When sorry is the hardest word

The federal health minister Greg Hunt, human services minister Alan Tudge and assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar are lucky men. The three have been spared contempt of court charges after issuing a grovelling, if belated apology to the Victorian appeals court, chief justice Marilyn Warren and her colleagues Stephen Kaye and Mark Weinberg.

The apology was reluctant: only last week the two ministers and Sukkar, via solicitor-general Stephen Donaghue QC, expressed half-hearted regrets for making potentially prejudicial remarks about an appeal that was before the court. They accused the judges of being “hard-left activists” who were “divorced from reality”. Hunt accused the court itself of being a forum for “ideological experiments”.

Only when Warren warned the trio there was a prima facie case of contempt against them did they withdraw their remarks, which were published on the front page of the Australian, and apologise unreservedly. As is so often the case, sorry is the hardest word to say.

Most reasonable people would regard an apology as more effective and more sincere when it’s not said under the very real threat of jail time, the end of one’s career and bringing down a government all at the same time. But let’s step away from this unusual case and consider the predicament of the human services minister, Alan Tudge, who might be thinking about whether he owes a second apology.

Tudge and the social services minister Christian Porter have presided over the roll-out of Centrelink’s automated debt collection system, otherwise known as robo-debt. The manifold failings of the system have been exhaustively documented. The massive #notmydebt social media campaign precipitated a Senate inquiry, which released its findings on Wednesday night, and a critical report by the commonwealth ombudsman.

Let’s recap briefly some of the system’s most egregious flaws. The income averaging method, which wrongly assumed recipients of welfare benefits to be working all year. The reversal of the onus of proof onto often vulnerable individuals to prove they did not have a debt, often necessitating hours or days spent searching for documents so old they were no longer legally obliged to have kept them even for tax purposes.

The rapid unleashing of debt collecting agencies onto those effectively accused of welfare fraud, often before individuals had been correctly contacted. The automatic imposition of a possibly unlawful10% debt recovery fee. The psychological trauma experienced by people slugged with often large debts they had no idea they owed (and in many cases did not owe).

Not to mention the overwhelmed and intimidated who paid up regardless, just to make the whole thing go away.

Then there’s the trauma experienced by equally overwhelmed Centrelink staff, whose agency has been cut to the bone by job cuts. For those in need of assistance, it means lengthy waiting times caused by inadequate resources. For those whose unfortunate job it is to eventually answer their calls, it means dealing with stressed, frightened and understandably angry people. All day.

Porter is on record as saying this debacle is not a matter for apology. “What we have is a responsibility to the taxpayer to make sure that we are paying people exactly what it is that they are dutifully required to receive and no more and no less,” he said. No reasonable person would dispute this. Unfortunately, the automated system has ensured no such thing, often seeking to take far more than the government is owed.

How much more? The Senate inquiry heard that in New South Wales alone, $18m of incorrectly calculated debt has been waived so far, out of 42,750 claims that are being reassessed. That is some stuff-up.

Any one of the many thousands of taxpayers who have been issued with a false debt notice – who have felt threatened, destabilised, stressed or depressed; who have had their time wasted; who have been made to feel like criminals for having the gall to fall back on a safety net that is designed to support them in times of genuine need – might reasonably feel they are owed an apology by an system that let them down by seeking to extort money they didn’t owe.

The former Queensland premier Peter Beattie made an art form of the political apology, deploying it as a tool of first rather than last resort to defuse the many scandals that dogged his government. This willingness to concede error kept his approval ratings high enough to allow him to eventually hand over power (some might say a hospital pass) to Anna Bligh. Before then, Beattie won three elections handsomely.

Apologies make us better people. Acknowledging and owning our failings gives us the chance to learn from them and grow, and it helps people we may have hurt to at least feel heard and understood. This applies to governments and nations as much as it does to individuals: witness the Rudd government’s apology to the stolen generations of Indigenous people.

If Tudge and Porter lack the empathy to examine their own consciences, a simple reading of the politics might help them understand why an apology might be in order. The government is well behind in the polls. Robo-debt has made victims of tens of thousands of Australians. Going after pensioners, many of whom comprise the “base” which the Coalition has endlessly pandered to, is an especially bad idea.

For now, Tudge, Hunt and Sukkar can be thankful the court of appeal has accepted their apologies and, in so doing, spared their jobs and with them their government from an ignominious demise. If Tudge and Porter remain determined not to give the people they have wrongly accused the same courtesy, they may not find them so forgiving at the ballot box.

First published in The Guardian, 24 June 2017

Sweet Lorde

I’M told I can call her Ella: Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor is quite a mouthful. The single-syllable name by which she is better known, though, is a nod to old-fashioned aristocracy, with a silent “e” on the end to add a feminine touch. Lorde – the 20-year-old New Zealander whose hands the late David Bowie once took in his as he told her that her music sounded like listening to tomorrow – is not one for airs and graces, except for her impeccable manners.

The only problem has been pinning her down for an interview that’s been scheduled and rescheduled multiple times. On the eve of the release of her second album Melodrama, Lorde, her harried publicist tells me, is being pulled in a thousand different directions. Now, though, she’s relaxed, almost effusive. “It’s truly time for this record to come out,” she says. “I don’t feel like it’s being prised from my hands or anything. I’m just excited for people to get a feel for it and live inside it.”

