Friday, August 27, 2004

We Are Time

Monday morning. Usually I catch a bus that takes me to work by a rather circuitous route; this gives me some rare time for Reading For Enjoyment. But there is one day each year when spring, or an early sensation thereof, reveals itself to Canberra dwellers and allows us to hope that the worst of another long, bleak winter is over. Monday was that day, so instead of my usual bus I caught the express, which arrives in no time but involves a 10-minute walk from the bus stop to work. So there I was, feeling good within myself, stepping out along the treelined avenue, Bob Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind” album playing on the Walkman to drown out the traffic noise. And I set to thinking about what a surprising thing that record is, unnecessary (as Dylan records have been for 20-odd years now) but utterly mesmerising; how Dylan is singing songs about death with a voice that at times is almost not there at all, as if softening us up for the day we will wake to the news that he has gone; how the harmonica at the end of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” sounds like the wind blowing through the instrument after its player has left the stage. Then I got to thinking that if I live to be as old as my father, who considered himself to have lived a full life, then I will only experience the uplifting vibe of this particular one day of the year 23 more times. And then I started to think that that would also mean there will only be 23 more Boxing Day test matches; 23 more Christmas days; 23 more Eurovision song contests. And that I’m in no way ready to start any kind of countdown of that nature just yet. At about that point I decided I should have ignored the call of springtime and stuck with the serious business of sitting in front of the television watching the Olympic Games. (Only five more Olympic Games? ... Oh, stop that.)

Sunday, August 22, 2004

In Trance As Mission

It’s no use. Whatever I try to do, I am hopelessly distracted by the Athens Olympic Games. Synchronised diving, beach volleyball, women in top hats and tails performing impractical acts on horseback (no, wait, that was a porn channel I accidentally stumbled upon), and countless other, more traditional tests of human physical achievement: who’s got time for anything else? So I think I’ll bid farewell for a week or so, leaving you with one final instalment of this ongoing externalised interior monologue.

More CDs borrowed from the local library, ingested and returned:

Rickie Lee Jones “The Evening of My Best Day”: Ian Penman, whose own shortlived blog was the reason I got interested in this caper in the first place, has long been an advocate of Rickie Lee Jones’s voice. While I can appreciate its unusual mix of vulnerability and strength, her songs haven’t always grabbed me. It’s really the same with this disc. I expect I will come back to it someday, because it has left some kind of positive mark on my brain, and any record with guest appearances by Bill Frisell, David Hidalgo and Mike Watt (!) cannot be lightly dismissed, but I’m not yet ready to heap as much praise on it as I would like. Any song called “Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act)” would normally have me running for the exit doors (pop music and politics don’t usually mix well), but Jones manages to somehow turn into a handclapping, gospel-tinged singalong that even the right wing of the family can enjoy.

Velvet Underground “The Velvet Underground & Nico: Deluxe Edition”: boffins can probably itemise the differences between the mono and stereo versions of what is unquestionably a cornerstone of the canon. I will concede that the mono version has more of a sense of restrained menace, but that might be due to nothing more than a natural consequence of the confined physical space that goes with monaural sound. Would happily listen to either version, but can’t honestly see the reason to own them both.

Gene Ammons “Boss Tenor”: nothing particularly startling or ground-breaking here, just a session of good old straigh-ahead hard-bop blowing, and there’s always room for more of that.

“Scotch and Sofa”: if I had a “lounge”, and that “lounge” played “lounge music”, this is the kind of “lounge music” I would play. A themed “remix” of assorted songs from the Blue Note vaults is an appalling idea in theory, but works perfectly well in practice.

