Iggy Pop: World’s forgotten boy just wants to be loved

“Hey! Turn the lights on, I want to see everybody,” shouts Iggy Pop. And he grins that huge, irrepressible grin. Here he is, on the lip of the Concert Hall stage of a sold-out Sydney Opera House, with thousands of ecstatic fans cheering back at him. And he can’t get enough: he extends his hands, accepting everyone’s love and joy, touching that famously bare, Florida-tanned and now ever so slightly pot-bellied torso, as if to smear it upon himself.

“You’ve made me very happy,” he says, in all sincerity. But he’s no happier than anyone else in the room, after 21 of the greatest songs of all time that were never hits. Well, Lust For Life almost was, after its immortal tom-tom rhythm jump-started the film of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting. But that was in 1996, 19 years after its original release. Nothing else, other than Candy (not played this evening) ever came close.

I’ve started this review at the end of the show for the sake of some context. How could Lust For Life not have been a major hit in 1977, the year punk broke? The answer is that the death of Elvis Presley meant that Iggy’s label at the time, RCA, poured its resources into reissuing the King’s catalogue at the expense of promoting what should have been the biggest success of the World’s Forgotten Boy’s career, just when he thought his Chinese rug was at hand.

At the Opera House, Iggy pulls out this eternal opener or showstopper (it’s not really an in-between sort of song) fourth in the set, right after The Passenger. Most of the remainder is drawn from the deep well drilled by the Stooges, whose three pre-punk albums between 1969 and 1973 sold bugger all, except to those who had their minds so blown that they formed their own bands, who duly passed the torch to the next generation, et cetera. And so, here we are.

There are so many layers of improbability about this – Iggy Pop at the Opera House – that it almost defies belief. The first, of course, is that Iggy is still alive, having outlived not only his closest peers and mentors, David Bowie and Lou Reed, but all but one core member of the two original Stooges line-ups (James Williamson). Not to mention countless less fortunate musicians who shuffled off this mortal coil after sustaining seemingly far less damage.

This Sunday, the man born James Osterberg celebrates his 72nd birthday. He looks as healthy as a horse, an obvious limp from a bad hip notwithstanding, meaning that supple physique of his can’t move quite like it used to. Iggy’s voice, however, is in unbelievably good shape, whether he’s deploying his rich baritone on the sleazy dancefloor crawl of Nightclubbing or summoning the terminally bored teenage whine of No Fun.

That song sees Iggy invite dozens of fans on stage with him, in scenes reminiscent of a similar crowd invasion at a Royal Headache gig in 2015. This time, though, no cops are called to break up the party. And here, some scepticism is understandable. Has the man who wrote Gimme Danger lost his edge, now his songs have reached a level of mass acceptance that allows him to perform at a venue such as this?

One promotional poster for this gig features a famous image of the youthful Iggy Stooge photoshopped standing atop the sails of the Opera House. The Opera House is intimate enough that, had he chosen, Iggy could have stepped straight off the stage and had the crowd hold him aloft by his ankles, in a recreation of the iconic scene from the Cincinatti pop festival in 1970 (before he started smearing himself with peanut butter).

Really, as he sings on a cover of Bowie’s Jean Genie, he just “loves to be loved”. So much so that it’s easy to forget how deeply shunned Iggy Pop once was, decades before he became an object of adulation. Now, he can open with I Wanna Be Your Dog and close the set with Real Cool Time – two songs that defined the fine line between stupid and clever long before Spinal Tap – and, well, it’s like hypnotising chickens.

For the encore, Real Wild Child is a clear nod to his Australian audience (both for its debt to Johnny O’Keefe, and the Generation Xers who have grown up with it as the theme from Rage), followed by a much bigger surprise, as Iggy’s band bulldozes their way through Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand. Everyone is beaming, none more so than the superhuman on stage. It’s totally life affirming. Call it hip-replacement rock if you want: he’s Iggy Pop, and you’re not.