Yet in February, in the days before the release of the album’s first single Green Light, she had found herself so racked with anxiety she struggled to get out of bed. “I wasn’t sure if everyone was just going to turn on me and be like, this is terrible, we hate it – go back, take it back!” There had been times, she confesses, when had wondered whether she might start baking cakes for a living, or just hone her skills in the garden at home.

Second albums are notoriously difficult; all the more so when they follow successful debuts. Green Light was the first new material from Lorde in nearly four years, after her first album Pure Heroine made her a global superstar at 16. Royals, released as a single from the preceding EP The Love Club, topped the US charts for nine weeks, winning her Song of the Year award at the Grammys; the album sold 1.5 million copies worldwide from its release in September 2013 to the end of that year.

Lorde doesn’t play an instrument, and needs collaborators to help bring her music to life. On the first album, she was paired with New Zealand songwriter and producer Joel Little, and while she started work with him on a follow-up, co-writing Green Light, the creative partnership soon began to run dry. “I don’t want to be as good a writer as I was last time,” she says. “I want to have improved, and to improve across the board takes time, takes practice, it takes messing it up a bunch of times.”

She was subsequently introduced to Jack Antonoff, who had worked with Taylor Swift on her album 1989, and it was with him that Lorde found a new musical direction and energy. He also cracked the whip as Lorde battled a serious case of writer’s block: a memorable text exchange which the singer posted on Twitter features Antonoff telling her to write “beautiful soul crushing lyrics all day. nothing else … happiness is for tourist write you little fucker” [sic].

Lorde has described Pure Heroine as a portrait of the artist in her mid-teens, and she’s equally unabashed about characterising Melodrama, with its self-aware title, as a document of her life on the cusp of her third decade. She aspires to make records like Kanye West and Bowie, artists whom she says “are wonderful at building these universes to live inside, there are whole different species that populate it, and the geography is totally unlike anything in the real world. It’s so vivid and so involved.”

On Green Light, the signature elements from Royals are there – wide open spaces, with Lorde’s voice all but carrying the melody by itself – but, like the singer’s life, it accelerates into something that’s far more extroverted, and rather less innocent. The singer growls about ordering different drinks from the same bar with a lover; she knows “about what you did, and I want to scream the truth”. She says the song tapped into what she calls the “night-time energy” she had been feeding on.

Night-time energy? She laughs: “It’s a nice way of saying just staying out really late and being quite naughty.”

MAKING comparisons between Lorde and the young Kate Bush is both easy and lazy. Both were teenage prodigies (Bush wrote The Man With The Child In His Eyes, from her debut album The Kick Inside, when she was just 13; Wuthering Heights, from the same album, came a few years later), they bear a superficial resemblance to each other at the same age, and both have been the subject of tributes and parodies: “The most Wuthering Heights day ever”, in which thousands of fans around the globe dance in flowing red dresses in homage to Bush’s first worldwide smash, is now an annual event; in a sure sign that Lorde had officially made it, Royals was turned into Foil by career musical satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic in 2014.

But perhaps there are deeper parallels to be made. Asked for a song that never fails to move her, Lorde nominates Bush’s 1985 hit Running Up That Hill. The song, like much of Lorde’s music, is deceptively simple, relying on a tribal beat and heavily stacked vocals for impact. “It’s very minimal, but it sounds huge, cavernous,” she says. She speaks of its “modernity”, saying that if she heard the song drifting across a festival ground, she would be drawn to whatever new artist might be singing it.

That huge sound hints at something Lorde also aspired to in the making of Melodrama: maximum volume. “Jack [Antonoff] said to me once, ‘My favourite music is just all the stuff that you would want to play really, really loud,’” she says. The point is not to blast the listener into submission as much as it is to draw them into a song’s vortex. “You wouldn’t hear Running Up That Hill in the background and be content with it down low. It grabs you and it holds you for five minutes.”

She is an earnest student of pop, with a hunger for new sounds and classics alike. Right now, she’s enthralled by Paul Simon, for entirely different reasons to Kate Bush: Simon makes quiet music. Listening to him taught Lorde a new lesson: “He’s always existing between about a 4 and a 7 [out of 10] in terms of how much energy he’s expending. The lyrics are almost spoken – there’s such a delicacy to how he sings. He’s able to impart such joy or pain without ever really breaking a sweat.”

Like most adults three times her age, though, she is convinced her own formative years were a golden era for music. “Futuresex Lovesounds by Justin Timberlake had just come out, the first Lady Gaga record was out, Tik Tok by Ke$ha was the biggest song in the world.” Lorde perceived what few saw below pop’s shiny surface. “I think I really understood how to infer with it. It was like, oh – there’s a lot they’re not saying, but I can hear it, and I can sort of interpret it, and that’s the special stuff.”

Pure Heroine appeared at a time when many pundits were proclaiming the album dead as an artistic format in an age of downloads. Around her childhood home, though, Lorde grew up on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. “It really taught me what an album was, and drew me to that medium. A lot of my peers don’t really place a lot of value in that, but I do. That’s such a great example of building a universe to live inside.”

WHO KNOWS what Lorde is like when stays out late and gets a bit naughty, but the answer is probably like most 20-year-olds. In conversation, she’s sweet and often startlingly wise. She speaks of dealing with sudden fame “probably like being a parent, you go in blind and do the best that you can”. She remains grounded by the same things that keep most of us tethered to the planet: family, friends, and home, which remains Auckland, though she spends much of her time in New York.

