In 1995, at the pinnacle of his success as Nick Cave’s right-hand man, multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey embarked on the most quixotic of solo projects. He set about translating the songs of the dissolute, recently deceased French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg into English, resulting in two albums in just over two years: Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants.
For the uninitiated, some context is necessary. To English speakers, Gainsbourg is best known for his 1969 erotic novelty hit Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus, first recorded with Brigitte Bardot and later, successfully, with longtime flame Jane Birkin. But his full catalogue is an embarrassment of riches. At his funeral in 1991, no less than French president François Mitterrand said: “He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.”
He was also a notorious provocateur. To All The Lucky Kids is the funniest not-really anti-drugs song ever: “To all the lucky kids, in substance I’d say this / Don’t go near magic mushrooms / Or acrid marijuana fumes.” Then there’s Lemon Incest, originally recorded with daughter Charlotte: “The love we’ll never make together’s heaven sent, the purest, the most intense” – creepily recorded with “pa-pa-pa” backing vocals.
Both Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants were cult hits, introducing a generation of English speakers to one of the oddest and finest songwriters of the 20th century. The arrangements ranged from the baroque to lean, muscular rock (singer Anita Lane’s vocal on Harley Davidson left Bardot’s original in the dust). Most crucially, Harvey’s translations preserved all of Gainsbourg’s brilliant rhymes, puns and mordant wit.
The albums were reissued in 2014, with Harvey touring behind them to acclaim. Now, 20 years later, he’s gone back to Gainsbourg’s well for a third time with Delirium Tremens – with a fourth volume due to be released later this year. The obvious question is, why? Harvey has answered that making the original records was simply enormous fun. Thankfully, they’re just as much of a pleasure to listen to.
In any case, Harvey has barely scratched the surface. Gainsbourg’s 34-year, pan-genre catalogue spawned well over 500 songs, and it remains both a revelation and a joy to hear them translated into English. Expanding the project allows Harvey to explore some of the (even) stranger corners of his oeuvre, beginning with The Man With The Cabbage Head – “Half-guy, vegetable from the neck”.
SS C’est Bon, from Gainsbourg’s controversial 1975 album Rock Around The Bunker, is a feedback-drenched march with an unsettlingly chirpy female backing vocal (the album drew on his Jewish upbringing in occupied France). The playful mambo Coffee Colour – possibly familiar, if you watched the second series of Mad Men – is a tribute of sorts to his, ahem, affection for Latina women.
I Envisage is at the opposite extreme, slowly coming to the boil over six minutes on a bass line that simmers under a dread-laden lyric. The sonic landscape here is most akin to the Bad Seeds in full flow, when Harvey, and not the Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis, was conducting proceedings. It’s easy to imagine Cave singing it, too, but the controlled menace of Harvey’s vocal gives it white-knuckled tension.
There are also pop confections such as A Day Like Any Other, sung with evident delight by Xanthe Waite, and the sinuous hard rock of A Violent Poison, That’s What Love Is (“What else is a life of the senses but a move of alternating / Between desire and disgust, from disgust back to desire … A violent poison, that’s what love is / An excess dose of which you should resist.”)
The album is rounded out on a romantic note, a duet between Harvey and his wife Katy Beale on The Decadance. Whether you enjoyed the first two excursions or you’re a Gainsbourg neophyte, Delirium Tremens is every bit as strong and enjoyable as its predecessors.
Immediately after cutting their striptease classic Je t’aime … Moi Non Plus in 1969, French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and his English paramour, Jane Birkin, adjourned to the restaurant of their Parisian hotel. Gainsbourg, full of mischief, convinced the staff to play the record. As the song built, literally, to its climax – with the sound of Birkin in the throes of apparent orgasm – the room went still.
“Everybody’s knives and forks were in the air, suspended,” Birkin later told Gainsbourg’s biographer, Sylvie Simmons. “Gainsbourg said, ‘I think we’ve got a hit.’” And for decades, Je t’aime was the erotic novelty hit for which Gainsbourg was best known – at least outside of France, until a heart attack ended his life aged 62, in 1991.
Four years later, Melbourne musician Mick Harvey – then a key member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – released Intoxicated Man, a collection of Gainsbourg covers, translated into English. In the liner notes, he explained “what might otherwise be an unnecessarily enigmatic project,” professing his bewilderment that Gainsbourg’s work was virtually unknown outside of French-speaking countries.
