Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Or, Write a two thousand word essay on how my thinking got so screwed up.

Here goes.

Many years ago there was a young man called Stan. He grew up an only child on a small family farm at Fish Creek. The farm was run by his parents and two of his dad's brothers. When Stan was growing up, his world was a narrow one. It revolved around his parents, his uncles, and various other relatives, mostly on his dad's side, who would visit from time to time. Those visits were always very exciting for Stan. Of course he also had childhood friends, but they don't enter into this story.

The two uncles never married. Hence, Stan was the only child not just of his parents but also of the entire farming operation. So the world of the farm, it seemed to Stan, revolved around him. And perhaps it did. It was more than just a home to him. It was his life. Even when he wasn't actually working on the farm, it formed the background to his playing, his study, and anything else that was going on. When he wasn't at school, he was at the farm. To him, that was just the way things were.

He grew to understand that the farm would one day be his. In his small world, he had no reason to think otherwise, anyway, and he thought no more about it.

Eventually young Stan finished high school and moved to Melbourne to go to university. Even then, though, he continued to go back to the farm on holidays and many weekends, and when he had finished university he found a job at a law firm 20 miles from the farm. He began forming plans, with his father, for what they might do together on the farm as his parents started to get older.

Around this time a number of things happened. His mother fell into poor health. He met a girl called Adrienne. And his father, after a very short illness, died of leukemia. Into his truncated and sheltered world entered a number of forces that were beyond his understanding and outside of his control. The result of this combination of outside forces was that the farm was lost. And a fundamental part of the young Stan was lost with it.

Looking back now, after many years, Stan finds himself applying his more mature and sophisticated brain to the exercise of dwelling on what happened, what could have been done differently, and, specifically, whether the farm could have been kept going and if, in fact, it was because of his actions that it was not. The problem with an exercise like that is that Stan now is not the same person as young Stan, and applying his current standards and abilities to the Stan that existed 20 years ago is an exercise in futility. But it is not just an exercise in futility; it is also stopping him from being able to luxuriate in his limitless store of fond memories of life on the farm, and life with his parents, because those memories are constantly being intruded upon by the equally limitless re-living of all that he went through.

And he went through quite a lot, for a young and inexperienced man. Even as he was coming to terms with the idea that his father was going to die, and with the burden of having to break that news to his mother, who was too unwell to be in Melbourne with her husband, he had to also try to make sense of what was happening around him: namely, that his dad's two brothers, and other members of the family, whom he had nothing but fondness for, appeared to be keeping him and his mother at some distance from their dying husband and father.

His mother would always, he had thought, be welcome to stay with the Melbourne branch of the family, as they often had as a family. But for some reason, that was going to be too much trouble for them. She was going to have to find accommodation elsewhere. Which was impossible. So Stan had to ferry his mother to the hospital on the second-last day of his father's life, and sit in at what was a terrible, terrible reunion. And then, the following day, having driven his mother back to the country and then driven, without her, back to Melbourne, in the knowledge that his father would die that day, he found himself waiting in line with other grieving relatives for a chance to be alone with his dad. At least he was able to be there, with Adrienne by his side, when his father died.

To re-tell that story now is difficult enough. But it is hard to imagine how this young man called Stan could have navigated his way through it. What skills did he have? The dynamic between him and the other members of the family was always, in essence, that he stood one step behind and to the side of his father. And that all of them, his parents and his two uncles, essentially stood together. Could he have confronted his Melbourne relatives and insisted that they give his mother a bed for a few nights? Of course not. Did they deny her this so as to keep Stan and his mother at one remove from his father, knowing that Stan would have to divide his time between the hospital and where his mother was staying, two hours away, and that she was too unwell to be able to spend any length of time at the hospital? The thought would never have entered his head. He was not an active participant in whatever was going on, but a young man trying to deal with events that he could not understand. Were they trying to send a message to him, and his mother, that his mother was not "real" family? Well, he would have had no idea about anything like that.

