5 years or no time at all

Writing

On 1st September this year, I happened to be in Byron Bay, a beachside location on Australia’s New South Wales eastern coast. I was sitting outside with a cup of tea, on a mild, sunny afternoon, that was not quite warm but definitely not cold, and therefore a vast improvement on Melbourne’s recent weather. From where I sat, I looked over a view of a permaculture organic garden and, beyond it, a clearing and behind that, the edges of a forest of gum trees that bordered the property I was visiting. Lucky me.

As a soft breeze rustled through the leaves, I pulled out my writing journal to do my easy, never-fail, writing exercise, “Today I Noticed….”

I like this exercise because I don’t have to think about it to get started. There is always something one will have noticed in a day, and often – if you are me, anyway – this small observation acts merely as the opening of a gateway, and usually a flood of abstracted ponderings proceed to pour out, filling up a few pages in a loose, unplanned way until the timer goes off.

Did I mention that for this exercise you are meant to time yourself and only write for 10 minutes? I like that restraint as well. This means that I don’t stop to rewrite sentences to make them sound better, but just keep going to get the ideas down. So, intermittently, I end up with a few pages of blurted-out thoughts, in a non-publishable form. Of course lots of it ends up being pointless but the theory is that I can mine the pages of this journal later on when I need something to write about.

Well, I’ll mine it today, because this is how my entry began on that breezy afternoon on September 1.*

 

Journal

01.09.16

Today I noticed, as I wrote that date at the top of the page, that it’s already the 9th month of this year. That Winter has ended. That it’s Spring. That it’s September. That it’s the month that my birthday falls in. That it’s 10 days until the 5th anniversary of John’s death.

And I notice, as soon as I write that last sentence, how quickly a heaviness can land in the stomach; when it was light only a moment ago. 

Of course, I can’t recognise that it’s September without also being aware of this anniversary. It’s just there; a heavy, sad thing, that adds some weight to the start of Spring, and to September, which was always my favourite month. In fact I wouldn’t even say that I dislike September now. I still have some affection for it, which maybe goes to show just how important our own birth date is to us. Even when my birthday is weighed up against the death date of my little brother, I still can’t hate September. But I wish he had died some other time – in the middle of winter, at the start of July – that would have been more tonally appropriate than at the start of Spring, a time when we are meant to feel hopeful and optimistic because the temperature is losing its chill and the blossoms are out.

*

Anniversary

In September in 2011, the fact that my brother died was terrible and nothing else really mattered – but the terribleness of his death was still new and raw  two weeks later when it was my birthday, so that made my birthday an awful, sad affair that year. But after 2011, the closeness of this anniversary to my birthday matters very little to me.

There is a month long period where I think more frequently about John, and reminisce about the time immediately before and after his death, but that period of grieving, if that’s what it is, starts on August 13 and subsides after the anniversary of his death, which is September 11. It starts on August 13 because on that date in 2011, I was with my daughter in the Emergency ward at the Royal Children’s hospital, and John phoned me to organise to come and visit us that week. In hindsight it always feels as if that day, which, at the time, was quite distressing and exhausting, was just a taster for what was to come. And John’s phone call out of the blue that day led to his visit for dinner that week, and thus to the next significant date, August 16, the last time I ever saw him, hugged him, or, for that matter, spoke to him.

In reality, I guess there is no cosmic alarm that goes off to signal that it’s time to start quietly observing that month-long period of grieving, so in fact, it starts when I remember the significance of the date. This year, I was driving to work on 18 August when the significance of the date struck me. Suddenly, with dismay, and considerable sadness, I realised that the anniversary of the very last time I ever saw my brother had come and gone, two days earlier, without me noting it.

Grief

But you know what? While feeling sad that morning, at some other level, I also felt relieved – to realise that I could still feel that sad about my brother’s death – as strange as that sounds.

Because the worst thing of all when someone you love dies, is to think that at some time in the future you might reach a point where you’d never feel any grief when you thought about their absence.

Intentionally, or unintentionally, that is the concept that is conveyed by well-meaning people who try to comfort you when you’re grieving, by offering phrases such as you’ll feel better with time. In the days and weeks after John’s death, that piece of wisdom achieved nothing more than to make me very angry. Angry at the person who said it, and angry at the very thought of it. I didn’t want to feel better. I didn’t want to contemplate the possibility that I would ever feel better.

