“Hey! Turn the lights on, I want to see everybody,” shouts Iggy Pop. And he grins that huge, irrepressible grin. Here he is, on the lip of the Concert Hall stage of a sold-out Sydney Opera House, with thousands of ecstatic fans cheering back at him. And he can’t get enough: he extends his hands, accepting everyone’s love and joy, touching that famously bare, Florida-tanned and now ever so slightly pot-bellied torso, as if to smear it upon himself.
“You’ve made me very happy,” he says, in all sincerity. But he’s no happier than anyone else in the room, after 21 of the greatest songs of all time that were never hits. Well, Lust For Life almost was, after its immortal tom-tom rhythm jump-started the film of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting. But that was in 1996, 19 years after its original release. Nothing else, other than Candy (not played this evening) ever came close.
I’ve started this review at the end of the show for the sake of some context. How could Lust For Life not have been a major hit in 1977, the year punk broke? The answer is that the death of Elvis Presley meant that Iggy’s label at the time, RCA, poured its resources into reissuing the King’s catalogue at the expense of promoting what should have been the biggest success of the World’s Forgotten Boy’s career, just when he thought his Chinese rug was at hand.
At the Opera House, Iggy pulls out this eternal opener or showstopper (it’s not really an in-between sort of song) fourth in the set, right after The Passenger. Most of the remainder is drawn from the deep well drilled by the Stooges, whose three pre-punk albums between 1969 and 1973 sold bugger all, except to those who had their minds so blown that they formed their own bands, who duly passed the torch to the next generation, et cetera. And so, here we are.
There are so many layers of improbability about this – Iggy Pop at the Opera House – that it almost defies belief. The first, of course, is that Iggy is still alive, having outlived not only his closest peers and mentors, David Bowie and Lou Reed, but all but one core member of the two original Stooges line-ups (James Williamson). Not to mention countless less fortunate musicians who shuffled off this mortal coil after sustaining seemingly far less damage.
This Sunday, the man born James Osterberg celebrates his 72nd birthday. He looks as healthy as a horse, an obvious limp from a bad hip notwithstanding, meaning that supple physique of his can’t move quite like it used to. Iggy’s voice, however, is in unbelievably good shape, whether he’s deploying his rich baritone on the sleazy dancefloor crawl of Nightclubbing or summoning the terminally bored teenage whine of No Fun.
That song sees Iggy invite dozens of fans on stage with him, in scenes reminiscent of a similar crowd invasion at a Royal Headache gig in 2015. This time, though, no cops are called to break up the party. And here, some scepticism is understandable. Has the man who wrote Gimme Danger lost his edge, now his songs have reached a level of mass acceptance that allows him to perform at a venue such as this?
One promotional poster for this gig features a famous image of the youthful Iggy Stooge photoshopped standing atop the sails of the Opera House. The Opera House is intimate enough that, had he chosen, Iggy could have stepped straight off the stage and had the crowd hold him aloft by his ankles, in a recreation of the iconic scene from the Cincinatti pop festival in 1970 (before he started smearing himself with peanut butter).
Really, as he sings on a cover of Bowie’s Jean Genie, he just “loves to be loved”. So much so that it’s easy to forget how deeply shunned Iggy Pop once was, decades before he became an object of adulation. Now, he can open with I Wanna Be Your Dog and close the set with Real Cool Time – two songs that defined the fine line between stupid and clever long before Spinal Tap – and, well, it’s like hypnotising chickens.
For the encore, Real Wild Child is a clear nod to his Australian audience (both for its debt to Johnny O’Keefe, and the Generation Xers who have grown up with it as the theme from Rage), followed by a much bigger surprise, as Iggy’s band bulldozes their way through Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand. Everyone is beaming, none more so than the superhuman on stage. It’s totally life affirming. Call it hip-replacement rock if you want: he’s Iggy Pop, and you’re not.
