen’s song] Under Pressure – it’s such an elaborate and realised piece of work. As a songwriter you go, how did they fit all these things together so seamlessly and it’s so memorable and meaningful? There’s thousands of songs that good … I’m still extremely humbled by how much I have left to learn.”

And yet, on songs as simultaneously dense and hook-filled as Where It’s At, that’s exactly what Beck has consistently done. These days, it’s an encore song, part of the cultural fabric, and when he performs it, “musically, it’s like you’re in everybody’s living room at that point. Everyone’s relaxed because they’re like, this is home.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 22 November 2019

Things Beck lost in the fire

Beck has given details of his work that he fears may have been lost in a fire which ripped through a Universal Studios lot in 2008.

It is thought that the fire may have destroyed more than 120,000 master tapes recorded by some of the most famous artists of the past century, a story broken by the New York Times magazine earlier this year.

In an interview with this masthead, Beck said his management “still won’t tell me what was lost” after the fire. “I have a feeling that my management is not telling me because they can’t bear to break the news.”

The prolific artist, who says he has released about 10 percent of the music he has recorded, says “there’s a lot there” that could easily have been destroyed.

“Like an album like Sea Change, there are completely different versions of songs and then there’s probably another 10 to 20 songs that aren’t on the record that [were] in progress; things that I thought I would finish later. It wasn’t that they were bad songs, they just didn’t fit the mood of the album,” he said.

“In 2001, I went into Sunset Sound [in Los Angeles] and I recorded 25 Hank Williams songs for a double album, just solo. I wanted to celebrate that influence in my music and explore it, and I don’t have a copy of that; it’s on a master tape, so that’s probably gone.

“I went to Nashville on tour for two days and cut a country album that never got released. I have rock albums I did in the 1990s, before I did Odelay, I went and tried to make an indie-rock album, so there’s an album that sounds like a Pavement, Sebadoh kind of thing.

“There’s a [Jon Spencer] Blues Explosion album I did in ’95 where I cut about 10 songs with them in New York City that’s never been released. But I don’t know [whether it’s gone], nobody’s telling us anything. We didn’t hear about it until the last year.”

Beck also said that the fire exposed a broader systemic issue: the poor preservation of artists’ recordings generally.

“I have friends who work in archives and they see the tapes for legendary artists from the ’50s just lying there in a cardboard box, not being climate controlled and preserved correctly in an acid-free box,” he said.

“There’s a lot of neglect of masters. It’s a big problem. And guess what, I’ve been in a room where they’ve put on an original Frank Sinatra three-track from the ’50s and it sounds fucking phenomenal, whereas the vinyl version you have sounds tinny, old.

“It doesn’t have a fraction of the information that’s on those tapes. All this stuff should be remixed and remastered and re-released … There’s troves of great music in these archives, treasures that are not being tended to.

“You have artists like the Beatles who get that treatment, where they go and they restore the recordings and remix them, but it’s rare, and it should be happening more … It would be a rebirth for some of these artists who are maybe getting left behind.”

On November 28, Beck responded to this story with a post on Twitter: “I wanted to clarify some out of context quotes regarding the Universal archives fire. Since the time of that interview we have found that my losses in the fire were minimal.

“Another point I want to clarify: I have had a wonderful and very close relationship with my management for 25 years through to working on my current album.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 2019; updated 3 December 2019

Calls to prosecute landowner for eagle killings

Conservation groups have called for a Victorian landowner to face charges under the Wildlife Act, after he admitted to his part in killing 420 Wedge-tailed Eagles over an 18-month period in the Bairnsdale magistrates court last week.

John Auer pleaded guilty to charges brought by the state Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions of misusing agricultural chemicals. He was fined $25,000 and received a 12-month good behaviour bond. He was also given a 12-month community corrections order.

Auer and former farmhand Murray Silvester, a New Zealand national, used the insecticide Lannate and other chemicals to poison the eagles at Tubbut in the Snowy Mountains between October 2016 and April 2018.

Silvester was sentenced to two weeks jail, fined $2,500 and deported last year. The penalty was criticised for its leniency at the time, despite the fact that it was the first custodial sentence ever handed down for destroying protected wildlife in Victoria.

Emails and text messages presented in evidence showed that Silvester was acting under the instruction of Auer. The Age reported that magistrate Simon Barnett described his offending as “calculated, unacceptable and disgraceful behaviour”.