He also didn't understand what was happening when, in the days after his father died and before the funeral, he watched another older brother of his father's, visiting the farmhouse to pay his respects, and wandering around looking at things as if taking an inventory, and making no secret of it.

What young Stan gradually figured out for himself was that, unbeknownst to him, the older of his two uncles had never accepted his mother, and that uncle called the shots throughout the family. So Stan never stood a chance, really, because from a very young age he had worshipped that uncle. There was nobody there to explain to Stan that he would have to choose between the family and his mother. But choose is what he was forced to do, and what he did, and of course his loyalty was to his mother. In making that choice, though, the fate of the farm was sealed. His uncle ruled out the idea of any kind of partnership in the absence of his father, and his mother was not prepared to put her own financial security in the hands of his uncle, so the relationship had to end.

His role, really, was to watch the relationship, and the farm, fall apart, and in a practical sense to facilitate that happening. He had the skills, and the legal knowledge, to know the mechanics of what had to be done and to be able to make that happen. What he didn't have was the ability, or the worldliness or maturity, perhaps, to intervene, or to try and wrest control of things from his uncle and the extended family.

One particular task that fell to him, because his uncle had sent them to see him rather than doing it himself, was to tell the sharefarmers that the farm wouldn't be continuing on beyond the end of the season and that they had better look for work elsewhere. He didn't understand why it came to him to do that, because the business of the farm was nothing to do with him. But he did it anyway.

Is it any wonder, then, that as time has passed he has come to place himself at the centre of the story, as an active player, rather than as the inexperienced, well, not victim exactly, but participant in the collapse of everything that had been most important to him? And, of course, all of these things were compounded on top of his own grieving, and coming to terms with his own changed world, and the family history he hadn't known, and hadn't been prepared for, and taking the necessary steps to ensure that his mother was able to be looked after and cared for (itself an unexpected role reversal for which he was ill prepared). And, let us not forget, young Stan had no brothers or sisters to turn to for advice, and his mother was in no condition to take any of the pressure off him. In fact, at the same time as Stan was at the centre of this cyclone, hanging on just enough to make sure that her interests were looked after, his mother was dealing with her own grief and poor health, and taking out her own frustrations on him. So he had, really, nowhere to turn, no one making sure he was alright. Well, he had Adrienne, but she wasn't part of this particular history. It wasn't her approbation he was looking for.

In the wash-up, his mother kept a small part of the farm. As for the family, he walked away. He couldn't really do otherwise. He didn't burn bridges, he just left them behind. There was too much hurt, too much doubt and confusion, for him to be able to just turn back into the arms of the people who had done this to him. For a few years, his mother's part of the farm was leased out to neighbours as a turn-out paddock. But it wasn't viable on its own, wasn't as well looked after as if it had been owner-operated, and, especially after he moved to Canberra with his own family, was too far away to be enjoyed for recreational purposes. So, long after his mother herself had died, he made the final decision to sell what was left of it. But that decision, which was his own, was really only the full stop at the end of the chapter that had written itself when he was only 25 years old.

So, if the Stan of 2009 wants to ask the questions, What did he do wrong? and What could he have done differently?, which, anyway, are questions that are unfair to the Stan of 1989, the least you can say is, he did what he had to do. You should, though, go on to say that in the circumstances he also did the "right" thing, when those whom he understood to be his elders and betters were putting pressure on him to do otherwise, pressure he was in no position to resist, and at a time when, on so many levels, he was trying to get his bearings in a world that had so quickly and so unexpectedly become so different from the one he thought he knew. So the fact that he did resist that pressure, that he supported his mother, when he could see what he thought would always belong to him slipping away from him as a direct result of those decisions, says something, and perhaps it says rather a lot, about how well he performed, at the age that he was, and with the skills that he had, and with the maturity that he didn't yet have. And perhaps it also says that he went through things that very few young adults would ever be asked to navigate, essentially on his own.