Pop stars don’t have to be swept away by the current of charts and tabloids. Lorde simply gets on with her life, living as anonymously as she can without being a hermit. She mentions Frank Ocean, the R&B singer “who’s totally not a public figure at all and hasn’t played a show for this record [last year’s Blonde] and has done, like, one interview.” Her audience, she says, are more likely to be interested in what drum sounds she’s into than what she had for breakfast.

A recent New York Times article noted that when she did become aware of being noticed, she would defuse attention by raising her finger to her lips with a soft “shh” and a small, conspiratorial smile. “I still feel like so much of my personal life is mine. At the end of the day people don’t really know what I do every day, apart from when I’m going around working. I think there is an element of, ‘oh, she goes to New Zealand and we don’t really know what happens’, and I do find that really precious.”

The same Times profile, though, related a story of Lorde being kicked out of a Greenwich Village recording studio she had been commuting to after it was booked by U2. She is part of Taylor Swift’s squadron of girlfriends, along with Antonoff’s partner Lena Dunham, creator of Girls. The most surreal moments, she says, are the awards nights: “You know, the Grammys or Brits or Golden Globes, and everyone is so stupidly famous – like, ‘oh, that person was on TV when I was growing up’.”

Does she ever feel like she doesn’t belong in their company? “I don’t feel imposter syndrome because no one is under any impression I belong,” she deflects. “It’s like, ‘Who let her in here?’ Or, ‘She’s very lucky to get to be around us.’ I feel ridiculous being there, for sure, but I do feel like myself.” Like Ella.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 16 June 2017

Descent into the Maelstrom

The drama of the dysfunctional band has long been a staple of the rock documentary form. In a case of life imitating art imitating life, films from Some Kind Of Monster (which sat in on Metallica’s group therapy sessions) to End Of The Century (which chronicled the tragically bitter life and death of the Ramones) play like a reprise of the intra-band bickering so perfectly satirised in This Is Spinal Tap.

As the credits roll on Spinal Tap, Marty DiBergi, played by the director, Rob Reiner, asks bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) whether playing rock & roll keeps you a child. I was reminded of this watching Descent Into The Maelstrom, the story of Radio Birdman, as this brilliant, influential and notoriously volatile band squabble over their history and their legacy.

For the uninitiated, a brief snapshot: formed in 1974, Sydney’s Radio Birdman were, alongside Brisbane’s Saints, Australia’s first and most lasting contribution to the punk movement. Like the Saints, they had a brief and extremely turbulent existence, breaking up in in the UK in 1978 while making just their second album. Their massive influence saw them reform for the first time in 1996, only to almost immediately break up again.

But, like Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, guitarist Deniz Tek and singer Rob Younger keep getting back together, because there will always be a baying audience somewhere for them to play to. Both are intense, serious men and aside from stalwart keyboard player Pip Hoyle, few have been able to stick with them. But that volatility was key to the original six-piece band’s combustible chemistry.

If you are already a Radio Birdman tragic – and tragics will be the first in line to see Descent Into The Maelstrom, directed by Jonathan Sequeira – you’re unlikely to find out anything new here. There’s no pre-1978 live footage you won’t have seen already, and the story is familiar. It’s held together over one hour and 50 minutes by interviews with the band and close associates; thankfully, no bigger stars are lined up to obediently sing their praises.

Don’t let this lack of new information put you off, though. What makes Descent Into The Maelstrom work is the brutal honesty of the band members as the wheels fall off their so-called “van of hate”, as the Kombi driving them around that ill-fated 1978 UK tour was dubbed. It wasn’t the usual combination of drugs and booze that did them in: it was poverty, depression and poisonous internal dynamics.

Visually, the lack of new footage is compensated for by hundreds of stills and delightful storyboard artwork by bass player Warwick Gilbert (of whom a gonzo reviewer once wrote “a Warwick is something you light if you want to start a war”). Given that Gilbert was the first to leave the band – twice! – his heavy involvement indicates that Birdman’s music remains bigger than the egos that made it.

Which brings us to the music itself. Deniz Tek was a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he brought his first-hand experience of the Stooges and MC5 to Australia in 1972 (there’s a photo of him as a teenager in aviator shades, right in front of the Five’s Rob Tyner). Radio Birdman were combative, confrontational, hated by the musical establishment, and changed the lives of thousands who saw them perform.

In their slipstream came hundreds of bands, dozens of whom became embedded in the Australian rock landscape: Midnight Oil, the Sunnyboys, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Lime Spiders, the Hard-Ons, Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, and on and on. Hoyle gets the last word, and it’s a killer: “I don’t think there’s an Australian sound to Radio Birdman. I think there’s a Radio Birdman sound to Australia.”

He’s right. And few of those bands, even on their best nights, could summon the heart-attack inducing excitement of Radio Birdman in full flight. (For proof, track down the double live album of the band at Paddington Town Hall in December 1977, their last performance in Australia before departing for England: it is, in this writer’s opinion, the best live recording released by an Australian band.)

As such, what started as a cult phenomenon has continued to attract generations of converts to the cause. Descent Into The Maelstrom won’t exactly be an eye-opener to the Birdman faithful but, along with the band’s reissued box set of recordings, it’s a documentary that will ensure their legacy remains: hewn in the living rock, as Nigel Tufnel once observed.

First published in The Guardian, 10 June 2017

Cash Savage and the Last Drinks: The Zoo, 19 May 2017

When future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau wrote his instantly infamous review of the man he saw as “rock & roll future” in 1974, the more personal, vulnerable elements of his enthusiasm were drowned out by his own hyperbole.

