Thursday, November 29, 2007

Richard Clapton Live

Richard Clapton
Country Club Resort,
Launceston, 2006

It’s a sit down show. “I just called to say I love you” is sprinkled from the ceiling tannoy like numbing confetti. Patrons at the door joke about Englebert Humperdinck making an appearance. But club schmaltz and mid-life ironies do not negate an excitement in the room. For two hundred people, a full house, something important is about to go down.

Richard Clapton walks on stage, backed by a young acoustic guitarist called Danny Spencer. The singer is wearing the same impenetrable penny-eyed sunglasses he seems to have had on his face for four decades. Black t-shirt, jeans, barrel-chested, bit of a belly, but almost like his old self.

“Janie see how good the sky looks today…” and he’s off, singing ‘Blue Bay Blues’, his classic ode to Byron Bay and a hippie love affair that floats on sunny air. Now, as then, it has the echo of time passing to it, a feeling temporary and beautiful at once. Time has enlarged this sweet-sad feeling, especially for those who first heard the song back in 1975 - and no doubt for Clapton too. Oh god, I feel like I might cry as he sings it. What is this feeling about? Reliving the past? Or is the past still alive in me now? The song tastes like salt, it’s that strong and most everyone here seems swept away.

By the time Clapton and Spencer are doing ‘Get Back to the Shelter’ something great is occurring. It’s to do with Clapton’s songs, the way he was our most articulate poet of Australian coastal life throughout the 1970s. He’s bringing it back to life, making the present dissolve and an era appear.

Then things begin to change. The rest of Clapton’s group joins him for ‘Capricorn Dancer’, and the Spencer’s acoustic nuances are forsaken for a less spacious sound. Clapton’s self effacing personality, his between song jests with the boys in the band, the mock jive poses and vocal affectations - burbling scats, off mike shouts - all take on an accumulated weight. After a while it feels as if Clapton is lost somewhere just outside of his own songs; that his moments of greatness are a mystery he can’t get back to except in glimpses.

The band comes alive for a new song called ‘Liberty Bell’, dedicated to “evil King John Howard”. Clapton is generous with the young players behind him, letting them loose, but from the title itself to the generalised working man lyrics and the steady chug of the melody, a faceless American FM rock competence is mostly what you get. An older song like ‘Ace of Hearts’ and the more recent ‘Diamond Mine’ show what a naturally wonderful voice Clapton has for soul funk – for the deep notes and cat-like cries that once used to see him match it with the likes of Renee Geyer on stage. But they also reveal what a dead end this has been for his talents an Australian balladeer, for sustaining a voice rooted in a sense of time and place he could call his own.

‘Deep Water’ and ‘Down in the Lucky Country’ seem to return an authority to the performance, but the playing is rushed and heavy handed. More critically Clapton himself undercuts things through an inability to keep faith with the high drama of the songs as they were originally expressed. It’s as if we’ve been banished to perusing some musical photo-album of how we used to be with Clapton, laughing at the way we danced, what we wore, what we believed in and did.

‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ restores the show to something truly special just when it all seems lost, accentuating a riff of sadness throughout the room and Clapton’s own divided performance as he calls and cries “don’t waste time, these are the best years of our lives, oh don’t waste time…” We all sing along in a hush-a-bye way.

The show ends after what feels like a strangely perfunctory one hour set, before Clapton returns for ‘Girls on the Avenue’ and ‘Goodbye Tiger’, both delivered with the same contrary blend of immersion and inability to give what’s ultimately required. He takes the latter song out on a devotional vocal spiral that invokes the prayerful intensities of Van Morrison - but Clapton never goes all the way, descending into scat mimicry rather than ecstasy, muttering something about life being “as mean as shit” and blessing us with a wish to “take good care of ourselves.”

A few slugs straight from a bottle of vodka during these final songs is less like the act of a rock ‘n’ roll wild man than someone drinking a cup of tea - the difference, you feel, between abandonment and resignation. Of course it’s no surprise Clapton finds it so hard to enter the mystery of his greatest songs some thirty years on - and yet their greatness still shines in spite of him, and sometimes because of him too. You can’t help but want him try harder, to believe in who he was. To not waste this time.

- Mark Mordue

* Performance took place some time in 2006. Review never published. Above image of Clapton from a Festival Records photo shoot in 1973.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Black Water Blues

The great Australian journey is almost always characterised by a trip inland. But what about the call of the coast in shaping our national identity? MARK MORDUE speaks to an artist, a musician, a filmmaker and a poet about our Pacific dreaming and how it connects us.

Whenever we talk about discovering Australia the big stories are almost always about heading inland to find something authentic, even spiritual. For some reason the coast gets left behind in any serious discussion of our national identity, and with it one of our most powerful and common experiences, a trek along the Pacific Highway.

There’s a suggestion in all this that there’s something inferior about the coast and what it means to us. That as the central character in Patrick White’s magisterial novel Voss (based on the nineteenth century German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt) says, “It’s a pity you huddle.” Explorers and missionaries, bushrangers and pioneers, these were the people who paved the way for us, ideologically as much as literally. These were also the people who created the mythology of our nation, its journey into being - and their life stories usually determine how we relate to the landscape and how we define what might be called ‘Australianness’. Our artists, musicians, filmmakers and poets often beat a similar path into the dust today.

The painter Ian Smith takes a very different tack. “Highway One is becoming my subject,” he says. “And the scenes from that road are my landscape. But I’m not like a farmer who sits and knows the landscape he’s in, I’m more a passing-by character. And the road is my moving standpoint. I’m an artist of people in landscape - where the towns breakdown into the landscape really. It’s a shantytown thing I guess.

“I’m not looking at a desert obviously. It’s something closer to home,” he says. “Painting those things people think they know – an empty billboard, that bend in the road – and finding something strange or magical in that banal world. I’ve always thought common experiences have a lot of grandeur about them; the things people see every day. People have always felt the mythology of the outback and the bush, but they still think they don’t need it in their own backyard or street corner.”

Smith says that when “I’m on Highway One I follow the same path and yet I always find something new. But it’s not just a matter of finding something new; it’s about knowing something better. So I don’t see the road as a journey into the continent, I see it as something that runs along the edge. Highway One connects a lot of people who are where they’re at rather than people who are starting off and going somewhere. I like that. They’re mostly not making journeys to unfamiliar places. When you drive up and down that highway you know you aren’t in that voyager-explorer thing. You’re revisiting the known and building on it somehow. And there’s a growth in that. I guess I’m just saying some people find something new, others find something better.”