Fame frozeTom’s Restaurant in time. Situated on 2880 Broadway, a block from the Cathedral of St John the Divine in Manhattan’s affluent, intellectual Upper West Side, its pink-on-blue neon signage formed many of the exterior scenes for Seinfeld, and it’s been coasting on its reputation as a pop-culture tourist attraction ever since. Framed photographs of the cast line the walls.
Peruse the menu and it’s casually noted, almost as a footnote, that the restaurant was also the setting for a song by “Susan” (Suzanne) Vega: the indelible, acapella Tom’s Diner. The misspelling is not lost on its author. “Whenever I go there I still have to pay for my whole breakfast, and they’re still kind of bad with the service,” she says, rather tartly. “So between you and me, I prefer the Metro Diner these days.”
Vega remains best known for two songs: Tom’s Diner and Luka, both top-10 US hits from her breakthrough 1987 album Solitude Standing. Some with longer memories may recall Left Of Centre, from the soundtrack of John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink, or Marlene On The Wall, from her self-titled debut. These numbers still turn up on hit compilations from the ’80s.
But for those who have kept up, they are merely the underpinning of a rich, remarkably consistent solo career by a songwriter’s songwriter. In the years following the punk explosion on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Vega was at the forefront of the Greenwich Village folk revival, but her drily delivered, acutely observed visions of New York are as gritty as her late friend Lou Reed’s.
She tours constantly, partially because the streaming age means she has to “for cash flow”, but also because she loves it: “I started performing when I was 16; it’s what I do.” She also continues to make records, the latest being Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers, the tragic American author whose Southern Gothic classic The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter captivated Vega as a teenager.
Some of the songs were written decades ago, before Vega had a record deal. In 1981, she adapted McCullers’ short stories into songs for a one-act play for her college thesis. Thirty years and many rewrites later, the expanded 90-minute production, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, had a six-week run in New York. In a page-boy wig and pinstripes, Vega bore a striking resemblance to her heroine.
But while the songs were uniformly well-received, Vega still wasn’t satisfied with the script, which hadn’t captured the context in which McCullers’ greatest work was produced: a Southern woman determined to mix it among New York’s literati. “It was a little too abstract,” she says. “I’ve always thought of Carson as a kind of timeless person, but the production was not rooted in anything.”
This time, she’s been more specific. An Evening With Carson McCullers is broken into two acts, the first set in 1941, the year after The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was published when the author was just 23; the second in 1967, in the months before her death at the age of 50 after a brilliant but tumultuous life blighted by alcoholism, disability and suicide attempts. It was a character that Vega found rewarding to play.
“I loved how independent she was, especially as a young woman – her fearlessness in what she wrote about; her lack of inhibition,” she says. But McCullers had a pitch dark side, exacerbated by the bottle; one song, The Instant Of The Hour After, pictures a late-night drunken argument with her husband Reeves: “The pulse in your neck, how I’ll know it, right to the end / How I love you / How I loathe you.”
While the script tells McCullers’ story, the songs are among Vega’s best character sketches. One song, Harper Lee, records McCullers’ annoyance at being compared to the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, bragging “She only wrote the one book; I’ve written more than three”, elevating herself above a string of other more celebrated writers: “I have more to say than Hemingway / Lord knows compared to Faulkner, I say it in a better way.”
“She might not have found that very funny, but I would hope she would know I mean it affectionately,” Vega says. “She was a difficult person to be married to, a difficult person to be friends with, but ultimately I think there’s something very endearing about her, and childlike – naive, and yet wise. So I think she’s still a sympathetic character, in spite of her also being a pain in the ass.”
Vega’s empathy for others has distinguished her songwriting since her earliest years. Luka is told from the perspective of an abused child; the emotional tug of Tom’s Diner – following several verses of deceptively banal detail – hinges on the ringing of the bells of the nearby cathedral, as she remembers the voice of a lost friend, “And of the midnight picnic once upon a time, before the rain began…”
The song has since been covered and sampled dozens of times, most recently by Britney Spears and legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder. “I’m just astonished at the variety that keep coming,” Vega says. “The Britney Spears version, I remember thinking wow, this really is something special, and then I learned that it was her idea, she was a fan of the song, so I was very tickled.”