Ultravox “Vienna”: I had this idea that I had allowed my teenage hatred of Midge Ure (for backstabbing John Foxx out of one of the great early post-punk bands) to cloud my opinion of this record. I needn’t have worried. With the exception of the title track, which, if nothing else, was at the time a genuine new direction, this is puely and simply a bad record. Songs about a New Europe, the nuclear threat and future humans over unremarkable synth and guitar work. The upside, of course, was two bloody brilliant post-Ultravox albums by John Foxx, which we may not otherwise have had.
Youssou N’Dour “Nothing’s In Vain”: I never really took to this supposed titan of African music (then again, I was never that much of a Bob Marley fan, either). Give me the simple purity of Baba Maal’s “Djam Leelii” any day. A curse on those French for luring so many great musicians to Paris and making them record albums containing synthesisers and horn sections.

Phillip Glass “Koyaanisqatsi”: a bad CD remaster means that this doesn’t add much to the vinyl version I have owned for many years. But it’s still a great soundtrack.

The Byrds “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”: the best bits of this fairly dull instalment of Roger McGuinn’s ongoing vision already appeared on the Byrds four-disc box set (in particular the remarkable David Crosby outtake “Triad”, which seems to be about shacking up with not one but two blonde underage girls (well, we are talking California at the turn of the 1970s). David, it may have seemed a fine idea of a thing to do, but the merits of then writing a song about it are lost on me.) This reissue is notable for “Moog Raga”, a totally self-explanatory song title for a piece which is interesting for 15 seconds and then goes on, and on, and on, and... DJ Shadow might be able to do something with it.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Construction Site: Stairmaster

The footings and flooring substructure (I'm making that word up) are now done. As part of that exercise, they built the new front steps, which look a bit strange now as neither the new entrance nor the new landing are yet in evidence. Julius was quick to dub them "the stairs to nowhere". It's a phrase which seems to have stuck. It makes a good title for an Aldous Huxley-type novel; or maybe a Stereolab song.

The Reynolds Trilogy

Terrific post by Simon Reynolds (Blissblog, link at right) on receiving music in the mail; brought back lots of memories. Yes, I think the whole music blogging thing does in many ways amount to a “scene” in the way that fanzines do/did. It is also, as has been said elsewhere, reminiscent of the kind of world of ideas/arguments that was the NME in those Good Old Days. The best thing we ever received in the mail, unsolicited, in the days of Zeeeeen!, was a box of cassettes from some people called Growling Porcupine, who were based in Canberra. That man Darren has the box and its contents to this day; I saw them sitting beneath a desk at his house last January. It might be interesting to listen to them now: with their blend of low humour, and disco rhythms driven by cheap synths, 2004 could have belonged to them. Sample song title: “Ofra Haza Went To The Plaza”. What I didn’t know then that I know now is that the “Plaza” referred to is a big suburban shopping mall in south Canberra that would be in walking distance of our house if we weren’t so darn lazy.

Reynolds, author of what will surely be the definitive (even if only through lack of competition) book on the post-punk era, also sent me a nice email recently, to which I guess this whole rambling entry is a reply. He listed therein two of the four Things I Can’t Abide (Music division). Those four things are, with exceptions noted, the following:

1. Lou Reed (previously mentioned hereabouts). Exceptions: the obvious.

2. Sting. Exceptions: the second Police album, and parts of “Synchronicity”.

3. Bono. Exception: “The Unforgettable Fire”. I was coming to the end of The Eno Years, and the thrill (such as it was) was to discern his hand on the tiller; e.g. backing vocals on “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”.

4. Free jazz. (By which I mean the kind of bad scene where you have six or so people on a stage yelping and bleating away without a script or score until someone decides it’s time to go home now.) The Necks should never be thought to be of that ilk, notwithstanding lazy journalists’ categorising them accordingly. The only thing “free” about the Necks is the freedom they give themselves to set rigid constraints on what they are going to play, and to work within those constraints, playing out an idea until it can go no further. The difference, as I see it, is a matter of taste and judgment. And, just maybe, the listener’s own preconceived ideas as well. We only let in what we want to let in, only hear what we want to hear, etc.

