Saturday, February 27, 2010


[Note: This piece should have been a fantasia of whimsical observations, poetic imagery and the like. But, you know, once a farmer, always a farmer. "A pint of plain is your only man": Flann O'Brien. (Mind you, it does get a bit "Great Gatsby" towards the end ...)]

As I have said, I grew up on a working dairy farm. It was home for the first seventeen years of my life, and intermittently thereafter for the next eight years, and when it wasn't home it was a frequent respite from the tumultuous life of a university student and, when those halcyon days ended, the slightly less turbulent but somewhat more affordable life of a young "professional".

When I wasn't spending my time hanging around the house, playing with Lego or, later, listening to records and reading music magazines that were fresh off the boat from England and "only" three months old (tell that to the young people of today and they won't believe you), I was more likely than not getting involved in one way or another with the focal point of the farm, which was the cow shed.

The cow shed was (I use the past tense because I have it on good authority that it is no longer there) a long, corrugated-iron structure, with two elevated concrete platforms separated by a walkway at ground level. The platforms were where the cows stood while they were being milked. The elevation of them was such that a person standing down in the walkway was about eye level with the cows' udders. There were two other rooms, one containing the engine that drove the milking machines and the other containing the milk vat and a big trough for washing up. These rooms were separated from the milking area by a breezeway. Attached to the shed was a somewhat elaborate series of yards and gateways, enabling cows to be brought in from one part of the farm, milked, and then sent out to a new paddock, where the grass had not been chewed for a few days. The shed sat on a flat area halfway down a hill. You got from the house to the cow shed by way of a gravel road which ran down from the top of the hill, where the house sat, past the old pigsty (on your right), which in my time was used for housing the young calves when they were first removed from their mothers (yes, farming is a cruel business), and also for storage of junk, such as old bicycles, prams, and other things that had outlived their usefulness but that couldn't quite be gotten rid of. The road then turned to the left and ran past some very tall and old cypress trees until it reached the shed, where it widened to allow a milk tanker to turn around.

The cows were milked twice a day. I liked being involved. This is something that made no sense to me then and it makes no sense to me now, given that I am inherently lazy and introspective. I think I liked the routine, and the feeling it gave me of being a part of the farm, along with a sense of achievement, of having contributed in a real way to what my father did with his life.

For most of my childhood we had sharefarmers, who did the milking for us, but at various times, and sometimes for extended stretches, it was mum, dad and me, or dad, Uncle Charlie and me. I also sometimes helped out when a sharefarmer was on his own (see "Dennis, Part 1" and "Dennis, Part 2" passim). In fact, one of the times dad and I did the milking was during the first part of my HCS year, and so I somehow had to fit school and homework in with farm work. (That seemed to turn out okay, somehow. On school days mum would come down to the shed and take over from me so that I could have breakfast and get ready for school. I owe a debt of gratitude to Helen Thomas, breakfast presenter at the time on 3RRR, whom I credit in large part for getting me through that busy time, and really for getting me through HSC, and whose brother Greg, curiously, I would get to know the following year when I moved to Melbourne University.)

The morning milking involved getting up very early, while it was still dark. I would take my dog, Woof, for a long walk, sometimes to the further reaches of the farm, to bring the cows up to the yard. Depending on the time of year, the cows would either be waiting keenly at the gate to be let through, or they would be hanging back at the furthest corner, trying as hard to hide from us as their tiny brains would allow them to. Woof had no training, and she turned into a raving lunatic whenever there was a tractor around, but when it was just the two of us, on foot (or paws in her case), she demonstrated a good instinct for knowing where to go and how to get the cows moving. (She had no sense of how to get them moving in the right direction, but the cows knew where they were supposed to go and all Woof needed to do was get them up and about, which she did by running up to them and barking a lot.) My role was to encourage the dog in her endeavours, and to do a rudimentary head count of the cows as they left the paddock and headed along the track towards the shed. Then it was just a matter of pushing them up into the yard and closing the gate behind them. By the time I had brought the cows into the yard dad would have arrived at the shed with a cup of tea for me. (And, to borrow a line from Maurice Sendak's "Where The Wild Things Are", it was still hot.) He would also have set up all the hoses, turned the hot water on and started the motor. After that, the milking process was fast and incessant.

In case you're interested, this is how it worked.

The first row of nine cows would be herded up the steps and onto one of the platforms. There they would be washed, and the milking machines put on them. Milk was pulled out of the cows by a pulsating suction operation, kind of like a vacuum cleaner with the hiccups, and sent along a stainless steel pipe into the stainless steel milk vat, which was refrigerated to a temperature of four degrees Celsius to keep the milk in pristine condition until the milk tanker arrived, later that day, to collect the milk and take it to the Murray Goulburn factory.