Certainly the coast roads have their own energy, their own special place in our make-up, an odd mix of the hedonistic and the regretful as much as the more obviously secure, familiar or settled. Classic Australian bands like Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil, INXS and The Cruel Sea have all made their mark touring the coast roads and building up support among the communities beaded along them. For someone so increasingly countrified and parched in his own musical interests, former Cold Chisel songwriter and solo musician Don Walker still professes a fascination for what he describes as a Pacific sound, “something that connects Chet Baker, Jane’s Addiction, The Doors, Dragon… there’s a real similarity there, this demonic, exotic sea children vibe that I like in all of them.”

This liberty – and the libertine streak that underwrites it – is easily left behind in our youth, much as it might be intrinsic to what could be called our spiritual physique on the coast. Perhaps it fits our ‘nature’ as a young western democracy trying to grow up that this coastal vitality should keep calling to us in its coarsely material and hedonistic as well as naturally beautiful way. For all our aspirations to maturity and seriousness as a culture, there’s always a highly physical pleasure principle at work that we both relish and somehow seek to rise above (if only to find we have lost something along the way).

It’s something of a curiousity that on Sydney’s north shore people still have ritual parties based around Richard Clapton’s Goodbye Tiger to recall the experiences of growing up and partying by the coast in the 70s, singing along, only half-obliviously, to songs of loss like ‘Deep Water’: “Sitting out on the Palm Beach Road, I’m so drunk and the car wont go. And my crazy eyes keep looking out to sea. The Sunday drivers are cruising around. I wish they’d all go back to town. What do they expect to find? Sure as hell ain’t peace of mind…”

The world renowned surf filmmaker Albert Falzon, whose Morning of the Earth revolutionized the local cinema scene when it first emerged here in 1972, says ideals about the coast roads were crucial to the feel of his groundbreaking documentary and the counter-cultural spirit of the time. “Surfers are great explorers, it’s part of the whole culture they’re a part of,” he says. “That feeling that just over the hill is a perfect wave. It’s almost a mystical thing - that search mentality inside them. When we made Morning of the Earth we took the journey from the north coast of New South Wales all the way up into Bali, which no one had ever heard [back] then. It was a very heightened experience for everybody and it opened the road to Asia for surfers and then for the tourists that followed. Whether that was good or bad in the longer run, I don’t know.”

“Unfortunately surfing is so commercialized now. It’s also much easier to get from point A to point B; everything is so accessible,” Falzon says regretfully. “I think the road these days is like the mall for kids. They’re just saturated by the commercial side of surfing; it’s ingrained. So the road is the newsagents, video games, surfing stores. Not the real experience of pulling in to a beach and sleeping in your car. Twenty years ago when surfers went to these locations up and down the coast, a lot of them never went back on the road. They just said this suits me and put their rucksack down and never left. You drive from Sydney to Byron, turn off anywhere, and you will still find these beautiful little fishing villages, these great beaches. It’s still only a step away.

“The funny thing is I’m still on the road. It’s just that it’s a small triangle of driving ten minutes every day. There are about half a dozen other local cars that I pass when I head off to the coast from my little farm in the morning, and every one of the drivers knows me, and waves when I pass. I can still pull up to a beach with no houses. I actually follow a little dirt road that runs along the coast for about 10 kilometres that takes in about six beaches, all absolutely pristine. Maybe I meditate on the beach. Maybe I just stop to look at the empty horizon.

“When you jump off the land and paddle into the water – whether you recognize it or not – you’re letting go, you’re no longer attached to land. It’s subconscious. Maybe this letting go flows into the lifestyle of surfers. There’s more trappings now but it’s still there I think. Back when I made Morning of the Earth it was just easier to get to. You know, I was born in Redfern. I had no desire to see the world. It wasn’t till I started surfing and let go of the land that I got ‘on the road’ in every sense - and when that happened the world was my oyster.”

The poet Robert Adamson is a coastal creature of another kind. He tells me he first took to the road with his girlfriend when he was 17, travelling up the coast in a 1948 Ford Mercury. “We shot through to Queensland with child welfare in pursuit. She was under-age at the time, just under 16. She didn’t look it though. She looked older than me. We lived in that car for about six weeks. I ended up getting arrested for carnal knowledge. When I tell that story I always forget to say how old I was. I’m 58 now. People say why did you go to prison Bob? And I say carnal knowledge and they look at me funny.”

“When I was taken to court the judge said I wasn’t showing enough regret for what I had done. I said why would I your honour, I’m in love with her. But this is a carnal knowledge charge he said. I said its knowledge, but there’s nothing carnal about it. He said one more thing out of you and I will have you in contempt! I said haven’t you ever been in love your honour? And that was it. They took me away,” he laughs.

“I used to be really embarrassed about my past you know. All the artists I knew were university educated or art school trained. They were successful from school on. They hadn’t fucked up their lives like me. The first time I left home was when I was 14. I just lived on the road. It was always like that for me. Cars became my version of a house. That’s why I always had an extravagant car. In the ’70s when cars were seen as a symbol of capitalism and American materialism, I had this big Ford Mustang. I was really proud of it too. A uni friend said, ‘I didn’t realize you were a bogan at heart Bob’. I said, ‘What’s wrong with that?’

“To be honest, before I became a poet, I wanted to be an ornithologist. When I discovered I couldn’t do that, I wanted to be a racing car driver. David Malouf tells this great story about me driving him across the Harbour Bridge. He always says I almost killed him. I was just showing him how fast the car could go! I had Bob Dylan on the stereo and Malouf beside me looking calm, I thought. I didn’t know he was terrified.”

“That whole open road myth really helped launch me. I live by the Hawkesbury now and have my own boat and do a lot of fishing, but the river and the open road are similar things to me. Go out on the Hawkesbury River at night and it’s just a big winding road when you are on it. I called my last book of poetry Black Water because of that. It’s just like this big, curvy highway heading out into the abyss, the Pacific.”

- Mark Mordue

* Story unpublished. Love this piece but never been able to get anyone to run with it. It's a couple of years old now but still hasn't dated at all in my opinion.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Cormac McCarthy
Picador, 226pp. $32.95.

Sons and fathers are central to Cormac McCarthy’s novels. So much so you could say most of his books are about what means to be a man - and if in becoming a man tenderness can survive? That theme and the power of death loom through his work, great, churning, masculine universes overflowing with Old Testament savagery and a primal mysticism indebted to the blood-drenched history of the American West.

To live in Cormac McCarthy’s world is to certainly know death in all its manifestations: from nature and wolves to man-made acts of evil or necessity, when good men do bad things to survive. Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985) was high noon for this. A psychotic dream across the page, Sam Peckinpah meets William Faulkner, its writing felt more like lava than language.

The literary critic Harold Bloom acclaimed McCarthy on its release as one of America’s four most important living writers alongside Don DeLillo, Phillip Roth and Thomas Pynchon. But it wasn’t till All the Pretty Horses (1992) he reached the best-seller lists. Devotees turned away, calling it too sentimental. Last year’s No Country For Old Men (2005), a genre thriller set, unusually for him, in the present, was similarly canned as McCarthy-Lite. It too became a best seller and was optioned for film rights by the Coen Brothers.