When he is able to think back to those times, and what he had to do, and what he did, and in particular when he is able to remind himself that he was not then the person that he is now, well, then he will have untied the knot that has been snarling his thoughts for a long, long time, and he will be as free as a bird, free to soar over the childhood that still exists, in brilliant technicolour inside of his head, and the view will no longer be obscured by clouds.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Song of the day

"Put Down The Ducky", I suppose I should say "by Sesame Street", but that doesn't look right. And yet it is a Sesame Street song. For some reason the boys, in their later primary school years, are having a SS revival, so we are hearing many old favourites (and the occasional clanger) in the car. Sesame Street was responsible for a great many songs that have stood the test of time. Which is something you can't say for, say, Hi-5. "Put Down The Ducky", Carl tells me, is sung by Hoots the Owl. If so, Tom Waits should be instructing his lawyers. This is, in essence, the pre-"Swordfishtrombones" Waits, accompanied by a rubber duck where the saxophone should be. I can't hear it too many times. (Though if you ask me again in a fortnight I may have a different view on that.)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Good Cover Version

I write about Beach House more than is probably good for me. But I like what they do. And I like their version of Queen's "Play The Game", which strips out all of the pomp and bombast of the original and turns it into, well, into a Beach House song. As I understand it, this was recorded for the "Dark Was The Night" charity compilation, a record which was just too pick-and-miss for my liking, but which I would have been more likely to pony up for if this had been included on it. Fortunately the Internet reveals all, sooner or later.


What follows is the text of an email I sent today to the person in charge of pedestrian crossings in the ACT. If you are driving in this area, please take care. I would like to watch my children grow up.

Good afternoon.

I work at the High Court. I travel most days by public transport. To catch the bus home of an evening, I have to use the pedestrian crossing opposite the Court on King Edward Terrace. Each of the last three evenings, I have had to take evasive action when using the crossing, in order to avoid being run over.

Twice I have been half way or more across the crossing when cars travelling west have failed to see me or stop (each time they have slowed down after having gone past me, but then kept going). Last night I had stepped out onto the crossing when a car travelling east failed to see me in time and had to swerve into the oncoming traffic to avoid hitting me. (Then, while I was waiting at the bus stop, I observed a man crossing the other way, i.e. from Finance towards the Court, have to stop in the middle of the crossing as two cars in a row failed to either see or stop for him.)

This is not the only time I have had to take evasive action using this crossing, but the fact of it happening three nights in a row prompted me to put my concerns in writing. It is only a matter of time before somebody is killed using this crossing. That person may or may not be me. I don't know what the problem is, the crossing appears to be well lit. Perhaps it is not being noticed because it is in the middle of a sequence of closely placed T intersections, so drivers have a lot to look out for.

Perhaps it needs flashing lights or something else that would attract drivers' attention.

Thank you

(This reminds me of the famous Pauline Hanson "If you are watching this message" tape. "If this is the last entry on this weblog, I was killed this evening on my way home from work." Let's hope not.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Song of the day

"Remember Me", by Tame Impala. It starts off like you could be listening to an early recording from The Chills or The Clean. But after a couple of bars we're headed straight for the garage. What is it with Australia and garage rock revivals? We can't seem to get enough of them. (And of course we were in on the ground floor, with the likes of The Loved Ones, amongst others.) But when the quality is this good, who's complaining? This particular iteration pushes things a bit further: just before the three minute mark they "take it right down"; then they slowly and tantalisingly "bring it right back up again", culminating in a bit of almost-metal riff-o-rama that one (well, "I") cannot resist. Curiously, the vocals, particularly around that point, sound like nothing as much as the strained warble of Eno on his early sequence of "pop" records. Which, of course, only serves to make it more appealing to some of us.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Link of the day

I don't know why this makes me feel all gooey inside. Well, gooey and just a little bit queasy, to be precise.

(And a welcome return to Mr Ingram, too.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Song of the day

"The Carny", by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It is with mixed feelings that I announce that I can no longer listen to this song without thinking of John Ratzenberger's travelling flea circus in "A Bug's Life". Curse you, Pixar.