First published in The Guardian, 16 April 2019

Kat Roma Greer: Taking art to the streets

Musician Frank Zappa once said that the most important thing in art is the frame, for without it you can’t tell where the art stops and the real world begins. Extending that logic, the art gallery itself is a frame where art is displayed, bought, sold – and for many, effectively sealed off.

Kat Roma Greer (MA(Res) ’14 MA ’14), founder of the travelling art festival Micro Galleries, aimed to break art out of its frames and take it to the streets. Starting from the chaotic precincts of her base in Hong Kong in 2013, her aim was for “people to stumble over it. That’s when they begin to shift their perceptions and believe they should have access to art as well,” she says.

Since then, Micro Galleries has exhibited everywhere from Kathmandu to Cape Town, using local and international artists to blur the line between street art and fine art and bring a sense of wonder to unexpected, often disused and neglected spaces. Along the way, she’s touched thousands of people who may otherwise never set foot inside a gallery.

One of them was Robbie, a street kid from Denpasar in Bali. In exchange for meals, Robbie cannily worked his way into the Micro Galleries crew, starting by stirring glue and minding the equipment, which he became obsessed with. By the end of a 10-day tour, Robbie had learned so much about the works on display that he was giving guided tours to other kids.

Roma Greer understood that if you live in poverty or disadvantage, even public art venues can feel like inhospitable and remote places. Her idea was informed by her own upbringing in the Illawarra region, on the New South Wales south coast, during the recession of the 1990s, when both of her parents found themselves unemployed and living in housing commission accommodation.

At her school, art wasn’t a priority: the resources weren’t available. “I really wanted to do music, and my school didn’t offer the subject,” she says. Pursuing glimpses of another world meant “my English teacher staying back after class to continue unpacking Yeats with me, or my music teacher taking less of a fee because we couldn’t afford to pay more.

“But it was those sorts of intersections that gave me a really positive adolescence, helped me access subjects I maybe couldn’t have understood as well, and gave me a huge support network … Without that I probably wouldn’t have gone on to have a nicely successful career. I want to provide those opportunities for other people.”

Roma Greer moved to Sydney with her partner in 2003, then went to Hong Kong in 2010, completing her Master of Arts at the University of Sydney externally, graduating in 2014. Though not Indigenous, her focus was on First Nations Peoples. Learning more about Indigenous performance increased her interest in the limited opportunities for artistic exposure, both for creators and consumers.

“It refined the way I engaged with and thought about dealing with minorities and disadvantaged communities and understanding the exceptionally privileged position that I come from,” she says.

In Hong Kong she met Bess Hepworth, who was curating a TEDx project which she wanted to culminate in a low-budget art project. Hepworth commissioned Roma Greer to devise something that would engage the community more closely than other art installations and galleries in Hong Kong. Micro Galleries, driven by the overriding idea that art was for everyone, was the result.

“There are a lot of high-end art galleries here that are very pristine, with great curatorial teams and wonderful resources, and at the other end of the spectrum is the Hong Kong Art Fair. So there’s a huge industry here in terms of art and phenomenal artists, but the people who are accessing the art are usually educated, resourced, and they have the time and the ability to physically get there.”

By comparison, in Sham Shui Po – described as a “down to earth” neighbourhood on the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s website – “people still live in cage houses,” says Roma Greer.

“They’re not going to the art fair and they’re certainly not going into art galleries. And if they are, I’m sure they don’t feel welcome, and there’s possibly no way for them to engage on a level that is potentially useful for them.”

Roma Greer has just returned from Kathmandu, in Nepal. “It’s one of the poorest countries of the world, but it has a dynamic art scene,” she says. It was an intense few days that included murals, stencils, photography, painting, installations, sound art, projection art, live music and performance, and showcased the work of local artists and others from as far afield as Finland, Norway, Indonesia and South Africa.

“The best way I can explain the experience is ‘epic, and depleting’, meaning we do a lot, intensely and in a short space of time. Like most non-profit organisations, we are under-resourced but still trying to do everything we dream of.”