Landau caught The Boss at a time when he needed to be reminded of why he fell in love with music in the first place, and he quoted a line from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic: “I’ll tell you about the magic that will free your soul / But it’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock & roll.” He concluded that as long as the magic still existed, his mission was to tell a stranger about it.

No one would be so foolish as to predict rock & roll’s future more than 40 years later. But I found myself reminded of Landau’s review, on a couple of levels, while watching Cash Savage and the Last Drinks tear through their set last Friday to maybe a hundred or so disciples. Savage – barefoot, black jeans, black T-shirt, greasy black hair, black Telecaster, cowboy belt – may be the best rock star we’ve got right now.

The sparse crowd is initially reserved, hanging back several metres from the stage. Savage opens the set ambitiously, with the agonised slow dance of One Of Us. Within 45 seconds, the stage has been rushed. “We are alone / We are all alone,” she croons, and instantly, we’re not. She sings in the most gender-indeterminate voice the other side of Anohni: where Anohni is most often compared to Nina Simone, Savage’s deep growl and wild shriek is like a reincarnation of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, of the Gun Club.

This comparison is not new. Any similarities, however, are supposedly accidental. In one of those strange examples of convergent musical evolution, Savage claims not to have even heard the pioneering early 1980s punk-country-blues band until she became sick of being asked about their influence, and investigated them for herself. (“Then it was like, where has this band been all my life?” she tells me later with a grin.)

The Last Drinks include some obvious traditional elements – Kat Mear’s fiddle, Brett Marshall occasionally on banjo – and on beautiful ballads like My Friend, they’d tear up any folk/blues festival stage in the world. But theirs is no Antipodean alt-country try-on. By the second song, the murderous thump-and-grind of Let Go, Savage has dropped her guitar. She’s poised on the edge of the stage, death-staring the crowd, preachin’ the blues like Pierce and Robert Johnson before her.

This is the kind of classic pose only a true believer can pull off. Ann Powers once wrote of the young PJ Harvey (circa To Bring You My Love) that she was “bent on touching rock’s magical core”. Savage does this repeatedly, particularly as her set nears its climax with the closing one-two punch of Run With the Dogs and The Hypnotiser – careening songs that tear through the room and take everybody with them.

Savage’s presence and songwriting is matched by a wonderfully sympathetic band. Joe White, one of three guitarists on stage, is a standout with counter-melodic leads alternating with sheets of noise. Mear is possibly even better: she sometimes leads, but more often hers is the band’s locomotive breath; another rhythmic force propelling the songs over the tracks laid down by Chris Lichti’s bass and Rene Mancuso’s drums. And they can all sing, often in huge chain-gang choruses.

Just to be clear about this, no, Cash Savage isn’t rock & roll’s future. Who knows if there even is one? But whether she’s aware of it or not, she carries its spirit and history within her, and as long as there are performers with her conviction and commitment around, it lives on in the present. And after a month spent running from my own dogs, which had been barking and snapping at my heels, she reminded me of why I fell in love with it in the first place, too.

First published in The Guardian, 22 May 2017

We can be heroes

“We don’t need another hero,” sang Tina Turner, in the theme song to the third instalment of the Mad Max franchise, Beyond Thunderdome. She couldn’t have been more wrong. In a world beset by tyrants, terrorism, geopolitical instability, rampant financial inequality, a resurgent nuclear threat and runaway climate change, we need all the heroes we can get. Marvel – the comic book franchise turned cinematic juggernaut – has always understood this.

Marvel was born in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War amid the rise of worldwide fascism. In the 78 years since, it has given the world unforgettable characters that have spoken to our collective anxieties, including Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and teams including The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy – enjoying its greatest successes during especially troubled times.

This weekend (May 27), Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art opens an exhibition that celebrates the history of Marvel and its transition from comic-book cult to the screen. Patrons will be able to enjoy an ongoing retrospective of films in the gallery’s two cinemas before wandering through rooms filled with fantastically detailed costumes, sets, rare memorabilia and gorgeous key-frame art works that served as the films’ storyboards.

Much of the detail will never have been seen even by the most dedicated fans. Amanda Slack-Smith, the show’s curator, points to the top of the petrol cap on Captain America’s motorcycle – a lovingly carved death’s head with octopus tentacles – which never appeared on screen. “There’s so much they do [that] nobody’s really meant to see,” she says. “But they do it because they love it.”

Captain America is one of Marvel’s foundation characters and, as Slack-Smith calls him, the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though the first film released by the franchise was Iron Man in 2008. His resurgence through the films The First Avenger (2011), The Winter Soldier (2014) and last year’s Civil War is particularly interesting as the US grapples with its own spectre of authoritarianism.

Slack-Smith says the pulse underneath all of Marvel’s superheroes is that they have a conscience. They wrestle with their abilities and place in the world and are accountable for their actions, giving them a core of integrity  an audience can relate to.  “I think we like characters that have strong moral centres.”

Of Captain America, she says: “I think the films in particular have managed to contemporise him, because those values are still needed in a modern world – they’re just harder and the world’s gotten greyer. I mean, why have we got this rise of superheroes? There’s this need for someone who can step up and do what needs to be done, but have a conscience about it.”

Ryan Meinerding, playing card no. 2, (detail); concept art for Captain America: The First Avenger. Photo: copyright Marvel.

