After two best-selling, incredibly personal memoirs, Working Class Boy (2016) and Working Class Man (2017), you might think you know all there is to be known about James Dixon (Jimmy) Barnes.
You’d be wrong.
Barnes, by his own estimation, is still revealing himself. “There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know about me yet,” he says.
On 31 May, Jimmy Barnes will release his seventeenth solo studio album, My Criminal Record – his first rock album since 2010’s Rage and Ruin. It was recorded with his live band: Daniel Wayne Spencer and Davey Lane on guitars, son-in-law Benjamin Rodgers on bass, Clayton Doley on keyboards, with son Jackie Barnes and Warren Trout on drums and percussion.
It was written by Jimmy, with significant assistance from his oldest sparring partner, Cold Chisel’s Don Walker, whose name appears on six of the thirteen tracks. Outstanding contributions also come from close friends Troy Cassar-Daley, Mark Lizotte (aka Diesel) and the Living End’s Chris Cheney, as well as Rodgers, Harley Webster and Jade MacRae.
The earliest of these songs were written at the same time as Jimmy was in the process of writing his two memoirs – both of which won the prestigious Australian Book Industry Award – and the rest in the aftermath, as he sorted through the wreckage and triumphs of an uncontained life that sometimes spun out of control.
But Jimmy is back, older, smarter, healthier, and for My Criminal Record he has distilled and expanded upon those memoirs in 13 pieces of burning, heartland rock & roll. It will resonate with anyone who has ever found themselves standing on the outside, looking in.
The first lines of the album – the title track – set the tone.
Well I came from a broken home
My mama had a broken heart
And even though she tried to fight it
It was broken from the start
“I’ve got books of the darkest lyrics you’ve ever heard in your life – books that will never be published,” Jimmy says. In the context of his two books and the contents of this album, the most forensically honest and searching record of his storied career, it is a scary thought.
The earliest lyrics for My Criminal Record were written on planes, usually tapped out on a phone in between shows. Contemporaneous with his memoirs, the themes for the album quickly began to reveal themselves: of childhood poverty, huge success, self-destruction and self-discovery. Running away. Running out of time. And, ultimately, redemption.
But it’s a very different exercise trying to tell your story in a song than two books the size of a house brick. “You’re writing a chorus and trying to summarise a lifetime in a few lines,” Jimmy says. “It’s a lot more poignant and pointy than writing and telling the whole story.”
So, let’s get to the chorus of My Criminal Record:
My family has a record
That’s as long as your arm
And I don’t want you to read it
Because it’s going to do us harm
I keep it locked away somewhere I know
In a cellar that I call my youth
It’s my criminal record
It’s the truth
The sound of My Criminal Record, both the song and the album, is immediate: live, loud and in your face. Recorded with long-time producer Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, this is easily one of the rawest, hardest-hitting records Jimmy Barnes has ever made sonically, as well as lyrically.
“I couldn’t have done this record without my live band, because these were the guys who saw me fighting my demons every fucking night,” Jimmy says. “These guys get on stage with me and know that when I’m playing the songs, I’ll go, yeah, this is nice – but can you play it 10 times harder, like it’s the last time you’re ever going to play it?”
No song illustrates that approach better than Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire), two versions of which appear on the record. Part I sounds like the car has already crashed, the wheels spinning mid-air after a rollover. Part II – which was actually the first version to be recorded – is a high-speed chase down thunder road:
I’m licking up the white lines
Going way too fast
They’re coming at me out of the future
Going into the past
“Licking up the white lines” is a Don Walker special, of course. Only he could have written that. From the beginning, Jimmy was sending his friend drafts of the lyrics he was feverishly writing between shows. A back-and-forth process would begin – Jimmy spilling his guts; Walker, ever the patient perfectionist, crafting and sharpening each idea.
“It’s funny writing with Don because I always feel like Don’s writing for me anyway, even though he’s not necessarily,” Jimmy says. “I used to think he was reading my mail, because he had an uncanny ability to write things that I thought were so personal to me, and when I’d read them I’d go Jesus, how did he know I felt like this?
“That’s why I never had a problem singing Don’s songs, and I think I was the perfect singer for most of his songs. But I think one of the appeals Don’s songwriting has [is] I think there’s so many Australian males out there who read Don’s lyrics and go, oh – this is about me.”
