Tagged: Leonard Cohen

The running man

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 in Spectrum (The Age/The Sydney Morning Herald), 24 October 2015

Robert Forster: Songs To Play

A new album by Robert Forster is almost always a challenge before it becomes a pleasure. For a start, there’s that voice, which hits fewer notes than Lou Reed on a less than perfect day. So there isn’t a great deal of melody, unlike the songs of Forster’s former songwriting partner in the Go-Betweens, the late Grant McLennan, who wrote the majority of that band’s better-known, poppier material.

But, as Forster admonishes on Songs To Play’s brisk opener, Learn To Burn, “You can miss details when you’re in a hurry.” Forster rarely writes obvious songs; the type that get your foot tapping and rattle around your head for days. Instead he writes songs, and records, that creep up and throttle you from behind. And he almost never writes duds.

My first feeling upon listening to Songs To Play was of disappointment, especially coming after The Evangelist, the masterpiece Forster had to make following McLennan’s premature death in 2006. This is his first album in seven years, and though far more upbeat, I found myself waiting for it to finish, which didn’t take long. Then, as soon as it did, I played it again.

Forster’s albums are like that. You think there’s not much going on, only to find the songs growing upon you as inexorably as vines around an abandoned building. The music is lean and understated; the lyrics, as ever, are penetrating and compelling. Imagine Reed narrating a Talking Heads album (it could be ’77 or True Stories) and you’re getting close to the feeling of Songs To Play.

For this album, Forster has moved on from long-serving collaborators Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson and instead used members of Brisbane’s John Steel Singers, as well as his wife Karin Bäumler (who plays some sumptuous violin) and his 17-year-old son Louis. There are bits of glockenspiel, Mariachi horns on A Poet Walks, and lots of backing vocals throughout. Songs turn on the lightest of touches.

The band is tight and it’s versatile, whether it’s playing the sly bossa nova of Love Is Where It Is, or the final track Disaster In Motion, which recalls the Velvet Underground’s The Murder Mystery with its churning organ and insistent percussion. A final shriek of unexpected feedback reveals the hidden menace beneath the song’s surface.

Let Me Imagine You is a plea for the preservation of mystique in an exhibitionist age: “Please don’t twitter / I find it sweeter.” As always, what Forster lacks in melodic variation he makes up for with deft phrasing and droll humour: “Wild mountain sound!” he remarks over the fast country picking at the end of I Love Myself And I Always Have (the album was recorded at Mt Nebo, outside Brisbane).

Lyrically, that song is a kind of postmodern update of Skyhooks’ Ego Is Not A Dirty Word, but it’s also a return to the earliest years of the Go-Betweens, when the influence of Jonathan Richman loomed large. “I hold myself in high regard / And loving yourself shouldn’t be so hard,” Forster says, completely matter-of-fact. The humour in this song shouldn’t mask its deadly serious intent.

For all its antecedents, though, Songs To Play (the allusion to Leonard Cohen in the title, surely, is deliberate) is Robert Forster at his most singular. Perhaps most of all, one feels the absence of McLennan here, but not in the painful way he overshadowed The Evangelist, which featured three of his unfinished songs. It’s the sound of Forster starting anew, and the spring in his step is welcome.

First published in The Guardian, 18 September 2015

You can’t have me: why I said no to Crikey

Nearly 20 years ago, my first piece of journalism was published. For a music fan, it was an auspicious beginning: I saw a young You Am I supporting rock behemoths the Beasts of Bourbon at the Mansfield Tavern, one of those great suburban beer barns that gave up on live music long ago. One band was at its peak; the other scaling theirs. My review appeared in a Brisbane street paper, and I was paid $35.

My path was set. Before the cheque had cleared I had spent it, down to the last cent, on an anthology of rock & roll writing. In it, I was introduced to all the greats of the genre: Nick Kent, Lester Bangs, Deborah Frost, Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus and the godfather of music criticism, Crawdaddy! founder Paul Williams, who had a significant personal impact on me. Collectively, these writers taught me everything I knew.