Lately I have found that I am becoming open to musics that in earlier years I would never have given the time of day to. I suspect this is in some way hormonal. (I am also finding myself on the brink of tears with some regularity these days, Olympic medal ceremonies included, but also, and I can’t explain this either, upon hearing songs, even familiar ones, suddenly in a new way that sets the waterworks in motion. Life is interesting, isn’t it?)

The other thing Reynolds did recently on Blissblog was to restore some long-lost credibility to a record that got me through the summer of 1985-1986, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ “Rattlesnakes”. I don’t see why that record should be anybody’s guilty secret. I’m not going to critique it at this late stage; it’s either a small piece of you or it isn’t. I had taken a tape of it back to the farm for the University holidays, and barely had it out of my ears for the whole time. My father had me doing quite a bit of tractor work for pocket money, and I was lucky enough to get to use the white Case tractor, which had a cabin, so I could listen to Lloyd Cole as I worked. As well as keeping out much of the external noise of the tractor, the cabin acted as essential protection in case a blade were to shear off the slasher in the direction of the driver. I don’t think such an accident has ever actually happened, and I don’t know how much protection a tractor cabin window would be against a flying slasher blade, but safety was the order of the day, and anyway the alternative would have been to use one of the numerous grey Ferguson tractors that lay around the property, in various states of repair. The Fergy was the king of farm tractors, but was completely open, noisy as heck and thus not compatible with listening to music, which, let’s face it, was the object of the exercise: if I had been lying on the bed with my headphones on, my mother would have mysteriously found fifty jobs for me to do. (I still have no idea as to the purpose of getting up a ladder and cleaning out the gutters when there was no tree within 100 yards of the house.) Much better to be out in a tractor with the Walkman strapped on, and getting paid for it too.

The other thing about “Rattlesnakes”: I had had the record for about a year when one day, having previously vowed to use the CD player for nothing other than classical and Brian Eno discs, I suffered an inexplicable rush of blood to the head and bought the CD of “Rattlesnakes”. One listen to the depth and clarity of “Speedboat” and I had a serious freakout episode: I instantly knew that this would mean I could never be happy to listen to any of my vinyl collection ever again, on account of diminished sound quality. After enduring a sleepless night of worry and panic, I did the only thing I could think of: I rang my friend Anthony Elliott and offered to sell the CD to him at a greatly reduced rate, to be rid of it, an offer he was glad to accept notwithstanding his being a bit nonplussed at my explanation, and my sweaty palms as I handed it over to him. And that was the way things remained for several years, until there was no longer any choice but to give in to the tidal wave of Digital Audio and enjoy guilt-free superior-quality sound (sorry, purists) in any musical genre.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Disco inferno

According to this week's Harper's Weekly Review (link at right), "a flaming rabbit burned down a British cricket club". This may not be quite as bizarre a story as it first seems. There may in fact be some cross-cultural terminology confusion going on. Consider: in Australia, "flamin'" is a pretty harmless form of cuss word, as in "that flamin' sheila". And in cricket terminology a lower-order batsman (aka a "tail-ender") with a correspondingly low degree of batting ability is known as a "bunny". Imagine if a tail-ender had become so frustrated with his inability to make any runs that he set fire to the clubhouse. The source of the story could have been an Australian cricketer saying something like "Some flamin' bunny burned down the cricket club". There are a lot of Aussies playing cricket in England at this time of year.

By such simple mistakes are world wars commenced.

On the other hand, maybe a flaming rabbit did burn down a British cricket club.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Well done, that boy

Having very much admired the work of Canadian cartoonist and illustrator Seth for many years (well, since the third issue of Palookaville), I was very excited, and pleased for him, to see that he finally cracked the cover of the New Yorker this week. The impression one gets from Seth's work is that he very much sees the world through the eyes of the New Yorker of the 1950s (nothing wrong with that whatsoever), and in the case of his story "It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken" he even puts the central character on the trail of an obscure (and, as it would appear, entirely made up) NYer cartoonist from that era, so one may even go so far as to suggest this might be something of a dream come true for him. And so we say, "well done, that boy". It's just a shame this uplifting story will be kept from the wider public because of saturation Olympics coverage. Oh well.

