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January 6, 2002
Music and electricity
Pop quiz: from an artistic point of view, what was the major event of the twentieth century? The Beatles' first album? Star Wars? The Simpsons? The internet?
I think the answer is the technology behind all these things: electricity. Just consider what electricity meant to people who were creating novels, short stories, poems, cartoons, painting, sculpture, and basket weaving.
It meant that they could stay up past their normal bedtime. The arrival of electricity brought the end of gas lamps and candles. This was even bigger news for the theatrical world, as there was much less chance that the venue would burn down. That was the major change, though: ballets and plays didn't really change their subject matter, so the world is still waiting for Electricity! The Big Flashy Musical!
Electricity also enabled new art forms, such as film, computer games, screensavers that evolved in front of your eyes and, some would argue, television.
So electricity either gave rise to new art forms, or slightly modified the existing ones. But there was one exception to all this: music. Electricity changed music, and far more than it changed any other art form. Before microphones and amplification came along, music was either the orchestral variety (lots of instruments but no singing), or folk songs (not very many instruments, some singing.) If you wanted to sing, the loudest instrument you could have playing along with you was a piano. Anything louder than that and you wouldn't be heard.
Unless you were an opera singer. Opera was an art form that combined an orchestra with incredibly loud singing. The jury is still out, but I suspect that opera singers were applauded mainly for their volume. It's a rare ability to be heard over a wall of orchestral noise, and it's an ability which has happily became entirely redundant. Even now, after years of therapy, I'm still very cautious around opera singers. Recently, I met one socially, and immediately, instinctively, backed away.
Testing: one, two
But when electricity came along, it didn't take long for someone to put a microphone in front of a singer, and to pump up the volume. For the first time a singer could stand in front of an orchestra, and whisper. This turned out to be almost unimaginably sexy. Someone like Frank Sinatra could gently croon away, and have an almighty skyscraper of sound behind him, and still be heard. As they say in the South Park movie, this was coooool. Frank was coooool. Frank got famous. Very, very famous.
And it wasn't just singers who could reinvent what they were doing: guitarists did the same, and often on more powerful drugs. They discovered the sonic potential of feedback, a technique not available to singers, and then things just got ridiculous. By the time the Sixties had really got going guitarists had all kinds of new tools to play with: effect units and voice boxes and wah-wah pedals. (The wah-wah pedal alone has been called "the most significant invention since the wheel" - but not, sadly, by anyone sane.) All these different effects made the best guitarists the most expressive musicians that we'd ever had, and which might go some distance towards explaining the common London graffiti of "Clapton is God." So it wasn't just Frank Sinatra who got famous: Eric Clapton also got famous. Very, very famous.
And electricity also changed how music found its audience. It gave rise to recording studios, to radio stations, to the whole infrastructure by which music is made and recorded and broadcast around the world. A hundred years ago there were no DVDs, no CDs, no records. Music could be purchased only as sheets of paper.
Families would would gather around the piano and sing the new songs as well as they could. Around the turn of the 19th century music was very much a family based home entertainment, like knitting, playing card games, and yelling at each other. With the advent of electricity, and a couple of other things that I sneakily haven't mentioned, music eventually became what it is today: a vast, rich, famous industry. Very vast. Very rich. Very famous.
It's probably been a change for the better, but we may have missed something along the way. Harry Chapin once sang "remember when the music came in wooden boxes strung with silver wire?" He was evoking a time that had disappeared, a world that had been lost.
It's a time and place that I'm too young to have ever known, but the song still does something for me. And even now, in a world run by electricity, there are occasional power blackouts. And when the lights go out, I dream of a world in which Harry Chapin got a lot more famous than he ever did in this one, and I dream of wooden boxes, of silver wires ...
A later thought
If I keep discussing Frank Sinatra - which I may or may not do - I might change my title to "Sinatra for Unfinished Yelling."