Dr Jenny Lau, from Birdlife Australia’s preventing extinctions program, called for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning to charge Auer under the Wildlife Act before the statute of limitations came into effect.

“Birdlife Australia is concerned that one of the perpetrators of these deliberate, barbaric killings has only been prosecuted for the misuse of chemicals and no charges have yet been laid under Victorian Wildlife Act for the deaths of the eagles,” Lau said.

“The scale of the killings is so great, and the long-term impact on the population of wedge-tailed eagles across East Gippsland and beyond is unknown.

“With time running out before prosecutions can be made under the Victorian Wildlife Act, BirdLife Australia demands that further legal action be taken for these serious wildlife crimes.”

Wedge-tailed Eagle skulls recovered from the Snowy Mountains property. Photo: Department of Land, Environment, Water and Planning, Victoria

Tim Beshara, federal policy director of the Wilderness Society, said charging Auer for the misuse of agricultural chemicals for the purpose of killing wildlife was akin to “prosecuting a bank robber for failing to stop at a traffic light”.

“The Victorian government needs to explain why their environment department hasn’t brought charges under their wildlife laws. The credibility of Victoria’s wildlife-protection regime is at stake.”

“This is just another example of the state governments failing to protect our natural wonders and why we need the federal government to step in and do the job properly.”

Last month, the RSPCA called for national animal welfare laws after a spate of cruelty cases, including another poisoning incident near Violet Town, Victoria which led to the deaths of more than 200 birds, among them 25 more Wedge-tailed Eagles.

The largest bird of prey in Australia, Wedge-tailed Eagles have faced persecution in Australia since white colonisation for occasionally killing lambs, although rabbits and hares are principal prey items.

However, in arid Australia, groups of Wedge-tailed Eagles have been observed taking down prey as large as red kangaroos. Carrion, including livestock, is another major food source.

Until the 1970s, bounties were paid for the carcasses of hundreds of thousands of Wedge-tailed Eagles, before the species was officially protected in all states. It is listed as endangered in Tasmania.

A spokesperson from the DELWP said that it was “still investigating options in relation to future charges”.

It said Wedge-tailed Eagles were a protected species and “anyone found killing, harassing or disturbing them could be fined more than $8000 and an additional fee of more than $800 per head of wildlife”.

The maximum fine faced by Auer under the Wildlife Act if he was charged and convicted for killing 420 eagles would be $354,397, and/or six months jail.

First published in The Guardian, 22 November 2019

Archie Roach: Tell Me Why

For the Gunditjmara people of south-west Victoria, the Kneeangar – what white Australians call the Wedge-tailed Eagle – is the creator of the landscape. For the Bundjalung of north-east New South Wales, it is the Gunggayay, or red-bellied black snake.

On the spine of Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell Me Why, the Gunggayay encircles the Kneeangar, a logo that encapsulates the Indigenous songwriter’s heritage: his Bundjalung father Archie Senior, and his Gunditjmara mother Nellie Austin.

But Roach, who first came to national attention in 1990 with his celebrated song Took The Children Away and accompanying debut album Charcoal Lane, is also the foster son of Alex and Dulcie Cox: Dad Alex and Mum Dulcie, as he calls them.

The Coxes were told that Archie’s birth parents had died in a house fire. In fact, he had been stolen from them in the late 1950s at Framlingham mission, near Warrnambool. “They were used,” Roach, now 63, says when we meet, as he rests in a Sydney hotel room. “They’re blameless, as far as I’m concerned.”

Alex and Dulcie cherished Archie but, he writes, “there was always a restlessness in me, like a faultline waiting to rupture”. When he was 15, he received a letter from a hitherto unknown sister, Myrtle – one of six siblings – telling him Nellie had died.

The faultline ruptured. Roach writes that before leaving to find his brothers and sisters, Dad Alex – a Glaswegian immigrant who also yearned for his homeland – told him: “Bifay ye leave me and Ma, I jes wanted tae say … Well, we hope ye fin what ye lookin for, Archie.”

He never saw them again.

The title of Tell Me Why – which is being released alongside an album of new songs and re-recorded versions of many of his classics – is both rhetorical and a plea. “It’s trying to come to terms with it happening, rather than denying that it happened or just pushing it aside and thinking, ‘Oh, something happened to me as a kid, but it doesn’t really matter.’

“It was more than that. You want to assure people, or reassure people, that this actually happened. And yourself as well.” Roach frequently slips into the second person, talking about “yourself” when he’s actually referring to himself, preserving a kind of distance.

