Sunday, October 31, 2004

Mystery Dance

If you head over to the Music Box you will find that something has been added for your downloading pleasure. But it won't be there for long.

Fell In Love With A Girl

When we first moved to Canberra we lived for six months in a modern but soulless townhouse in a modern but soulless street in a modern but soulless suburb. The townhouse had two bathrooms; one of which included a spa, something that we, being afraid of anything new, never used. When Carl was around 18 months old he became mildly obsessed with anything that had buttons or knobs. One evening during his bath his eyes lit upon the button that switched on the spa. He duly pressed the button, and was given the fright of his life. For some time after that, bathtime would find Carl torn between desperately wanting to press that button again, and being unable to do so out of fear of what would happen if he did so. He never in fact pressed the button again, but his finger spent many a long minute hovering over it, quivering.

I know just how he feels. I have for some time now been in love with a song by the Baldwin Brothers (whoever they might be) called “Dream Girl”, featuring the vocal talents of Miho Hatori, from Cibo Matto. There are times when all I want to do in the world is listen to that song. And yet I know that if I hear so much as a tiny fragment, it will be stuck in my head for the rest of the day and I will have considerable trouble getting to sleep at night. Do I give in and listen to it? Can I resist its charms? I can’t stop thinking about listening to it. I CAN’T STAND IT. Is this what junkies go through?

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Fantastic Life!

I have only ever really wanted to be two people. One, as you know, is Harold Ross of the New Yorker.

The other is John Peel. Which is odd, in a way, when you consider that John Peel was (and how fiercely that “was” jars the typing fingers) a London radio DJ and I have spent my entire life about as far away from England as it is possible to be. But it also, maybe, serves to highlight the extent to which Peel loomed large over the lives of anybody interested in the popular music of the second half of the last century that, even in rural Australia (not exactly the “outback”, but two hours by car from Melbourne, the nearest city), a teenager could be profoundly influenced by this bearded gentleman known only through his regular namechecks in the pages of the NME.

Towards the end of 2003 I discovered that I was able to stream his regular BBC1 programme through the Internet at work. One of my first thoughts was, I suppose the old bugger will retire now. Well, as it turns out, he didn’t get the chance to retire (not that you can imagine him ever having wanted to); his cold dead hand was, at the end, as firmly on the pulse of the independent music scene as it had ever been: who else has been giving regular airtime to Maher Shalal Hash Baz, say, or Vive la Fete? His shows were always patchy, but there was also a sense that if you didn’t like the song he was playing you only had to wait for it to end and something better would come along.

The show was one thing. It is now consigned to the annals. But Peel’s real legacy lies in the vault after vault of recordings known as Peel Sessions: get a band into the studio and have them perform four songs; commit those to tape; play them on the show; and, if they turned out to be of some consequence (as they so often did), make records out of them. The sessions served two purposes: to give an opportunity to a bunch of kids that they may never otherwise get; and to document bands at different stages of their development, in the absence of outside producers, studio trickery and the like.

Putting to one side The Fall (always a special case - and, outside of Peel’s immediate family, there is nobody that I can imagine feeling more gutted at this moment in time than Mark E Smith), my candidates for definitive Peel Sessions subjects would be The Smiths and Magazine. The Smiths because, like a lot of people, I was first blown away by them when somebody on 3RRR got his hands on the first batch of Smiths Peel Sessions and played them on his show. The Smiths never sounded like this again. That rawness, freshness and sheer excitement was to be cruelly erased from their sound by the anaemic production given by John Porter to the eponymous first album. Okay, “The Queen Is Dead” is unarguably their masterpiece, but by then they were quite a different band: three albums in, considerable fame, a touch jaded and bickering amongst themselves. I can often be found arguing that the best Smiths album is actually “Hatful of Hollow”, primarily because of the BBC sessions it contains, and in the absence of which it may be hard to remember what made the fuss that was made over The Smiths so much more intense and obsessive than the usual fuss that surrounds a “new” sound (actually an old sound revisited).