These days, it’s a different story. Gainsbourg’s legacy is everywhere: from season two of Mad Men (a jingle for a coffee company is a reworking of his racy 1964 single Couleur Café) through the work of everyone from French band Air to Beck to Arcade Fire. Bonnie And Clyde has been covered by a multitude of artists, including Luna, Tame Impala and Belinda Carlisle, as well as being sampled by Kylie Minogue.
And Harvey’s translations of the songs, which meticulously preserved the rhymes, innuendos, puns and endless double-entendres of the originals, are a major reason why. He claims as “a feather” that Birkin, with whom Gainsbourg also recorded the classic 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson, credits Harvey for her own continued ability to tour Australia and the United States.
Then he backtracks, as if wary of over-inflating himself. “Oh … That’s nice,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle, when told that’s quite a feather. “It’s not necessarily the aim of what I’m doing, but it’s a pleasant side-effect.”
Harvey, who remained with the Bad Seeds until 2010, remains the perennial side-man, burnishing the songs of others seemingly in preference to his own original body of work. (Our conversation is punctuated by the roar of passing trucks outside a studio in Bristol, where he is rehearsing with another long-time associate, PJ Harvey, ahead of a forthcoming tour.)
Harvey followed the cult success of Intoxicated Man with a second volume of Gainsbourg songs in 1997, Pink Elephants. In 2014, the albums were paired together and reissued, with Harvey playing shows to support the release in Australia and Europe. Talk turned to expanding the project; now there’s a third album in the series, Delirium Tremens – with a fourth to follow later this year.
If that seems a bridge too far, consider this: Gainsbourg left behind well over 500 songs, many of them written for other artists including Brigitte Bardot – with whom he first recorded Je t’aime – Françoise Hardy, Juliette Gréco and France Gall, who sang his winning Eurovision entry of 1965, Poupeé de Cire, Poupeé de Son, a version of which will be on Volume 4.
If four album’s worth of covers devoted to a single artist seems obsessive, Harvey’s reasons for returning to Gainsbourg’s catalogue is disarmingly simple. “The first time around I saw it as a large undertaking, a daunting task, and took it all very seriously,” he says. “And at some point JP Shilo [formerly of Hungry Ghosts, now in Harvey’s band] suggested ‘Well, why don’t we do some more? Are there any other songs?’
“So I just started looking at the prospect of doing another album, and when I came back to the material I found that it was just really entertaining and great fun to engage with.”
Besides, he says, the first two albums were just the tip of the iceberg. “I used to ask in interviews quite often, when people would declare themselves to be big Gainsbourg fans, ‘Well, how many songs do you know?’ – and there’d usually be about three or four,” he says. “A lot of the songs on Delirium Tremens are some of his better-known songs in France – Couleur Café, even The Man With The Cabbage Head is from one of the now revered concept albums.”
Translating the material was no less of a challenge. “The toughest songs to translate [were] the two songs from the concept albums, The Man With The Cabbage Head and Cargo Cult … SS C’est Bon was the other one, with all the alliteration, that was pretty hard to solve, but I think we got there. It was a very funny song to do – kind of ridiculous, but with Serge, that’s part of the deal, the ridiculous.”
He also hasn’t shied away from the most provocative aspects of Gainsbourg’s oeuvre. For Pink Elephants, he translated Aux Enfants de la Chance, Gainsbourg’s parody of an anti-drug song, recorded for his final album in 1987 when he was at his most dissolute: “To all the lucky kids, who’ve never been on trips, shooting up shit / In substance I’d say this / Don’t try dragon-chasing / Don’t even think of freebasing.”
Gainsbourg’s willingness to shock and scandalise, Harvey says, was crucial to his art. “To shy away from the more controversial material would be to do the balance of his work an injustice, because that was a really big part of what he was doing. It’s not who I am, and it’s not even really a major aspect of what he does that I like, but I have to acknowledge that it’s there.”
Asked about the notorious Lemon Incest – which Gainsbourg recorded with his then-12-year-old daughter to Birkin, Charlotte, in 1984 – Harvey keeps a studied intellectual distance. “I don’t feel responsible for the content of those lyrics, so it’s really like a depersonalised event for me in some ways,” he says. (Charlotte Gainsbourg has publicly defended both the song and her father.)