The farmer, whose head, as I said, was more or less at the height of the cows' udders, was vulnerable on two fronts. For a start, the cows, and especially the younger ones, didn't always particularly enjoy the intimate human contact they were being subjected to, and could be inclined to lash out with their back legs. Cows, being much stronger than people, have been known to break bones, but they were facing away from you, and cows kick out to the side rather than straight back, so a person who was concentrating and exercising caution should have been able to keep himself safe. For particularly ornery critters, a kick clamp was applied to prevent their legs from lashing out too far. (The kick clamp restrained the cow but didn't appear to cause it any pain or discomfort. It never seemed to me to be at all cruel, and I tend to be sensitive about that sort of thing.)

The second area of vulnerability arose out of the fact that the cows, while they were in the shed, were a little bit on edge and therefore prone to outpourings of one type or another from their rear ends, which outpourings, remembering again that the farmer was at eye level with the cows' udders, could land upon the head of the unsuspecting and/or unprepared. From personal experience, this didn't happen anywhere near as often as you might have expected it to; I think after a while some kind of sixth sense kicked in that would let you know when there were rumblings afoot. (One or two of my university friends, not being as skilled in the ways of cows as us natives, were not so lucky.)

Once that first row was quietly milking away, the next bunch of nine cows would be run up the steps and onto the other platform. They would have the mud washed from the area concerned, and the machines would then be taken off the first row of cows, swung across towards the other platform and placed on the newcomers. The first row would then get a bit of a rinse, in the interests of personal hygiene, and be sent on their way, out through the "exit" doors and off to whatever paddock the gates had been set up to send them to. They usually headed off without any need for encouragement, because after each milking they went into a new paddock, which meant fresh grass for them.

One thing that soon became clear, if you were a student of cow psychology, was that there was a clear pecking order amongst the cows in the yard. Certain cows would insist on standing in the same place each milking, waiting for their turn to be brought into the shed. Some cows would insist on being first in. Others would want to be anywhere but first. Still others would hang right back, like reluctant schoolboys, until they had no choice but to be next into the shed. A feeble but effective electric fence pushed the cows up the yard as their numbers decreased, just to make it easier to chase the laggards into the shed. (A two-foot long lump of polythene pipe applied to the rump of a cow also came in handy, but shhh, don't tell anybody. (And anyway they didn't need to be whacked very hard to get them moving; it was more of a friendly reminder.))

And so it continued, row after row and cow after cow, until before you knew it the only thing left in the yard was a patchwork quilt of cowpats. Dad then washed and sterilised all of the milking equipment and I got to do my other favourite job, which was cranking up a high-pressure hose and washing all of the manure out of the shed and the yard, from where it cascaded down into a pit a short distance downhill from the shed, and thence via a very long hose out into the paddocks nearby. (Occasionally we would let it bake in the sun for a little while, shovel it onto a trailer and take it home, where it was added to the compost heap for eventual use in mum's veggie garden.)

Once all of that was done, one of us would go into the engine room and flick the master switch to "off". The engine would slowly wind down until the cow shed was shrouded in a peculiarly enveloping silence. The noise of the milking machines, when they were running, was everywhere, making it difficult to have a conversation (which you didn't have time to do anyway), but after the first few minutes you didn't even notice it, which made the silence when they were turned off even more striking.

One of us would then wander down to where the cows were supposed to have gone, chasing any stragglers along in front of us, and lock them all in their allotted paddock, where they would stay until next milking.

As you all know, cows need to be milked twice a day, and so off we would go, again, after our four o'clock cup of tea, following the same routine. There was something special, though, about evening milkings. In winter we didn't finish until well after dark. There is nothing quite like the feeling you got walking homewards with your father, the only sound that of the gravel road crunching underfoot, with nothing but the stars and perhaps a bit of moonlight to guide you, the lights of the dairy having been extinguished, the lights of home not yet visible, with the ghostly presence of the cypress trees beside you, and yet feeling perfectly safe and knowing exactly where you were going. Perhaps you walked in silence, or perhaps you were talking about whatever it is you talk about when it is just you and your father, and you are at the end of another long day. And then you round the bend in the road and start to walk uphill, the lights of home appearing out of the darkness, and you know there will be a hot shower and a home-cooked meal waiting for you, a meal put together, with love and home-grown ingredients, by your mother, the largely unseen and unsung hero of the piece, the person who kept the home front ticking over with such efficiency and independence that it was easy to take her for granted (which, of course, you did) even though, should you have chosen to think about it (which, of course, you didn't), you would have known damn well that you couldn't have managed without her.

Song of the day

"Dandelion", by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Let's face it, there is a small part of every last one of us that wants to be Marc Bolan. Beck is not an exception. On this song he takes the loping gait of the title track of his last album, "Modern Guilt", and ramps it up by way of some very T Rexian rhythm guitar, as a cushion atop which Charlotte Gainsbourg quietly lays down her very, very English singing voice. Mournful, but beautifully captured, string and horn sections stop things from getting too glam.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Song of the day

"I'm A Man", by 101 Strings.