The song has left another, more troubling legacy. In the late ’80s, engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg, who pioneered the development of the MP3, heard the original version and thought its minimalism might be a foolproof way to test the new technology. Vega remained unaware until many years later, when she was dropping her daughter Ruby off at nursery school.
“One of the parents, who I didn’t even know, turned to me and said ‘Congratulations on being the Mother of the MP3,’ and I said ‘Excuse me?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I just read about it in Business Week,’ she says. Vega later travelled to the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, where Brandenburg played her the first, raw MP3 version: “It sounded like something from The Exorcist.”
Ironically, the song that continues to provide her with her most consistent stream of income is the one that upended the record industry. “I guess the ’80s were just not going to go on forever,” she says. “It was such a bloated time period, and so much money was wasted that I could see it coming, in some ways, as a kind of correction.”
Vega has adapted well to changing circumstances. With the publishing rights of her records owned by A&M, she started her own label, Amanuensis Productions, and re-recorded roughly three-quarters of her catalogue in a series of four albums she called Close-Up, divided by theme: Love Songs, People And Places, States Of Being, and Songs Of Family.
Apart from reclaiming ownership of her own material, the themed approach and intimate, not-quite unplugged productions served two purposes: it introduced her later work to those who lost touch with Vega after her hit-making period, and stripped the originals of some of the production tricks of the time in which they were made. Many of the new versions are superior to their predecessors.
She’s also engaged with her fan base on social media. “At the time I did [the Close-Up albums] I was trying to get 100,000 people on Facebook that I could stay in touch with. Not everybody on Facebook buys, though – if all of them bought a CD I’d be in great shape, but it doesn’t work that way. They’ll like a picture of my dog, but they won’t buy a complete CD.”
In 2010, in a thoughtful blog post for the New York Times, Vega wrote about being a “two-hit wonder”. She said that the demeaning description “makes me look as though somehow I managed to squeak out those two songs and then shuffle back to being a receptionist”. In fact, the songs have had exactly the opposite effect on her life: “they have been my passport out of life in an office”.
What’s to complain about? Being a two-hit wonder is better than one, or none. “I see people at the gigs and I say, OK, they know me for Tom’s Diner, or they know me for Luka, and that’s fine with me. However they come is fine.”
An edited version of this piece was first published in Spectrum (The Age/The Sydney Morning Herald), 21 October 2016
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.
Halfway through her gig at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s David Bowie exhibition, Melbourne singer-songwriter Jen Cloher introduces her own Bowie moment: her song David Bowie Eyes is an obvious nod to partner Courtney Barnett, standing on her right. It’s possible at least a few in the audience are here mainly to get up close to Australia’s unlikeliest and best musical success story, but it’s Cloher (looks like Patti Smith, drawls like Lou Reed) who’s the real rock star of the pair. Her set starts quietly with Hold My Hand – an impossibly moving vignette of ageing and decay – but when Mount Beauty kicks in, her band begins rumbling like a feral cross between the Velvet Underground and Crazy Horse. Cloher’s lyrical economy and classic sense of rock dynamics is the opposite of Barnett’s brilliant verbosity, but the combined chemistry and charisma of the two on stage together is riveting: held together by Jen Sholakis’ supple drums, the songs power along, set ablaze by Barnett’s bottleneck guitar playing. For the finale, they rampage through Bowie’s Suffragette City, Cloher’s final, ironic shout of “suffragette!” delighting the overwhelmingly female crowd. Barnett’s debut album was a deserved hit around the world earlier this year. Let’s hope Cloher’s follow-up to 2013’s acclaimed In Blood Memory receives the same level of attention.
One for my French readers, on one of the great unsung Australian songwriters, Peter Milton Walsh, of the Apartments.
Peter Milton Walsh was on a roll. It was 1996, and the singer-songwriter behind the Apartments – who had emerged from the same post-Saints Brisbane scene that gave birth to the Go-Betweens and the Riptides – was onto his fourth album in four years. Drift, Fête Foraine and A Life Full Of Farewells had all met with acclaim, and if they hadn’t done a great deal to boost his reputation in his home country, they’d cemented it in Europe.