“That song is a number of things. I think it’s a beautiful song, in a way. Even though it’s got a dodgy undertone, it’s actually very gently rendered. It’s a declaration of love, as well as being put in a manner to deliberately upset people.” He slips into an accent akin to John Cleese’s French taunter. “‘Oh, if I just put this line here and that line there, it will outrage everyone – and why not!’”
“I can take an arms-length position, really, because it’s someone else’s song. And anyway, I don’t think there’s anything true in that stuff … I think Gainsbourg, at his core, was a very gentle and loving person; I don’t think all the wild-man stuff was really who he was, until much later on, when he sort of descended into drunken idiocy. Before that he was a very considered and charming guy.
“I think if you just look at the list of artistically empowered, strong-minded women that he worked with, who just adored him and wouldn’t say a bad word against him, I don’t think you’re dealing with a boorish misogynist; it just doesn’t add up. The evidence doesn’t back up the idea, I’m afraid.”
First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 17 June 2016
It’s tough to be critical of Polly Jean (PJ) Harvey. As an artist, her place in history is secure: hailed as the world’s best songwriter by Rolling Stone upon the release of her first album, Dry, in 1992, Harvey is the sole dual winner of the Mercury Music Prize (first for Stories Of The City, Stories Of The Sea, released in 2000, then for Let England Shake, released in 2011). And she’s not just a critic’s darling – she bears the royal seal of approval, having been awarded an MBE for her services to music in 2013.
So a new release by PJ Harvey is a certifiable event. And the usually reserved singer/songwriter is making sure that the follow-up to Let England Shake will be noticed: she’s recording it behind one-way glass at Somerset House in London, turning the studio into an “mutating, multi-dimensional sound sculpture”.
In effect, PJ Harvey is turning herself into an exhibit, and hopes the audience “will be able to experience the flow and energy of the recording process”. London-based art commissioning organisation Artangel has said in a statement: “The working process of a project has always been as important to us as its public presentation, and here both can be fully explored and revealed at the same time.”
But while Harvey is likely to be lauded for her bravery and originality, in England at least, Australian fans will hear an echo bouncing off the glass walls of the prosaically named “Recording In Process” studio. For this has been well and truly, and very publicly, done before: Brisbane mavericks Regurgitator pioneered the concept by recording their fifth album Mish Mash for their Band In A Bubble project in 2004. The entire spectacle was filmed and broadcast by Channel V.
There’s a certain irony in this situation, for as their name suggests, Regurgitator are self-styled cultural cannibals: their biggest hit ! (The Song Formerly Known As) was named for its self-conscious approximation of Prince’s classic ’80s period. The line between cannibalism, plagiarism and homage is treacherous, but in the case of choosing to record your album in a glass studio, the difference seems fairly clear-cut. Regurgitator was never approached, and the concept has not been optioned, by either Artangel or PJ Harvey’s management.
Was Harvey aware of Regurgitator’s earlier project? Was her management? Was Artangel? Was Melbourne-based Mick Harvey, formerly of the Bad Seeds and a long-time member of PJ Harvey’s band? If they were, were they hoping her Teflon-coated reputation would protect them, or were they banking on Regurgitator’s relative lack of overseas recognition? (Both Artangel and representatives for PJ Harvey were contacted for comment; neither had responded by deadline.)
The man behind the original bubble idea is Regurgitator’s manager, Paul Curtis, who devised the concept himself in 1999 and has been trying – unsuccessfully to date – to involve Australian art galleries in further “recording in process” productions. And in fairness, as he points out, there are some significant differences in approach between the two projects. Unlike Regurgitator, Harvey and her band aren’t living in their “bubble”, aren’t on camera, and are performing behind one-way glass: they can’t see or interact with their audience.
Also, visitors to Somerset House have limited viewing “windows” in which to watch the artist at work: the sold-out 45-minute public sessions are from 3pm and 6pm from Tuesday to Friday, and 1pm to 3pm on Saturdays. “The only interaction is the actual awareness that at various points there is an audience present,” Curtis says, “and thus a potentially more contrived engagement around those moments of ‘performance’, versus continual exposure.”