I could always string a decent sentence together, but it still took me years to find my own voice. Like most writers, musicians and artists, I derive little enjoyment from looking back at early work. There can’t be too many rawer forms of growing up in public, and while I still enjoy writing about music, it’s not often these days that I write straight reviews of records or shows, as I did with this piece on Television.

I was pleased with the piece and sent it to The Monthly, who knocked it back on the perfectly reasonable grounds that they already had a music writer. Undaunted, I then offered it to Crikey’s Weekender section. It wasn’t right for that, either, but encouragingly, they handballed it to the just-appointed editor of The Daily Review, Crikey’s newest forthcoming offshoot.

On the same day, a piece written by Tim Kreider for the New York Times appeared on my Facebook feed. I read it with interest. His story was depressingly familiar. “I now contribute to some of the most prestigious publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989,” he said.

Readers of this blog will know that additions have become rarer in recent times. That’s because it’s almost always unpaid work. When I do get paid, it’s because a piece has been picked up and run elsewhere. Others are sad orphans, rejected by all and sundry, with nowhere else to go. Occasionally, I write something purely for its own sake, but not too often. There is too much other work to be done.

The other reason new entries have been sparse is more personal. For the first half of this year I was caught up in another one of those annoying battles with depression that flatten me from time to time. And a big part of that malaise was the dire state of my industry. I was 42, about to get married (my partner and I accomplished this milestone three weeks ago), and still driving a cab two nights a week to keep going.

The editor of The Daily Review contacted me with what appeared on the face of it to be a plum gig. Writing like mine, he said, was exactly what he wanted to publish. He’d seen the Television piece, and knew of my book. Would I like to be the website’s music writer, covering everything from big stadium events to smaller shows that might be worthy of wider exposure? Jobs such as this are rare indeed.

What’s more, I adore Crikey. A day is not complete without a good laugh (or occasional cry) at cartoonist First Dog on the Moon and a hot, caffeinated shot of federal politics from Bernard Keane. It’s smart, acerbic, funny, and asks questions the old media often won’t, or has forgotten how to. And Eric Beecher, the chair of Private Media, is one of the smartest media minds in the country, as well as a deadly earnest chronicler of journalism’s decline.

What’s coming will probably surprise no one. The Daily Review had no budget for contributors. Submissions would be accepted on a copy-share basis, so that anything published on the site would also appear here on Friction. There was the vaguely hopeful prospect, but not a promise, that I might be paid “something at least” when advertising increased at some time in the undetermined future. I’ve heard that one before.

Twenty years, I thought, and my asking rate has gone from $35 to zero.

Do I need to add it would be great exposure? I have no doubt plenty of eyeballs would have been drawn to this blog that weren’t looking before. And of course, there were all the free gigs I could handle, which actually was reasonably enticing, what with Leonard Cohen touring and the summer festival season at hand. But I have been doing this too long to be in it for the tickets.

What was implied, but unsaid, was that I would also attract eyeballs, and advertising, to The Daily Review. Is it arrogant to point out that I have 20 years’ experience, and have built a reasonable reputation within my field? Isn’t that what normal people do when they fill in selection criteria, submit resumes, and attend interviews? In this case, there was no need: for the first time in my working life, I’d been headhunted.

The sealer was this: the editor (a decent fellow who’d been around the traps for long enough himself; none of this epic complaint letter is directed at him) had sent out a plea on Twitter for a Brisbane-based music writer, and received many enthusiastic replies from people who frankly sounded a lot like me 20 years ago. But that wasn’t what he was after: he wanted “a Crikey-quality writer/reviewer”. And apparently I was the man.

I spoke to him on the phone the next day – after less than a full night’s sleep, having already changed my mind half a dozen times – and told him as politely as I could that if that was the case, then it was reasonable to ask for Crikey-quality rates. These are, by industry standards, rather low, but I said that would be OK, because I respected and believed in the publication, and loved the idea of writing for it regularly.