Construction Site: Stand

As of tonight you could, if you wanted to, although it would serve no practical purpose to do so, stand on what is going to be the floor of the new family room. You would be cold. And the neighbours would be watching you. And you would be looking pretty silly. But none of that stopped us.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Construction Site: Demolition Man

On Friday a man who looked to have recently been rescued from a desert island turned up with a big hammer and commenced to knock the heck out of the brick cladding on those external walls which will eventually disappear. He became a little too enthusiastic at times, with the result that we can now see daylight from a few places. We can also see daylight through one power point, which I am not too sure about. His over-enthusiasm also led to him having to give up before he could attack the other end of the house, on account of a sore back.

Today a different man with a different hammer appeared and finished the job. Also the "chippies" appeared, to make a start on the framing. This was a great disappointment to the kids, who were expecting the kind of "chippies" you can get from McDonalds.

Leaving aside the laughter of children, is there any better sound than that of a circular saw going through a plank of wood?

I'd rather be watching ...

... "The Mighty Boosh".

But for the next fortnight it's wall to wall Olympics.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


I found a copy of Elvis Costello's Deutsche Grammophon song-cycle album, "North", at the local library. I borrowed it, fully expecting to put it back on the pile after listening to the first five minutes. But you can knock me down with a feather: against all odds (and possibly against my better judgment) my inbuilt love-hate elviscostellometer is reading "love" again.

This just confirms that my philosophy of life is sound: if you set your expectations low enough, you are bound to have a large number of pleasant surprises. I first took this approach with my choice of football team: Melbourne last won a premiership when I was four months old. Since then they have played in two grand finals, both of which resulted in humiliating defeats.

But back to Elvis: why does this album work, when the collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet and Burt Bacharach didn't? I'm not at all sure; maybe in some way they were test runs for this record. Maybe he is just not a good collaborator (although I thought the recording he did with Bill Frisell worked quite well). The biggest complaint that I would aim at recent Costello is that he is all over his own records, to their detriment (which leaves someone in his position in a bit of a spot, when you think about it). This time, there is room to breathe. The arrangements are quite spare. They wander into the "classical" sphere, sure, but they nevertheless don't sound either forced or inordinately "tasteful". Costello doesn't try too hard. Steve Nieve, even since the early days, has been a good influence on Costello, and it is possible that his appearance here is what tilts the record to the good. It's a record for late at night, sure, and therefore not compatible with having young children about the house, and I may look back at this in a couple of months time in horror, but for now I'm giving it a tick.

Construction Site: Another Brick in the Wall Part 1

Joe the bricklayer is here this week, putting up the footings. We can now stand in what will be the new family room and master bedroom, and imagine the walls going up around us. I feel a bit like a goldfish in a bowl. We arise somewhere between 6.45 and 7am, open the curtains, and there are the builders, already hard at work and (we imagine) looking in at us. I'm sure they do this all the time, and don't even notice the humans dwelling inside the houses they are working on. But I still feel as if they are looking at me. Did I already mention that builders make me very uncomfortable? I should probably get help.