Last night, I went to see One More Time With Feeling, the film commissioned by Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave on the release of his latest album, basically to fill the role of publicity for the album. The artist doesn’t wish to do media rounds and answer questions about the album’s relationship to the tragic death of his 15 year old son just over a year ago. In the film, Cave remarks on the meaningless platitudes offered by others, who say things like he lives on in your heart. No he doesn’t, says Cave to the interviewer, He is in my heart, of course, but he doesn’t live anywhere. 

I am mindful of what I say to someone who is grieving. I refuse to buy sympathy cards that offers these kinds of cliched phrases. Grieving is important. It’s honouring the beloved person who has died. It ties you to the person who has died. Why would you offer comfort to someone recently bereaved by telling them that eventually they will lose that too, the grief that binds them to the person they loved?

Better, surely, to say what a wise friend who had lost both her sisters, said to me at the time: grieve for your brother!

Death

I’ve written a lot about the death of my brother – there are plenty of posts on this blog about John, and my grief when he died. There is one specific post that, due to the specificity of its title, must come up in search results when people search relevant terms, and every now and then on that post, I receive a comment from someone whose brother has recently died; quite often, in a similar way – in his sleep, from no known cause. Every time, it breaks my heart to hear this person struggling with immense sadness, pain and confusion about why this has happened. I received another such comment only a few weeks ago, and it was long, and filled with confusion, pain, and anger. My heart broke all over again. I read this young man’s comment and cried for him, and his younger brother.

And when I read his comment, I was reminded again, that all around the world people are dying. Someone dies every moment of every day. And that each time, other people are left behind, confused, angry, distraught, distressed, and anguished at their loss.

When I was a kid, my religious parents said a prayer (they probably still do) in which the world was referred to as a valley of tears. If I dwell for very long on the idea of death, I can see how someone came up with that poetic description for a place that, I now realise, is full to the brim with sadness. It becomes apparent that at any moment, there are so many people in the world either dying, or deeply affected forever by the death of someone they loved, that those innocent few who do not yet know how it feels to deal with the death someone they loved are in a distinct minority. I was one of those lucky few until September 11, 2011.

 

 

 

 

*Journal entry slightly edited.

The Sound of the City

Yesterday I read a post by a fellow Melbourne blogger, on her site Sampling Station, where she asked, what does your hometown sound like?

I started to write a reply in the comments section, but of course, that became too long very quickly and I realised I would have to reply via a post instead.

Perhaps I should begin by clarifying what town I’m referring to. I grew up in a small country town about 1.5 hrs away from Melbourne, so strictly speaking that small town is my “hometown”. But I’ve already written a post about the soundtrack to growing up in a country town in regional Victoria in the 1970s so there’s no need to cover that ground again. I don’t get sentimental about my hometown – my affection for Melbourne is much stronger – so on this occasion I’ll be exploring the soundtrack to the town I’ve lived in for the majority of my life now, ie, the fair city of Verona Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Before I lived in Melbourne, it was always the city that I aspired to get to. My main goal in life was to leave home, and get the hell out of the country.

Let’s face it, as a young kid, and then teenager, growing up in a small country town, in a working class family that had to pack 8 people into a mini-van in order to take a family holiday to Mildura, it was pretty unlikely my experience of cities was going to range any further than the capital of my own state, so I didn’t exactly have a wide repertoire of cities to draw on for my choice. When I was about 14, a one-off trip with a cousin to stay with some distant relative of hers enabled me to add one more city to my list: Sydney. But Sydney was a long way away, and no-one I knew lived there. Melbourne was only a few hours drive away from home, and I knew people there. As a kid, it was my relatives, then, as a teenager, a friend moved there with her family, and after finishing high school, most of my friends moved to Melbourne to attend various universities and colleges there.

Through my childhood, I associated Melbourne with a sense of freedom and a cool, sophisticated lifestyle. To my 12-year-old mind, freedom and a sophisticated lifestyle meant moving out of home and listening to rock music without parents around to switch it off and give me a lecture on its evils. This was because my own very strict, religious parents disapproved of any rock or pop music written after the mid 1960s, and would frequently remind me of this if I was ever caught listening to it on the radio. Most of my older cousins lived in Melbourne, and when I would stay with them, all they talked about was the latest record they had bought, and what bands they had seen on Countdown! that week.

300px-CountdownLogo

Pic: Wikipedia

One of the songs that sticks in my mind from those days, which I associated with Melbourne, is actually by a New Zealand band, Split Enz. They were a quirky, new-wave (sometimes described as “art rock”) band in the late 1970s and early 80s, a time when film clips were new, and you can tell when you look at them now! But I recall sitting in the lounge at my grandmother’s house in Reservoir, in the northern suburbs of Melbourne (back then, an outer suburb with a high population of first generation Greek and Italian families), surrounded by heaps of cousins of all ages, and watching the entire clip of I Got You, by Split Enz and thinking it was the coolest thing ever.