The community where the Kathmandu art event happened has kept the dream going. A week after the event, Roma Greer was sent photographs showing how the local people had used some of the art elements to turn their laneway into a garden.

It’s all about bringing art to the places that need it most, including the disadvantaged communities where Roma Greer herself grew up. In 2015, she brought Micro Galleries to one of those places, Nowra, a town she says people “drive past to get to the beaches on the other side of it”.

“It went from a town that was very confused as to why we were there to being excited and fascinated. We had to beg people to allow us to use their walls – but by the end they were maintaining the works themselves with pride. Later, a radio station declared Nowra the artiest town in New South Wales; the local MP talked about it in parliament.

“Art historically has been set up for one institutionalised purpose or another – religion, patronage or for commercial purposes. Micro Galleries is a disruptive process. It’s about providing artists with opportunities, and being in communities in a way that can have a meaningful impact.”

First published in Sydney Alumni Magazine, 10 April 2019

Waiting: The story of Van Duren

From the Velvet Underground onwards, the annals of popular music are stuffed with stories of artists who fell through the cracks during their careers – only to be granted belated entry into the pantheon decades later. Big Star are another famous example – an early-70s power-pop group from Memphis signed to Ardent (a subsidiary of legendary soul label Stax), whose three highly influential records were hampered by distribution problems.

It wasn’t until 10 years later, through groups like R.E.M. and the Replacements, that the Big Star name began to spread. It’s a mystery, therefore, that it’s taken more than another 30 years for Van Duren – another gifted Memphis power-popper who moved in the same circles as Big Star, and was managed by early Rolling Stones impresario Andrew Loog Oldham – to receive similar attention. Bizarrely, Duren doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Waiting, named after one of Duren’s most affecting songs, is a documentary that makes a concerted attempt to rescue this one unlucky musician (there are millions of them) from the margins. It was conceived by two first-time film-makers from Sydney, Greg Carey and Wade Jackson. After being mutually smitten by a rare Australian pressing of Duren’s first album, Are You Serious? (1977), the pair resolved to track down the man himself and tell his story.

In fact, the film tells two stories. Duren’s is fascinating and sad, albeit familiar to anyone versed in the unjust world that is the record business. Duren moved with some of its best and brightest, and Are You Serious? brought him flattering comparisons to Paul McCartney. But a bum deal meant ownership of his work remained in the hands of his label, Big Sound, and a second album, Idiot Optimism, didn’t see the light of day until 1999.

There was also the label’s Scientology connections, which meant they attempted to convert all the acts on their roster. Duren, already in debt, just wanted to finish his record, which he correctly thought was his one shot at stardom. It flopped, and by the mid-80s, after another near-miss with another band, Good Question, his musical career was as good as over.

The second story is a buddy film about how the documentary was made, with Jackson and Carey the heroes of their own adventure. This is where Waiting falls down. Much is made of their amateur status, and that they came to the film being down on their own luck. There are fist-bumps and high-fives with each breakthrough in their investigations, and as the pair track their quarry we get to see minutiae like booking flights.

But Duren was hardly elusive. They found him on Facebook, and he was happy to help. It’s a puzzle, then, why interviews with him are audio files, until late in the film, when Jackson and Carey meet their hero on camera. Other interviews with Duren’s associates, which are professionally shot, are excellent and revealing. Hearing Duren speak from early on robs the film of suspense leading up to his big reveal. He wasn’t hiding.

The filmmakers’ tendency to get in the way of their subject is exemplified at the film’s climax. To use Duren’s songs, Jackson and Carey needed to license them, and permission wasn’t forthcoming. With the help of a pro-bono lawyer, they win back Duren’s ownership of his own music. Triumphantly, they return the masters and remaining stock of Are You Serious? to his home. Duren is clearly moved, but a clunky voiceover spoils the moment.