The decade following the September 11 terrorist attacks  saw more than 50 Marvel characters adapted for the screen, accelerating as computer-generated imagery (CGI) technology began to make the Marvel Universe both more possible and plausible to viewers. In this parallel universe, Slack-Smith says, viewers are provided with the visceral release of characters who can solve end-time problems with an almighty thwack.

“I think we all feel disempowered,” she says. “We don’t feel that we can save the world, and our avenues to even impact on the world are quite stymied. But you can experience this kind of catharsis of a world with these large characters that can step in and solve things without having to deal with them in your real life. That’s the beauty of a fantasy – the fantasy doesn’t have repercussions.”

Marvel’s world taps into a need for transformation and transcendence that goes back to ancient gods: Stan Lee, the now 94-year-old creator of most of these characters alongside Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko,  was open about the world of Asgard’s basis in Norse mythology. “It’s the same need for these grand narratives and the hero’s quest,” Slack-Smith says.

The other main focus of the exhibition is Spider-Man, who first emerged in 1961, presaging the next golden era of the superhero. Elvis Presley, by then, was in the army; the Beatles were yet to conquer the world; the hot war of the 1940s had turned icy cold. A more complex cast of characters for a more rebellious, uncertain era was called for.

The Cold War brought forth a central ethical question: how do we use, or not use, lethal and potentially civilisation-ending force? High school student Peter Parker gets his superpowers through a bite from an irradiated spider; his guilt over his failure to save his uncle Ben from a burglar motivates his actions. But, as his uncle tells him, with great power comes great responsibility.

The ’60s saw a wave of disaster films filled with terrifying invading forces, often gigantic and inhuman. “Everything was bigger,” Slack-Smith says. “You know, giant ants! You can understand the need to respond with a level of might, but also the need to exercise self-awareness: yes, you can have that power, but you need to actually think about how you use it.”

Spider-Man became Marvel’s most beloved and enduring creation, according to Slack-Smith, because audiences could identify with him. “One, he’s a teenager, so those issues are relatable to a younger audience … And because he was the nerd! He was smart, he was flawed, he was picked on, and he has to wrestle with the fact that he potentially allowed his uncle to die, and that’s what guides his moral compass.”

Of course, there will always be boys to watch boy’s own adventures. But what about the super-heroines? “I cannot wait for Captain Marvel to come out,” Slack-Smith says, referring to the film starring Brie Larson, due in 2019. Captain Marvel – another post-holocaust character who emerged in 1968 – went through many iterations before the appearance of Carol Danvers as Ms Marvel in 1977, to be played by Larson.

Danvers fits a new age of super-heroines for an age of female Ghostbusters and Felicity Jones’ celebrated role in Star Wars: Rogue One. “We need to redress the balance, let’s be honest,” Slack-Smith says. “A lot of the films are drawing on stories from the ’60s, so that balance wasn’t naturally imbued. But I think there’s a realisation that girls want to watch those adventures as well.

“And if we’re talking diversity we have to talk more broadly than just gender; we have to talk about the diversity of everybody, and I think there’s a whole wave of people going, ‘I want to look at me’. Maybe that’s the other thing about Spider-Man as a character – he’s got a mask on. He could be anybody – he could be male; female; he could be an alien; he could be green.”

And, as a famous frog once said, it’s not easy being green. The Incredible Hulk serves as an expression of pure, primal rage, but like other characters in the Marvel universe, it’s a power he has to wield with care. Slack-Smith points out that Hulk’s character doesn’t exist in isolation. “The relationship between him and Black Widow takes her character in a direction that you don’t expect, even though he hasn’t changed.”

Marvel itself is a classic example of the transformation of a cult into a cultural phenomenon. “If this is part of a cycle, it’s a long cycle,” Slack-Smith says. Marvel has films scheduled through to 2020, with no sign of waning enthusiasm. “Guardians of the Galaxy II coming out just blew that out of the water,” she says. “Are people tired of superheroes? Ah, no.

“You’ve got to look at the audience. You have people our age, who have kids in their teens, and it’s a family moment. You take your kids to see the films, and you both enjoy them, and there’s a linking. The number of people who I’ve talked to who have gone, ‘oh, I can’t wait to take my son to that, my son’s really into superheroes at the moment’ – people want to relate.”

And, just like the creators of the characters who were really creating fantasy archetypes of  themselves, we all want to be heroes. Just for one day.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 26 May 2017

Why I ain’t gonna work today

UNDER NORMAL circumstances, today I’d be doing what I normally do: travelling down the coast to cover an AFL match for The Age. It’s something I’ve been doing for 12 years, and consider a privileged part of my job. Not only is it fun, it keeps me on a contract for five months of the year (I won’t say six because in those 12 years the Brisbane Lions have seen September action once, and the Gold Coast Suns, in six full years in the competition, haven’t made the finals yet).

As many of you may be aware, Fairfax’s decision this week to cut another quarter of its workforce – well over 100 journalists, most of them from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – has resulted in unprotected strike action. So I won’t be going to work today. This means forgoing a week’s pay, which I can ill afford, and we are all risking our jobs, but so it must be. Fairfax’s proposed changes include auditing contracted freelancers such as myself. Exactly what that might mean for me I’m not sure yet. They also intend to further reduce contributor rates from a per word to per article rate, targeting the arts section in particular. Wages growth has been negative for a long time in journalism (unless, perhaps, you’re one of those superstar right-wing columnists – a pretty crowded field in itself these days, as everyone tries to get a piece of the outrage).

