Stephen Cummings was disembarking from a flight into Brisbane when everything went sideways. He steadied himself against the wall of the aerobridge. An anxious flyer, he assumed it was the after-effects of a Valium he’d taken to calm his nerves, and that it would wear off ahead of that night’s performance.
The veteran Australian singer-songwriter – a fixture of Australian music since the late 70s with his band the Sports, then as a revered solo artist – had two sets booked at the Junk Bar, a tiny club in inner Brisbane. While playing, he realised he was having trouble forming chords on his guitar. Indeed, he was having trouble staying upright. He completed the gig, but felt disturbed, and had a sleepless night.
Even so, it wasn’t until he returned to Melbourne and staggered out of the terminal that the seriousness of his condition was immediately apparent to his wife, Kathleen O’Brien. Cummings’s mouth was crooked, and he was struggling to walk. “I’m taking you straight to the Alfred [hospital], you’ve had a stroke,” she told him.
This was in March 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was breaking out in Australia. Cummings had actually been intending to retire: he had turned 65 the previous September, and had just two more gigs booked in Melbourne. But after an intense three years of rehabilitation, and a lot of love and support from the Melbourne music community, he has had a change of heart.
“The idea that I would never be able to sing again, even just for a bit of fun, was really upsetting,” he says. On Friday 5 May, he releases his 21st studio album, 100 Years From Now.
Cummings can’t play guitar anymore, and his voice, once a warm, smooth croon, has a much more guttural grain. Speaking over Zoom, he sometimes struggles to force words out. “The main thing I’d suffered, apart from being a bit wonky on my feet, was that I just wasn’t breathing properly, so I wasn’t getting enough breath in to sing,” he says.
The Sports had hits with Boys! (What Did The Detectives Say?) and Who Listens To The Radio?, before Cummings embarked on a solo career that touched on electro-pop, blue-eyed soul and jazz. His songs had a literary touch and mordant wit: Everybody Wants To Get To Heaven, But Nobody Wants to Die was one classic Cummings title.
He had one foot in the charts, but maintained his independence, and kept the other foot in the underground and post-punk community that has now rallied to his aid: among the large cast of musicians on 100 Years From Now are the Necks’ pianist, Chris Abrahams, the Triffids’ Graham Lee, and drummer and percussionist Clare Moore.
It was Cummings’s friend and collaborator Robert Goodge, former guitarist for I’m Talking, and part of the Filthy Lucre production team that turned Yothu Yindi’s Treaty into a worldwide hit, that encouraged Cummings back into the studio, with Goodge thinking it would be good therapy.
Initially, there was no pressure. “He said: ‘Let’s just write a couple of songs, we’ll get together and record them, and we’ll see how your voice goes. If it sounds no good, we’ll just throw it out,’” Cummings recalls Goodge saying to him. But Goodge became a ferocious taskmaster. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone be so strict,” Cummings says.
Vocals were recorded line by line; sometimes word by word. If Cummings was struggling to articulate his lyrics, Goodge would encourage him to rewrite them. “We weren’t looking for perfection, but seeing what was possible,” Goodge says. “My focus was on the rhythm of the performance. I didn’t have to worry about him delivering emotion – he always does.”
For a control freak like Cummings, it was difficult to hand the production reins to Goodge. He also had to trust himself and work within his limitations. “I’m someone who could sing naturally, and so not being able to do that, to physically sing as loudly and powerfully as I used to do, that was a shock,” he says.
He has also had to learn to be patient with himself. “Even now, after all this time, I have to really concentrate just to walk properly,” he says.
Melbourne’s heavy pandemic restrictions gave him plenty of time to practice. “It was very limited, where you could go for walks. Luckily, I live across the road from a racecourse, so there’s songs about walking in the weather on the album, because basically that’s all I did – go for walks and try to get better and make music again.”
Before his death in 2021, Mushroom Records’ boss Michael Gudinski (who was also Cummings’s former manager) called for Cummings and the Sports to be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. “Stephen can be frustrating to deal with,” he said at the time, “but he has always been brilliant.”
“Stephen is always pushing himself, wanting to try something different, and that’s why people sometimes see him as difficult,” Goodge says. “He is always thinking about the music. He is the real deal.”
First published in the Guardian, 2 May 2023