Duren is a fine subject for a documentary and the story is passionately told, but at moments like these, it’s ham-fisted in its delivery. If not for Carey and Jackson’s super-fan level of commitment, though, Australians wouldn’t have the chance to see him performing live on our shores for the first and perhaps only time this month. Duren, who has been waiting a long time for his due, can thank them for that.

First published in The Guardian, 7 April 2019

Jess Ribeiro: LOVE HATE

Jess Ribeiro’s first two albums, My Little River (2012) and Kill It Yourself (2016) received a great deal of critical warmth but not a lot of exposure. The first was a dark acoustic folk-blues record with a minimum of instrumentation. Kill It Yourself, produced by former Bad Seed Mick Harvey, added strings and percussion, but still, the songs stood almost alone.

That they did is a testament to Ribeiro’s talent. But whereas those records are sepia-toned, Love Hate is an all-electric technicolour lunge towards pop, backed by guitarist Jade McInally and drummer Dave Mudie (the latter a member of Courtney Barnett’s touring band). The results are vibrant and clearly aimed at introducing the Melbourne singer-songwriter to a bigger audience.

The bright spangles of guitar that burst through the dream-pop haze of opener (and single) Stranger, indicates Ribeiro is out to get your attention. Produced by New Zealander Ben Edwards, who has worked with Aldous Harding, Marlon Williams and Julia Jacklin, Love Hate is arguably more immediately arresting than any of their records.

But that shouldn’t make it any less satisfying in the long haul. There are still hidden depths; the surface is just a little shinier. Following the natural arc of a love affair from chance meeting to attraction to dissolution, and bound together by three short “Vignette” interludes, its 12 tracks are as liable to sneak up on you as they are to jump out.

Love Is The Score Of Nothing, the second single, is the latter. Leaping straight in at the chorus, it uses the zero-sum metaphor of tennis to make the point that nothing leaves you as empty as the end of an affair. “We did it over and over again,” Ribeiro boasts, as the song skips into double time, but romantic defeat leaves her back on the street, alone.

The song crashes to a messy conclusion, before gliding into the slower Painkiller, which posits her lover as a “sweet, bitter remedy” – suggesting the relationship is back on, if only for self-medicating hookups. It highlights the care that has been taken with this album’s sequencing, which ensures a flow of mood, purpose and pace, as well as storytelling.

Earlier in the album, Chair Stare is straight-up lust – but Ribeiro directs it at an inanimate object, a “hard wood, four-legged animal”, with early shrieks of guitar feedback from McInally and alternating stabs and waves of synthesiser. It’s all over in a couple of minutes: Love Hate never wastes your time.

Young Love deploys a slinky trip-hop groove and a more heavily processed electronic sound. It’s one of the sleepers on the album, and proves Ribeiro’s versatility. It’s easy to see her pursuing this angle further in the future. The menacing Goodbye Heart is closer to the sound of Kill It Yourself, with strings building the tension.

Lay Down With The Earth features a shiver of violin and Ribeiro’s plangent vocals over a relaxed motorik groove by Mudie, before the album concludes with Crawling Back To You – which Ribeiro promises she will, right after she’s given herself a stern talking-to for her transgressions. This is an album that deserves to be held up to the light.

First published in The Guardian, 5 April 2019

Preserving the past

A 100-year-old chocolate bar may not sound like the tastiest treat in the world. But imagine receiving it in the trenches of World War 1.

Bill Thompson, museum curator at the Ballina RSL sub-branch in northern New South Wales, says the chocolate was a Christmas present to soldiers – a small token of luxury during a time of international trauma, courtesy of the Australian War Contingent Association in London.

Now, the chocolate lives in the museum, donated by Dorothy Brumley. The recipient had been her father, Henry Wharton-Braithwaite, when he was in France in 1915, after he had served at Gallipoli.

“It’s still in the tin, [and] it’s in excellent condition – except the chocolate, of course. It looks bloody awful!” Thompson says.

Almost all Australians are familiar, at least by name, with the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and its treasures of memorabilia. But fewer know that their local RSLs often feature their own exhibits, sometimes of thousands of items.