Certainly, for anyone familiar with the long breaks, technical delays and numbing repetition that characterise the average recording session, a paying audience will be hoping to catch the rare moments where the magic really happens. Harvey, too, will be aware of this. In this sense, Regurgitator’s project was actually a far more radical (and certainly braver) experiment. However, the resulting album Mish Mash was poorly received, possibly a backlash against what was widely viewed as a gimmicky production: ironically, the band were seen as over-exposed.
Curtis is now hoping that Harvey’s album may lead to a renewed interest in building on his original vision, both in Australia and overseas. “We had proposed a re-envisioned art gallery version of the concept under the title Composition in Glass,” he explains. “This idea was much more extreme in approach than Band In A Bubble or Recording In Progress and more about an interactive installation, pushing both the art world and music industry into dada-ist experimental levels.”
So far, an underwhelming response from galleries, combined with scheduling difficulties with the band – singer/guitarist Quan Yeomans lives in Hong Kong and has just become a father; bassist/singer Ben Ely has returned to Brisbane, while drummer Pete Kostic lives in Sydney – have prevented a fulfilment of Curtis’ vision.
“All I can say is the music industry is a shallow bed more often remade with cheap imitation rather than fresh sheets,” he says. “What we did 10 years ago came from a place of experimentation, play and outsider attitudes. I know there were detractors at the time, but maybe now someone who is perceived as a ‘credible artist’ puts it in a different perspective.”
Late in the last week of January 1974, following a flood Brisbane would not see the like of again for close to another 40 years, a 17-year-old Ed Kuepper was on watch in the tough south-western Brisbane suburb of Oxley. There had been looting as the filthy water finally began to recede, and a caravan, from which residents could take turns keeping lookout, had been set up across the road from his parents’ house.
Kuepper – who had formed his first band, the Saints, just a few months earlier with school mates Chris Bailey and Ivor Hay – was a little tipsy. The local alderman, Gordon “Bluey” Thomson, had just visited, bringing beer. He was also carrying a revolver, which he gave to Kuepper. “Don’t drink too much, but look after the gun!” he told him.
Later, as the adults continued drinking, the young Kuepper walked down his street, “gun-slinging”, cockily twirling the loaded weapon as if he were a character in a western. Suddenly, a car turned into the street. Kuepper hailed it down, directing his torch into the driver’s eyes. It wasn’t until the vehicle was alongside him that he realised it was the police.
The driver looked the skinny teenager up and down. Kuepper sheepishly lowered first the torch, then the gun.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” the cop said, before driving off.
THE apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. In a Poinciana-lined street off Oxley Road, Ed Kuepper lives quietly with his partner of close to 40 years, Judi, and their adult children Karl and Friedrich (whose names should tell you something). It’s just a few kilometres from the old suburban home where his now elderly parents still live, despite suffering through the heartbreak of another great flood in early 2011.
He and Judi had made a point of checking flood levels before purchasing their home. “Even though they said it would never happen again, I wasn’t prepared to get something that went under in ’74, so this was way above it. For this house to be affected, the city would be gone anyway. And yet if you went that way” – he gestures back towards the main road – “the shopping centre at Graceville Avenue went under, and you wouldn’t guess that we were so much higher.”
It’s quiet here. Only the Kueppers’ dog Oscar, who gives me a rousing if suspicious greeting, breaks the silence in the torpor of a warm Easter afternoon. Judi, whose beautiful watercolours line the walls of the home, and whose art has graced her husband’s album sleeves since the days of Ed’s post-Saints band the Laughing Clowns, brings hot-cross buns with jam home-made from a backyard mango tree.
It’s all a far cry from the days where Kuepper’s paint-peeling guitar playing was sufficiently obnoxious to result in a brick being hurled through the plate-glass window of the building on the corner of Milton Road and Petrie Terrace, where the Saints once rehearsed. The window was boarded up, the words “Club ’76” daubed on the slats, and for a short time the house became a venue – until police from headquarters across the road shut it down.
Speak to many in the Australian music industry and Kuepper will be quite casually described as a legend. Robert Forster, whose band the Go-Betweens was among the first and most enduring of the first wave of Brisbane groups directly inspired by the Saints, described him (in The Monthly) as “one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses”, comparing him to both Neil Young and Kurt Cobain; “sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them”.