January 25, 2002
The Interzone Pretensions
Listening to the new Tea Party record The Interzone Mantras and not enjoying it very much, apart from Angels, the second song. Jeff Martin's lyrics (as foreshadowed by the album title) are getting more and more pretentious. And lyrics aren't the Tea Party's strength, sadly. It's a pity, because they're otherwise an intriguing band.
Two years ago I went to see them play at the Palais Theatre in St. Kilda. At the time I didn't know anything about them, apart from having heard the magnificent Heaven Coming Down a few times on JJJ. I bought a ticket the day before the show, and by lucky accident got a seat in the second row.
They were phenomenal. They can really, really, really play. Jeff Martin is one of the best guitarists now around, and he was ably supported by Stuart Chatwood on keyboards, Jeff Burrows on drums, and the hardest-working roadie in show business. At the end of every song, this roadie would reappear with yet another new stringed instrument for Jeff, all of which were in unusual tunings. At one point the roadie came out carrying something that resembled a piece of loosely-wrapped space junk. It looked a bit like a sitar, if a sitar had strange antenna-like protusions on it, a remote control and a NASA sticker. Jeff put this weird contraption on his lap and said "I have no idea how to play this."
Towards the end of the set they played Sister Awake, and just for a few moments they did what Bob Dylan said a great song should do: they stopped time. Sister Awake segued into David Bowie's Heroes, and the results were just astonishing. If you've got a tape of this show, please get in touch.
January 31, 2002
Billy Bragg: Still Suitable for Miners
In retrospect, I'm not sure why I bothered reading this. Andrew Collins, the author, is mainly interested in charting developments in British socialism from the late 70s onwards. He doesn't seem to be particularly interested in any other topic, including (and perhaps especially) Billy Bragg's music. He's certainly a weird choice for writing a biography about a musician.
There is almost nothing here about what Billy goes through to write a song or record an album. They just suddenly appear, with Collins dutifully recording what chart position they got to. There are pages and pages and pages about Red Wedge - which is of zero interest to anyone outside England - and nothing about, say, the development of Bill's guitar playing or singing.
That, to me, seems a wasted opportunity, especially given how good a songwriter Billy is. This is the guy who gave the world "Levi Stubbs' Tears," one of the greatest songs ever written. Collins calls it a "wonderfully sad song," which is about the only musical discussion in the book. The only other thing he can tell you is when it was released as a single and what chart position it got to. He misses the point, repeatedly, and at great length.
Collins also has a very noisy writing style. In addition to being earnestly politically correct, he's constantly quoting bits and pieces of popular songs. Initially this seemed cute, but he does it so much that it rapidly becomes infantile. Collins tries very, very hard to show off how much he knows and how many songs he's heard. My interest in this started out low and soon dropped to zero. I just wanted him to tell me, in a calm, interesting way, about Billy Bragg.
So the most engaging parts of the book were about those parts of Billy's life I knew nothing of: having his father die when he was still a teenager, going off to live in a sleepy country town with his first band during the heyday of punk, how being in the army changed him. But these sections were over way too soon and then it was back to the history of British politics from 1977 to the present, with a particular focus on Thatcher, Kinnock, Blair and Billy Bragg. There's so much of this that Collins just runs out of room. As a result he only devotes a measly six pages to the Mermaid Avenue album. He then finishes on an embarrassingly hagiographic tone, with several pages of quotes about what a great bloke Billy is. This entire section is unnecessary.
Not highly recommended. Better to listen to the songs, or to see Billy playing live.
February 1, 2002
Playing "Air Fluegelhorn" at AC/DC concerts
Isn't recommended. Neither is arriving at the show on a jet ski, wearing an opera cape. Leave high-falutin' literature at home. If you own an expensive car, don't drive it there. Don't take your poodle. Don't speak in a French accent, wear a beret, or move like Marcel Marceau. And, just to be on the safe side, don't go.