In the case of Magazine, what the four Peel Sessions contained in the Magazine box set reveal is a quite different band trajectory from that found on their studio recordings (this also makes “Play” one of the small handful of “necessary” live recordings). Magazine, much neglected these days, made the unintentional mistake of releasing albums that didn’t really serve to accurately reflect what the band were about. Listening in particular to the second and third of the sessions they did with Peel, what is striking is how well he captured a band at successive creative peaks, and how poorly the contemporaneous album releases served to do so. Not that there is anything at all wrong with “Secondhand Daylight” and “The Correct Use Of Soap” (the latter being one of my desert island records, truth be told), but both albums do seem to be skewed towards the “art-rock” end of the post-punk spectrum. The Peel Sessions, on the other hand, throw you into a maelstrom every bit as focussed and intense as that generated by, say, The Stooges at their peak. Which, if not for Peelie, nobody now would be aware of.

You will no doubt have examples of your own.

The Peel Sessions serve to document a kind of alternative history of the era. Of a couple of eras, in fact. Eras that all of those CD-Rs and seven-inch singles that would have been in the post to Peel’s producer last Tuesday will, sadly, not be a part of.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

More about John Peel

I had this thought: does "Teenage Kicks" now become the "Candle In The Wind" of the indie generation?

Also, here is Paul Morley writing about Peel; which almost makes it seem just like old times. Except it will never be just like old times again.

Check also Marcello Carlin's typically sad, poignant entry on his own weblog (link at right).

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Here's Sasha Frere-Jones on the Greatest Double Album Ever Made.

And timely it is, too, on this first Peel-less day. About which, more will be said.

Well I woke up this morning ...

... and heard that John Peel has died. And it's kind of messed me up.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Construction Site: And you may say to yourself, "This is not my beautiful house"

Three months in. As Sid Vicious sang, "and now, the end is near". The new parts are accessible if not quite livable (no lights, little power, no floor coverings or curtains). Tradesmen are engaged in a kind of chess game, as the plumbers have to wait for the tilers who have to wait for the electricians who have to wait for the plasterers. And so it's a fairly slow process; we are still living in small spaces and out of boxes. But we do have a kitchen. And, while one shouldn't count one's chickens before they are hatched, I can almost feel my fingers sliding gracefully across the wheel of the iPod that lies at the end of the rainbow.

Never Trust A Critic Part 3

From the New Yorker, issue of 5 October 1957:

Reviewing “Voss” by Patrick White: “Mr White is a very conscious stylist, with, for the most part, unfortunate results.” Later: “... a rather disagreeable mixture of symbol and human pettiness.” Aspiring writers take note: this must be how you win the Nobel Prize.

Reviewing “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac: “Mr Kerouac writes as if he had just invented American slang.” Actually, it’s hard to tell, from this distance, if that is a compliment or a put-down.

Never Trust A Critic Part 2

There are, of course, exceptions. You would do well to wander across to Slate (link at right) where a discussion has been taking place between the music critic (classical) for the New Yorker, Alex Ross, and another Alex, about the new Bob Dylan memoir. Ross wrote the single best piece I have read on Dylan, a longer story which didn’t really answer any questions, but asked some very good ones. I read most of it riding the tram to North Balwyn, about five years ago, a copy of David Sylvian’s “Dead Bees On A Cake” tucked firmly under my arm, on the way back from the city to Adrienne’s parents’ house, one of the last times before they decamped to Geelong.

The Slate dialogue, if nothing else, gives you a link to that piece, via Ross’s own weblog, (There you can also find his Radiohead piece, which places that band firmly in the compositional tradition, giving them possibly more credibility than they deserve.) I’m not sure if this is the same Alex Ross as the one who wrote a piece on the Dunedin sound of *that* era (Chills, Clean, Bats et al), which I stumbled upon many years ago on one of the early webzines, or or one of those.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

It's not yesterday anymore

Strange to think that it is fifteen years ago tomorrow that my father died. What a time that was. Inevitably, some of the detail has become fuzzy, the sequence of events has been lost, and some elements of pure fiction, I’m sure, have become truth through repetition. Also inevitably, the weeks leading up to his death are mostly viewed through the fractured prism of the pain, grief, and human stupidity that came after.