As a Saint, he’s a member of the ARIA Hall of Fame, but his musical career spans 40 years, from the sometimes abrasive Laughing Clowns, through an immensely rich and varied solo career. More recently – and briefly – he was a member of Nick Cave’s band, the Bad Seeds. You could practically go broke collecting the sheer volume of music the man has produced, although probably not as broke as he’s sometimes been while making it.
But who is Edmund Kuepper? It’s likely you’d know several of his songs – (I’m) Stranded, the Saints’ first single, has been a Rage staple for 20 years; The Way I Made You Feel was a minor hit from his 1991 album Honey Steel’s Gold, which cracked the Australian top 40 during a golden period for the songwriter. But, while he continues to sell out shows, he’s far from hit machine. (An unkind reviewer once compared his music to some kind of strange and mouldy cheese: an acquired taste.)
His public persona, to many, is akin to how Churchill described Russia: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. In fact, as Forster also pointed out, he is “intense and inward, of German extraction”: born in Bremen in 1956, before his parents emigrated to Brisbane at the age of four. (Saints singer Chris Bailey, born in Kenya to Irish Catholic parents, settled nearby a few years later: so often, the history of Australian rock & roll has been made by migrant kids.)
Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter for one of Brisbane’s great lost treasures, the Apartments, talks rapturously about Kuepper’s music. (Of the Laughing Clowns, of which he was once briefly a member, he says: “They were playing poker when everyone else was playing bingo.”) But he demurs when pushed on the man himself. Eventually he offers this: “Rock & roll is filled with people that are very happy to talk about themselves. That’s not really what’s on offer from Ed.”
Others are more forthcoming, though all talk about Kuepper’s singular devotion to his craft. “He’s a very warm person when you get to know him; he’s quite soft and he’s got a great sense of humour,” says Julian Knowles, professor of music and media at Macquarie University in Sydney. Another music academic, QUT’s John Willsteed, describes him as “a quiet, funny, shy guy”.
Everyone attests to his incredible work ethic. Willsteed, who also plays in Brisbane band Halfway, refers to his “Teutonic” side. “He’s very forthright with his opinions, and he knows what he wants when it comes to work.” Knowles: “Once he gets into the groove and he starts working, there’s this incredible focus. He works in popular music, but he has the mindset and approach of an artist.”
The Church’s Steve Kilbey, who once engaged in a memorable online stoush with Kuepper, has called him as “wry and lofty”, and that much seems fair; he’s sardonic, ironic and, by his own admission, can be a bit above it all. He is certainly reserved, but not unfriendly. Get past the imposing size and death-grip handshake, and there’s a twinkle in the eye and a faint smirk lurking behind the pirate’s goatee.
Judi recalls her first impressions after interviewing him for a student magazine in 1979. “I thought he was a lovely, gentle, intelligent person – very intellectual. He’s very open and interested in all kinds of different ideas. He’s very aware of public events. He seemed to be a font of wisdom; he had an incredible knowledge of what was going on; not just in music, but in film and art, and I guess that’s nourished our relationship – just a passion for, and commitment to the arts. And he’s really generous. He really wants to share and connect with people.”
KUEPPER spent most of 2013 on the road, performing a successful run of “Solo and By Request” shows, trying his hand at almost any song from his career that his audience challenged (and sometimes taunted) him to play – a daunting prospect, given his immense repertoire, but he pulled it off. “There were probably only two or three occasions when I declined to have a go at something.”
He had spent a good chunk of the previous year performing as a Bad Seed, filling in for Cave’s long-term musical arranger Mick Harvey. The prospect of what Kuepper might bring to the Bad Seeds’ musical palette tantalised fans of both, but Cave’s last album, Push The Sky Away, featured almost no guitar at all, and Kuepper’s services were not required. There seems little prospect that his tenure in the band will be ongoing.
Kuepper describes working with the Bad Seeds as “very structured”, and it’s here that you get a sense of his constant musical wanderlust. “It was verging on the choreographed in some ways. I kind of decided to do something that was about as removed from that as possible, and that was basically just go out and push it as far we could actually go with it. And by “we” I mean myself and the audience.”
One of the songs that Kuepper was reluctant to play was (I’m) Stranded, the track that launched his career. “I thought there was something really powerful captured in that original recording, and it’s not that easy to capture it again,” he says. “And I couldn’t work out how the fuck I was actually going to just sit there with an acoustic guitar and play the song.” In the end, with the audience calling for it every night, he bit the bullet, and made it work.
