Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Portishead: their part in my downfall

There are some records, the key to unlocking which remains perpetually just out of reach. “Portishead” by Portishead, for example. I was put onto the first Portishead album, “Dummy”, by the late Doctor Jan Breward, who in those days had been my connection to the Dunedin music scene, partner in record-shop-raiding sprees around Melbourne, and thoroughly reliable spruiker of all the things I didn’t know that I would like. Jan described “Dummy” as a “guilty pleasure”, but you only needed to listen to a song like “Wandering Star” to know that this was a group at least as interested in substance as style, and that intriguingly murky depths lay not far below the surface.

After too long a wait, and having endured the kind of rumours that reclusive next-big-things are forced to endure at the hands of the always impatient music industry, Portishead launched its second, self-titled, album onto the world. That was when we were living in East St Kilda in a ridiculous free-standing double-fronted 1880s Victorian half-mansion half-slum, with at least four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a combined living-and-dining-room that alone was bigger than either of our two previous abodes, and which we struggled to occupy, there being only the two of us, plus one small black cat, and, for the final few months before we moved to Canberra in early 1999, an equally small (at least for a while, but that’s another story) human, called Carl.

Anyway, for a period of a few months in 1998, I could be found, most afternoons, walking my regular circuit - through Alma Park, bisecting the wonderful playground that we would move away from before Carl could really do anything with it; briefly along noisy, smelly Dandenong Road; across Chapel Street at the Astor Cinema, last bastion of genuine movie houses, with honest choc-tops and comfy art deco chairs in the foyers; along Wellington Street, walking very quickly past the dilapidated once-palatial residence which had been converted into a rooming house, and which we briefly flirted with buying, having convinced ourselves that we could play the role of slum landlord until we could afford to do the place up, until, with an inner sigh of relief, the first bid at the auction was higher than the maximum price we were prepared to pay; around a few back alleys; until coming out at St Kilda Road, just near the Chinese restaurant which had always been there, despite being located on a virtually inaccessible traffic island in the middle of St Kilda Junction, and which must have been a front for something, although the income from the enormous billboard at the top of the building, which the proprietors presumably owned (and which the family of one of the two partners of the law firm at which I then worked had owned some years previously, before being forced to give it to the government in lieu of death duties), would have brought in more revenue than even a bustling, prosperous Chinese restaurant could manage; past the dodgy string of establishments further along St Kilda Road, including a massage parlour or two, a tattoo parlour (before they became suburban chic), and a newsagents with a strangely limited range of magazines, few of which could be sold to minors; and back through more backstreets and lanes until returning to Alma Road and, thence, home - all the while listening intently to a copied-onto-cassette dub of “Portishead”, trying in vain, day after day, to crack the code of its deepest mysteries.

That was a long time ago, and the wait for anything further, the live companion album aside, has been painful, and still it continues. And “Portishead”, which I have continued to listen to regularly, if less frequently, eluded me still.

A week or two back, the three members of Portishead appeared in a video clip on the internet, performing live, very recently, before a small audience, just the two guys sitting quietly and intently with their guitars in perfect counterpoint, and Beth, in the centre, also sitting, displaying all of the shyness for which she is known, and singing “Wandering Star” like an angel descended from heaven. And at that moment, hunched over my laptop, peering at the tiny, slightly out-of-synch images on the screen, it all made sense. Far from being a hesitant departure from a perfect first album, “Portishead” was in fact the opposite: an inevitable, and necessary, refinement of the singularity that appeared in nascent form on “Dummy”. How could I have been so blind? “Portishead” was an uncompromising statement of these three extraordinarily talented, and extraordinarily synchronised, people. It was the sight, and sound, of Portishead, entirely self-absorbed, withdrawing from the world in order to pursue their singular vision wherever it needed to go.

Everything that I had previously recognised to be problems were, in fact, necessary solutions. Thus, I had previously thought, “What was the point of creating sounds of their own to sample, when they could have sampled stuff that was already out there, with the same effect?” Previously I had pulled against Beth’s moments of “doing” Billie Holiday, “doing” Shirley Bassey. I was wrong. The point with the sampling, I can now see, was not just that they could do it, but that they had to do it. What purpose an act of withdrawal if other people are all over it, even if in not recognisable form? And as for the vocals, if there is anywhere that the human voice isn’t taken on this album, either by Beth’s own gifts or via her fellow knob-twiddlers in the studio, then that is somewhere the human voice wasn’t able to be taken. (What I can now be reminded of is The Knife’s “Silent Shout”, where, having regard to today’s technology, similarly remarkable things have beene done.)

It is an odd thing, listening, as if for the first time, to an album that has been a part of you for what seems like forever. I had a similar kind of experience once before, when, following a brief conversation with a girl at a party, letters were regularly exchanged for the next couple of years before we met up again one day at Leo’s spaghetti bar in St Kilda. Even though we could barely remember what each other looked like, it was as if we were the oldest of friends. And the rest, as they say, is history. We may even have the privilege of listening, together, to the third Portishead album. Although when that will be, only they know.