April 3, 2002
Steve Earle with a heavy pile of New Yorkers
Yesterday I went to my father's place in Mosman and was given a pile of 28 New Yorker magazines. I then walked down the hill to Mosman Wharf with them, and started to notice just how heavy 28 New Yorkers actually are. I then walked from Circular Quay to the Powerhouse Museum, which is a reasonable walk at the best of times, but far more demanding with that kind of intellectual baggage.
Spent a bit of time looking at the exhibition to mark 50 years of Festival Records. The most interesting part of it was a small collection of song lyrics, which were the first drafts of songs by people like Tim Rogers, Paul Kelly and John Williamson.
The two most distinctive ones were by Richard Clapton and Nick Cave. Clapton had handwritten the words to "Goodbye Tiger" on hotel stationery, and I was duly impressed that the hotel was in Paris. Cave's lyric sheet for "The Mercy Seat" was a collage. He'd cut various pieces of typewritten lyrics out and stuck them on to a new piece of paper, and then handwritten more lyrics in the empty spaces. He'd also then made marginal notes about what words should go in which verse, and in what order the verses should go. The end result was a very untidy sheet of paper, and a great song.
After the marathon walk with all the New Yorkers, I got to the Metro Theatre as early as I could to find somewhere to sit down. After an opening set by Tim Rogers, Steve Earle opened with a hilarious song-and-spoken-word piece about being a "recovering folk singer," which then went on to explain the rules of folk music. (Steve's not a great one for rules.)
When he talked he was instantly compelling and hilarious. Over the course of the evening, he didn't do enough talking for my liking, but he did eventually say something about growing up in Texas and his early days of hitch-hiking and playing in cafes and coffee bars. (Nothing about his time in prison, though.)
But after the great start, for instance, he then didn't say another word for what seemed like a very long time. He just played song after song after song, pausing only very briefly to change harmonicas and drink something. This approach worked better when there was a definite shift of mood between songs, but there wasn't a huge amount of that.
Still, along the way he played all the stuff that I really wanted to hear: "Billy Austin," "Ellis Unit One," even "Transcendental Blues." And he played everything that he'd ever had a hit or a near-hit with: "Copperhead Road," "Guitar Town," "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" and "Fort Worth Blues." He's a great songwriter; the audience loved him, and it was a pleasure to watch him play.
The Lion Princess reveals a history of body building. She also likes The Cure. Is there a connection here?
And how would she go at carrying 28 New Yorkers on a long walk all over Sydney?
And does she have a notebook protector?
April 9, 2002
Steve Earle: The Art of Song
I've spent a lot of time since getting back listening to Steve Earle. Steve's a guy with a lot of blues. But the thing is: he's at his best when he's got them. He's astoundingly articulate and expressive when he's singing something that ends up with the word "blues" in the chorus. And there's a lot of those: Transcendental Blues, My Old Friend The Blues, Continental Trailways Blues, Hometown Blues, Ft. Worth Blues and, in the singular form, Even When I'm Blue. Steve has had a rich and varied life: he's travelled the world, and seems to have had the blues everywhere he's been.
The other day someone on JJJ talked about seeing Tim Rogers supporting Steve Earle. The guy was bemused by the fact that Tim Rogers sang songs about musical renegades in Australia, which the Australian audience didn't seem hugely interested in. But then Steve Earle came on and sang songs about renegades in Texas, and the audience went berserk. The JJJ guy was perplexed by this, and said that "you'd think an Australian audience would want to hear songs about them."
Well, I think Australian audiences do want to hear songs about them, but Steve Earle did a far better job of that than Tim Rogers did, and he did so without ever mentioning Australia. Tim's going in the right direction, I think, but on the evidence of the show I saw last week, he's still got a long way to go. What I liked about him was what he said between songs: he came across as intelligent and articulate and interesting. Those qualities were in his songs, but only occasionally, and the rest was a lot of padding and waffle and repetition.