The most naked song on the album, however, was written not by Barnes and Walker, but Barnes, Benjamin Rodgers and Troy Cassar-Daley: My Demon (God Help Me). Anyone who has read Working Class Boy and Working Class Man will recognise where Jimmy is coming from, right from the song’s opening lines.
But the great gift of My Criminal Record, as with Jimmy’s books, is that this extraordinary man, who has lived a life of even more extraordinary extremes, has made his experiences so relatable. For most of us know, deep down, that whenever we’re running away – or running out of time – we can never outrun ourselves:
I’ve been running from something
That I could not see
I was running from something inside of me
I’ve been running from something that was hiding
Waiting to be free
Jimmy Barnes has done a lot of work on himself to get to this point – not just to stare down his demons, but to understand them. “It’s very easy to fall back,” he says. “Luckily one of the things that my childhood trauma made me was hypervigilant. I used to be hypervigilant and defensive and guarded; now I’m hypervigilant about those demons.
“It’s all relative, whatever your pain is. My pain, I couldn’t take away and I can’t let go of it, it’s always going to be there, but I’m not going to let it rule me or define me. I can see the patterns starting to emerge, and I know what to do to try and stop them, most of the time.”
Doing that work has had another, perhaps more unexpected benefit: Jimmy is singing maybe better than he ever has. He explains that he is better in touch with the emotions in the songs, and better able to express them as a result. The raw power and volume is still there, but it’s modulated by a new self-knowledge and sensitivity.
Once, he said, “I’d get up and scream and yell, drawing on that pain every night I sang from the time I was 15, maybe younger … My body would go automatically into that mode, just because that was all I could do; it was the only way I knew how to get it out, spitting venom at whoever walked past.
“Now, I know why I’m singing it. I know why I’m feeling it. I know why I have to get it out now, and writing the books helped me identify it. I still sing about the same things, but now I know exactly what I’m singing about.”
You won’t find a better example of the newfound subtlety and strength in Jimmy’s voice on My Criminal Record than Shutting Down Our Town, written by Troy Cassar-Daley especially for Barnes, after Troy finished reading Working Class Boy. Jimmy inhabits the song as fully as he inhabited the place he grew up in.
Everything I knew was back there on those streets
Every lesson learned kept me on my feet
But I can’t help thinking of the ones I left behind
“It’s about Elizabeth,” Jimmy says, referring to his childhood suburb, very much on the wrong side of the tracks in north Adelaide. “I changed a couple of words just because of local knowledge, but it was 99.99% a Troy song, and he played it to me and I immediately felt the connection.
“I drove through Elizabeth not long after I heard the song, and I felt a pain in my heart for the people there who are battling, trying to make a living when everything is stacked up against them. And only by a fucking complete miracle did I escape from that, and the truth is, I never escaped from it – it’s still there, it’s still in my heart.
“It’s sort of a heartland Working Class Man anthem, but Working Class Man was written by an American [Jonathan Cain]. This was written by somebody who feels the pain, and who’s writing about the darker side of Australia which I never wanted to face before. So it’s like the bookend to Working Class Man, but for me, it’s the real story.”
My Criminal Record is rounded out by two cover versions. The first – right in the heart of the record – is John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, a song Jimmy incorporated into his solo sets last year. It might seem an obvious choice for the singer of Working Class Man, but no song by a Beatle can be tackled lightly.
“John Lennon was such a wounded, dark person, and I always felt I was either going to sing that, or Mother,” Jimmy says. “Or Instant Karma. But once I put it in the show, every single line in the song, I could spit out and think oh fuck – this is me.”
The song bears a close relationship to another song on the album, Money And Class, that reflects Jimmy’s insights into the long-term impact of poverty gained through writing his memoirs. “That [feeling] where I’m never going to be good enough,” he says. No matter how successful Jimmy became, self-belief and self-doubt were forever locked in a death-match.
The other cover version is of Bruce Springsteen’s Tougher Than The Rest, from The Boss’s “divorce” album Tunnel Of Love. In Jimmy’s hands, however, Tougher Than The Rest is a hymn of undying devotion to the love of his life, Jane, his wife of 38 years.