By the way, the new remasters of the first four Bad Seeds albums do sound nice. I'm not sure whether it is the remastering or the passage of time that has revealed the importance of Blixa Bargeld to the enterprise.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Song of the day

"You Are The Worst Thing In The World", by Telefon Tel Aviv. A fine song from a fine album, an album with such intense depths of emotion locked into the very sound of it that one is inclined to think that it is little wonder that one of their number didn't survive its completion. When I am listening to this album while walking, there are moments when I stagger. Is it just that I am programmed to respond to certain analog synth sounds, whereas you might not be? Or is there something inherently devastating in those sounds?

In any event, the (rhetorical) question must be asked: Why is it that when, in this song, the synth goes out of tune, it is art, whereas when the same thing happens during the live portion of Joy Division's "Still", it is just the synth going out of tune?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Nightmare scenario of the day

Somehow, watching the Battle of Helm's Deep segment of the second "Lord of the Rings" movie (a sequence which I always find inexplicably distressing; it's only a story and I know how it ends, and yet ...) got me thinking about the Taliban in Pakistan. My brain "likes" to play What If. (Sometimes I don't like my brain.) What if the Taliban, with or without the backing of al Qaeda (if that organisation still exists, or in fact if it ever did), did manage to overrun Pakistan, or sufficient of it to get control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal? What then? The only silver lining that could come out of that would be to relegate my concerns about climate change to a distant second place. (As I have said before, global warming would be counter-balanced by a nuclear winter.) Rogue weaponry is never a good idea, and especially on this scale.

My knowledge of areas, populations, relative strengths, and other relevant factors is insufficient to tell me whether it is even a remote possibility. But assuming, for the sake of argument, that it could happen, that the Taliban are the rampaging horde of Orcs* and the rest of us are cowering in our own Helm's Deep, can we look to the coming of Gandalf on the morning of the fifth day? (Look to the east.) Could Gandalf, in the guise of Barack Obama, spirit away Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to a safe place for the duration? Presumably even the Americans couldn't consider doing so by force, but would Pakistan's generals agree? And what about India? Theirs would need to go, as well, in order to placate Pakistan.

And while we're at it, should we perhaps go one step further and get rid of everybody else's? (I don't know where you could put them. How safe is Fort Knox really?) Yes, I know, now I'm just being silly. And yet it may turn out that the battlements of Helm's Deep would have been a safer bet.

* Here, the eleven-year-old corrects me: they are not mere Orcs, they are Uruk-Hai. It's important to get these things right.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Everybody's Talkin'

... about Sonic Youth. Now it's my turn.

If "Murray Street" was your only Sonic Youth album you would be pretty happy with it. It does all the things Sonic Youth albums do, and it does them quite well. But a band like Sonic Youth is not designed to be treated like a comfortable old pair of slippers, and that is what they seem to have become. If you treat "Murray Street" as one of however many post-"Daydream Nation" albums, it is just another inessential footnote. (I do have a particular soft spot for the sprawling "A Thousand Leaves", but aside from that I have to agree with Marcello, it's what he calls the "solid 95th album" thing of too many, too similar, none really hitting a fresh nerve.)

Speaking only for myself, the time when Sonic Youth really mattered was actually quite brief. Everything before "Sister" was too lacking in any recognisable "structure" for me to be able to grab hold of it. Everything after "Daydream Nation", well, see the previous paragraph. (And they moved to Geffen when I was at an age, and of an attitude, when a band doing something like moving to Geffen seemed like an uneraseable Black Mark, so that it wouldn't really have mattered how good "Goo" and "Dirty" were, I wouldn't have been listening. (Which, yes, might well have been my loss, but really, aside from having been put to good use in a couple of Hal Hartley films, I still don't think, even in my "mature" phase, that either album saw the group trying very hard.))