Given how foreboding McCarthy is, even his supposedly lightweight stuff is tough enough to wind most readers badly. No Country for Old Men, the tale of a drug deal gone wrong, just moved at a faster, leaner clip than his older books, turning McCarthy’s war horse into a hot rod. It nonetheless added to malcontent amongst hard core fans who felt the old man was going soft, crowd pleasing, cleaning up his grim act for the popcorn theatres.

McCarthy’s delivery of The Road barely one year later puts paid to that idea in spades as he unloads the tale of a man and his son stumbling through a post-apocalyptic landscape that might once have been America: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.”

Soon after a woman gives birth to a son before she goes blind from radioactive poisoning and walks off to commit suicide. These events and others are glimpsed in truncated flashbacks, startling images that play on the mind. The father, later unable to sleep, lies “awake in the dark with the uncanny taste of peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mind.” Most of The Road is his story. An end-of-the-world misery causes him to reflect “each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins.”

We follow father and son as they travel toward the coast, fleeing the onset of winter. They move by foot, pushing a cart, scavenging through empty houses and destroyed cities, eluding gangs reduced to cannibalism and sub-human madness. Everywhere is burnt and grey, marked with ash. “The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.”

Neither the man nor the boy is given a name. But the fretful tenderness and constant fear gives animal urgency to their long march. It is soon established what the father must do if they are in danger of being captured. “He watched the boy sleeping. Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?”

McCarthy cultivates a chill in you with those words, and with it an echo of Abraham’s plight in the Bible when God demanded his son as a sacrifice. In this world, of course, there is no God, but for McCarthy, and his authorial eye holds little joy for where we are headed as a species. Ten pages into this book I was depressed, even troubled by its tone. But there’s a momentum that pulls you on nonetheless, a momentum that might partly be identified as hope.

Structurally McCarthy also maintains the pace by keeping each scene barely more than a paragraph long. This accentuates The Road’s impressionistic power, adding to its rhythm, as if the book were not composed of sections but stanzas in a poem, the metaphysical footsteps of his characters, beat by beat in a terrible dream.

Every time father or son moves more than a few feet away from each other, a panic intrudes as you read. It is the tense chord of the lost child suspended in your heart, the worst thing about to happen, and McCarthy strums it again and again. Few will read The Road without running to their own children and holding them close. Few will read it without a worry for the world they inherit. In this book it’s a fate worse than death. “Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being in you of which you know nothing? Can there be? Hold him in your arms. Just so. The soul is quick. Pull him towards you. Kiss him. Quickly.”

Amid all this the boy and his father attempt to survive, and more than that hang on to their humanity. Lost and starving, the father promises they will never revert to cannibalism, to what the others are like. “We’re the good guys,” he says repeatedly. Though we’ve already seen the father’s protective ruthlessness in action all the while the boy serves as his conscience, a feeble shaft of light in all the ash and blackness. The father likewise preserves something in the boy and that emerges to be nothing less than love. If you can hold back the tears when that revelation comes you will be made of stern stuff indeed.

Touted as something of a post-September 11 novel by the publisher, The Road actually harks as much to the disturbing imagery of the 1991 Basra road massacre in the First Gulf War and more recent Iraqi traumas. In The Road the father and son pass by refugees slaughtered by some form of explosion, “Figures half mired in the black top, clutching themselves, mouths howling.” Another scene echoes the Buddhist monks who set fire to themselves in protest at the Vietnam War. Another, when McCarthy teeters on the edge of self-parody, seems part Mad Max meets the Civil War. The point is McCarthy has studied the imagery of American violence and put his best efforts to evoking its horrors at home in his spare and disturbing prose.

Looking back to No Country For Old Man you can see how McCarthy’s experiment with a stripped down, script-like approach has taken him on into this prayerful minimalism now, paring his language down and scene construction down to essences in The Road. Something of Samuel Beckett emerges in this. Beneath that are all the old archetypal figures that work on McCarthy’s fiction, the ever-present shadow of Faulkner, the remnant American machismo and alcoholic scents of rage that have marked his novels as kin to the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and, a little more laterally if you appreciate the poetry and surreal energy in his language, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson respectively.

McCarthy, now 73, has a seven year old son of his own. It’s possible to read The Road as a love letter to his child, a dark adieu. I’m not sure of the conclusion, its sudden irradiating burst into faith and colour, which comes too quickly and briefly to satisfy. But perhaps that is a truth of its own. “He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.”

- Mark Mordue

* First published in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books pages on Saturday, October 7th, 2006.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Alive in the City of Sound: A Night with the Dirty Three

Sometimes I could just run into a river and drown. That's what I'm thinking about mid-way into the set tonight when some electrical thing passes over me and this other realization comes that sound is the city's river and we're here in it already, in the river of a music coming right out of our landscape, and when I think that I see that I felt this from the start, in the anticipatory pulse of the crowd as a prerecording of Television's Marquee Moon rained heavy guitar 'hesitating' right over us and how all of a sudden the Dirty Three were on stage together as one unit, no stars, no order to their procession, Warren Ellis taking too long to untangle the lead to his electric violin as if he could be patient and a bit of a kook because of what he knew would come, oh the confidence to be stupid!, while Jim White smiled and waited behind the low drums and guitarist Mick Turner stood moochily in his jeans and black t-shirt which I think are his only clothes and probably his pyjamas as well, does Mick Turner have other clothes? I wonder, then 1000 Fucking Miles bursts and Ellis thrashes his coat off and stretches out his arms, flamenco Jesus style, lots of happy hecklers requesting all these songs, so many demands, a shouting rabble, who knows what they're fucking saying, so Ellis says "yeah they're all good ones" and everybody laughs, then he gets into a rave about playing "a country alternative rock number NOT" and it starts and the amplifiers and floodlight-stands cast singular shadows backward like lonely buildings which makes me think of New York and September 11 and the way the band are in this dream city on stage, beautiful planes of colour (blue, red, manganese) burning behind them, sometimes heating up, intensifying and cooling down with their music, till Jim White's drums sound like feedback and Mick Turner's guitar is a violin riff and Warren Ellis' violin is being played like a guitar and you're not sure what's coming from who anymore as they melt together till there's another Ellis joke-story about some girl ringing him up to let him know the Dirty Three are part of a movement called post-rock to which he says "What?" so she tells him about "all these bands named after animals and cars" he shrugs, ah its time to get down to earth and play This Some Summer They're Dropping Like Flies when I get a sad flicker on me and think about a guy I spoke to on a phone once who got killed a few hours later that same day, hit by a bus while he was riding home on his pushbike, and the stuff he said to me about his wife and kid, mild, sweet, ordinary stuff, wiped out forever, he was no one to me, a phone voice, so the memory goes and the music gets center of my head again, really pulsing now, which makes me think about the differences between the words 'danger' and 'thrill' and all these river thoughts that started this 'review' are coming now but the band stops and the song is over and Jim White looks like he's lost a drumstick or himself and even as they begin again he's still looking for something under his kit and it's the song Hope and the colour of their city on stage is jacaranda now and I'm off thinking of tree blossoms and a girl's name that I can't put a face too and this whole thing of time that's going on here tonight, time, the Dirty Three really have time in their hands, Jim White's drums sounding like he's hitting the bottom of a bucket then shimmering and then like thunder and then like horse's feet and all of a sudden Warren Ellis is there with him and his violin is a fat blood stream and the two of them are watching Mick Turner's fingers, watching and waiting for his signal to change, thoughts of Ivan Southall's novels about lonely boys and country hills in summer and old drawings by Lloyd Rees popping into my mind till Warren Ellis rants about how "they said we'd never make it" and says Blow It Out Your Arse and then and then and then I can smell pot being smoked and a couple are pashing off just to my right like they've finally confessed it's real and they want it badly and the crowd is moving in this hypnotized way, like we're spaghetti in a boiling pot, a monumental version of Suze's Last Ride "for anyone grieving here tonight" is announced, Jim White's hands faster than light, the fastest hands I have ever seen, then Deeper Water and an encore of Everything's Fucked and Indian Love Song, all in this orange blaze of colour, Warren Ellis spitting at the sky, and then and then and then it's over, but the river is still in our heads and mostly I don't know the names of the songs or the names of anything, certainly not these feelings and words that break and flow and run through me but I know this band can take you into a very big river and that everyone here tonight has found a lot going on beneath the surface.

