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

Sleater-Kinney Carry On With New Sense Of Purpose

The Centre Won’t Hold, the title of Sleater-Kinney’s ninth album, is taken from W.B. Yeats’ 1919 poem The Second Coming, the words of which have been repeatedly invoked in the Trump era: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold … The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The cover of the album features the faces of the three band members – founding members Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and long-serving drummer Janet Weiss – split, as though they are dissociated identities, reflecting what Brownstein calls “a sense of brokenness, fractiousness and tumultuousness” in the surrounding political and cultural landscape.

Sadly, the band’s own centre wouldn’t hold in the album’s aftermath: only weeks ahead of the album’s release, Weiss decided she was done. “It’s ironic, or coincidental I suppose, that an album that speaks to the fragility of structures, that our own structure was dismantled in the process,” Brownstein says.

Losing Weiss, whose distinctive, polyrhythmic thump formed the core of the band, is a severe blow. Brownstein admits she is effectively irreplaceable: “You don’t replace her. I think you find a different drummer that can find their own way into the songs and their own way into the music, and to us, and we enter the middle period of Sleater-Kinney.”

But those words “middle period”, which Brownstein refers to repeatedly, are telling. After a decade-long break between 2005’s The Woods and 2015’s No Cities To Love, Sleater-Kinney are back to stay – good news for fans of one of the most celebrated indie-rock bands of the last quarter century.

Produced by Annie Clark, better known as St Vincent, The Centre Won’t Hold represents a slight change in direction for the band. The band’s longevity and stature, Brownstein says, had given them the freedom to stretch themselves creatively. “We wanted to defy people’s expectations and also surprise ourselves.”

That change resulted in straightforward musical differences that were cited as the reasons for Weiss’ departure. But Brownstein says Sleater-Kinney had the equivalent of a “free pass” with No Cities To Love, with the band coasting on the enthusiasm generated by their reformation. To remain relevant, they needed to reinvent themselves.

That increased the pressure on the band. “I think [No Cities] delivered in all the ways it needed to, but whatever we did next kind of needed to cement the middle period of this band” – those words again – “to actually say, this is not just for the sake of touring or for the sake of nostalgia, but really to re-enter the cultural conversation.”

Sleater-Kinney, which emerged from the riot grrrl movement centred in their hometown of Olympia, Washington, have always been a vital part of that conversation. “I think it’s hard to make music or any art right now that isn’t a reflection of the time we live in,” Brownstein says.

The Centre Won’t Hold is the deeply personal reaction of a deeply political band to Trump’s America. Brownstein says “we wanted there to be a real personal core to it, to feel like the songs were not just bombastic but [that] they were exploring an interiority, a feeling about what’s going on right now.”

Yet, she says, there is a lot of melody on the record: The Centre Won’t Hold might deal with interiors, but that doesn’t mean it fails to look out. “I think we wanted to provide a fulcrum for people to feel seen and heard within this broader context of despair and uncertainty, that there was something to stand on, even when the songs are dealing with pain.”

Brownstein says this was deliberate, and true to the band’s anthemic spirit. While the songs might deal with the daily struggle just to get up in the morning, “they get to the chorus and they’re joined by other people, and we set this up very purposely, knowing that we didn’t just want to spiral downwards. We wanted to find rungs on the ladder that uplifted.”

And Sleater-Kinney have always been a band to uplift. “We always worked so hard to make the music the message,” Brownstein says. “We don’t shy away from politics or earnestness or integrity, but the music is always the thing that lasts, you have to have good songs, that’s what people will remember.

“I always think that it’s up to other people to assess the legacy of this band. From inside of it, my goal is to keep it alive and relevant and scrappy and kind of hungry, and you know, Janet or no Janet, there’s been plenty of other detours. It’s been a really wonderful and exhilarating journey.”

First published in The Age (Shortlist), 15 August 2019

Damien Lovelock 1954-2019

Trying to sum up the truly Wonderful Life of Damien Lovelock, who died on Saturday morning aged 65, is no easy task. Where to begin? Lovelock was a rock & roll singer (for the Celibate Rifles, the Sydney band he fronted since 1980), solo artist, author, spoken-word performer, football broadcaster for the ABC, Sky and SBS (alongside the late Les Murray), yoga instructor, father to Luke and friend (to the Dalai Lama, among countless others).

Above all, he was a fabulous raconteur. Lovelock was a big man with a big voice and a hell of a lot of stories. Silence wasn’t in his vocabulary. Even in his yoga sessions, he peppered his students with anecdotes that had them trying to maintain poses in between contortions of laughter. This combination of physical mastery and people skills saw him hired as an instructor by, among others, the New South Wales State of Origin rugby league team.

But most of his stories were poured into the lyrics he wrote for the Celibate Rifles, whose name was a pun on the Sex Pistols. The band released nine excellent studio albums, along with a clutch of EPs (including their first effort, the tearaway garage punk of 1981’s But Jacques, The Fish?), compilations and live releases, and garnered a dedicated cult following around the world.

The Rifles emerged from Sydney’s northern beaches, and were a mainstay of the city’s post-Radio Birdman independent music boom in the 1980s. Lovelock was their point of difference: older than his bandmates, and from a musical family (his mother Joan Wilton, who died when he was 19, was a jazz singer; father Bill wrote and produced songs for a young Nina Simone), Lovelock’s words and presence gave the band’s all-out attack gravitas.

But the band also provided a necessary centre of gravity for Lovelock’s life, or one might say lives, for he’d already used up a few before he joined them. In between more standard punk fare of the time – songs of suburban alienation and disaffection with the modern world – early songs such as Back On The Corner broke the mould, rendering the tougher side of Lovelock’s early years in often startling lines:

He makes his connection and he glows with delight

As his demons he banishes into the night

On a thin beam of white light, he flies through the air

Wrings out his hopes, trying to drown his despair

Live, while his bandmates flailed furiously, Lovelock radiated deadpan cool, his movements minimal, a shake of his broad hips and the occasional pump of a fist usually enough to accentuate a song’s groove or get a point across. While other singers were hurling themselves around the stage like Iggy Pop, Lovelock commanded attention rather than demanded it. He never screamed, and the faster the Rifles played, the more time he seemed to have.

The band peaked as a touring act in 1988 with the album Blind Ear and its classic singles Johnny and O Salvation. They constantly blew bigger names away in clubs (my first experience with the Rifles was an O-Week gig at the University of Queensland, where they wiped the floor with the Buzzcocks) and played to large festival crowds, including the inaugural Big Day Out at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney in 1992, famously headlined by Nirvana.

Lovelock himself told me that was among the best shows his band ever played, but from there the Rifles slowly began to fade, even as they continued to produce excellent work. Their 2000 album A Mid-Stream Of Consciousness (which featured a jar of urine on the cover) briefly revived their fortunes and featured one of the band’s most loved and funniest songs, I Shoulda, in which Lovelock paid homage to his own life of happy accidents:

I shoulda read the instructions

I shoulda had me a plan

I shoulda made preparations

I shoulda act like a man

I shoulda triumphed regardless

I guess I shoulda began

But Lovelock was really only just getting started. His life seemed like an endless series of acts, where he would stumble on stage and star by force of his impossibly authentic personality. The shock of losing him to cancer at a comparatively young age comes from the fact that rather than succumbing to rock’s vices, Lovelock had been a health guru for decades. The only solace is that he packed so much into his 65 years that he shoulda been 200.

First published in The Guardian, 4 August 2019