Prior to this, Walsh had spent much of the 1980s “like a scrap of paper, blown down the windy streets of the world”. He’d had a couple of real successes: the haunting, cello-soaked elegy Mr Somewhere, from the 1985 Rough Trade album The Evening Visits … And Stays For Years was later covered by 4AD’s shape-shifting ensemble This Mortal Coil. Another song, The Shyest Time, appeared in the John Hughes film Some Kind Of Wonderful, at the height of the Hughes’ fame. “Sometimes it seemed like I got one lucky break after another and I didn’t hold onto any of them,” he says. “Fugitives might have had more stability.”
Finally, though, life had settled, and it was good. Walsh was working a straight but rewarding job in Sydney, anchored by his wife and young son, Riley. Around that, he had constructed an alternative existence as a recording artist that was almost clandestine. Being recognised in Europe before Australia had its advantages. “If you offered me the choice of whether to be unknown here or unknown in Europe, I admit I would go for unknown here,” Walsh says. “Having that distance has enabled me to live very quietly – lead a double life, even a secret and quite fine one here.”
Songs were flowing. The new album would be different, as different as each had been from their immediate predecessors. Three short, piano-based snippets – Doll Hospital, Your Ambulance Rides and Place Of Bones – linked eight major pieces with rich, almost baroque arrangements. “I’d written not only the songs but some string, woodwind, brass and piano parts, and I just wanted to try something I never had before,” he says. “We all get restless. Sometimes we get tired of ourselves.”
To play these songs, Walsh needed a new band. He met Gene Maynard, the drummer, who “had such fantastic swing”. He then contacted the Cruel Sea’s Ken Gormley, “a great, instinctive player with a beautiful feel. I was very surprised when I asked and he said yes.”
The result was Walsh’s least known, but quite possibly best album Apart. A lush, moving piece of work, it was also the last record Walsh would make, until last year’s single Black Ribbons. There had been a 15-year silence. “I always had a hunch that what I did might appeal to a particular sensibility, that a world existed somewhere in which the songs would deeply connect.” Apart, perhaps, is a world unto itself. It’s a shame more people in this one haven’t heard it.
Which is not to say that the album is difficult or self-indulgent. It is merely singular. After the opening Doll Hospital – a slightly jarring 26 seconds of a few repeated piano notes – there’s barely a pause before the low, melancholy blast of horns that introduce No Hurry. It sounds like a foghorn blowing across a bay, and Walsh is being carried along, like one of the those scraps of paper. “The days are getting longer,” he croons, backed by loping groove from Gormley, “Night comes down so late.”
“I wanted to get some of that slow sensuality of summer into a song,” Walsh says in hindsight, and perhaps it’s a metaphor for Walsh’s old hometown of Brisbane: “I got no ambition, I’ll sleep by the lazy river / Someone slowed the whole world down, in the old town called the past.” The music matches the lyric, the semi-orchestral arrangement never cluttered, “drifting along just like smoke”.
Breakdown In Vera Cruz ascends from peak to peak, piano and percussion driving the verses, trumpet and strings holding up a majestic chorus. But underneath, the song is desperately sad, a story of a dissolute, but co-dependent coupling: “They talked a little bit / Then things just went all quiet again / What they have’s on the skids / He depends on her, she depends on gin.” A drawn-out coda ends with a shiver of cello and violin.
Something To Live For is about marriage, fatherhood, and letting go of the past. At the time, Walsh was writing the album three days a week, and spending the other two with Riley. Playing music isn’t that important in the greater scheme of things: “Travelling man, a travelling band, the lights go out one by one / A daddy does what he has to do, the circus moves on.” “Learning the meaning of gratitude,” Walsh explains, “Trying to be good.” It’s the most optimistic and uplifting song on Apart.