Meaningless repetition, in particular, sinks a song, and after Tim had played half a dozen songs, I started counting the meaningless repeats. I was doing that because he'd failed to emotionally involve me. If there were stories in his songs, or points of view, or characters I could care about, I couldn't find them. In their absence, I lost interest. The only thing to do then was count the meaningless repeats, which is the last refuge of the bored audience member.
Steve Earle's stuff is emotionally involving. That's why the audience responded to him so much more. None of his songs were explicitly about Australia, but every Australian in the room could relate to them. One of his songs starts with this:
My name is Billy Austin
So. From a listener's perspective, something magical has happened. Within a few lines, Steve Earle has disappeared. In his place is a character: Billy Austin.
As the song progresses, Billy tells us his life story. It starts from poor, uncertain beginnings, and ends on Death Row. We hear him calmly describe how and why he killed a shop attendant, and what the court appointed lawyer did when the judge sentences him to die, and why his case didn't even make the papers. ("I only killed one man.") And towards the end of the song, as Billy sits on Death Row, waiting to be executed, he says this to the judge:
There's twenty seven men here
And last Tuesday night at the Metro Theatre, these lines got a spontaneous round of applause. That's emotional involvement right there.
Willy Russell once said that if you write well enough about a place, people in other places will be able to respond to what you're doing. And it's the same with emotions, and emotional states. Billy Austin's life story has nothing in common with mine, but Steve Earle tells it so well that I can relate to it, and imagine myself in Billy's place, and feel what he's going through.
As far as magical happenings go, that's one of the best around.
December 11, 2002
Wangaratta, where there is no statue of Nick Cave
But I couldn't remember which country town that was. It was either Warracknabeal or Wangaratta, and as I happened to be in Wangaratta, I thought I'd make some enquiries. I asked at the library, at the tourist information bureau, at several shops. Eventually I resorted to accosting random strangers on the street. I asked the same question over and over: "is there a statue of Nick Cave here?"
Everyone in Wangaratta gave me exactly the same answer: "who's Nick Cave?"
To be honest, this wasn't the answer I was expecting. And it's certainly not the answer I got when I was in Berlin. A few years ago, while walking around that astonishing city, I stumbled across an artists' warehouse, which was filled to the rafters with works for sale. The artists themselves were on the premises, at work and ignoring the customers. It made for a great atmosphere: you could walk around for hours totally undisturbed by insistent sales people. The single most striking thing in this densely packed room was an enormous painting of Nick Cave. It was in the most visible place in the room, and nothing else there was as good. And it wasn't for sale: the artists were keeping it for themselves.
It's an image that's haunted me ever since. My first reaction was: "this guy's from Wangaratta, or maybe from Warracknabeal. And now he's an icon in Berlin." And I stood and looked at it some more, and thought about how far Nick Cave had come, and in every sense.
Last year he released his tenth solo album. The last song on it is "Darker With The Day." It's one of the greatest songs ever written. Not long after I first heard it I went back and listened to everything else he'd ever done. I wanted to know how he'd got to that song, what direction he'd arrived from, and what price he'd paid to get there. It starts with these lines:
As so with that, I thought I'd take a final walk
The music which accompanies these words is magnificently appropriate. It's a soft, slow ballad, played on a tinkering piano, and shot through with echoes and shadows and ghosts. It's the kind of song that captures a point of view, a lifetime, a world.
The man who wrote it grew up in Wangaratta, and they've completely forgotten him.
So here's a suggestion for Wangaratta: commission a statue of your own. Get a local artist to do it, and put the result where people will see it. At the bottom put a plaque, and write something like this on it:
Nick Cave, born 1957. Lived in Wangaratta as a boy. Wrote "Where The Wild Roses Grow," "The Ship Song," and many other brilliant songs, but not here.