In his concerts, Roach has taken to introducing Took The Children Away by saying that every time he sings it, he lets a little bit of pain go. One day, he says, that pain will be gone and he will be free.

Similarly, he tells the Guardian that the process of writing Tell Me Why helped heal some of his grief for his estranged, now deceased adoptive parents. “I’d never talked about them before, and I was able to do that, so I was able to let that go.”

He also wanted to acknowledge their pain. “People need to understand that as well, that some of the families, maybe a lot of the families: what they did [was] out of the goodness of their hearts, and out of love.”

Tell Me Why reveals much more of Roach than was previously known. Nearly half the book is taken up with his years of drinking in the parks and pubs and “empties” (vacant buildings) of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, as he reconnected with his surviving family members.

Roach’s street years are recalled with fondness. “There was a real sense of community with those people, and nobody [outside of it] heard that conversation, so I wanted to take people on that journey,” he says.

Naturally, those years also took a terrible toll. Roach suffered from epilepsy as a result of his alcoholism, and there’s a shockingly raw description of a suicide attempt at the end of a bender, after an attempt to dry out. There are stints in hospital, and prison too.

Roach has also survived a stroke, has had half a lung removed due to cancer, and gave up a kidney to his late brother Lawrence. The transplant wasn’t a success.These days, Roach needs a wheelchair to get around, and has a tendency to speak with his eyes closed. But when he fixes them on you, they’re full of light.

Of his attempt on his life, Roach says it’s something he “probably should have mentioned before”, with suicide rates among Aboriginal people, including children, at epidemic levels. “You can reach the darkest point in our life and come back, and come good, even better.”

But Tell Me Why is also a love story for Roach’s partner Ruby Hunter, who died in 2010. Hunter, too, had been stolen; she and Roach referred to each other as “dad” and “mum” respectively.

“It was a term of endearment,” Roach chuckles. But there was also more to it: “It’s good to use those words ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, they’re very powerful words when you’re a stolen kid. I suppose they take on deeper meaning when you’re a bit older, as well.”

It was Hunter who kicked Roach up the backside when, on the cusp of his first album and record deal, Roach nearly walked away from music entirely. It was 1990, and Paul Kelly and guitarist Steve Connolly had billed the almost unknown artist on a gig at what is now Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, to a dumbstruck audience.

Roach played just two songs, Beautiful Child and Took The Children Away. The latter song, sung in Roach’s pure, earnest voice, starts with the words, “This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.”

Both songs were met with complete silence. Then, as he left the stage, the applause began: “It started slowly and then it came down hard. I turned around and held my guitar up in the air, like this” – he raises his arms – “yeah!”

He had first played Took The Children Away in Sydney in 1988, at a Bicentennial protest. On that occasion, too, the crowd had been left stunned and weeping. When he later played the song on a community radio station in Melbourne, the switchboard lit up.

The term “Stolen Generations” didn’t exist in the popular consciousness back then, and Roach, a shy man, was uncomfortable being a spokesman for them. “I was reluctant, I think, to put myself out there and have that sort of scrutiny,” he confesses. “It frightened me a bit.” He told Hunter he’d quit.

Hunter, Roach writes, drew herself up to her full height – which admittedly was not very much – put her hands on her hips and said, “It’s not all about you, Archie Roach. How many blackfellas you reckon get to record an album?”

Other Indigenous singer-songwriters followed. One, Adam Briggs, recorded a sequel to Took The Children Away, and invited Roach to guest on AB Original’s album, on which Roach spoke of bringing Melbourne to a standstill during land rights marches in the 70s and 80s.

While his songs are quiet – he writes that “empathy was my impetus” – he reserves a place for anger and direct action. “A lot of people are getting upset about young people in the street disrupting traffic, especially these climate protesters,” he says.

“I’m thinking, well, what’s a day’s disruption compared to the total annihilation of the planet? What’s wrong with you people? You need to make a racket! You need to be in their face.”

Before he left the Cox family, Roach worshipped at a Pentecostal church in Melbourne, and even spoke in tongues. He drew comfort from the hymns that informed his own songs, and from Jesus’ words: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.”

Roach eventually reconciled his Christian upbringing with his own heritage. “I found my own culture, which is not so much about religion but it’s about being a spiritual person, in our connection to the earth and the cosmos.”

Around his neck hangs a necklace, at the end of which flies a Wedge-tailed Eagle.