Under Heavy Manners

Maybe I have been looking in all the wrong places, but did anybody even know that Fripp and Eno had been working together again? And then there's an album review on Pitchfork. After checking that it wasn't April 1, I sat back and asked myself how I felt about this unexpected development. After all, both of their careers have been patchy at best for the past 20 years. Eno's only two really indispensable albums since "Apollo" have been "Thursday Afternoon" (the reason I bought a CD player in the first place: Brian Eno as progenitor of the Killer App) and the collaboration with Jah Wobble, "Spinner". Fripp, meanwhile, was involved in the only David Sylvian record that is anything less than indispensable. And the unreleased tracks on "The Essential [sic - where was "An Index of Metals"?] Fripp and Eno", entitled "Healthy Colours I-IV", seem to be little more than off-cuts or prototypes of Talking Heads' "Electricity". So I don't think I will by tying myself up in agonising knots of indecision the way I did with Kraftwerk's "Tour de France Soundtracks" (what a fool I was). But I am at least intrigued to hear what direction the two boffins might have pushed themselves in this time around.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

All that scratchin' is making me itch

Whoever it was out there in the wide world of MP3blogs who made available (from the original vinyl, no less) "Trees and Flowers" by Strawberry Switchblade, I am not worthy to lick your Dr Marten's boots. Here is a song I haven't heard even once since the days when it was on reasonably high rotation on Melbourne's 3RRR, circa 1982, and have been desperate to hear again ever since. Thank you thank you thank you. Remarkably, it is just how I remember it, and also just as special as I remember it being. (Yes, tears of nostalgia have been duly shed, for those thrilling days when all of our gang were living in those tiny "dog boxes" they give to the first-year students at Trinity.) Have I already said thank you? Whoever you are?


So, last week the High Court upheld the Australian government’s right to hold people in immigration detention indefinitely. There are two remarkable things revealed by this litigation: first, that on the Australian statute books is a piece of legislation that allows a person to be kept behind bars for the term of his or her natural life, not because of their having been convicted of some terrible crime, or for any other reason justifying their segregation from the community on grounds of their own, or others’, safety, but simply because they tried and failed to obtain permission to reside here, as a refugee or otherwise, and the Australian government has had no success at sending them somewhere else. (The Court’s decision appears to say that as long as the government still maintains a present intention that the person be deported, the person can be detained, notwithstanding that no deportation is imminent, or even likely, and not just in the short term or indeed for any reasonable length of time.)

The second, and even more remarkable, thing is that this government has been prepared to go to the highest court in the land in order to enforce such a law and have its validity upheld. In other words, it sees nothing wrong with pursuing as a legitimate policy the action of keeping a human being in incarceration (call it immigration detention if you will, but in my book a gaol is a gaol) until that human being dies. One could suggest that this is the sort of ruling behaviour against which Australians have on many occasions gone to war, including in the very recent past. One could also suggest that, surely, instances of people having no country which is prepared to accept them (or, in the case of one of the parties before the High Court, being in effect stateless, ie, having no “country of nationality”, in the words of the Refugees Convention) would be rare, or at least sufficiently rare that it would cause very little practical harm to quietly send them off into the community on some legitimate basis until such time as they could be sent away. We may be inundated by stateless Palestinians, I suppose, but somehow I doubt it. Australia is proceeding to send very negative messages to prospective refugee arrivals as it is; a small handful of legitimate exceptions, on humanitarian grounds, is hardly likely to cut across those messages.

It is all very sad, not to mention cruel, and, as Justice McHugh said in his judgments in each of the two cases, “tragic”, and, anyway, my mind keeps turning to the Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Vietnamese and all the other communities around the nation who have, over successive waves of immigration, helped to make this country stronger, more prosperous, more multicultural, more interesting, more culinarily (?) adventurous ...

Does it really make sense to turn a handful of desparate persons into “non-persons”, keeping them in custody at the public’s expense, when they could be living amongst us, pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, as previous generations would have said, and becoming responsible members of this thing we are proud, most of the time, to call Australian society?

End of sermon.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Murphy's Law Is In Da House

It turned out to be true: Canberra's only broad-spectrum music store has sold out to the big boys. I went briefly to what was supposedly the last day of their closing down sale, but realised that I wouldn't have time to stand in line to pay for anything I found before I had to meet Adrienne. All queues for the checkouts were at least 20 people long. But all was not lost: they were still open the following weekend, all vinyl was still 50 percent off. So for not very much money I bought the following. All English (in the general sense). With roughly a 3-year gap between each. It's a kind of potted history. Potty, anyway.