It happened this way. I was working as a solicitor in Leongatha, and living in the weatherboard splendour of 84 McCartin Street. Adrienne had been on the scene for about six months. Dad had been feeling run down for a couple of weeks, and eventually retired to his bed. Tests were run. I moved back to the farm at Fish Creek in order to help out. Leukemia was diagnosed. He was rushed to hospital in Melbourne, and died three weeks later. He was 63. I was 25.

What follows are the moments that are frozen in my mind.

It’s a Tuesday night at the farm. I have been feeding the animals. Mum and I are having dinner; dad is in bed. His doctor calls. The test results are in. It’s leukemia. There is a bed organised for him at the Alfred Hospital in Prahran. We have to get him there the next day. What’s leukemia? It’s a type of cancer. Oh. How does he feel about that? (As in all things, he takes it in with a calm equanimity.) Mum and I struggle to finish our dinner in silence, then make some phone calls.

The drive to Melbourne. Mum, struggling with her own poor health for some months, has been packed off to stay with her brother and sister-in-law at Inverloch. Uncle Jack (dad’s brother) is furious that an ambulance couldn’t have taken dad, but I am grateful for the chance to spend some time alone with him. Before we have travelled the mile and a half from the farm gate to the main road, dad says that I shouldn’t be upset at what might happen, because he has already lived a good life. He tells me to keep my eyes on the road and my hands on the steering wheel. Later, I begin to see this as metaphor. Maybe he knew that the period after his death would not be easy.

It is a Saturday afternoon, two and a half weeks later. Dad has been through the hell of intensive chemotherapy, but the only thing that seems to be upsetting him is the quality of the food. “You’d think they could at least get porridge right.” He is in good spirits; he talks about getting back into lawn bowls, and about his (our) plans for the farm. Driving back to Adrienne’s house, I feel bouyant.

I bound into the hospital next morning, in boyish high spirits. The door to dad’s room is closed. Various medical staff are running around. Something has happened overnight. I am not allowed to see him and I can’t find anybody to explain the sudden turn of events. I feel lost, confused; I might as well not exist. I leave, not knowing how serious things really are; I drive back to Leongatha and try to put myself into the right frame of mind for work the next day.

Sitting in my office. It’s now Monday morning. The phone rings. It’s my dad’s sister, who has been looking after dad’s daily needs and feeding me information. The doctors say dad has 48 hours to live. What can I say? “Thanks for letting me know.” I arrange not to be at work for a while. What I really need is to talk to Adrienne.

Tuesday. I drive mum to Melbourne on the Tuesday. She has neither seen nor spoken to dad since he and I drove off down the hill in a cloud of dust, not quite three weeks earlier. This trip is, obviously, a big ordeal for her. When mum walks into dad’s hospital room, his face erupts in pure joy. I cry. They don’t really talk, as dad is (and this is a huge shock to all of us) beyond any sort of lucidity. At some point he calls me over, and struggles to tell me some very important, but almost totally incomprehensibe, information that seems to involve Kerry Packer and six million dollars. His last ever coherent sentence, addressed to the hospital pastor, who happened to drop in while we are there: “This is my wife.” As we are leaving, the decision is made to increase his morphine intake. There is nothing more to be done.

The drive back to Inverloch occurs as if in slow motion. Nobody says very much. I try over and over to make sense of dad’s story about Kerry Packer and the six million dollars. I decide it is probably the final manifestation of his long-term plan to turn the farm into a golf course and sell it to a rich businessman, and that he is handing over the reins to me. (It is not to be.) Adrienne and I spend a very strange, otherworldly night at the house on the farm.

The next day, we are sitting on the brick retaining wall outside the Alfred, eating some lunch and watching the traffic drive past, knowing that, a few floors up, dad is nearing the end. I am in no hurry to head up. Dad’s brothers and sister are in there, and I don’t particularly feel like seeing anyone. It is a fine and sunny spring day in Melbourne.

Sitting across the room from dad, for three hours, the only sound is the rasp of his breathing. As his breathing becomes more erratic, I instinctively hold my breath at each pause, waiting for his next intake. The pauses are increasingly unnerving. Then the breathing stops altogether, everything is silent and still, and he is gone.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Never Trust A Critic

Well, you can’t, can you.