(No doubt I was probably caught by my parents and kicked out of the room shortly afterwards, missing the second half of something like Tired of Toeing the Line by Rocky Burnett. This is why I’ve never seen the clips that everyone else has seen.)

At the time, (around 1980), this clip was very arty indeed: note the billowing curtain, the mod-ish, stylised look of the band, the special effects (as witnessed at the line “Sometimes we shout” at about 32 seconds in). Now, of course, it is amusingly B-grade, and I love it all the more for that.

Fast forward to the late 80s, when I was 17, and Australian film director Richard Lowenstein released a film about musicians living in a shared house in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond, named Dogs In Space. My friend Jane and I managed to see the film, which was R-rated, at the cinema. Our main reason for being interested in it was because we loved Michael Hutchence, from INXS, who starred in it. (I’ve written previously on this blog about being a huge INXS fan as a teenager.) I’m glad we did see the film when it was originally out at the cinema, because it has become a cult classic. It’s centred around the “little band scene” – the thriving post-punk band scene in Melbourne in the late 70s. The soundtrack was great, although it was more about setting the scene than highlighting the local “little bands” featured in the movie, and included Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and new material written for the movie by Michael Hutchence and Ollie Olsen, along with a few bands who were actually from the scene, such as the Primitive Calculators. (Olsen was part of the original little band scene.)

Jane managed to find the soundtrack on a record in a dusty old record shop somewhere, and I taped a copy onto cassette. I still have that tape, and so far, I’ve never found that soundtrack in any other format. This soundtrack introduced me for the first time to Nick Cave, via the song Shivers, recorded with The Boys Next Door, the band that Cave fronted with Rowland S Howard, who I’ve written about previously. Howard was the one who wrote Shivers but it is the version sung by Nick Cave that most people are familiar with. In this clip Howard can be seen to the far right, barely more than a kid, playing guitar. This slow, melancholy song is not really typical of The Boys Next Door, but I’ve stuck with it because it was my introduction to Nick Cave, and also because back in the 80s, there were plenty of goths around Melbourne who idolised Cave and this song.

Around 1987, Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly released an album with a band known at the time as The Coloured Girls (later changed to The Messengers to avoid any racist connotations). The album was Gossip, and went on to have track after track of hit singles. Now, I’ve never called myself a huge fan of Paul Kelly’s, but in the same way that I’m not a huge fan of Bob Dylan or Neil Young – it’s not like these people need my endorsement. I can recognise that these singer-songwriters are hugely talented, and that their songs capture themes and imagery that resonate with many people. It’s just that I always choose other music before theirs, when I feel like listening to music. Perhaps all three are just a little too folksy for me. Whatever the reason, some Paul Kelly songs made it through my “folk” filters, and one of those, from Gossip, was Leaps and Bounds. If you lived in Melbourne at the time, which I didn’t, it must have seemed like an anthem.

I’m high on the hill

looking over the bridge 

to the MCG

and way up on high

the clock on the silo 

says eleven degrees

I picture a sunny, but frosty, winter morning, at the bridge near Punt Road in the inner suburb of Richmond. Punt Road is like Melbourne’s artery, the main road to get from the southern to the northern suburbs, and usually a traffic nightmare at peak times as it’s just a two lane road in parts. Back when this song was written, (and indeed right up until the existence of the Western Suburbs reached the general consciousness in the past 10 years or so), Richmond really felt like the centre of Melbourne as it had a major train station, and it’s easy to navigate from Richmond via road or public transport to the Northern, Eastern and Southern suburbs. The Nylex tower (with the clock on the silo) is recognised by anyone who has ever caught a train at Richmond station or driven up or down Punt Road. Even apart from the inclusion of the historic MCG, Melbourne’s cricket ground, it was an image of Melbourne that was of its time.

In the early 90’s I went to a nightclub in Prahran called IDs, and discovered a live band playing there, with the rather poetic name of Not Drowning Waving. I immediately became a fan of their melancholy sounding music that combined beautiful strings (violin and later cello) with a huge percussion section (live they usually had 3 to 4 people on percussion, or sometimes everyone!) I’ve written a post previously about Not Drowning Waving. Many of their songs and instrumental pieces were, by that time, about the landscape of Australia, and its troubled treatment of indigenous Australians, however they also wrote songs that were lyrically similar to another Aussie band, The Go-Betweens, in the sense that they captured the ordinariness of life in the suburbs and the quiet despair that is sometimes hidden from view.