“When we were in the thick of my worst moments, Tunnel Of Love came out, and I remember I’d be thinking, I’ve lost Jane, and I felt so bad about myself – how I was behaving and how out of it and how fucked up I was,” he says.
“And that song would come on, we’d be having parties, or people would be around, and every time, I’d turn it up and sing along with it. I’d sing it to Jane – “If you’re rough enough for love, baby, I’m tougher than the rest” – don’t give up on me now. I’m flawed, but I’m here.”
Years later, when Jimmy was supporting Springsteen on tour, he was called to The Boss’s dressing room. “He said, what song do you want to do? I said, Tougher Than The Rest. And he said, do you know it? I said, absolutely! I think he might have thought I was a stalker. I knew every nuance of every line.”
Tougher Than The Rest is the final song on the record – really, it couldn’t be any other way. But it’s preceded by another song of hope, written by Mark Lizotte, which complements the desperation of the Springsteen song perfectly.
“Mark’s seen the best and the worst of me, he’s lived through it with me, and he saw me fighting not only for my own sanity and my own life, but fighting to save my relationship,” Jimmy says.
“I wanted a rock song that was up; that had hope. The title is If Time Is On My Side. That’s saying, I’m hoping time is on my side – hang in there with me. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I was scratching and clawing and trying to save my life and my relationship with my friends and my family and the people around me.”
At the age of 63, close to 50 years into his career as one of Australia’s greatest ever singers and live performers, time has proved to be very much on Jimmy Barnes’s side. His is a story of astonishing tenacity and force of will. He has outlasted almost everyone, overcoming every hurdle thrown in his way – many of them, he will now admit, by himself.
While Working Class Boy and Working Class Man told the story of his life in many hundreds of pages of raw, riveting prose, My Criminal Record does it in around 50 minutes of brawling rock & roll. It is one of his finest ever albums, cut by a red-hot band committed only to the moment – and to the truth.
Jimmy’s finally ready to let you hear it.
MY CRIMINAL RECORD – TRACK BY TRACK
My Criminal Record
The opening cut of the album was written early, while Jimmy was working on his first memoir. It set the tone for everything to come. Jimmy: “My Criminal Record sort of sounds like the first book summed up into a song, to me. I feel really blessed that I actually got to the point where I could get to writing these books and deal with some of this stuff, because a lot of my mates didn’t.”
Shutting Down Our Town
A song that exemplifies the term heartland rock at a time when the blue-collar heartland that Jimmy grew up in is under more pressure than ever. Jimmy: “Troy rang me up and said, look, I read Working Class Boy, and as soon as I put it down I picked up my guitar and I wrote this song for you. It’s about Elizabeth. We’re told that if we work hard, we’ll be OK, but how can you work hard when they keep pulling the fucking rug out from under you?”
I’m In A Bad Mood
A song about rage, something Jimmy has never been short of. It’s about how you deal with it. Jimmy: “Writing these books, sitting passively inside my own head was one thing, because I had to process the information, but a lot of it did make me angry. This record I think allows me to get some of the anger out.”
Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire) – Part I
The first version of this song to appear on the record came later in the recording sessions. Jimmy: “This was one of the later ones. I wrote the lyrics on a plane one night when I thought my life was out of control. We started working on that song, and I thought you know what, there isn’t enough of a chorus, it didn’t pay off enough for me. So, we went in and we dug deeper and it developed into this very moody piece.”
My Demon (God Help Me)
Along with Working Class Hero, My Demon (God Help Me) forms the emotional centrepiece of the album, a classic devil-down-the-crossroads blues. Jimmy: “We all have those demons to deal with, and you’d be surprised how similar they all are. They’re always there and if you drop your guard they’re going to fucking pounce on you. I know a lot of men who fight that same battle. But I’m sure it’s just the human condition.”
Working Class Hero
Jimmy sings this John Lennon masterpiece like he was born to. “I started doing the song on the Working Class Man shows in the light of Working Class Man, and how that song defined my whole life, really. It was one of the first ones we recorded, and I just thought we’d put it down and maybe use it somewhere, for a film or a B-side or something, but it just seemed to fit on the record so well.”
Belvedere And Cigarettes
This song was written by Jade MacRae, best friend of Jimmy’s daughter Mahalia, and her former partner Harley Webster. “It’s almost a blue-eyed soul melody with a scathing, self-hating lyric [about how] people who are going through traumatic times tend to make things worse by drinking themselves to death … I really related to that at the time, while I was in the process of sorting my life out and coming out the other end.”