Robert Hanks, writing recently in the Independent, began a review of the latest Jonathan Coe novel as follows:

“With the withering of Martin Amis’s talent ...”

Not only is that line totally unnecessary for the review that follows; it is also an illustration of the kind of endless loop that can be generated when reviewers read too many other reviewers. One might even raise the suspicion that Hanks himself is one of the many people who have not read “Yellow Dog” but nevertheless “know” that it is one of the biggest “dogs” in recent literary fiction, thus qualifying themselves to perpetuate that “knowledge” (“the Information”, indeed) by tossing it, seemingly at random, into their own writing. “Look at me; I’m on the team.” Ignoring the huge contribution that Amis has made to English letters over the last 25 years. Ignoring that critics aren’t always right; they are just like you and me, except that they get paid for having an opinion (the bastards). But more significantly, ignoring that “Yellow Dog” is a damn fine novel in its own right, on its own terms. The sad thing is that I, too, was almost prepared to write Amis off, on the strength of the sheer weight of numbers of bad reviews (as well as my own disappointment with some of his recent fiction - fiction only, though; “Experience” was a stunning piece of autobiography/soul-searching). Which would have been my loss. It just goes to show, you can’t believe everything you read.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

A "This Goes With That" Triple Play

Bob Dylan, "Like A Rolling Stone"

Lee Hazlewood, "Dark In My Heart"

Stereolab, "Tone Burst (Country)"

A slightly dodgy connection, this, but there is a certain guitar jingle-jangle that, erm, comes following me.

Did he jump or was he pushed?

In today's London Independent, buried towards the end of a piece on US election funding, Rupert Cornwell makes reference to "fright-wing causes". Which, given the state the world has been driven into in pursuit of said "causes" over the last four years, is not necessarily a typo.

The Dead Boys

Christopher Reeve: bah humbug.

Jacques Derrida: a thousand RMIT architecture students circa the early 1990s are weeping.

Max Geldray: don’t tell me you didn’t notice. Not as well known as Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, admittedly, but Max was one of the band leaders who worked the orchestra at various intervals during the Goon Show. We shouldn’t just remember the Big Names.

Keith Miller: “Where are the Ashes?” “Miller Hassett in a Hole” - one of the many little rhymes my father imparted to me, all of which meant nothing to me (although the singular/plural disjunction caused me some distress) and would mean even less to our own kids. I’m surprised, therefore, that his death has had such an impact. Which leads me to: should someone remembered only for their sporting prowess be entitled to a State funeral? It’s just a thought, but blokes who are good at hitting or kicking or bowling a ball around (or in Miller’s case, all three) aren’t necessarily statesmen and ambassadors in relation to the wider world. Even Bradman had problems of his own (shh, don’t tell the Prime Minister). In Keith Miller’s case we can make an exception, but a line has to be drawn somewhere, otherwise we will be gathered in officially sanctioned mourning (at some date well into the future, god willing) for Warney. What kind of message would that send?

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Love Is A Battlefield

Fred Kaplan writing in Slate last Thursday:

"Second, about those 31 coalition members: All told, according to the report, they're contributing about 24,000 troops. The British alone are supplying about 8,000. So the remaining 30 countries have a total of 16,000 troops in Iraq—an average of just over 500 troops per country. The United States has about 130,000 troops over there—more than five times as many as all the other 31 countries combined ... — which include such powerhouses as Albania, Azerbaijan, and Tonga ... This is not a coalition in the recognized sense of that word."