These pieces have the power to touch not only those with personal associations and memories of wartime, but younger generations who have grown up without any kind of equivalent experience.

“We get a lot of visitors from schools, and they all arrive with a great list of questions, and they’re usually more orientated with some of the later conflicts,” Thompson goes on.

“[But] all of our families had connections with World War 1. I know mine did, and it was just normal – everybody had some member of their family or relations that served in World War 1 because there was so many of the poor buggers.”

Thompson, a former national serviceman, took over the curating role from his friend Mac McCallum, who passed away in October. The pair had worked together on building Ballina’s display for the past 15 years.

“When I joined, there were only a few items in the museum,” he says. “Macca and I got together about recording and displaying them, we got a few cabinets together and away we went. Now, we’ve probably got upwards of 800 or 900 items in the museum.”

The late McCallum had his own particular distinction as a dog handler in Vietnam: his pooch was Caesar, a famous hound whose service was so distinguished that he was bronzed. The sculpture was unveiled in Edmondson Park, Ingleburn in 2016.

Caesar, a labrador-kelpie cross, also earned his own set of medals, housed in the Ballina sub-branch museum.

“They’d be dropped with their dogs out in the jungle somewhere, and it was up to them to sniff out the enemy,” Bill Thompson says. “The dogs would lay with the men in the jungle and eat out of their packet tins.

“And he was unbelievable, this dog Caesar. I’ve got some of his history hanging on the wall with Macca’s photo that we put up a couple of weeks ago, and it’s got the list of medals that they’d given to the dog.”

The Seven Hills–Toongabbie–Wentworthville RSL sub-branch, in western Sydney, also has an impressive collection, which has been carefully documented by Honorary Secretary Chris Gammadge.

Gammadge is a serious archivist who has dedicated to organising and documenting the material collected by the sub-branch. Out of 5000 items, that often come to the museum with no known details, he has failed to identify the origin of just two.

When he came to the sub-branch, he says, “the guys had four glass cases full of stuff that was totally unidentified”.

“I’m an ex-primary school principal, and I like to have things organised, and to know what things are. My wife went overseas with her niece one April, and I decided to go to the club and spend time identifying the stuff and writing stories about it.

And so Gammadge turned himself into a memorabilia historian, a valuable role in preserving and enhancing our knowledge of what was otherwise in danger of being lost – or, if not lost, trapped in cases, without any context for visitors to understand or appreciate them.

It’s a role that strengthens the bonds between the RSL, its members and the local community. The Oberon RSL sub-branch, west of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, engaged the community on another level: extensions to the museum were painted by inmates from the local correctional facility.

Bill Wilcox, president of the Oberon sub-branch and Blue Mountains District Council, says many of the prisoners took an interest in the resulting exhibit that went far beyond a job that got them out of their “office” for the day.

“A couple of them were, ‘Are those guns real? Do they work?’ I said no, they’ve all been disarmed, so don’t get any ideas! And they were joking, but they were good.”

Wilcox, a Vietnam veteran who had served as a field engineer clearing minefields, had a few very personal exhibits of his own to share.

At the age of 20, on a mission to rescue and recover members of the 6th Battalion, Wilcox himself was hit in an explosion that killed one of his mates and left him with significant injuries. In the museum, he says, “I’ve got photos of myself and X-rays of all the shrapnel that’s still in me. They were right into it!”

Having his own body as part of the display, Wilcox said, had helped close the circle on his experience, along with a return to the site of his experience in 2010.

Wilcox ended up a small part of Australian popular culture folklore, too. Before he was hit, the first soldier he reached was Frank Hunt, whose story was told in the popular Redgum song I Was Only 19, in the lyric “Frankie kicked a mine, the day that mankind kicked the moon”.

The song’s author, John Schumann, took a little necessary poetic licence: though badly injured, it wasn’t Frankie who stepped on the mine, but Lieutenant Peter Hines, who was killed. Schumann changed the roles at the request of, and out of respect for Hines’ family.