I Won’t Let You Down
Written by the Living End’s Chris Cheney, this song provides an important counterpoint. “I wanted to have a couple of songs that had light at the end of the tunnel. Chris, when he sent it to me, said ‘I wrote this about my girl, but I couldn’t help thinking it was about you and Jane at the same time.’ It’s a great lyric – the fact that ‘I won’t let you down again’ means I’ve let you down in the past. That song’s about breaking that cycle.”
A Walker–Barnes composition, this was one of the first songs from the album to be written, once again combining a winning melody with a dark lyric. “It’s one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s about the emotions in the melody – from the repetitive chorus to when it bursts open in the verse, which gives you this chance of hope, and then the lyric cuts you down, which I really like.”
Money And Class
Jimmy: “It’s about that [feeling] where I’m never going to be good enough, I’m never going to be as good as those guys on the hill, no matter how much success I have. I’m in the process of letting that go. Money And Class and Working Class Hero, those two songs are really closely connected.”
Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire) – Part II
The initial raw cut of this song forsakes moodiness for speed, volume and impact. Jimmy: “I just thought it had a lot of the urgency and anger and intensity that I felt when I was writing those lyrics. I was to-ing and fro-ing which version of Stolen Car to put on, and Kevin suggested that we put both on. I think both songs are different sides of the same coin.”
If Time Is On My Side
Along with Tougher Than The Rest, this one is for Jane, written by Mark Lizotte to a very specific brief from Jimmy. “I’ve known Mark since 1987, and we’ve been best friends and family since, he’s seen the best and the worst of me … I wanted a rock song, that was up, that had hope. The title is If Time Is On My Side but the full title is actually If Time Is On My Side, I’ll Never Let You Go. That’s saying, hang in there with me, you know.”
Tougher Than The Rest
Recorded in Brisbane on a day off with Jason Bonham, the son of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, when the pair crossed paths on tour. They had been hoping to record together for years. Jimmy: “There’s just something about where his snare sits in relation to the kick and the hi-hat that gave weight to that cover. I didn’t want to put covers on this record, but they were just so poignant to the whole story.”
Between his work as a guitarist and songwriter with the Easybeats and as a producer (along with fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda) for AC/DC, there is a very strong case to be made that George Young was the original sonic architect of Australian rock & roll. Other than Vanda – and with no disrespect to anyone who came before them, or followed after – the legacy of Young, who died yesterday aged 70, arguably outstrips anyone’s.
Those are big claims to make, so let’s start at the beginning. Young was born in Glasgow in 1946, migrated with his parents and younger brothers Malcolm and Angus to Sydney in 1963, and met Vanda at Villawood migrant hostel (now shamefully a detention centre) the following year – an event Australian Musician magazine selected as the most significant event in this country’s rock music history, in 2007.
That’s another big call, but the Easybeats, Australia’s first and finest response to the British Invasion (and the Beatles in particular) all but justify it by themselves. Their second single She’s So Fine, released in May 1965, launched them to local stardom. Their fifth, Sorry – led by a propulsive, serrated Young riff that prefigured younger brother Malcolm’s rhythm work with AC/DC – took them to the top of the Australian charts.
That was in October 1966, by which point the Easybeats had relocated to England. Until then, Young had written music for singer Stevie Wright, who contributed lyrics. It was the year of Revolver and Blonde On Blonde, and there were murmurs that the wild, colonial Easybeats lacked polish by comparison. Young was subsequently teamed with the Dutch-born Vanda, who was still learning English. Their first recording was Friday On My Mind.
The Easybeats’ joyous paean to the end of the working week was a worldwide smash, covered in years to come by everyone from Blue Öyster Cult to Bruce Springsteen, as well as David Bowie, who recorded it for his album Pin Ups. In 2001, the Australian Performing Rights Association voted it the best Australian song of all time; it was added to the National Film and Sound Archives registry in 2007.
If that had been all, Young’s legacy would have been secure. But it was his ongoing work as a songwriter and producer for other artists that turned he and Vanda into giants. As house producers for Albert Productions, they started out by rescuing the doomed Wright’s career with the magnificent three-part opus Evie in late 1974. Around the same time, another Scottish immigrant, Bon Scott, joined AC/DC.