- Mark Mordue

* Performance at Metro Theatre, Sydney, 05.11.2001. Review published in Drum Media, Sydney on 23.04.2002. Above photo of Dirty Three taken by Pete Ottery (

Monday, November 19, 2007

We Ride Like Birds

We ride like birds
our heads are feathers
our face is blood
our thoughts are weather

we lay in sky
we talk like songs
our plans in darkness
can float like swans

our friends are branches
our loves are leaves
we pray for moonlight
the wind it breathes

we’re black in snowfall
we’re death and laughter
we scavenge silver
have seen here after

our dreams are mothers
our tracks are smoke
we whisper children
we smell their hope

the love of fathers
the hunting crows
the silent heavens
the rain that blows

we know this somewhere
we know this flight
we sleep in maps
and eat the night

we ride like birds
we’re death and laughter
our heads are feathers
our tracks are smoke

- Mark Mordue

* Above image 'Crow on a branch' by Maruyama Kyo (1733-1795)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Millthorpe Cemetery Blues

There’s nothing like the afternoon rays of the sun. Like country roads and their turning. The AM radio pushes me on into a rising curve, into an Elton John song from the 1970s, ‘Where to Now St Peter?’ It reminds me of being 15 years old; of being 47 now: “I took myself a blue canoe and I floated like a leaf”.

A cemetery swings into view as I enter Millthorpe. White crosses and granite tombstones tumble over a lazy hill. White clouds sit in a blue Australian sky. “I understand I’m on the road where all that was is gone…so where to now St Peter?”

Ahead a funeral cortege is bumping along, kicking up dust as it pulls out from the gravel beside an empty Catholic church. There’s something lonely and bright about the procession as six or so vehicles scroll by, black duco flashing, onto the bitumen and away.

I get the feeling I should go visiting the graveyard and spin the wheel. As if the song on the radio and the funeral cortege had invited me in. Truth is I know this hill in sunlight and in frost. I know the sound of the wind in its trees, the jitter of the sparrows high on the winter spires of the branches. I’ve been here before.

Why anyone would resist visiting a country graveyard mystifies me. The sense of local history that such places give off; the feelings of serenity and sadness that tangle with it; the way you can feel both complete and dissolved, as if you’ve always belonged there... the closest thing I can relate it to is looking out over the ocean and letting the weight of your life go.

Of course there are those who find graveyards boring, even detestable places, who strictly regard them as provinces for those who grieve - not to mention a little confronting to one’s own mortality. But it’s more than just historical train-spotting or maudlin geriatric tourism that draws me in. My visits usually end up being connected to events like the ones I’ve described, as if I have somehow been ‘called’. Which is how I find myself standing on a hill in the middle of a sunny winter afternoon surrounded by the dead again.

Millthorpe lays half way between Bathurst and Orange in country New South Wales: ‘pop. 650’ the sign says. For a while it was my home. I’ve written a book here, made friends and lost contact with them, come back and got drunk with some new ones. One of them lost his wife and baby daughter in a motor vehicle accident a few years ago, out along the back road to Bathurst. I’d see the single flower he and his surviving daughter left on the turn where it happened. Like graves these roadside memorials mark out a place where souls have the left the world while we’re still saying goodbye. And though I never knew the deceased I’d slow down and bless myself every time I drove past, till one day the flower was gone.

Millthorpe’s official graveyard has a population of some 2000 souls and growing from the looks of two fresh mounds of soil at the top of the hill today. I get out of the car and watch a burgundy haired punk, country poor in track pants and old running shoes, making her way past me. Catching her face is like looking into someone’s private Calvary, and I avert my eyes as she continues climbing towards the piles of dirt and that moment of grief when everyone has gone and there’s time to be alone.

Below me the St Canna’s Catholic Church is so quiet it seems abandoned. I take in the sheep-dotted farmlands across the road as they haze outwards to Mount Canobolas, the highest point in Australia west of the Great Dividing Range. A few days later Trevor Pascoe, the President of the Millthorpe District Historical Society, will tell me this is “the best view in town”.

It’s not unusual for graveyards to occupy prime real estate, as anyone here in Millthorpe - let alone visitors to cemeteries like Waverly in Sydney or Robertson in the southern Highlands - will attest. The same is true the world over. Fields and mountains, restless seas and big skies: we apparently feel a need to give the dead their vistas. But as I stand on this hill I realize it is us - the living - who need that horizon when we come calling on those who’ve passed away.

Locations like these are exposed and elementally intense, adding to the theatre of the dead. Trevor Pascoe calls Millthorpe’s graveyard “the prettiest part of town and usually the coldest part of town too” and it can be a relief when the wind drops on a bitter day. As we talk a cloud shadow wipes its mood over the graveyard like a thumbprint, birds go suddenly quiet. It’s not just a matter of ‘ghosts’; in moments like these you feel something of the Aboriginal idea that the land itself is alive.

Trevor points to the ground directly in front of us. He explains how many early graves from the last century are lost: wooden crosses have fallen and rotted away, others had nothing to mark them at all. “There’s one here,” Trevor says, “I can feel it in the subsidence.” We’ve all been taught our graveyard manners as children, been told not to walk over the dead. Call it respect if you like but even before this unmarked spot an aura pushes us back.