The Saints have reformed twice in recent years – first a celebrated one-off show at the University of Queensland in 2007, then a national run for the travelling festival All Tomorrow’s Parties in early 2010. The latter ended in disaster, culminating in a show at Riverstage which Kuepper describes as “incredibly embarrassing, the worst show I’ve ever done in my life”. (The band had been booked to perform the album (I’m) Stranded in its entirety; incredibly, they didn’t even play the title song in front of a bewildered home crowd.)
Still, the experience didn’t prevent Kuepper from reuniting with Bailey, with whom he has had a famously tempestuous relationship, for a run of shows together as a duo the following year. I ask Kuepper if we’re likely to see him on stage with the Saints again. “Probably not.” What sort of relationship does he have with Bailey now? “Not much of one, really.”
There’s a bit of back and forth on this point, and Kuepper obliges, if only out of politeness, but it’s clear the subject of his old sparring partner still makes him uncomfortable. I ask if he’s heard Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Just Like Fire Would, Bailey’s biggest hit recorded under the Saints name, long after Kuepper had left the band. (The song appears on Springsteen’s most recent album High Hopes.)
“I haven’t. The funny thing is, when the song first came out [in 1986], I actually thought it was … Not Springsteen, but John Cougar Mellencamp. When I realised it was Bailey I thought, oh fuck, he’s going to change his name to Chris Bailey Mellencamp! It was kind of ironic that Springsteen’s attention was drawn to the Saints via (I’m) Stranded, but he actually covered the one song that actually sounds like it was ripped off him.”
If this sounds like sour grapes, consider, first, that Kuepper has toiled in relative obscurity for decades, and there have been times when he’s seriously considered chucking it in. “Sometimes, you know, when you’re running at a loss month after month – and I mean no income at all – lots of stuff goes askew. So it’s constantly a battle of how do you make things work.”
And, second: around the time of the Saints’ performances at All Tomorrow’s Parties, Kuepper’s manager got in touch with the band’s old label, with the idea of presenting the group with a Gold Record for (I’m) Stranded – presuming that, in the 38 years since its release, it would have easily sold the required 35,000 copies within Australia to qualify. He was astonished to be told that the label had not kept records prior to 1998. The necessary paperwork for an acknowledged classic – for which Kuepper has received very little money over the years – was conveniently missing.
It’s one of the oldest divides in rock & roll: Bailey – so desperate to prove he could make it on his own after the break-up of the original Saints in late 1978 – has the commercial success and, following Springsteen’s endorsement, the money in the bank. Kuepper has the status, the undying respect of his peers and the lion’s share of critical plaudits. Probably, both would like at least a little of what the other has got.
KUEPPER’S newest album is both a return to his roots, and a continuation of his recent solo performances: that is, it’s just him and his guitar. The Return Of The Mail-Order Bridegroom features mainly acoustic re-workings of some of his best-known songs, as well as a couple of covers. (It follows 1995’s I Was A Mail-Order Bridegroom, a similarly-themed album which kicked off a personal cottage industry of mostly live recordings, sold directly to fans through his own label, Prince Melon.)
Opening the album is a song called Brisbane (Security City), originally recorded in 1978 for the Saints’ third album, Prehistoric Sounds. The song painted a vivid portrait of Queensland as a police state during the Bjelke-Petersen years, and captured the oppression of both the heat – “Thirteen hot nights in a row,” goes the opening line – and the political climate. Apathy sits uncomfortably next to paranoia: “With mangoes ripe, who needs to grow?”
Thirty-six years after it was written, the song is more pointed than ever. Kuepper has been vocal about Queensland’s swing back to conservatism. “Part of it I think is that a large portion of the voting public is too young to remember the stench from the previous National government, you know,” he muses. “I just don’t think people remember. Anyone under 40 probably never voted back in the ’80s.”
Kuepper has had, at various times, an ambivalent relationship with his home town; something that he has often addressed in song: Electrical Storm acknowledges that, by staying in Brisbane, he is letting the world pass him by; but he finds himself mesmerised by the lightning and thunder. And on Security City, he confesses: “I don’t want to let down my own hopes for this town.” The family resettled here in the early 1990s.