Black Widow: Sacrifice. Allegedly from 1971, although this copy is an Italian repress from 1998 (180g vinyl!) and the only other copyright info says 1992. I'm still not convinced it isn't a hoax. Purchased because of "Come To The Sabbat", made available by Tom Ewing during the heady days of PopNose.

Sparks: Propaganda. 1974. I'm not sure what to expect here. I only really remember the "hits" from around 1979, but I know they're still going and well regarded. I like the cover, too. And it's on Island, which really was the home of the hits in them days.

David Essex: Gold & Ivory. Because Marcello Carlin said so. 1977.

Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark: Architecture & Morality. Not as perfect as I remember it, but at least four songs that stand the test of time. 1981.

Simple Minds: New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84). From 1982. One of the records that I used to own that I have long regretted parting with (I abandoned it to its fate out of anger at how bad subsequent records were). This looks like an English pressing and there's nothing on the record to suggest it's not, but something makes me suspect otherwise. I used to be able to tell just by picking them up, you know.

Propaganda: "Present The Nine Lives Of Dr Mabuse" (12" single). Parts 3 and 4, to be precise. From 1984 (I could have sworn it was a couple of years later). This is an itch I have been needing to scratch since I last heard it, which I think I can date back to a weekend on the farm in 1989, not long before dad got sick and we had to say goodbye to all that. "Why does it hurt when my heart misses a beat."

Enter Murphy's Law: before I could get through any more than the Propaganda and OMD records, the knob fell off my amplifier, in such a way that I can now listen only to CDs. It could have been worse, I suppose; we could have been limited to the cassette deck. And in a month or two all records and tapes, and probably most of my CDs, will be farmed out to willing borrowers while we lose most of our internal living space to these accursed renovations. But for now it is very, very frustrating to have bought records for the first time in some years, only to have them rendered unplayable on account of my lack of (a) one Allen key and (b) any practical and/or handyman skills whatsoever.

And the big men fly

I found myself watching a bit of footy on TV on Sunday afternoon: St Kilda v Geelong. Discussing with the kids who to barrack for. Carl spent the first year and a bit of his life as a resident of St Kilda. The grandparents live in Geelong. It was a tough call. Julius chimed in: "Is granddad playing?" Given that granddad is Scottish, 75 years old, of not inconsiderable girth, and has demonstrated in the time I have known him zero interest in any kind of ball sports, I had to say that I thought it was unlikely but that we should keep looking out for him just in case. Which gave me an excuse to keep watching the game, when Jules would have been much happier to turn over to Speed Week on SBS.

Snow Crash

We took the guys to see some snow on Saturday morning. I had been making a nuisance of myself around the house and driving Adrienne crazy with my continual harping on to her about finding out whether we would need chains or if there were other hazards relating to driving of which we should know before heading off. I kept regaling her with stories of how we would be trapped for days after our car slid off the deserted backroads, having to eat our own legs before help was at hand. It turns out that the reason it was so hard for me to get an answer was that the question, I know now, was itself completely ridiculous.

Where we were going was no more than 15 minutes from the outskirts of Canberra. The entire countryside was as dry and arid as if it were the middle of summer. The landscape was barren; devoid of any moisture whatsoever; and any vegetation had been corpsed in the bushfires of January 2003. We found the snowfield without any trouble: a rectangular, sloping patch of ground covered by some kind of artificially made "snow", guarded by a man charging $8 per person to enter, and $6 to hire a little orange plastic "toboggan". Not exactly Aspen. Not exactly the Winter Olympics. But a whole lot of fun for 4, 6 and 40-year-olds regardless. It was a beautifully sunny morning, so nobody cared about sopping wet trousers. Well, Carl did, but once we explained to him that he would stay warmer if he ran around, he was fine. Winter in Canberra.