And then watch as a trickle of people start coming. Tourists, of a kind, in search of something. Once they start coming, they'll keep coming. Long after we're all dead, they'll still keep coming.
Many will be from cold European countries, wearing black, squinting and blinking in the light, staring in disbelief at the barren landscape, stunned by the heat. When they arrive, they'll be shocked. They'll look around and recognise nothing, for nothing of this town is in the songs. And they'll ask themselves: how could the man who wrote them have started here?
And then another kind of understanding will arrive, and they'll smile. In a perverse kind of way, they'll be glad they came. And then, in homage to their idol, they'll do what he did. They'll leave Wangaratta. And almost certainly, they'll never return.
These streets are frozen now. I come and go
December 19, 2002
Bob Dylan $57m richer after selling muse on eBay
Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan is believed to have retired from songwriting, it was revealed today. The 61 year old musician, composer of more than a thousand songs, has auctioned off his muse.
The mood in Dylan chat rooms was dejected. Most interpreted the news as "no more songs from Dylan." Others chose to see it as "no more good songs from Dylan," and likened the situation to his poor form in the eighties.
Dylan's muse was Calliope, the mother of Orpheus. She first sprang to public notice more than three thousand years ago when she inspired Homer, then a young, unknown poet. Their relationship lasted twenty years, and during their time together he wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both are still in print.
After Homer died she moved on, and is believed to have worked with Shakespeare, Dante, Blake, and many other famous names.
Calliope first met Dylan in 1961 at the Brooklyn State Hospital, where she was tending the dying Woody Guthrie. A starry-eyed Dylan arrived to see his folksinging hero, but soon turned his attention to her. Within a year she'd moved in with Dylan, who then started writing the songs that made him famous: "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A Changin'."
Forty years later, for reasons that are still unclear, Dylan ended the relationship and contacted eBay.
"Our rules expressly forbid the sale or purchase of live humans," an official reported. "But Calliope has been around for such a long time that we doubt she is human. At any rate, she can certainly look after herself, and we were led to believe that the online auction was her idea. We looked at it as a test case."
After three weeks of intense bidding, Calliope was sold for $57m. The sale made eBay history, easily outstripping the previous high of $5m paid for a corporate jet.
Both eBay and Dylan have refused to reveal the identity of the buyer, but keen speculation has already begun.
March 28, 2003
Elvenhaven: hospital for the comfortably earnest
I had a vague idea that the Port Fairy Folk Festival attracts something like 40,000 people. What I didn't know is that 39,000 of them would be staying in the same campground as Razza, Mayhem and myself. We arrived on Friday evening in the gathering darkness, pushed the Phafflebus into a suitable spot, and started to wonder why we'd come.
The first warning sign was the festival's audience, which was overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly heterosexual. Everyone seemed to be either twenty or thirty years older than me, or twenty or thirty years younger. The first group could be found in the tents, listening to the music, and the second group ignored the music completely and spent the weekend aimlessly walking around the town.
There was also a third group, much smaller in number, who stationed themselves at various points on the main street. These were young children who spent the weekend busking, and who appeared to be either violin playing girls or guitar playing boys. The key difference was that the girls were constantly playing music, and the boys were constantly arguing with each other. One anarchist collective of 9 year old boys arrived around 10am, equipped with guitars and attitude, and argued until about 6pm. In eight hours they didn't get it together to play even one song. The girls, meanwhile, played constantly until mid-afternoon, counted up the money they'd made, and went home happy.
The second warning sign was the wristband situation. The festival is so well established that everything that can be streamlined has been streamlined. You never have to deal with the people who run the campground, for instance. When you buy your tickets you also buy an optional camping pass, which is a blue wristband. When you exchange your ticket to the festival you're given a red wristband. Both snap into place with a dreadful finality, and both make you feel like you're in a hospital for the comfortably earnest.