According to Trevor “the first grave [in Millthorpe] was a little girl back in 1867.” You walk around and witness the family pain wrought in times of Federation, World War One and Great Depression: the babies and children felled by pneumonia, bronchitis, diphtheria and whooping cough. One grave shows a boy born on Christmas morning, dead ten days later. Other family plots paint recurring stories of loss in mere dates and details. Mothers are often with their newborn, like Catherine Burke and her baby in “June 1912”: “I sleep so peaceful in my grave / With baby at my breast / So dear husband do not mourn / For we are at rest.”

Gravestone verses, Bible quotes, personal notes, some lyrical and transcendent, others brutishly accepting of God’s hand in things, others unintentionally comical – “the best is yet to come” – all these words give a cemetery its consoling force and poetic life: “We are nor dead but sleeping here. We were not yours but Christ’s alone. He loved us best and took us home… Loved in life. Treasured in death. Beautiful memories are all that are left… Not lost, but gone before.”

Many sentiments are repeated ad infinitum: “Rest in Peace… Peace, Perfect Peace… Thy Will Be Done.” There’s an oddly choral feeling to these phrases on gravestone after gravestone. As if, in the end, we do run out of words and a form of prayer or chant is all we can manage.

You could nonetheless fill an encyclopaedia with the language of these stones and its origins in prayer and poetry. For a time what were called ‘Graveyard Poets’ flourished in England in the 18th century, capturing the public’s imagination and laying the ground (so to speak) for the Romantic and Gothic movements to come. Arguably the most famous of these was Thomas Gray, whose ‘Elegy in a Country Graveyard’ (1750) recounts the poet’s own cemetery reveries: “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day. / The lowing herd winds slowly o’oer the lea, / The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

Trevor Pascoe says he has “done a lot of grave-yarding”. Looking for his forebears in the U.K. as well as locally. The tourism centre in Millthorpe gets at least two or three enquiries every weekend from people tracing their family histories. Trevor’s parents, Neville and Ivy (“The Lord is My Shepherd”) are both buried here, and likely he will be too. Although a Columbarium was installed at the foot of the cemetery over a decade ago, cremation is not for him. “To me there’s just something more respectful about people being placed in the ground.”

Behind us the Anglican church St Mark’s sits prestigiously high on the hill. The Rector, Reverend Robert Myers, talks to me about “the committal” that takes place at gravesides. He explains there is a carpet covering the hole which is then removed when the coffin arrives “so that the grave is ready to receive”. “We commit the body to the ground, or in the case of cremation to be interned, in the belief that its purpose has been fulfilled,” he says. “And we commend the soul to God’s merciful keeping. Burial is the most common in the country. Cremation is still more of a city thing.”

It’s hard not to be aware of your ‘place’ in this, to think of parents, grandparents, even your own children. For me graveyards are about a return to God in some elusive form, or at least our hopes for a greater connectedness. Maybe memory itself is a kind of graveyard? I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit I am still a Catholic in this world of stone and flowers. And yet it’s the poetry of rock ‘n’ roll that dawns in me most, appropriately enough the lyrics to ‘Cemetery Gates’, the great Smiths song where Morrissey speaks of Yeats, Keats and Wilde before lamenting, “So we go inside and gravely read the stones. / All those people all those lives where are they now? / With loves and hates and passions just like mine?”

Millthorpe’s ‘life’ is told through family names: Redmond, Foley, McGlynn, Hayes, Hooper and McCooey proliferate. Sheer numbers in the Anglican quarter affirm the dominant faith of the town. Lichen beatifies the stone and marble, even as it creates an acid environment that eats away at verses and names. A few pinus radiata trees have been cut down because their roots were tilting the graves. Others have died because of the drought. Amid the cracks and moss and fallen trees this aesthetic of decay and erasure accentuates the fact graveyards can die too.

A half hour’s drive away is Carcoar. Even people in Millthorpe say its graveyard “is really the one to see”. But I never seem to make it past the pub in Carcoar on each of my visits. Once upon a time Carcoar competed with Bathurst to be the administrative centre of the Central Western District, but the discovery of gold west of the town ruined the town, blinded it to such stable possibilities. I think about Carcoar now because as a thirteen year old boy I used to stare at Brett Whiteley’s painting The Road to Carcoar – which was in the possession of the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery in the town where I am from - and yearn to touch it. I had never seen a painting before that used stones and other materials layered into the paint. It gave off a feeling that this yellowish painting was a clay-and-sunlight hallucination of the landscape itself.

To some extent I’ve set foot on this road to Carcoar too. Whiteley would use Millthorpe as a base to then trek out west and work on his landscapes. He’d also retreat to Millthorpe during tough times with his heroin addiction. I’m sure he spent time in this graveyard like me, looking and thinking. It makes me wonder about the history in the ground that might have affected him. What Aboriginal people would say is the country’s Dreaming force. Unlike the discoveries west of Carcoar - and at other sites like Ophir, Lucknow and Brown’s Creek - Millthorpe (then known as Spring Grove) was never ‘gold country’. Instead it was the place where people settled after the gold ran out, where they realized there was good land for wheat, stock fodder, fruit and potatoes. It was to this historically Protestant farming and working community that Whiteley came to get his head straight and be himself again, to ‘dry out’.

An 1870 monument to John Hardman Australia Lister has pride of place here nonetheless. It was Lister and his friend William Tom Jnr who found gold in the district at Ophir. Country lads, they took the information to their ‘partner’, an American called Edward Hargreaves who’d already experienced the Californian gold rush. Hargreaves reported it and claimed the reward as well as historical credit as the first to find gold in Australia. It would not be till after Lister’s death his contribution was recognised, belated praise that gives his grave an air of missed opportunity and betrayal.

At the bottom of the hill I notice an old woman weeding a narrow garden beside the Columbarium. Her name is Mavis Harvey and she says she is “visiting” her husband. Mavis was “born in town in 1928 and never had any real reason to leave. I’ve been to Queensland. And Nyngan! It doesn’t matter where you are as long as you are happy and contented,” she assures me, getting back on her knees to dig. “I have a nice day whenever I can be in the dirt and weeds, boy! I’m happy enough here. And yet so many people out there are looking for something and cannot find it. Damned if I know what they are looking for.”

We hear the sounds of children playing carried over to us by gusts of wind. Mavis smiles, tells me how her grandchildren ask, “If they [the dead] get out at night and look at the flowers?” I picture a clutch of sweet peas back on a grave at the top of the hill, left their fresh and loyal as the morning, seventeen years after the woman they were for has passed away.