Insane. Completely insane.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Song of the day

"Who Makes Your Money", by Spoon. I would trade anything -- either or both children, eye teeth, kidneys or other vital organs, memories of growing up on the farm (no, not those) -- for the part of this "song" (a word which, when it comes to Spoon, is used loosely) from 1:40 to two minutes, where they break everything down and then build it all up again to the point where it rejoins the song itself. It may not be quite as stunning as the moment in "I Feel Love" where that song takes off into the stratosphere, but it's pretty impressive. Man, Spoon are a quality unit.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Song of the day

"Snow Days", by Real Estate. To my ears, which may not be entirely honest or faithful, this song represents a kind of unexpected mid-point between David Kilgour and Fleet Foxes. The guitar has the same kind of crispness that you (or, at least, I) get when listening to Kilgour (think "BBC World") while the harmonies, while not being as exhilarating as those conjured by Fleet Foxes, are at the very least growing from the same root. The fact that the drums have been recorded from two rooms away using the crappiest microphones known to man, well, we remain to be convinced that this is due to financial necessity as opposed to affectation, but it doesn't in any way detract from the song.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Song of the day

"Keeper of the Flame", by Nina Simone. Did somebody say "Antony"? I always favoured the Bryan Ferry comparisons, myself, but this song is clearly, and indisputably, where the Antony-does-Nina story derives from. I'm not convinced anybody could tell the difference on a blind test. Having said that, this song is so emotionally raw that it almost hurts to listen; the instinct is to turn away, which is also something I get when listening to Antony's solo work (guilty secret: my favourite Antony is Disco Diva Antony, see for example "Blind", by Hercules & Love Affair). But how did he get in here, anyway? This is Nina Simone's song ...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Song of the day

"David Watts", by The Kinks. I am sorry to say that I have come rather late to the Kinks' late-sixties albums. And yet it seems like they have always been with me. Let me count the ways. "Days", by Elvis Costello. "Victoria", by The Fall. Ed Kuepper's take on "Last of the Steam Powered Trains". (Sorry about this one) "You Really Got Me", by Van Halen. And, it transpires, "David Watts", by The Jam. There was nothing about this song, as I have known and loved it for thirty years, that gave any indication it was anything other than a Paul Weller original. In its lyrics' theme and tone, and musically, it blended perfectly with what The Jam were all about. (Which, in many ways, was also what Ray Davies had been about -- a certain type of Englishness, which, being Australian, I am not qualified to dig into any more deeply.) The Jam were never really "punk" as much as they were, what, "British Invasion?", ten or a dozen years after the fact.

Hearing the originals of all of these songs after (in some cases long after) becoming attached to the versions listed above requires a bit of reverse engineering. But it is surely a testament to the quality of Ray Davies as a songwriter that each of them, with very little tweaking or manipulation, sounds just as comfortable in their old skins as in their new I'll shut up now ok thx bye.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Song of the day

"For Ex-Lovers Only", by Black Tambourine. Sure, in 2010 this sounds like it has been cut from a template. But didn't Black Tambourine invent the template? Oh, and since when can the word "twee" have anything to do with a sonic onslaught such as this?

(Watch it here.)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

We Were Wrong (a continuing series)

Nine years later, I have no recollection of what it was about The Strokes that rubbed me up the wrong way [not intended to be a reference to the front cover of "Is This It" - ed]. But rub they did. Perhaps it was something along the lines of what seems to piss countless people off about Vampire Weekend: a sense of calculated, studied "cool", of advantage being, well, taken advantage of. What they did was, they made it all look too damn easy.

I now turn slowly towards the camera, cap in hand, and announce that "Is This It" is, and always was, a remarkably tight little nugget of a rock album: concise, full of impeccable tunage, everything (another line I have used before) in its right place. Each song produces, even in the most jaded listener, a little adrenaline rush. Nobody should be entitled to ask for more than that.

What is hard to own up to is that the criticisms I aimed at "Is This It" all those years ago, particularly the line (which I also, and I am now seeing the error of my ways there too, used in relation to The xx's "xx") about if I wanted to listen to The Ramones / Television / sundry other rock bands from the golden age of downtown NYC I would listen to the originals rather than these young upstarts, well, those very criticisms were thrown back at me, if I cared to recognise and/or admit it, by my falling head over heels, barely two years later, for LCD Soundsystem, a band that, lets face it, were for the first part of their existence nothing more than the sum of James Murphy's record collection. It's not as if The Strokes' tastes were any worse, from my perspective, than Murphy's. It's not even as if Murphy's songs were particularly better (although a couple of the early 12s would wipe the pants off anything, anywhere, anytime).

The really funny thing, though, is that at least two of the songs on "Is This It" now reveal themselves as being templates for, or predictors of, or precursors to, LCD Soundsystem's song for the ages, "All My Friends" (something I probably wouldn't have noticed if not for my peremptory dismissal of The Strokes, which at least has allowed me to listen to "Is This It" with a fresh pair of (cloth) ears). And so we see, as we so often do, a wheel turning full circle, and proceeding to run over a blogger whose opinions, like those on The Daily Show, are "not fully thought through".

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Earworm of the day

"A Little Bit More", by Jamie Lidell. Honestly, listen to this three times in a row and I challenge you to chase the little bugger out of your head. You won't be able to. It's just like that tiny creature in "Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn".

How can you extract so much melody from just drums (probably electronic) and the human voice?