But "Sister" is where they started to figure something out about what they could do with the things they were doing, and "Daydream Nation", which, from the Gerhard Richter cover art to the final fadeout, is sublimely perfect in every way, is why Sonic Youth matter. I cannot praise any album higher than "Daydream Nation", but nor can I write about it because my response to it is outside of language. (And let us also acknowledge "Into The Groove(y)", where the group briefly emerge from their own cocoon and observe, albeit from an "ironic" distance, the world around them.)

They may be a convenient target for those who need targets (and Kim and Thurston may in many ways come across as A Little Bit Too Cool, A Little Bit Too Perfect), but they have their place in history and I don't think anybody can say they haven't earned it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Song of the day

"Sad Robot", by Pornophonique. The subject matter is what got me interested. The Flight of the Conchords-style guitar strum made me tune in. The computer-game bleeps and vocoder were the icing on the cake. There is something very distressing about sad robots. Can they even cry?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Song of the day

"Ritz", by Cockney Rebel. If you leave out the accepted wisdom of how Steve Harley had enormous tickets on himself and was all but impossible to work with, all of which may or may not be true, what you have left is the music. The dramatic reach and musical depth of this song, from 1974's second and final Cockney Rebel album (as such), "The Psychomodo", manages to out-Bowie what Bowie was doing at the same time. It also serves to highlight all that was lacking in Harley's soon-to-follow UK Number One single, "Come Up And See Me (Make Me Smile)", which to these antipodean ears has always sounded like a second-rate parody of what an actual Cockney rebel would sound like. (Which is not, really, to say that the latter is not perfectly enjoyable on its own terms (it is), just that those terms didn't contain much in the way of ambition.)

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Song of the day

"Something You've Got (Isn't Good)", by Barbara Manning. Barbara Manning would have a right to be a little, shall we say, bemused by the excitement that has been generated by Vivian Girls. Listen to this song; then listen to, say, the latter's "Where Do You Run To". I think you will see what I mean. If we really have gone nowhere since the late 80s, at least it's in a good way.

Fanboy thrill of the day

If you click here you will be taken to a page wherein you can (a) admire the latest addition to Daniel Gillespie Clowes's growing collection of New Yorker covers, and (b) scroll through some work-in-progress sketches for his next book, which is something you can't do every day.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Hypothetical mixtape: January 2009

Welcome to the first 2009 hypothetical mixtape. Sure, it's five months old, but you should be used to that by now. No thought has gone into the sequencing. Build your own.

"Taken Too Young", by TTA. A song from Sweden that echoes both Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and "Sorrow", and features vocals, by Victoria Bergsman of The Concretes, that are from the school of Tracy Thorn. In other words, a lot of personal buttons are being pressed (surely not "cynically manipulated"?) in the course of this drifting, melancholy pop song.

"What Did He Say", by Nite Jewel. I fell in love with this song when I first heard it. If my ardour has cooled somewhat in the interim, that is only because what I have heard of Ms Jewel's subsequent work suggests that perhaps this song's blend of minimalist glamour and cheap electronics wasn't the direction that she intended to go in. Which would be a shame. I can't put a finger on any particular forebears (although the song hasn't just fallen from outer space). So I won't. (Okay, you win: Kathy Diamond if you replaced Maurice Fulton with a very young Boyd Rice.) But its charms, icy, frosty and/or steely as they may be, are all its own.

Pacifika, "Sweet (Quiet Village Remix)". It's hard to tell what's organic and what's electronic here. The acoustic guitar sounds too real to be really real. There's no actual song here, just the impression of one. Ooh look, they're Canadian.

Ducktails, "Beach Point Pleasant". Some kind of otherworldly, disembodied pop music. You could use it as the soundtrack to a children's television programme if you were in the mood to watch kids running away from the screen and hiding under their parents' bed. It reminds me a bit of the non-vocal aspects of the first Broadcast single (thanks, Bart).