Mavis has two hair-pins in the shapes of a golden shell and a similarly blue flower holding back her thin, grey-brown strands. She reminds me of a young girl on a date as she waves me goodbye, garden spade in her hand. Birds are making their silvery, jostling calls among the late afternoon branches. From the roadside I can see a park that lies next to the graveyard, full of children laughing and kicking a ball.

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this story was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum 'The Essay' pages, September 15-16, 2007 under the title 'Ashes to ashes, dust to trust'.

Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels with Herodotus

Travels with Herodotus
By Ryszard Kapuscinski
Allen Lane, 275 pp, $49.95 (hb)

He seems to ramble. To wake from the book he is reading and tell you about it and his own life as well, confusing the seams of one story with another, even one world with another. You listen because he’s a great man, an old man, and because these are wisdoms and insights and experiences from the horse’s mouth. And because, quite frankly, just when you think the focus has gotten way too blurry, he completely surprises and enchants you.

So it is that the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski appears in his dotage, reflecting on the Ancient Greek writer Herodotus and his Classic work, The Histories. While doing so, Kapuscinksi interweaves reminiscences from India, China, Algeria, the Congo and Iran, just about anywhere the post-colonial world has been in foment across the latter half of the twentieth century.

More often wide-eyed and curious as a writer, Kapuscinski strikes an unusually sardonic note early on when he explains how he first came across The Histories: “Before those future prophets proclaiming the clash of civilizations, the collision took place long ago, twice a week, in the lecture hall where I learned that there once lived a Greek named Herodotus.”

All through Kapuscinski’s travels, Herodotus’ monumental book will keep the reporter company, acting as a talisman for what he might do and be. At one point in 1960 Kapuscinski confesses that while reading it, “I experienced the dread of the approaching war between the Greeks and the Persians more vividly than I did the events of the current Congolese conflict, which I was assigned to cover.”

Some 2,500 years may separate Kapuscinski from Herodotus, but it’s all in the blink of an eye. As we are being introduced to Herodotus on the first page we hear of a city in ruins, of libraries “gone up in flames”. A neo-Classical atmosphere of chaos reigns, except Kapuscinski has switched from the Ancient to the Modern world and his youth in post-war Poland. This tendency to slide between the past and present, to place events inside an historical echo chamber, to draw us into a world where fact and myth are entwined and time becomes ‘timeless’, is classic ‘Kapuscinskian’ territory.

The details of Kapuscinski’s working life have almost been neutralized by his own mythical outlines: witness to twenty seven revolutions, sentenced to death three times, one of the greatest and most literary foreign correspondents who ever lived. Like so many other moments in his career this last book will be a close call. No sooner is the manuscript for Travels with Herodotus complete than Kapuscinski dies in January of this year at 75 years of age.

Inevitably there’s a last-will-and-testament feeling to this work. Kapuscinski must have known another book from him was unlikely. If you place much stock in author photos you might find it hard to connect the kindly old man on the current sleeve of Travels with Herodotus with his steelier, middle-aged counterpart depicted on major works like Another Day of Life (1976), The Emperor (1983) and Shah of Shahs (1985). The tellingly consistent detail lays in the eyes, dark as a fox.

It would certainly be limiting to picture Kapucsinski as a fact-gatherer and adventurer, though he did all that was required of him as a foreign correspondent from the mid 1950s onwards (under Communist rule he spent much of the era acting as Poland’s only foreign correspondent). Because of his impoverished journalistic circumstances – lack of money and resources are a gripe of his – Kapuscinksi was forced closer to the ground, to use time and intimacy to his advantage, anticipating major global events with an almost psychic ability to be there when it mattered most.

Arriving in Algiers on the heels of a coup in 1965, he admits to being infuriated by the ordinariness of the city. The experience was a turning point for him. “It slowly began to dawn on me that I had set myself on an erroneous path… Until that awakening I had been searching for spectacular imagery, laboring under the illusion that it was compelling observable tableux that somehow justified my presence, absolving me of all responsibility to understand the events at hand. It was the fallacy that one can interpret the world only by means of what it chooses to show us in the hours of its convulsions… But might it not be possible to pierce that spectacular stereotype, to move beyond imagery, attempt to reach deeper? It seemed only practical to try.”

As a European who lived under the shadow of totalitarianism, Kapucsinksi’s sympathies for people and nations similarly eclipsed is obvious. It’s an understanding he discusses early on in Travels with Herodotus when he recalls the way The Histories was banned in Poland during the mid 1950s: “A book written two and half thousand years ago? Well, yes: because all our thinking, our looking and reading, was governed in those years by an obsession with allusion. Each word brought another to mind; each had a double meaning, a false bottom, a hidden significance; each contained something secretly encoded, cunningly concealed. Nothing was ever plain, literal, unambiguous...”

This sense of a double life, of a double world, takes on increased resonance as news filters through that Kapuscinki may have spent from 1965 till as late as 1977 working as both a journalist and a spy. Apparently his reports for his masters the Polish Communist intelligence service were at best perfunctory, a duty paid rather than relished - but it’s a role that adds to the mystique of an eerily calm and observant voice throughout his books. Nothing is missed, many things are implied.

Like his hero Herodotus, Kapucinski believed “the only real repository of memory is the individual. In order to find out that which has been remembered, one must reach this person.” It’s a need Kapuscinksi brings to life when he talks about being trapped behind a desk at home, editing news wire stories for the Polish Press Agency. As he reads about the Cultural Revolution in China, he observes how “one can learn little from these brief despatches; they lack context and what one might call local colour. I can perhaps imagine most easily the professors of Peking University riding in a truck, hunched over from the chill, not even knowing where they are headed because their eyeglasses are fogging over in the cold.”

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this review was first published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books on Saturday, November 3rd, 2007.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Things That Year

you’re reading Michael Ondaatje’s
Coming Through Slaughter
jazz notes fracturing
a poem-glass madness
through the words

the sky guitar of Billy Corgan
running into dusk light
and Bourke Street traffic
from the lemon walls and shadows
of your pyramid attic room

you want to paint ‘stories must travel’
across the sloping ceiling above your desk
for inspiration, but it never happens
while you love the sweat of summer
dripping from your face
to your type-writer keys
as you sit there half undressed

you chase ‘the Wolverine’ and his gang
all the way across town
with your best friend, a joint and a beer:
Dave Graney and The Coral Snakes,
Magnificent to ten people
in some foreign Manly bar

this year’s heroes: Nelson Algren,
Morrissey and Nick Cave,
and to get the party started,
Tone Loc, a base note
but that’s okay

your afternoons are reserved for
falling in love with Joni Mitchell
twenty years and 20,000 miles
too late, too far, for it to happen
and yet it does…
her Hejira of snow
and crow-like garments
besotting you
while you lounge in your Surry Hills
terrace-and-flannelette gloom and say
‘oh God’ to the 3pm sunlight touching your legs

put on your Blundstones,
cheer up, mate,
the night is back in black
it’s time to singalong dringalong
to The Body is Dirt
it’s time for free rock n roll
Plug Uglies bending and shaking
at the Hopetoun Hotel

walking home later
on strumming feet (the road one dark chord)
there’s a tree put down
as some kind of German Expressionist protest!

designed especially for you to climb when drunk,
a girl in the branches with hair like seaweed,
waiting and calling your name, arching her back
and you go up, of course,
into kisses and songs made of wind and leaves.