A few stories sum up George Young’s contribution to that band. First, as Clinton Walker has pointed out in his biography of Scott, Highway To Hell, Young insisted that AC/DC should never deviate from straight, hard rock & roll: following trends, he believed, had been the Easybeats’ undoing. He also identified the silence and space in Malcolm Young’s stop-start riffs as crucial to their early sound: “It’s the stops what rocks,” he said.
The most famous story is of smoke billowing from Angus Young’s amplifier as he laid down the climactic solo for Let There Be Rock. From the control booth, George gesticulated and screamed at the guitarist to keep going, with Angus just managing to finish before his Marshall melted. “There was no way we were going to stop a shit-hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up!” George said later.
The work Vanda and Young produced for AC/DC – Let There Be Rock, especially – had a tougher edge than the sound Robert “Mutt” Lange gave the band for their international breakthroughs Highway To Hell and Back In Black, recorded after Scott’s death. Vanda and Young were by then also working with the likes of the Angels and Rose Tattoo, who would go on to influence a new generation of hard rockers, notably Guns n’ Roses.
And yet again, there was still more to the story. For as much as Vanda and Young can be credited for birthing the sound of what we now know – sometimes somewhat derisively – as “Oz rock”, they were also writing and cutting huge pop, and even disco hits: Can’t Stop Myself From Loving You, performed by glam rocker William Shakespeare, followed by a string of songs including Love Is In The Air for John Paul Young (no relation).
Vanda and Young even formed their own studio project, Flash & The Pan, whose first single Hey St Peter, released in September 1976, prefigured new wave just as punk was breaking worldwide. The song’s B-side, Walking In The Rain, was covered in 1981 by Grace Jones on her iconic album Nightclubbing. The mesmerising synth-pop of Waiting For A Train, released in 1983, featured Wright on vocals and hit No. 7 in the UK.
The story of Australian rock & roll, from the Easybeats to the Saints to the Hard-Ons and beyond, is of migrant kids. We should all be forever grateful for the day George Young met Harry Vanda at Villawood. And if it sounds like too much of a stretch to say Young defined the sound of Australian rock, listen to that manic, choppy riff from Sorry again – then try to imagine it without him.
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.
THERE’S ALOW 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.
Taylor Swift is single again, and I for one am glad. Not for her heartbreak (as a fellow human, naturally, I’m sorry for her pain), and certainly not because she’s “back on the market” since, needless to say, I’m not in it. No, I’m glad selfishly, because if it produces a song half as good as I Knew You Were Trouble, the world will be a better place, for she will ease the pain of anyone who’s ever been through the same.
Which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of us. Romantic heartbreak is the lingua franca of the pop song. In the opening soliloquy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Rob (played in Stephen Frears’ film by John Cusack) poses a universal question, as the 13th Floor Elevators’ garage classic You’re Gonna Miss Me blasts through his headphones:
“What came first – the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence is going to take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
And then Laura – who is about to shoot to number one with a bullet on Rob’s desert island, all-time top five most memorable breakups, in chronological order – walks into the room and pulls the plug, literally, on the music and, metaphorically, on their relationship.
The tabloids are already coming after Swift. Grazia listed 13 times ex-boyfriends have apparently inspired her music, saying she had “infamously” mined her personal life for lyrical inspiration. Like every other songwriter in history. Actually, maybe we should be glad for Swift’s critics, because she’s already kissed them off in fine style with Shake It Off. Can we have another one of those, too?
Did anyone complain when Otis Redding practically tore out his (and everyone else’s) heart singing I’ve Been Loving You Too Long? How about the Clash’s Mick Jones, who wrote Train In Vain after his breakup with the Slits’ Viv Albertine, while the band was recording London Calling? Do we even need to talk about Joy Division’s all but sanctified Love Will Tear Us Apart?
No one complained when Bob Dylan got an entire album out of the collapse of his marriage to his first wife, Sara Lownds. That album was Blood On The Tracks. It has been the measuring stick for every breakup album by a serious male singer-songwriter since, from Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call (which features at least two paeans to PJ Harvey) to Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker to Beck’s Sea Change.