First published in The Guardian, 6 November 2019

Vote 1: Regent Honeyeater

A few months ago, the bird-watching community in south-east Queensland went into a twitching frenzy. Two Regent Honeyeaters, a critically endangered species, had been discovered feeding on ironbark blossoms in the suburban heart of Springfield Lakes, on Brisbane’s south-western outskirts, near the satellite city of Ipswich.

Two Regent Honeyeaters at Springfield Lakes, Queensland, 1 July 2019. The female can be seen in the top right of the image.

The honeyeaters stayed for several weeks, spending the afternoons in a single, heavily flowering tree between a shopping village and childcare centre. When the blossom on that tree and the surrounding ironbarks began to dry up, they began feasting on lerps – tiny, sugary-tasting, sap-sucking insects which clung to the leaves of a small fig tree directly outside a coffee shop.

During that time, dozens of local birders, myself included, watched and photographed the two birds at close quarters. The honeyeaters seemed unperturbed, even as camera drives whirred from a few metres away. They slurped at the blossoms ravenously, and were observed preening each other while resting, indicating they were a closely bonded pair.

For many of the birders, it was the first time they had ever seen the species, and they happily shared their joy with curious passersby. But the joy was tinged with a quiet, collective sadness, too: the knowledge that for many of us, it could also be the last time we ever saw a Regent Honeyeater.

I’ve been watching birds for 40 years, and the first Australian bird book I ever owned described the species as “fairly common”. That was in 1980, and the book was already out of date, but it’s true that the birds were once abundant, swarming the box-ironbark forests and woodlands on either side of the Great Dividing Range in their thousands.

The title of the book was Every Australian Bird Illustrated. But instead of a photo, there was an ancient painting by John Gould (or quite possibly his wife Elizabeth). Most of the other birds in the book featured photographs. The paintings seemed to be of the rarer species. Maybe the honeyeater wasn’t so common any more, I wondered? I certainly couldn’t find any. But then, I was only eight years old.

By the early 1990s, alarm bells were being rung. “Regent Honeyeater: on the brink?” read a headline in the quarterly magazine of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union (now Birdlife Australia). The bird’s population had crashed, and they were getting harder and harder to find even in old haunts like the Capertee Valley, west of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.

I’d been birding for over 10 years by then and still hadn’t seen a single one. I’ve since encountered them on a handful of occasions. They are an eye-popping treat, with their chainmail breastplate and wings intricately embroidered in black and sulphur-yellow. (Thankfully, the unkind alternative name “Warty-faced Honeyeater” fell from favour. It really is Regent.)

The reason for the honeyeater’s decline is at once simple and also more complicated than it appears. Once widespread in the most densely populated part of the continent, from around Adelaide in South Australia to well north of Brisbane in Queensland, it is primarily a victim of land clearance and fragmentation.

As the box-ironbark woodlands on which it depended were felled for agriculture, livestock and urban development, the birds declined. Yet other larger honeyeaters, such as miners and friarbirds, seemed to be more resilient, and so did many smaller ones. So why has the Regent Honeyeater fared so poorly?

Research from the Australian National University in Canberra has suggested that a kind of death spiral took hold: the bird had relied on safety in numbers to defend territories and nests from other, more aggressive birds. As their homes fell to the axe and bulldozer and the Regent Honeyeater’s numbers thinned, the less they were able to breed.

Thankfully, the species breeds well in captivity. But how many wild Regent Honeyeaters are left? Estimates seem to depend on who you talk to. The official number is around 400. I’ve heard experienced observers with close knowledge of the species quietly suggest it could be a quarter of that, and more optimistic forecasts that there might be twice as many.

But even 1,000 Regent Honeyeaters thinly scattered in their fragments of remaining habitat between north-east Victoria, the Hunter Valley and western slopes of NSW and south-east Queensland would be a perilous few. The drought gripping NSW makes the remaining birds even more vulnerable: no rain means no blossom.

For a species struggling to catch a break, we’re not helping. The last birds found breeding in NSW were smack bang in the Hunter Economic Zone, a site flagged for the development of a new coal-fired power station. And the state government has passed legislation to raise the Warragamba Dam wall, which will drown another important parcel of habitat.

You might say that the Regent Honeyeater, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a damn unlucky bird: unlucky, mainly, to have lived so closely among and alongside us. And that’s why I’m voting for it in the Guardian/Birdlife Australia’s bird of the year 2019 poll. It’s a symbol of what we can watch disappear from under our noses, no matter how regent it is.

First published in The Guardian, 4 November 2019

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