What really brings that feeling home is the music itself. In the main festival area I randomly picked one of five tents and walked in. The person on stage was tuning up, so I waited for a bit while he got ready to start. Eventually he started playing a song, but, to my dismay, it turned out to be some kind of folk music.
"Never mind," I thought, and walked over to another tent. Luckily, I got there just in time to see someone else tune up. Not so luckily, they also played folk music. Within a few minutes I established a routine that would last for the next few days, of walking, tuning up, and despair. I got plenty of exercise.
In the course of the weekend I witnessed exactly one person who was obviously very excited. And folk music played no part. She was in the campground, carrying a towel, and running happily towards the showers. "What's up?" I asked, and got the answer of "there's no queue!"
Pleasant enjoyment is certainly possible at Port Fairy; rampant excitement is much rarer. So many of the musicians were shockingly complacent. They were arrogant and patronising and unwilling or unable to entertain an audience. For so many of them, Bob Dylan never happened.
I was particularly horrified by a band called The Pompous Traditionalists. When I walked in all seven of them were onstage, and they were making a cacophonous brew of audible evil. They were tuning up. All seven seemed to do this independently, with no regard for each other, and after several minutes of pain they suddenly launched into a dreadful piece of whiny folk music. This was my cue to leave, but just as I was doing so they stopped playing. The lead singer announced that all the noise they'd produced so far was just their sound check, and they'd be back in a few minutes to start the show. All of them then left the stage.
This all added up to an attitude of "we're here to waste your time." More to the point, they were also guilty of an even more serious crime: one of their members was a bearded violinist wearing a cowboy hat.
A word of advice to any bearded, cowboy-hatted violinists who might be reading: please give up your musical ambitions right now. You would serve society better by using your instrument as firewood and your hat as an oven mitt.
In 1965 Bob Dylan was booed at the Newport Folk Festival for playing an electric guitar in front of a rock band. Thirty eight years later, I booed The Pompous Traditionalists for not having an electric guitar, for not bothering to entertain, for assuming that what they were doing was important and relevant and interesting. Of course, in the interests of maintaining the festival's peaceful, relaxed vibe, I booed very, very quietly.
The all important issue of chair height
In the program were letters the Festival had received over the last year. One of them said something like "chair height continues to be an issue." This seemed to be some new meaning of "issue" I'd never come across before. When Port Fairy first got going, no one brought much in the way of equipment, so the mainly bearded crowd of jubilant hippies spent the weekend sitting on the grass.
Over time, the hippies got older, and lost interest in a close physical relationship with Mother Earth. One of them brought a specially designed chair which raised the posterior off the grass by three or four inches. The idea was successful, and a year or two later, everyone had a Very Low Chair, which meant that no one had their view of the stage impeded and everyone was happy.
Then a note of dissent entered the magic kingdom. Several people, perhaps of dubious right wing political tendencies, arrived with Chairs Of Medium Height. These chairs were still below the level of normal chairs, but were high enough to block the view of the patrons sitting on Very Low Chairs behind them. People were shocked. It was a devastating development. After two decades of dewy-eyed fantasy land, the real world had arrived in Elvenhaven.
The end result was a series of exceptionally stern looks. These were perpetrated by the Very Low Chair people, who occupied the high moral ground from a very modest height above it.
Personally, I couldn't understand what the fuss was about. It was, after all, only folk music. In many ways it's better not to be able to see the stage, especially if it's being occupied by a bearded violinist in a cowboy hat.
So I spent the weekend wandering from tent to tent, watching musicians tuning up and elderly people stare sternly at other elderly people who were sitting in slightly higher chairs. It was an interesting experience, but then I wanted to go home.
Razza and Mayhem were feeling the same way, so we pushed the Phafflebus out of the campground, sliced off our wristbands, and started the long journey back to Melbourne. It was late in the afternoon, and we passed a few buskers on the way. All of them were boys, and they were still deeply locked in an argument that didn't matter. Perhaps in another ten or twenty years they'll be running the festival.
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