- Mark Mordue

* First published at No.33, July 2007.

First Rain

It’s four weeks and five days since you were born and you are feeling your first rain. A few light drops on your skin. Your face closes itself in brief, uncertain expressions of surprise, trying to work out what is touching you.

I can taste lightning in the air, a metallic surge of freshness in the afternoon world. How soon before you know what this taste means? That something big is beginning and the sky will break wonderfully.

Your eyes are mostly shut while your mother holds you, swaddled in a white muslin wrap. We walk down a side street together my son, not far from home.

When she talks to you and says something about “your father” I feel proud and strangely jarred by the word, not quite ready to hear it. I’m still learning to fill it up with actions and feelings, an apprentice to its meaning. Even as we move down the street it is as if I have stepped into a painting or some moment in a film, into a family rhythm just starting to turn itself into me.

Already I find you addictive, the smell of you something I can drink and drink. Breast milk, skin, baby soap, all distinct and crucially soft, the ether binding us. It’s an amazing thing, the potency of this deep smell. The intensity of it is something I could almost tear at to dig inside and know and never be apart from: love’s violent closeness.

It reminds me of a writer who spoke of being unable to continue a love affair because of the smell of a woman he was seeing. Not that she smelt bad, but because she didn’t smell ‘right’. I know this feeling, this sign or warning against mistaken passion. Its animal power and how apparent it can become once we decide we don’t love someone in the way we thought we might.

Your mother’s smell to me is something perfect. I could live with it for a hundred years. The scientists say this is all a matter of antibodies, pheromones that guide us towards the healthiest mating possibilities and its better outcomes for the species. Maybe that raw biological compulsion is true, but there’s an emotional sense to it as well, as if the nature of whom you might love exists in their very skin, calling you. And so I choose your mother and she chooses me, and these choices give us secret pleasure, permeating us, bringing us closer. You come from that scent. Our skin.

I remember the morning you were born. The way you slid out covered in blood, screaming. Chased by the red dark field of your mother’s placenta, a galaxy.

I was surprised at how natural it all was. Not as ugly or violent or alien as the photos and film footage of birth always seem to suggest. To be there and go through it with your mother was to know it wasn’t like that at all. Even covered in blood there was a beauty to your arrival, a familiarity that did not trouble me. She cried as she reached down to you there between her legs. “My son, my son, there he is, my beautiful boy.” Her whole body shook while I knelt behind her, hanging on for dear life to support her back as she bowed down sobbing to love you.

At your mother and the mid-wife’s invitation, I cut the umbilical cord. It was so tough I felt as if I had to saw through it. Is this is where the story of Abraham going to kill his son for God comes from? This ritual of severing your child to bring them into life? I felt distressed that I might hurt you, that the scissors must be blunt - I was so sure of it - they’re blunt! - but the cord came apart and you were fine in your bawling way and the clip that was applied held fast to staunch the bleeding and that was that. You were now in the world and breathing, your own being entirely. I look at your belly now and feel some pride that this mark is associated with me. It was like your mother was giving me some small part of you physically and I feel a choking tenderness when I think of my mark upon you.

When you were passed to me I held you against my bare chest. I had nothing on but a pair of jeans and when I handed you back to your mother to be bathed I went outside to ask one of the nurses for fresh towels. In the hallways of the ward I looked like some kind of psycho killer: bare feet, no shirt, chest streaked with blood, eyes wild from the all-night labor. Who’d want to come here after seeing me? I was no advertisement for the joys of a natural birth.

What a night. It felt as if we had gone through some kind of fight to get you. Not a bad one, and maybe ‘fight’ is the wrong word, but it was a struggle. We fought for you, we really did.

How different and powerful these images and feelings are in my mind to when I first saw you on an ultrasound screen in Beijing, the city where we learnt for sure your mother was pregnant. The blur of the electronic images suddenly shifted, and then you were there before us: a spine, a head, a heartbeat, the pulse of your bloodstream, a hand – and such beautiful fingers, “just like yours” your mother said. “He’s waving to us,” she called to me. “Look.” And sure enough your hand moved in a pale light.

The truth is it was bad day in the world. Planes were crashing into buildings in New York, killing thousands. It felt as if this was the end of all things. War, terror, fire…

I could not really look at you that day, there alive on the radar of your mother’s belly. You could not fully exist for me. A world falling and in flames was all that was real. Turning my life into something unreal. And I resented how this moment of private and special grace had been buried by the day of September 11, how nothing – not even the first clear signs of my first son’s existence as a being – could overcome the power of those falling buildings, the violent craft sliding into my mind.

But today it is a rainy day and so little time has past and you have kept growing, inside your mother and now in the world itself. And the burning and the debris and the falling are all so small, past. And you and your scents of milk and soap and skin, you and your cries and those sounds I imagine as words sighing up from your unconscious when you open your mouth to speak delight, you in this first fragile rain so delicate on your head and how you are first feeling it, you and your mother and new words like ‘your mother’ and ‘your father’ that inhabit us in ways I can’t express, well it makes the world beautiful and calm again.

I am at your mercy. Saved and aimed forward. Not laying my hope on you because that’s too much and unfair of any parent. But seeing a hope in you, some faith in the nature of things.

I can’t wait to get you home. To bathe you and put you to bed. To be awoken tonight by your noisy sleeping, like some old man dreaming loudly. How does such a small boy manage so much noise? Your mother moving in the low light of the early morning to feed you, the stark, ravenous cry of your waking, the sudden muffling of satisfaction as you find her breast. Me falling back to sleep again, useless and male and better saved for the practical needs of the day. Taking you in with a glimpse, feeling myself born with you and born each time I see something new in you – born again and again when the repetitions of that newness are so fresh I suddenly see what it’s like for a child to feel a strong breeze or shot of sunlight and register the life of the world.

My first rain with your mother and you, this love brought down from the sky.

- Mark Mordue

* This story was first published in HQ Magazine, June 2002.

Prehistoric Sounds - In Search of an Australian Rock 'n' Roll

I’ve started writing this story a hundred different ways and every time I think I might be getting somewhere I end up stumbling across some kind of weird desert where the horizon is endless. Like talk of the Great Inland Sea in the nineteenth century, the quest to uncover an Australian rock ‘n’ roll sound might just be a delusion of heat and hope. But I swear it’s there. I really do.