As I also write a fair bit about arts and music for both papers, these changes stand to very directly affect me and others like me. They might not quite stop me from writing, but it will absolutely impact my ability to continue to cobble together a living from what I love doing.

Fairfax Media seems to have made no real attempt to look for alternatives to these cuts. Concerns over the boss’s $2.5 million bonus, and the exorbitant salaries and bonuses of those around him (which would have saved dozens of jobs on their own), were dismissed as irrelevant. Domain, the profitable part of the enterprise which takes real estate advertising, was recently split from the business. Of course, journalism – the core of Fairfax Media – was once sustained by these revenues; now journalism itself is treated like a drain on the coffers.

It should go without saying that we need good journalism and good writing now more than ever before.

Please show your support. You can start by taking out a subscription – including to Fairfax, despite everything. We have to face up to the fact that if we want to read about something other than what happened on Masterchef, we’ve got to pay for it.

And if you want to add your voice, you can watch this video made by my colleagues, and write to Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood (he of the extra $2.5 million for further driving a once-great company into the ground).

Solidarity to all my fellows, friends, colleagues and comrades at Fairfax, both full-time and freelancers, today and into next week. Not covering the federal Budget will make things very interesting.

The Australian Bird Guide takes flight

IT STARTED nearly a decade ago. John Manger, a British expatriate and who had spent 20 years at Oxford University Press, had joined the publishing division in the CSIRO, becoming director in late 2005. He was also an avowed bird nerd who’d worked on many large ornithological titles. There were five Australian field guides already on the market but for Manger, that wasn’t enough. He decided to do something about it.

Manger contacted Jeff Davies, one of Australia’s pre-eminent bird illustrators – and it’s probably fair to say that at that point, the birding community held its breath. Davies was a notorious perfectionist, not known for doing anything by halves.

Next Monday, the community will finally exhale, with the publication of The Australian Bird Guide. “From the moment I started, people who knew what I’m like started saying, when are you going to finish?” Davies says in his studio in Heidelberg. “It actually annoyed me a little bit, but I’d always reply with a smile, and my answer was always, as long as it takes.”

Illustrator Jeff Davies. Pic: Simon Schluter for The Age

Not that Davies was working alone. Authors Danny Rogers and Peter Menkhorst were brought in, then Rohan Clarke; Davies recommended Peter Marsack and Kim Franklin as co-illustrators. It was a team fit for a gargantuan task: nearly 550 pages and 4700 illustrations of over 900 species recorded in Australia and its territories. They set themselves five years for the task. It ballooned to eight.

In the old days, birds were illustrated by referring to museum skins. Those days are long gone. Before any contracts were signed, Davies says, “there was a year where I just sat here with no income, collecting photographs, starting to design the book in my head”. He says he’s collected around half a million images. “That’s the reference collection. It’s a whole renaissance in birding and our understanding of birds.”

Clarke, who was brought on board for his photographic collection as much as his writing skills and status as one of the country’s top twitchers, agrees digital photography was the game-changer. “Being able to sit down with 20 images of the key plumage or position or posture [of a single species] just meant we were in an unparalleled position, really.”

And that, more than anything, justifies The Australian Bird Guide’s existence: the literature needed updating to reflect the explosion of knowledge that came with the explosion of imagery. All previous Australian field guides had their own strengths and weaknesses, and most serious birders will nominate a favourite, but this one is very much a reflection of the digital revolution that inspired it.

The obvious question that arises is why go to the trouble of commissioning illustrations at all. But photography still has limitations. Illustrations aid identification in that they can capture subtle differences between nearly identical species in ways that even multiple photographs can not.

And identification is the whole point, says Danny Rogers. “We thought we could do much better than other guides on the fundamentals of identifying birds. There’s lots now known about difficult birds – shorebirds, seabirds, and so on – that’s just not in the other guides; lots of interesting plumages were illustrated for the first time.”

Plenty of grey hairs were sprouted and lost in the process, though, as the book began to give new meaning to the term “long awaited”. Davies is unapologetic. “Anyone who gets into art is a perfectionist,” Davies says. “Every painting they’re doing, they’re being a perfectionist about that painting. It’s the obsessive nature of it, and it’s not a derogatory term; that’s just what’s required.

“I think I pushed everyone out of their comfort zone. I feel for them, because I know everyone has other people to answer to, and it probably made a lot of people’s lives pretty difficult. But my side of the job was to deliver the best book that I could deliver, and I was never going to skimp on it, ever.” He completed the last two years of work back on no income, while raising a daughter at home with his wife Barbara.

Life came and went around the authors as they worked. “When I started this, I was working as a post-doc at Deakin Uni, and now I’ve got two kids that I didn’t have and I’m now a senior lecturer in ecology at Monash,” Clarke says. But, he adds, “we went into this with our eyes open. If it had taken 10 or 11 years, I still think it would have been time well spent. I think the team would have loved another month or two.”

Davies describes painting as “a very monastic experience. You have to be very comfortable with listening to your own head. You have to actually enjoy being on your own, and the silence and the thinking. A lot of people today have trouble with that.” (The irony that Davies can talk the leg off a table and is highly active on social media will not be lost on his friends.)

Devising each plate, however, was a painstaking team effort. Photographic images would be bounced between authors and artists before the first drafts were made, then bounced around again. Just as the text was drafted and re-drafted, plates went through multiple iterations until everyone was happy.