The editor understood, but there was nothing he could do, other than suggest that if content also suited the main Crikey site, I could be published on that as well, and thus be paid for those pieces. That amounted to the status quo. I suggested a three-month trial – doesn’t everything have a free trial period these days? Again, the spreadsheet said no. I didn’t want to waste any more of his time, or mine, so we paid our regrets, and left it at that.

I’d like to say this was an easy call. It wasn’t. After a while, one gets desperate for the smallest morsel of validation; even the most opaque promises of future reward can make the pot of gold seem close at hand. The desperate are just as easily exploited as the young and keen. But I have spent enough time in my life chasing rainbows. Besides, how would I justify working for free, at my age, to my newly betrothed?

I also thought of my peers, friends and colleagues. If I took the job, I would become complicit in undermining their careers, as well as mine. It felt like providing scab labour, just when so-called content creators were beginning to man the picket lines. I accept that, in writing this, I’m unlikely to get too many more offers from Crikey, but it feels more important to join the chorus of voices saying enough is enough.

I don’t know anything about the business models or balance sheets of Private Media, who publish Crikey. But I think it’s fair to assume that at some point, its principals, Beecher included, sat down in a room together, made a conscious decision to expand their arts and culture coverage, and sallied forth on this new adventure with no budget to remunerate the people best qualified to do the job. This is journalism on credit.

I fail to see how such a strategy does not leave Private Media in the same murky territory as, say, Mia Freedman’s Mamamia (see note and clarification below). Freedman (whom, incidentally, Keane never misses a chance to give a good kicking on Twitter) has done extremely well out of creating the sort of personal cult around herself that her followers are sadly only too honoured to pay homage to in the form of free content.

Unfortunately, I am sure The Daily Review will have no trouble attracting some bright young thing to do the job. There is always someone out there talented and enthusiastic enough, possibly still living at home, unburdened by the responsibilities of adult life. I’ve been watching them skate past me for years. But, while I can’t eat integrity, I couldn’t swallow what was being served up here, either.

(Update: this piece has been reprinted by mUmBRELLA, where Crikey editor Jason Whittaker has left a response.)

(Update #2: this piece has also been reprinted by Collapse Board.)

(Update #3: Mia Freedman has left the following response on mUmBRELLA):

“Hi Andrew,

I agree with Tim: don’t do anything for free if you don’t see a mutual benefit.

However you are incorrect in stating that Mamamia does not pay for content. We do and have been for some time now.

Mamamia and ivillage also employ 10 full time journalists, 8 part-time journalists and a growing number of regular columnists.

We are in the process of hiring more journos at a time when most major media organisations are making them redundant.

Would appreciate you correcting that.”

Apologies to Mia: I missed the news last July that, following prolonged criticism, Mamamia would begin paying its contributors a flat $50 fee for articles. However, as someone who was paid exactly ten times that amount – in 1995! – for my first op-ed column in a newspaper, and never less than $350 since, I have to say (as many others have already) that Mia’s insistence that “newspapers and magazines have traditionally not paid writers of opinion content” is simply not true. I find that a baffling assertion from a professional with so many years in the industry. I’m also sceptical that a profitable and exceptionally popular website that employs 18 journalists is somehow absolved from paying its contributors a fairer rate because it is “not a big media corporation”. Less than 12 months ago, Freedman defended not paying her contributors on the grounds that they were instead receiving, you guessed it, valuable “exposure”. Unfortunately, judging by the comments stream, many of Mamamia‘s fans still consider it an honour to write for the site for nix. So I’m letting that second-last paragraph stand, with a direction to this clarification…

(Update #4: A group of long-serving Crikey bloggers have penned an open letter to freelance writers, imploring them NOT to contribute to The Daily Review. One of the bloggers, Bethanie Blanchard – founder of Liticism – has had a planned paid piece on writer Christos Tsiolkos spiked by Crikey, although Crikey claims this is coincidental. The story has also been reported by The Australian (paywalled).