Not Drowning Waving’s ode to Thomastown resonated with me because I had cousins who lived in that suburb. Coming from the country, Thomastown was all that I didn’t like about the city, and probably why I’ve always been adamantly against ever moving beyond the inner suburbs. It was a depressing suburb of bright orange seventies brick houses, surrounded by cement and ashpalt, with huge electricity pylons running down the centre of the main roads. My cousins’ front yard consisted of a cement path with little white pebbles on each side of it, bordered at the front by bright orange bricks. Even as a kid I found it a bleak and disheartening environment.

Well, dear reader, as I could have guessed would happen, my word count is already too long and I should wrap this up before anyone who has actually made it this far falls asleep, yet I’m barely even into the 90s with my soundtrack of Melbourne. Oh dear. Let’s call this instalment side 1, dedicated to those who recall a time when albums had 2 sides and you had to physically get up and turn them over (or wait for the cassette to get to the end and start up on the other side) before you could hear side 2.

So stay tuned for another instalment, when I will honestly try to select only a few more tunes, for Side 2 of the soundtrack to my hometown!

Soundtrack to Melbourne:

Side 1:

Split Enz, I Got You (c1980)

The Boys Next Door, Shivers (c 1979)

Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls, Leaps and Bounds (c 1987)

Not Drowning Waving, Thomastown (c 1989)

Autoluminescent. Thanks to Rowland S Howard for that one.

Autoluminescent. It’s a good word. What does it mean? According to one online dictionary: “Capable of emitting luminous rays spontaneously and without excitation from other bodies: said of the so-called radioactive substances.” It’s also the title of a new biopic that screened at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, about Aussie musician, Rowland S Howard, who passed away at the end of 2009. Autoluminescent is a song from Teenage Snuff Film, a solo album Howard released in 1999.

Richard Lowenstein’s documentary, Autoluminescent, reveals that the guitarist/singer/songwriter had a liking for words. In footage from old interviews, used in the film, Howard, looking all of about 19 years old, says he loves the english language, and using words like “ectoplasmic”. He says it with a wry grin, possibly aware that some might see his taste for such words as pretentious. It’s clear, however, that he is not pretentious, but intelligent and well-read.

 Autoluminescent really was a stunning documentary, perhaps largely because it didn’t falsely romanticise the cliched image of a troubled genius, yet it revealed that Howard was both troubled, and a genius. There was extensive use of one or two key interviews with him that, as mentioned, looked as though they had been recorded in a kitchen of a very untidy shared household when he was about 19. To me those interviews held the entire film together, giving me a portrait of a vulnerable, highly intelligent young man – barely more than a boy –  just at the beginning of his musical career. He looked elfin-like (a physical quality he retained throughout his life) at that age, and, at times, androgynous, and at times, strangely beautiful. He was clearly  intelligent, sensitive, romantic, and reserved, and said that he found it difficult to bare his emotions in songs written for others to sing (eg Nick Cave). Apparently he was hopelessly romantic – one of the comments made by a female friend was that he was “always in love with someone who didn’t love him back”.  He also displayed a wry sense of humour (perhaps as a defence against his own sensitivity) that made him seem very likeable.

Much detail was gone into about Howard’s most famous song, Shivers, which became a vehicle for Nick Cave in the Boys Next Door, and the difference in their interpretations of the song: apparently Rowland meant it to be ironic, a parody of teenagers moping about love, while Cave’s interpretation of it imparts all the anguish of someone feeling suicidal over unrequited love.

(I’ve heard this before – it’s discussed in great detail in We’re Living On Dog Food, Lowenstein’s film about the Melbourne post-punk music scene – but now it occurs to me, in light of the description of Rowland as a hopeless romantic, to wonder if this is entirely true? If he was so romantic, it seems likely that the lyrics were sincere, and that he later claimed they were ironic as a defence against the emotional vulnerability revealed in the song. Perhaps his later accusation that Cave had misinterpreted the song was made because he was resentful that Cave had achieved fame by performing it with the emotion that, for Howard, was too close to the bone. Who will ever know? He was apparently only 16 when he wrote the song, so I think we can forgive him if he was ambivalent about revealing too much about it back then!)

A  moving counterpoint to those early interviews was more recent footage, shown towards the end of the film, of Howard, looking unwell and worn down from years of drug use and ill health, expressing regret that he hadn’t achieved more, and saying that he’d wasted a lot of his life, meaning, through drug use and related illnesses. It was sad to see him feeling so despondent about his life, but also very moving to see that he retained that tendency to expose his own vulnerability, as shown by his willingness to express his regret on film.