“There were a lot of really good things about growing up here; I enjoyed a lot of it,” he says. “And I think you always want the place you grow up in to be a good place, to fulfil something worthwhile. Plus, after the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Brisbane in particular went through a bit of a golden age, I think. There just seemed to be this air of celebration for many years; it had a good vibe about it. It had changed.
“The ’80s was the worst time. There was always this sort of weird hostility around the place. The cops – they had power that they shouldn’t have had. I’m all for supporting the local police force and letting them do the job that they’re supposed to do, but once they become a political tool, then that becomes something else.”
And that’s when Kuepper remembers the story of Bluey Thompson, and the unimpressed reaction of the policeman who confronted him – a foolish teenager packing heat, that day after the floods in 1974. Don’t do anything stupid.
“See, I thought that was actually quite a reasonable response, under the circumstances,” he admits, chuckling.
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), July 26 2014
A few days ago I bumped into an old friend in the city. He manages a well-known local band here in Brisbane, and he asked me if I’d be prepared to participate in the making of a documentary about the group. He wanted to do something a bit edgier than the standard rock doco, though. “Every documentary I’ve seen lately it’s just a bunch of people saying how great [band/performer X] was,” he said. “It’s really boring.”
He had a point, and I was reminded of it last night when I saw Autoluminescent, Lee-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about former Birthday Party/These Immortal Souls guitarist Rowland S. Howard. The first half of this two-hour film is weighed down with luminaries (not only peers and former bandmates like Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Phil Calvert but also Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore, Bobby Gillespie, etc, etc) generally crapping on about how great Rowland was.
And that’s validating, sure, but if you’re seeing this film in the first place you probably have some idea of who Rowland S. Howard is and why he mattered. Most likely you already think he’s fabulous. The film survives this slightly creaky beginning mainly due to the late guitarist’s outrageous charisma (with his high cheekbones and extraordinarily brilliant blue eyes, rarely has a dying man looked so beautiful) and the sumptuous direction. If Autoluminescent is sometimes in danger of getting bogged down in its own self-importance, at least it looks great.
The live footage of Howard in action, from all stages of his career, is a particular treat. Wim Wenders, who remembers their appearance in Berlin in 1984 as akin to the arrival of a flock of Siberian Crows, identifies the importance of his stage mannerisms: his peculiar stagger; like someone being constantly knocked off balance, yet remaining in control; wringing the neck of his guitar as he violently jerks it up and down, coaxing from it a blizzard of distortion through a constant, billowing haze of cigarette smoke. Howard was an incredibly distinctive player; as Cave observes, within two notes you always knew who was making that unearthly racket. (More than one of the aforementioned blowhard luminaries wonder if Howard had, in fact, landed from outer space.)
In fact Howard was just a dandy from Melbourne, and the second half of this film is so much more interesting and more moving than the first, as we dig deeper into his family history, his relationships with women and, of course, his declining health. It was never likely that Howard – who died of liver failure at the end of 2009 – would live to see this documentary finished. There are heartbreaking scenes of Howard in hospital towards the end, cradled by his last love, Bianca.
The clear respect Howard had for women (despite an on-off affair with Lydia Lunch while still with his long-time soulmate, Genevieve McGuckin) was repaid with enduring warmth and affection from his former partners. McGuckin, who provides some of the best insights and reminiscences, tears up when she recalls listening to Howard’s final album for the first time, Pop Crimes, only to have him suddenly call into her house and wrap her in his arms. “It was so important to him that I liked it,” she says.
After his long relationship with McGuckin ended in the mid-’90s, due mainly to Howard’s heroin habit – McGuckin was using too, but was ready to clean up before Howard, and resented the “shitty jobs” she had to do in order to get them enough money to score – the ailing guitarist met and married editor Jane Usher. It lasted a couple of years, Usher saying she tried everything to help her partner stay clean, only to find herself “getting into trouble” by the end, forcing her to divorce a man she clearly loved for the sake of her son, who had a close relationship with his stepfather.
Towards the end of the film, a ravaged Howard, who was battling Hep C, reflects on his struggle with addiction. “If you’d asked me five years ago I wouldn’t have said I regretted anything about drugs,” he says, but now all he can see is waste. He confides to McGuckin that he feels “A three-time loser.” By then, interest in his work was skyrocketing. It’s just so sad that he’s not around to see it.