Wilcox says it took him 50 years to reconnect with Frank, who lives in Bega on the New South Wales south coast, and the two are still in touch today.

It’s these more personal stories, like Wilcox’s X-rays, that have the most power to move audiences.

First published in Reveille, Vol. 94, #2 March 2019

Regurgitator’s Pogogo Show gets down with the kids

Most rock bands work very hard at being serious. Credibility and being cool is everything – but if you’re a rock-star parent, those things count for nothing when it’s time to go home. Then you might sing silly songs to your kids in between chores, or when you’re dropping them off at school, before it’s time to put on the mask again and going back on tour.

Regurgitator have never worked hard at being serious, and have recorded an entire album of the songs they sang to their kids. The result is Regurgitator’s Pogogo Show: The Really Really Really Really Boring Album, with Ben Ely’s 14-year-old daughter Dee Dee doing backing vocals and telling stories in between songs.

The result is anything but boring, and sounds, well, like a Regurgitator album. For kids. That is, without the swearing, but with lots of farting.

The classic Brisbane three-piece (Quan Yeomans, Ben Ely and Peter Kostic) are spread out these days, with Yeomans in Melbourne and Kostic in Sydney. But all have children, and so too do most of the band’s Generation X fans, who’d come to the gigs on a night off (or on a date night). The Pogogo Show could catch on – especially since it’s already branching out into live shows.

But, as Ely says in the backyard of his Brisbane home, this was no calculated Cockroaches-to-Wiggles type transformation. As much as it is a reflection of parenthood, it’s also an extension of his near 30-year friendship with Yeomans.

“You know that mate who you’re kind of a bit sillier with than other people?” he says. “Quan and I have this very juvenile relationship. When we get together we try and make each other laugh, and a lot of those Regurgitator songs come from that place. Making a record, we’d always find ourselves pulling back from being complete idiots, but doing a kid’s album, this is the project where it really feels true to our nature. We can just jump off that idiot cliff.”

Dee Dee – who was, naturally, named after the late Ramones bass player – took it more seriously. “We kind of wrote it together,” she says. “A lot of it was from childhood. And it was interesting, but it also taught me to be confident in being able to express myself through multiple mediums, and producing a record was just an easy way of getting some of these ideas out there.”

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. Mr Butt, for example, was one of those songs that came from a school run years ago. “We were driving and we saw a cyclist and his pants were not where they should be,” Dee Dee says. “You could see a lot of crack, and Dad just started tapping on the steering wheel as he usually does and pointing…”

“And I said, pull your pants up Mr Butt!” Ely finishes. “And then we invented this character called Mr Butt, whose pants keep falling down.”

Later, Ely made a papier-mache Mr Butt for the children’s shows. “I thought it would take a couple of hours, and it took about a week. But creatively it’s fun. I guess what’s always appealed to us about being in a band is it’s not just guys in a room playing music; there’s so many other components.”

The album was recorded with children’s guitars and drums, tracked in a single afternoon in a Melbourne studio, and mixed the next day. Immediacy was everything. “Kids don’t think about things, they just act,” Ely says, possibly referring to himself. “They don’t think, ‘I’m going to draw a fire truck’, they just draw a fire truck. There’s not very many premeditated ideas.”

“And with a target audience of kids you can make it a bit more creative,” Dee Dee says. “You can also have fun with it, you don’t have to stick to a certain persona or visual effect.”

What about bringing The Pogogo Show to the small screen? Dee Dee is way ahead of Dad here. “I think with modern technology you’ll want to move it to multiple platforms to really take off, because not everyone’s going to be on ABC,” she tells him. “If you want to put it on YouTube, all that stuff, widen your horizons – like, I can help you!”

After all, why wouldn’t they want to take songs like Farting Is A Part Of Life to suburban homes around Australia? As Dee Dee says to Ben, “It’s not like you’ve got a reputation to uphold or anything.”

“There’s no reputation to lose,” he agrees.

First published in The Guardian, 2 February 2019