Adams, of course, later covered Swift’s 1989 in its entirety. Stripping Swift’s songs back to basics, focusing attention on the brilliance of their construction, threw up an interesting set of questions around pop, authenticity and Swift’s superstar status – especially around what a female pop singer has to do in order to be taken seriously by a mostly male critical establishment.
Or, in this case, not do. For the more cloth-eared members of that establishment, unable to look past Swift’s glossy image or admit that rock music is often equally as factory-assembled, it took Adams’ emo take to legitimise Swift’s talent. (Adams, by the way, isn’t the first male artist to try his hand at this sort of thing: see Richard Thompson’s version of Britney Spears’s Oops! I Did It Again.
Can anyone recall an album by a female artist being compared to Blood On The Tracks? I can’t. Certainly not in pop music. Not even, in the rock arena, PJ Harvey, whose Is This Desire? was dedicated, in turn, back to Nick Cave. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is frequently described, in a very feminised way, as a soap opera, due to the somewhat complicated nature of the relationships within the mixed-gender group.
Pop music is dominated by women, from Madonna to Rihanna to Sia to Beyoncé, and along with boy bands and almost anyone playing dance music, their music is routinely dismissed as lightweight. But if grown men can confess to being moved to tears when Springsteen and Dylan turn their attention to matters of the heart, then why not, say, Swift’s Wildest Dreams?
I hope Swift finds true love soon. Really, I do. But in the meantime, I hope she goes on too many dates and can’t make ’em stay. Let her go on making the bad guys good for a weekend a while longer. Actually, now I think of it, I hope she gets back together with Calvin Harris, just so she can break up with him again and write another version of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.
Just like her male peers, like all of us, Swift gets down and out about the liars and dirty cheats of the world. The only difference is she’s doing it to a sick beat. As for the haters, well, we all know what they say about them.
Josh Ritter – American songwriter, novelist, near-neuroscientist – likes to run. “It’s the perfect exercise for me,” he says. For one thing, it’s portable: all you need is a pair of sneakers and you can run anywhere; especially to get away from the confines of a tour bus. There’s also a little bit of pain involved, which he doesn’t mind: he’s run three marathons. That was until the time running almost killed him a few years ago.
One morning, after a slightly over-exuberant workout, he woke up sore. Soon he was having trouble getting dressed; a few days later, he noticed his muscles beginning to swell, literally like the Incredible Hulk. His alarmed partner Haley [Tanner, a novelist] rushed him to hospital – “notwithstanding I was looking pretty damn good,” Ritter wrote, tongue in cheek, in a blog post from 2012.
It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a close-run thing: Ritter’s kidneys couldn’t cope with what was, in effect, a meltdown of muscle fibre into his bloodstream. He spent days in hospital on a saline drip, paying the price for his driven nature. “Running keeps me alert and excited and kind of hungry,” he says, “[But] I think I realised I had a bit of a problem. I really paid the price.”
Ritter, 38, doesn’t do things by halves. His albums and songs, though not excessively long, are epic in scope. So are his ambitions. For his eighth album, Sermon On The Rocks, he wrote: “I wanted to make something grand. I wanted it to swing hard. I wanted to peek through death’s keyhole. I wanted my monster to run. I wanted to sing songs that I had written in stretches of frenzy.” (There’s more, but you get the idea.)
Did he get there? “I think I got it on this one. Everything was there; the wildness … The songs were high adventure; how I felt was big romance, and I wanted the whole thing to have that. Sometimes the most pristine playing is not the stuff that gives you chills, so I wanted that messiness. My goals were really high, but I felt that they were achievable if I opened the door and let all the crazy out.”
Ritter is a songwriter in the grand American folk tradition: a student of Dylan and Springsteen and Leonard Cohen, as well as contemporaries like Nick Cave. He writes “rock & roll with a lot of words”, tumbling over with metaphors. “I like a good rich set of symbols, those are really important to me,” he says. “Somehow a good story is either about God or love or death, and the best ones kind of have all of that.”
He was born in Moscow, Idaho, a small college town of less than 20,000 people in desert country. He says he grew up “way out of town, on the edge of a mountain”, where he had to learn to entertain himself. He got lost, both in the surrounding countryside and in books about dragons, as well as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. “I had a pretty rich fantasy life when I was that age.”