Well, I don't know. Speaking for myself, I think I'd feel quite comfortable being under the protection of 500 Tongans. Those are some pretty big lads.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

This Is What We Find

A lot can happen while you are spending a couple of weeks in the wilderness. Viz:

1. We return to a house with no kitchen, no laundry, four working power points for the whole house, very few working light fittings, every manner of filth, from dust and builders’ detritus to a large number of dead cockroaches, the house crawling with builders. The first thing Colin the carpenter said to us when we walked in the door was, You should have stayed away for another week. He was right. We have invented a new, inexpensive (and not at all enjoyable) type of holiday: camping out in your own home. We have been operating out of a microwave and the barbecue. The fridge and microwave, neither of which have working internal lights, have been placed in the new part of the house in a pitch black location, requiring the use of a torch to see what you are doing (thus restricting action to one hand), and also requiring for power the longest extension lead known to man, which because of where the power point is located is frequently knocked out, necessitating a long walk to the other end of the house to get the power back on, so that by the time you get back to the “kitchen” whatever is in the microwave has been overdone. Meanwhile the bathroom sink has seen use at various times as a bathroom sink, laundry trough, kitchen sink, and repository of soiled and/or vomit-laden clothing: sometimes all at the same time. Canberra, outlying satellite of the third world. At some point I had to resort to retail therapy: the second volume of Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, and one of only a very small number of essential “live” records (jazz and classical excepted), “The Name of This Band is Talking Heads”, just now released on CD for the very first time, so that I can once again hear the young David Byrne saying “This song is called “New Feeling”, and that’s what it’s about.”

2. It is a punishing blow to have to return a book to the library when you are half way through it - especially if that book is a real page-turner like William Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition”. I probably should just buy my own copy and be done with it.

3. Gillian Welch is coming to Canberra. Oh boy!

4. We now have two boys who can ride bikes without training wheels. They both took to it on the same day, using their girl cousins’ bikes, at the RACV caravan park at Cobram. It is surprising how much mobility this has given us as a family. They rode with us to the local school yesterday to help us do our bit towards ridding the nation of the odious Mr Howard (maybe next time). Jules’ first question to us this morning was, “Who won the vote?” This being Canberra, we have to go through the process again next Saturday for the local elections. (Still, rather that than live in a dictatorship, I suppose.)

5. Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” is just as remarkable now as it was in 1986. I was worried that it wouldn’t be. There once was a time when we accepted as“good” anything recommended to us as such by certain writers at the NME. Our collective judgment was generally pretty good; but occasionally the passage of time, and the art of growing up, caused the scales to fall from my eyes. I guess I was scared of losing such a sacred tome to the ageing process. I needn’t have worried.

6. Either the new Jim Jarmusch film has been and gone in this town while we were away, or it’s coming, or it’s not getting a run here (a frequent problem lately, with the closure of one of the two independent cinemas).

7. Whatever personal demons cause Marcello Carlin (link at right) to periodically push his constant love-hate relationship to blogging sharply in the direction of “hate”, he is mercifully still with us, in both senses. Now working his way through 1974. He is the same age as me. 1974 was a very important year, trust us, but maybe you had to be 10 years old.

8. While we blinked, three of the big guns have released new albums: Nick Cave (reputed to be quite strong); Elvis Costello (ditto, but you never can be too sure these days); and Tom Waits (a bit of a no-brainer there, as our broker might say).

9. “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell is Carl’s newest favourite song. I think I know how he feels. It once was for me, too, but I was about 10 years older than he is.

Better late than never: another mix CD

We present, with reliable tardiness, the hypothetical May 2004 mix cd, comprised entirely of things purloined from diverse internet sites. The first version contained a continuity error too embarrassing to recount. Rest assured, it has been repaired, and you’ll never know.

1. Patsy Cline, “She’s Got You”: there is a live version of this done by Elvis Costello, included as an extra track on the Demon CD re-issue of the indispensable “Almost Blue” album, with gender reversal in place. But that Patsy, she’s hard to beat.

2. Suicide, “Dream Baby Dream”: the 12” of this is one of the things I would run back into the house to rescue in the event of fire. Then, having removed it to a verifiably safe location, I would head back in for the children, if I still had time.

3. Skip James, “Devil’s Got My Woman”: prototype blues. Ed Kuepper has done this in a number of different ways, as if working out its essence (the version on “Today Wonder” has probably not been bettered); it also appears on John Martyn’s “Solid Air”. Some pedigree. But it’s worth taking a step back to the original. Which this may well not be, anyway, things were at the one time more simple and much more complex back then.