But it’s obsession, and Davies’ obsession in particular, that drove the project onward. And onward. Whatever anxiety was created in the process, the results speak for themselves. “We wanted to make an identification guide that’s satisfying not only to people who are starting out birding, but people who already birders and want to get better at it,” Rogers says.

Davies was born both to birding and to art; his father was also an illustrator. “It’s something I do on my own, and I did that from a very early age. I got a strong direction of where north was by the time I was six! I could just walk off in the bush and come back to where I started very quickly.”

With the guide done, he’s returning to larger paintings. He’s working on one now: a pair of scarlet robins on a 1.1 metre x 810 cm canvas. He started it eight years ago, before the field guide called. “Obsession just becomes an abnormality when it’s used in different situations to this,” he says. “When it’s used in the activity of doing something artistic, it’s actually the most important part of the whole process.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 28 April 2017

This piece ran with the following teaser in the front section of both papers:

IT’S A true story, based on love, obsession and sometimes madness. Thankfully, the authors (and their publishers) managed to avoid murdering each other along the way. But after nearly a decade in the making, The Australian Bird Guide finally hits bookstores on Monday.

To call The Australian Bird Guide long-awaited would be putting it mildly. There are a number of field guides to Australian birds in print, most of which are regularly revised and updated. But an entirely new tome is as rare as, well, a very rare bird indeed: this is the first publication of its kind in about 17 years.

Melbourne artist Jeff Davies was the first of three illustrators, in addition to three authors, to be approached by CSIRO’s publishing division nearly 10 years ago. Instantly, the questions started: “I had various people tap me on the shoulder saying, ‘when are you going to finish’ – and that was when I’d just started,” he said. Some privately wondered if the book might ever be finished.

For the first year, Davies said, he sat at home without income, accumulating a vast archive of avian imagery for reference: much of what’s new about this book is a byproduct in the explosion of new knowledge generated by digital photography. When the project ran over time – the authors were on a five-year contract – Davies spent another two years without income as the book was finished. It features more than 4700 colour illustrations, with many species illustrated for the first time.

Davies, who had previously worked on the mammoth multi-volume Handbook Of Australian And New Zealand Birds, has a well-earned reputation as a perfectionist and a stickler for detail. In the twitchier circles of Australia’s birding community, however, detail is everything. For them, the wait will be worth it.

Davies said he would have refused the assignment if he hadn’t had sufficient time, but also understood the significance of the opportunity, as well as the magnitude of the task. “I’m 60. I’m going to be dead in a couple of decades time, I’m not going to fuck around and waste time,” he said. “I throw everything in otherwise I don’t bother doing it at all. But I think people who knew me already knew that.”

Bad//Dreems: Gutful

I WISH I had a buck for everyone who’s ever asked me who sings political songs these days. With the reformation of Midnight Oil and, especially, the rise of Donald Trump, it’s a refrain that’s only gotten louder. Where oh where, these people moan, are the musicians addressing the temper of the times? The complainers are, of course, invariably white and stopped listening to new music in approximately 1988.

In fact, we are seeing exactly the kind of revival of protest music that the era should demand. Much of it is happening in hip-hop, and Kendrick Lamar is the current standard-bearer, but he’s hardly alone. In Australia, AB Original – the logical, local hip-hop extension of revered Indigenous folk singer Kev Carmody – deservedly won last year’s Australian Music Prize.

And while these are lean times for guitar-based rock music, you can find it in that shrinking genre too: in recent releases by the Peep Tempel, the Drones and looking back a bit further, the sorely missed Eddy Current Suppression Ring. It’s also much more subtly and subversively evident in the work of Courtney Barnett, whose songs are rarely as they appear on first listen.

There is nothing subtle about Bad//Dreems. For their second album, Gutful, they’ve once again called upon the services of 1980s Oz rock titan Mark Opitz to produce, and it’s a straight-up-and-down rock record with a lot less jangle and a lot more crunch. Pub rock? Guitarist Alex Cameron says the description was “not particularly welcomed but not something we shied away from either”.

Whatever you call it, two things are undeniable: the songs are catchy, and they’re memorable, with big choruses that stick in your head whether you might want them to or not. On a few songs – the opening Johnny Irony, Gutful and especially Nice Guy, a song about male rage, the influence of Eddy Current is palpable – except that band’s best work was recorded for maybe less than $1000.

Gutful, on the other hand, sounds big and meaty. Mob Rule, the first single, instantly recalls the Living End minus the rockabilly influence: a tub-thumping drum intro leading into a shouted chorus purpose-built to be shouted back at the band from the mosh pit. Lyrically, the song speaks of populism and nativism: “I see flags on the sand / I see blood on your hands.”

Then there’s the title track (and what a marvellously “Oz” title it is too): “Had a gutful of your speed and coke / Had a gutful of your racist jokes / Had a gutful of Australia Day / Had a gutful of the USA / Had a gutful of Donald Trump / Had a gutful of your baby bump.” No one can accuse Bad//Dreems of not getting to the point.

But this is not entirely an issues album: there are spoonfuls of sugar helping the medicine go down. By My Side and Make You Love Me take on more classical pop themes and win. 1000 Miles Away harks back to the power-pop of the Hoodoo Gurus, who had a hit with a song of the same name and whose 1987 album Blow Your Cool was also produced by Opitz (reportedly an unhappy experience for all involved).