Things take a left turn with the appearance of Walsh’s long-time fan Dave Graney, doing his best Philip Marlowe impression as he narrates the tone poem Welcome To Walsh World. Gently brushed drums, more strings, and lyrics that would do Lou Reed at his most narcissistic early 1970s best proud: if there’s a parallel to be made here, conscious or otherwise, Apart might be likened to an Antipodean equivalent of Berlin, Reed’s bleak masterpiece of domestic melodrama.
The second half of the album opens with Friday Rich/Saturday Poor. It was an old tune for Walsh, having been demoed in 1990. After Apart’s release in France, Lanvin, which was launching a new perfume, came close to using this song in an advertising campaign throughout Europe – I imagine it was the seductive introductory flourish of violin that they were after. Walsh demurs: “I liked to tell myself it was because of the prospect of decadence within the lyrics.” Lanvin instead ended up going with a track by Finley Quaye. “I’m sure the perfume sank without a trace; that wouldn’t have happened with Friday Rich,” the author deadpans.
World Of Liars is a big, slow ballad in an album that seems full of them, but it’s the sparest – no strings or brass this time, just the core of Walsh on piano, accompanied by Gormley and Maynard, with some deft hand percussion. Cheerleader underscores a more unexpected influence: the Bristol sounds of Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky, who is name-checked in No Hurry. It’s a showcase for Gormley in particular, whose descending bassline provides the hook of a song that relies on atmosphere more than structure.
All this is leading up to Apart’s final statement. Everything Is Given To Be Taken Away opens in a similar manner to No Hurry, and reprises some of its lyrical themes of wasted potential: “There’s a rose that blossoms in the barrel / For each lost little girl”. It begins with just piano chords and the soft sound of Walsh’s voice, before Gormley and Maynard enter, drawing the song out. Strings rush in like the climactic moment in the Beatles A Day In The Life, until finally the song explodes into a chorus of ba-ba-ba’s that’s at once childlike and exquisitely wistful.
And then, it all became horribly prophetic. On the final day of mixing, Walsh took a phone call from his GP. “Riley’s blood tests had come back,” Walsh remembers. ‘You have to take him to the Westmead Hospital right now,’ she said. ‘Right now?’ I asked. ‘Straight away – I’ve rung, and told the specialist you’re coming.’
“What got to me was the songwriter’s fear; firstly that the songs are omens, finally that the songs have come true.” Riley used to sing along to those ba-ba-ba’s; the three instrumentals, with their haunted titles, had also been floating around for some time, long before there was an inkling of anything being wrong. “The fact that I wrote such a song, and that I wrote it before things came to an end – before we lost Riley – that stopped me, and I thought it put a stop to songs forever,” he says. “I didn’t know if I could find my way back to who I was before he died, but really, I didn’t think I should, either.”
It would be over a decade later before the Apartments would re-emerge: firstly with a discreet run of shows in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, followed by a gig in Paris a couple of years later. With no advertising or press support, the night was a sellout, as was another rooftop set in Paris last year, at the invitation of a French magazine. “A journalist who came along, some girl who said she’d never heard of me until she found World Of Liars on Youtube, and she said, ‘How do you explain this?’ … I had to tell her I don’t do explanations and I never question this, because it might imperil it. I am happy to do what I do in the glow of this benevolent mystery.
“I remember the record company warning me when I refused to tour to promote Apart, no one knows where you’ve gone or why … People will forget you. You have to top up the goodwill; release something new, to remind them. I just remember thinking, you know, I couldn’t care less. If they need to be reminded, they never got me in the first place.”
I have two records sitting at the base of my stereo at the moment, both purchased last week. One is the Feelies’ new album Here Before, which I have been giving a severe flogging. The other is a lovely, near-mint original American pressing of Lou Reed’s Berlin, which so far I have been too scared to play.
Here Before is the first Feelies record for close to 20 years, and it’s as though they’ve never been away. There’s no great advance on the last three albums that the band recorded in the late ’80s and early ’90s, all of which are more relaxed, pastoral affairs than the band’s brilliant but twitchy 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms. (That record opened with a song called The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness, which was a pretty apt description of the four of them, and the music they made together.)