4. Kraftwerk, “Das Modell”: you all know the song, but maybe not in the original German. Notable for being possibly the only Kraftwerk song to depart from their trademark monotonal vocal delivery (if only for one word), which is not repeated on the English version.

5. Tocotronic, “Jackpot K.O. Kompakt mix (Thomas and Dettinger)”: name and band name as downloaded. What would I know? Very (presumably) German dance number, nice and understated, some dub influence (can’t argue with that) until about half way through it gets all Giorgio Moroder on yo ass (I think they say), necessitating rapid and sustained increase in volume and somewhat embarrassing body movements.

6. Nuffwish, “Blu Cantrell v L Jones”: like, your teenage sister might have some idea what the novelty value of this is; a seemingly standard top 40 vocal number dumped on top of a classic Studio One-style dub track. I think this is known in the trade as a “bootleg”, or maybe it’s a “mash-up”. Whatever. It works for me.

7. Althia and Donna, “Uptown Top Ranking”: you want me to comment on this?

8. Novos Baianos, “Preta Pretinha”: my guess is that this is an authentic example of the "lost" Brazilian music that was “discovered” a while back (think Os Mutantes). It is totally lovely, the way it floats on a gentle wave, and floats, and floats, and you almost don’t notice that all the time it has been building up to something much more urgent and necessary. And then it ends. Seven minutes to heaven.

9. The Free Design, “Light My Fire”: now I can hear why Stereolab have for a long time been linked umbilically to these fellows. I also have a very nice version of the same song by Astrid Gilberto: “ze time to ’esitate is t’rough”.

10. T Rex, “Ride A White Swan”: for many years now, I never took the time to listen to this properly. That was my mistake.

11. The Only Ones, “Another Girl, Another Planet”: I guess you shouldn’t call them one hit wonders, but I’m not capable of linking them to anything else. Didn’t Peter Perrett succumb to “personal issues”? Not unlike “Marquee Moon” condensed to three minutes, this, too, hovered like a beacon of calmness in the eye of the punk hurricane. The first song I ever downloaded, too. Come and get me, lawyer types. Of course, I already own the seven-inch.

12. Josef K, “Revelation”: a fine band, lost somewhat in the shadows of Orange Juice, but noisier. You can buy “The Only Fun In Town” on CD. Did I say “can”?

13. Scritti Politti, “Wood Beez”: “Cupid & Psyche” would be high up on the list of records I never owned but wished I did. Smooth as silk.

14. Would-Be-Goods, “Emmanuelle Beart”: capturing the spirit of what made punk rock such a good time. Three minutes of fun. I used to own an El Records collection called “Sydney Opera House”. If you ever find it, would you mind returning it to me?

15. Au Revoire Simone, “Through The Backyards Of Our Neighbors”: yes, this is the kind of song that pushes certain buttons - languid, breathy female vocals working around a sublime, quiet pop moment. It won’t set any worlds on fire, but I suspect that’s a large part of its appeal. My psychoanalyst can figure out the rest.

16. Katerine, “8eme Ciel”: Bart once lent me a Katerine CD. I don’t remember it sounding quite as adventurous as this, but my ears have become somewhat differently tuned in recent years: more is getting in these days. It starts like it thinks it’s Simon and Garfunkel, but then weird stuff starts to happen in the margins, including some beat action around the two and three and a half minute marks, just the way we like it.

17. Stars As Eyes, “La Methode Francaise (Dwayne S”: whatever that means. The download came with the words “loud new shit”, which I suppose is about right, although you shouldn’t expect, say, Whitehouse, or even Jet. This is just a marginally more in-your-face example of what we fancy around here. Probably wouldn’t exist without My Bloody Valentine, but that’s not a crime, is it?

18. Pram, “The Owl Service”: this has a tone about it that reminds me of The Raincoats circa “Moving” (although I can’t be sure, since that’s a record I likely haven’t heard for 15 years). When we were in New York in 1996 I passed up an opportunity to see The Raincoats and the Bush Tetras on a double bill at Brownie’s. Proof of a line from a Butthole Surfers song, “It’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done”.

19. Robert Wyatt, “Shipbuilding”: comfort food, of a sort, in time of war.