His was no backwoods upbringing, though. Ritter’s parents were neuroscientists who taught at Washington State University, across the border. “I grew up thinking that being a scientist was the best thing in the world. It was such a beautiful and noble quest to throw yourself up against things that are unknown, and slowly and methodically pull on the thread of that tapestry until it all comes apart.”
Ritter initially wanted to follow them, moving to Oberlin, Ohio to study neuroscience himself, until the songs he was writing began to pull him away. In some respects, he realised, his job was the same: songs are like a riddle to be solved. He ended up completing a self-styled major, “American history through narrative folk music”, and made his first, self-titled album at a recording studio on campus in 1997.
Later, he moved to Scotland for six months. “There was so much music that came to the States from Scotland and Ireland and England, and I wanted to get closer to the American music that I loved.” Tellingly, one of his early musical loves was the Pogues. “Their records are like a wolfhound ripping a rabbit, they’re ferocious. Even the slow songs – Fairytale In New York is just brutal.”
He soon found himself a solid audience in Ireland, going from playing to 20 people at open-mic nights to halls of 600 after being spotted by Glen Hansard, of Irish band the Frames (as well as the Commitments). “Their verbal technology is 10 years ahead of us. They have the best jokes, and they have the best words for things, and they’re the harshest [critics], they’re going to keep you real.”
Since then, Ritter has released a further seven albums, and while his sales are relatively modest, his prolific output, devoted fan base and heavy touring have seen him build a sustainable and growing career. He’s also had good success licensing his songs, both to commercial chains such as Starbucks, and to advertising and TV shows.
He considers himself a songwriter ahead of a storyteller, but nonetheless he is compelled by narrative. “I really do move towards stories. I feel like I need their little twists, for a lot of songs. When I hear a song like [Leonard Cohen’s] Famous Blue Raincoat or Where The Wild Roses Grow [Nick Cave], it makes me antsy and jealous.”
Often, his songs are tinged with fantasy elements, a throwback to his early life, where he made up stories to keep himself amused: The Curse (from his 2010 album, So Runs The World Away), is the story of a mummy who falls in love with an archaeologist. Another song from the same album, Another New World, sees an Arctic expeditioner chop up his own ship for firewood to keep warm.
Eventually, inevitably, one of his songs couldn’t be contained. It spilled into a novel, Bright’s Passage, the story of a Great War veteran who hears voices. Reviewing the novel in the New York Times, Stephen King – an avowed fan of Ritter’s music – asks himself whether he would have recommended publishing the book, were its author unknown. He concludes: “It’s a question I’m glad I never had to answer.”
To be fair, King also praises Ritter’s gift, saying that at its best, the novel recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime, and urges a follow-up (which Ritter is working on). But he knows that there is a greater power in compressing his big ideas into smaller spaces, and Sermon On The Rocks sees him paring his songcraft back into simpler, more digestible shapes. “Make it portable,” he says – that word again. “Any saying or epigram, those things that we remember are the smallest, most concise things.”
Writing Bright’s Passage renewed Ritter’s belief in his craft, which he clearly took into the making of Sermon On The Rocks. “I didn’t need permission to be a writer, I was writing all the time, but for some reason that was something that I took out of it, that I wasn’t expecting, and it made me feel really good about writing songs. … Also, I became better at killing off characters.”
Ritter has also become the father of a daughter, Beatrix. It’s forced him to change his work habits for the better, writing in shorter bursts. “It used to be I could moon around for about 12 hours and feel like I hadn’t got anything done. Now at the end of the day I’ve written something and I can put a pin in it, even if it’s just a few lines.”
He’s also started running again – but not in the way that he used to, a reflection of a more relaxed approach to his work. “The marathon isn’t interesting any more,” he says. “There’s no magnum opus for me. If I have a time in my writing when I feel like, this is it – that I will do no better or nothing will come of this, I guess that means I’ve achieved my goal, my marathon.
“But I don’t want that. I want every day to be different, and I want every day to have the potential of doing something great. Haley said the other day, it’s easy to give yourself the goal of running a marathon, but it’s harder to make yourself run four miles every day. So that’s my new goal. I don’t need to run any more marathons.”
First published inSpectrum (The Age/The Sydney Morning Herald), 24 October 2015