Looking around for some information about Here Before, I came across this review, and I was struck by the following quote by writer Jordan Cronk, which sums up the record and my feelings towards it perfectly: “Here Before could have come out in 1987 or 2027 and my feelings about it would be more or less the same: this is a good album with a lot of easy-going songs that sound pretty much the same.”
I love this. Rock critics are like peacocks at the best of times, so it’s refreshing to read a review that eschews preening and instead gets right to the nub of things in a plain manner. He’s right: Here Before is a very easy listen, and many of the songs do sound, frankly, interchangeable. They do, however, consistently tingle the nerve endings in a pleasing manner. But when did I start becoming so satisfied with that?
Lou Reed is one of the Feelies’ obvious heroes – many of their songs recall the more mellow moments of the Velvet Underground, such as Some Kinda Love, or when they’re in a more energetic mood What Goes On (which they’ve covered).
I suspect, though, they never spent much time with Berlin, which is quite possibly the most depressing album ever made. It’s even more depressing than Joy Division’s awesomely bleak Closer, a reissue of which I also bought recently. Closer is an incredibly moving, magisterial piece of work, but it’s in no danger of being overplayed, because I never fail to end up feeling worse after listening to it. (As opposed to, say, the Ramones, who always leave me feeling better, regardless of how up or down I’m feeling on any given day.)
Berlin, though, leaves Closer for dead. It hits its peak of emotional devastation on The Kids, in which authorities are sent to remove the children of their speed-freak mother Caroline, the album’s central character. The song plays out – for several, awful minutes – to what sounds like a live recording of their screams and wails: “Mommy!” It’s so primal and genuinely upsetting that, on hearing this song playing in a record store a while back, I actually had to flee.
So, anyway, it’s been sitting in front of my stereo, daring me to play it. I will get around to it, perhaps after Christmas, but before the New Year. Who would want to kick off 2012 in such a fashion? Um, I probably won’t play it while my fiancée is around, either.
And after I’ve played it, it will be filed where it belongs, right after Transformer, Reed’s peppy, bitchy, completely wonderful take on New York’s ’70s drag scene. I’ll probably play that record, which is one of my favourites, another 20 times or more before returning to Berlin.
About eight years ago, I read Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs. I hated it. I hated its smug, tossed-off nature; the conceit that 31 examples of Nick Hornby’s self-absorption made for a meaningful exercise in criticism. But most of all, I hated it for an essay comparing Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop to Teenage Fanclub’s Ain’t That Enough.
In Hornby’s view, rock critics are a pretty sheltered lot. It is, he points out, a young person’s game, and young people tend not to have had a lot of life experience. Fancying themselves as romantic poets, they’re drawn to the dark side, and thus prone to over-excitement when art is calculated to shock and awe, as Frankie Teardrop (and Berlin) undoubtedly is.
I might have accepted this if Hornby had been honest or at least self-deprecating enough to have included a younger version of himself in this monstrous over-generalisation. Instead he proclaimed to need no convincing that life could be scary. He was 44; his son had been diagnosed with autism; his friends were starting to die; and he never knew when a terrorist might invade his own home and blow up his whole family.
“It is important that we are occasionally, perhaps even frequently, depressed by books, challenged by films, shocked by paintings, maybe even disturbed by music,” he writes in conclusion. “But do they have to do these things all the time? Can’t we let them console, uplift, inspire, move, cheer? Please? Just every now and then, when we’ve had a really shitty day? I need somewhere to run to, now more than ever, and songs like Ain’t That Enough is where I run.”
I mean, please, my 32-year-old self thought. Cry me a river, why don’t you, or just have a good hot cup of HTFU.
Now I’m 40. I have a mother with Alzheimer’s Disease. But also (and this is perhaps more important) I’m engaged, in love, my heart is completely full; it’s no longer nine parts water, one part sand. And Berlin’s still sitting there, unplayed. I’m starting to understand how Hornby felt.