It’s a solid album, and at 38 minutes it flies by. It showcases the band’s knack for classic rock anthems. But several bands have deliberately been name-checked in this review, and there’s a nagging sense that Bad//Dreems haven’t fully outgrown their reference points. Put them in a beer barn, though, and they might yet be the band most likely to blow up the pokies.

First published in The Guardian, 21 April 2017

Screamfeeder: Pop Guilt

TWELVE YEARS since Screamfeeder’s sixth album Take You Apart, this long underrated Brisbane band have slowly reintroduced themselves to audiences through a series of reissues of their first five records, followed by three new singles. Those earlier albums have stood up well, and Pop Guilt keeps them excellent company. Singer/guitarist Tim Steward has kept himself busy with his other outfit We All Want To, and some of that band’s charm has rubbed off here: he’s in fine voice on the fizzy rush of Got A Feeling and the chugging drone of Falling. Bass player Kellie Lloyd has a more prominent role than before, taking the lead on five of the album’s 12 tracks, including the first two singles Alone In A Crowd and All Over It Again, and the addictive Shelter. The band’s reference points are worn loud and proud – the twists and turns of Alone In A Crowd have an unmistakable Pixies crunch; Sonic Souvenirs recalls early Sebadoh, and the shadows of Swervedriver and Hüsker Dü hover throughout. But Screamfeeder are peers of those bands, not pale imitators. I Might Have Some Regrets is the only weak link; otherwise, there’s no guilt here, only pleasure.

First published in The Age/Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 2017

Midnight Oil: Selina’s, 13 April 2017

THERE’S A LOW but incredibly loud hum vibrating at Selina’s, the cavernous band room within the Coogee Bay Hotel. The chant is up: “Oooooooooiiiiiiiillllllllls!” Palms are raised and fingers splayed in anticipation. But the hum drowns out everything: a deafening, earth-shaking pulse. It’s not until Midnight Oil take the stage that the realisation dawns that it’s coming from Jim Moginie’s keyboards.

Peter Garrett has taken up a position on a speaker stack at stage left, and Moginie starts playing the opening notes of Outside World, the haunted opening track from Midnight Oil’s breakthrough album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Garrett misses his opening cue – not by much, but it’s a sign he’s nervous. There’s a slight fragility to his voice, the old bark softened somewhat.

If you can’t forgive Garrett for his sojourn in politics (and plenty haven’t), forgive him this. It’s no small thing to revive one of the biggest, most beloved and simultaneously most polarising bands Australia has ever produced. After a brief, unannounced warm-up at the Marrickville bowlo, this set, for longtime friends and fans, with ticket-holders drawn by ballot, has been feverishly anticipated.

Word is that ahead of Midnight Oil’s upcoming world tour, the band have been rehearsing and, in many cases, re-learning close to their entire catalogue – some 170 songs. It’s a Springsteen-like move, the intention being that at some time on tour, most if not all of them might randomly make an appearance.

On this night, they pull out 29 of them over the course of two and a half hours. I have personally seen Midnight Oil almost too often to count – the first occasion as a 14-year-old in 1985 – but I can’t remember them (or almost anyone else) playing a better or more committed show. From Only The Strong onwards, it’s a fire-breathing performance that leaves the crowd spent and exhilarated.

It’s also a show for the diehards. Six songs in, the band launch into almost the entirety of 1979’s Head Injuries: their second album and first great one, played in order, omitting only Naked Flame. Stand In Line, one of the band’s early showstoppers, is a call to arms in the face of apathy: “Goodbye to the let-it-happen stand.” Garrett says the song sums up why the band are still here.

Once the nerves settle, Garrett finds his voice quickly: he’s singing mostly within himself, better, with more control. Has he still got the moves? Yes, he has. As one of the most physical performers in rock history, it’s unfair to expect him to be the same force of nature as his early years, but he’s still a frontman of compelling charisma and energy.

Behind him, the band are loud and as tightly wound as a coiled spring. Guitarists Moginie and Martin Rotsey rarely duplicate each other’s parts: instead it’s more like watching a pair of crack tennis players, musical parts volleying back and forth, each taking turns to solo as required. Moginie shows off his collection; Rotsey sticks mostly to a battered white Stratocaster.

But the heart of the band is the drummer, Rob Hirst, who looks as fit as a thoroughbred and drives the show from the back. He takes his own obligatory solo turn in Power And The Passion, by which time we’re into the second half of the set and the hits are beginning to rain down – it’s bracketed by The Dead Heart and a ferocious Best Of Both Worlds. The audience sing all three back to the band word for word.

Sadly, in a sense, much of the material is more relevant than ever. Shakers And Movers is a gorgeous song about caring for country; Blue Sky Mine, with its sarcastic crescendo “Nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground”, could have been written yesterday, with Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in mind. Garrett drops to his knees, praying for sense and reason.

Just off the beach at Coogee is Wedding Cake Island, so it’s no surprise when the band pull out the surf instrumental named after the offshore rock formation for the first encore. The surging power pop of Dreamworld is preceded by a reminder from Garrett: “If you want to hang on to it, you’ve got to fight for it, folks. Go angry into that good night, with love.”

US Forces is saved for last, and again, it’s hard to miss the lyrics’ currency: “Now market movements call the shots / Business deals in parking lots / Waiting for the meat of tomorrow.” One can’t help but wonder what reception Midnight Oil will receive when they reach US airports later this year. Provided they get past the welcoming committee, audiences are in for one heck of a treat.

First published in The Guardian, 14 April 2017