As someone who knew little more of Rowland S Howard than (and I’m sure this was what he most resented) that he was Nick Cave’s offsider during the Boys Next Door/Birthday Party days, and was then in Crime and the City Solution, this documentary has made me want to hear more of this man’s “gut-wrenchingly beautiful guitar playing,”  so revered by musos all over the world. I’ve always liked what I knew of Crime and The City Solution, which was very little, but now I think I will investigate more of their music, as well as These Immortal Souls, (who I’ve never heard), and  Howard’s last solo album, Pop Crimes, which was supposedly his best.

So thanks to Lowenstein for the doco. I’ll look forward to learning more about Rowland S Howard and his music.

(the clip above of Crime and The City Solution is from the Wim Wenders film, The Wings Of Desire. Rowland, mostly in the background, features at 2:58)

The Beastie Boys Bandit and other rock related criminals

Police in Portland, Oregon, are apparently flummoxed by a bandit they’ve dubbed “The Beastie Boy Bandit” – because the dude keeps on turning up at banks wearing bad wigs, polyester suits and fake moustaches, looking for all the world like he’s paying homage to the Beastie Boys in their well known clip for Sabotage.

(Warning: there is an ad before the clip, which takes about 5 full seconds to get through. If you can wait that long, Sabotage is after that.) If you haven’t seen this before, check out the (deliberately bad) costumes! There are bad wigs! There are terrible fake moustaches!

I just wonder  whether the Beastie Boy Bandit (or “BBB”, as I like to call him),  is deliberately dressing like this in an ironic and witty homage to the Beastie Boys and their clip, which in turn pays homage to the cop shows of the 70s with its bad hair styles and suits, freeze framed action, and cops chasing bad guys – or whether he just has a really bad dress sense. Either way, since police have so far not tracked him down, it seems his disguise is successfully fulfilling the role he intended for it, ie, to make him untraceable. He’s obviously not as dumb as he is prepared to look!!

I also wondered – what would happen if other criminals decided to pay tribute to their musical heroes by dressing up as them when they are out committing crimes? Ideally, they would commit crimes that relate to their heroes’ songs, or at the very least, crimes that start with the same letter of the alphabet as their hero’s name, in order to facilitate that catchy -police-nickname touch. This could go something like this:

The “Bruce (the Boss) Bag Snatcher.” This guy has a mullet, and wears tight fitting denim jeans and a flannelette shirt, unbuttoned to the waist.  To fit Bruce Springsteen’s songs, he should really be a car jacker or go on a shooting spree, but those things don’t start with B. He could be a – “Burglar” but hey, let’s face it, this is how most burglars (in Australia at least) are dressed already. It was more amusing to picture Bruce Springsteen, running up the street with a handbag. Song of choice:  “Baby, we were born to run…”

The “Nick Cave Necrophiliac”. This guy wears a large fake handle bar moustache and has had plastic surgery to make his facial expression into a permanently quizzical frown. Wears smart 2 piece suits and is seen hanging around funeral parlours, humming “Death is not the end”. Eww, ok, that’s a bit creepy. Even Nick Cave would probably be offended by that.

The “Justin Beiber Jay-walker.” Lame, I know, but the crime seemed to fit the age bracket. This criminal is 16 year old and wears a wig of immaculately coiffed hair and has a pack of giggling 12 year old girls following him everywhere he goes – thus causing risk of multiple injuries when he jay walks. This criminal’s signature song? – I’m thankful to say, I don’t know what Justin Beiber sings and don’t want to find out!

The “Flavor Flav Food Fighter”. Alright, so, there is “Forgery”, but what is the noun for someone who commits forgery? A forgery expert? The Flavor Flav Forgery Expert – it  just wasn’t catchy.  In an homage to his hero, this dude has had all his teeth replaced with gold and wears a large clock around his neck. He likes getting into food fights (but doesn’t like to bite down on anything too hard.) Signature song: “Party for your right to fight”.

The Axl Rose Arsonist – jeans so tight that fertility is definitely endangered, this time worn with a sleeveless t-shirt, a lot of tatts, long hair, and a very wide head band. Signature song: …actually it’s a signature move:  The Axl Rose Arsonist stays by the fires he lights, and starts a celebratory dance which, to the outside observer, would be described as writhing as though he was trying to slide right out of those jeans. Ewww, again!

 

* moustache count in this post: approximately 4.

The “Flavor Flav Food Fighter,” having a day off.

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