I-Robots, "Frau (Kid Alex Minimal to Disco Mix)". It is perhaps strange that I have been attracted to German techno music, as I have long studiously shunned both of its selling points: drugs and dancefloors. But this song has all of the elements that I am drawn to. You can tap your feet to it. You can hear the connections to one particular strand of my beloved post-punk records in the flat German vocals. You can marvel, nay thrill, to the sheer breadth and depth of the electronic sounds that are continually being thrown at you and then shifting, almost surreptitiously, as you try to grasp them. You can allow yourself to be absorbed into the tension-and-release dynamics that are so expertly set up by the music. This particular example also sets itself apart from the seamless one-song-into-another aspect of much of this music by allowing itself to fall apart at the finish.

Jeremy Jay, "Love Everlasting". Rudimentary synths, electric guitar lines, bass playing and drumming conjures something much, much more than the sum of the parts. This is a gloriously expansive bedroom pop number, and the first release on K Records that we can remember getting excited about since, oh, about 1989? Dude looks like he just walked out of a 1979 New Wave Time Warp. We won't hold that against him.

Peter Dundov, "Oasis (Gavin Russom Remix)". Gavin Russom has been quiet since his and Delia Gonzalez's "The Days of Mars" analogue space synth extravaganza. (And whither Black Leotard Front?) Happily, this 12-inch b-side takes up where that record left off. It sounds much like what "Days of Mars" might have if they had pressed it on top of a sheet of vinyl containing modern electronic dance music rather than on a clean piece of acetate.

Cotton Jones, "Gotta Cheer Up". This song wants to be your friend. Not in a needy, clinging-to-your-leg kind of way, but in a gentle, sweet kind of way. It doesn't have any tickets on itself, it just wanders in, does what it does, and wanders out again. Its roots are clearly enough in sixties garage pop, but it also draws on the kind of dreamy driftwood that Beach House have made their own. Also, it takes the organ used on Nick Cave's "Your Funeral ... My Trial" and conjures a gorgeous melody from it.

Emiliana Torrini, "Jungle Drum". Worth it just to hear her sing "doonga doonga googadooga doong goong" (approximate translation). This may be only place in the whole wide Internet where you can see Emiliana Torrini referred to without a corresponding reference to Bjork. Oh, blast.

Ofege, "Gbe Mi Lo". Psych rock funk guitar as it was done in Nigeria circa 1973. We can't get enough of that fuzzy wukka-wukka sound.

Shinichi Osawa, "Star Guitar". Big, fat drum and guitar sounds from the "rock" end of electronica, with some sweeping MBV (or, for a more recent example, M83) style chord changes to knock you off your feet. Leavened, gorgeously, by the voices of those Au Revoir Simone girls.

Coralie Clément, "Samba De Mon Coeur Qui Bat". And I melt. The album cover has her looking stunning in the manner of sixties French film stars. That's enough for me. Or so I thought. But she also sings like an angel. Where have you been all my life?

Muslims, "Walking With Jesus". Yes, it is *that* "Walking With Jesus". What I particularly like about this version, aside from the fact that it picks up the song and frogmarches it promptly back into the garage, is that the whole enterprise, from the sound quality to the cover art, is pure late-80s seven-inch-single heaven.

Real Estate, "Black Lake". Almost Google-proof, Real Estate refuse to reveal any secrets to me aside from this song. It's a quiet gem. The influence of Beach House is turning up in a lot of places these days. One day we will be sick of the sight of them, but today is not that day.

John Carpenter, "Assault on Precinct 13 (Main Theme)". It just seemed right to end a list that relies rather a lot on old and creaky analogue (and, in the case of the Gavin Russom remix, home-made) synths with the real thing. A film director who does his own soundtracks. No, it's not Hal Hartley. (Where did he get to anyway?) According to Wikipedia this was partly inspired by "Immigrant Song". The word "loosely" might be well employed here.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Song of the day

"Gail Loves Me", by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Following on from a pretty crap weekend, this song is just what was needed to put a little bit of autumnal bounce back into one's step.