Ed Kuepper seems to agree, though the guitarist behind The Saints, Laughing Clowns and a string of landmark solo recordings has a typically laconic view. “I don’t sing about BBQs or iconic Australian activities but that doesn’t make what I do any less Australian. The Saints and the Laughing Clowns were original Australian bands and I challenge anyone to say otherwise. I’m not like Paul Kelly or Midnight Oil, or The Triffids, who are a great example of an Australian band,” he says. “But the environment you are in always affects what you do.”

Kuepper makes the caveat that “a musical identity [for a country] develops over time. And while it is true to say that most Australian modern music has its roots in something outside of here, you can say that of British modern music as well. A lot of things overseas also sound like a lot of other things too,” he adds drolly.

“I can pull everything apart and go back to the ‘50s. J.OK was Australian. He might have been singing songs that originated in America, but there was a very Australian tonality about it. Then in the ‘60s you had big groups like The Easybeats and The Loved Ones who were basing what they did on overseas music. Is that a bad thing? It never struck me when I was young that they were a second rate copy of anything because they were distinctly Australian to me, and they were great.”

Kuepper does observe, however, that, “in the ‘80s a lot of new bands springing up here were inspired by other Australian bands [at the time] who sounded unique to themselves. Possibly in the ‘90s with grunge and what followed that wasn’t so much the case.”

“The desire for a strong and recognizable musical culture lies at the root of this kind of question [about an Australian sound],” Kuepper finally says. “But there’s a major lack of support for Australian artists, who are always trying to get some kind of foothold, always struggling. There’s also not much sense of history. There’s certainly no sense of Australian musical heritage if you turn on Australian radio. The Laughing Clowns never got a mention in Long Way To The Top. If the historians don’t get it right how do you expect young people to know?”

J Walker of Machine Translations appreciates this perspective in very immediate terms. “Music has always been connected to fashion and trends, and it’s like there are these waves of global sound going round and round. But I think there’s way too much attention given to the latest coolest thing from the USA or England and a rash of bands who copy that. Especially when there are ten other bands doing great things and falling between the cracks here just because rock is cool or it’s time for the ‘New Folk’. Obviously a lot of great things come from overseas, but it’s more a question of why do we have to follow it.”

He suspects the heart of an Australian sound might lay in subtler affirmations. “I reckon there’s a way that Australian people strum a guitar that’s quite Australian. And it goes with our sense of space. When you’re a touring band here and you’re on the road and you have that sense of vastness. I can hear it in Nick Cave, and The Church. Even The Sunnyboys, who were doing the guitar pop thing, but driven. It’s hard to put my finger on it. A fangin’ strumming thing,” Walker says. “Just strumming really hard.”

It’s suggestive of the pulse of the landscape itself, a deeply implicit quality almost impossible to pull from the music and isolate. Walker believes this emerges too in “a certain alienation, actually. We all love the bush but a lot of us are scared of it still.” The parallel continues in “the alienation of the city from the suburbs,” he says. Not easy things to celebrate or popularise nationally, let alone internationally.

Submerged somewhere within this critique is the growing backlash against the so-called ‘New Rock’ boom and international success stories like The Vines and Jet. There’s currently a feeling that style over-rules content in their music – that they could have come from anywhere – and that too many bands are slavishly following suit.

Richard Kingsmill, Triple J’s Music Director, argues against that view. “Whenever a band becomes big people place way too much significance on that act’s influence. There have been terrific success stories this year like John Butler and even Missy Higgins, who have done important things for Australian music. Some acts reflect a directly Australian perspective, others have a world perspective: it’s all in a broad spectrum. Jet play simple rock ‘n’ roll, yes, but then why didn’t an American band do it and have their success? I think the isolation here is still a big factor in Australian music, and it gives us more space to say what are we going to do? Just like AC/DC, Jet could only have come from here. And in the meanwhile, if you do go back to the 1980s and distinctly Australian acts like Not Drowning, Waving, The Triffids and The Go Betweens, I can still see a line from them existing through to now in the subject matter, the tone of voice, lyrics and production values of a lot of Australian acts.”

It’s nonetheless interesting that when searching to name a definitive Australian recording, Kingsmill does go “back to Born Sandy Devotional by The Triffids. At the time they recorded it the band had made inroads into the UK in the few years before, and they could have gone more Velvets in their sound to support that. But they didn’t. Every time I hear Born Sandy Devotional I see W.A. It’s so vivid. It’s a summer record. You feel the heat. And yet it was written over in London, so go figure. Maybe it had that pining thing for home.”

Former Custard frontman and solo performer Dave McCormack touches a similar nerve when he says “it gets back to songs like Cattle and Cane and Spring Rain by The Go Betweens for me. Somehow on paper The Go Betweens shouldn’t sound so Australian, but they do. Grant [McLennan] and Robert [Forster] always painted themselves as these New York type intellectual, Velvet Underground fans. Real fish-out-of-water people in Brisbane. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Lee Remick where they sang, “I come Brisbane and I’m quite plain.’ I thought that was brilliant. For someone to even mention Brisbane in a song was magic for me.”

McCormack talks about the pleasure he would later find in “referencing local bits and pieces, suburbs like Redbank and Logan which no one outside of Brisbane would have known. Now I live in Sydney and that comes out in songs like The Inner West. Obviously You Am I have that too – Tim’s [Rogers] lyrics have an Australian slant to them. I love that one ‘under the Glebe Point Bridge’ (Purple Sneakers),” he sings, “and the way Hi Fi Way and Hourly Daily have that Sydney suburbs thing about them. I love all those artists who have come through and said this is who I am, this is where I am from.”

Tim Freedman of The Whitlams picks up on this theme by stating that, “In the beginning I embraced local themes because I was resisting the impulse to feel Australia was somehow provincial. Just because our music is indebted to British, Irish and American forms, there’s no reason for our lyrics delivery to follow.”

Freedman credits Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil, John Sherman of Redgum and Paul Kelly for showing the way in both their lyrics and their singing style as well. “I became interested in trying to be part of a tradition which furnishes our suburbs with our own myths and our own social history,” Freedman says. “By doing that you’re connecting people with the streets. When I walk around Surry Hills I always think of Hurtle Duffield in [Patrick White’s] The Vivisector being delivered to a new house. Novelists in Australia have been so good at it. Songwriters have just been a bit slow to take up the fight.”

- Mark Mordue

* This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 28th 2004.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Train at the End of Day

the clouds have slid loose from a fire
gasped, embering the horizon
with God’s radioactive blood

power lines and high trees lino cuts
against the orange ghost of His fire

as the sky
into night

and calls out for a bird
to free all loneliness…

a few neon signs, 24 HOURS,
prayer-flag the blipping traffic

street lights like invading pods from Mars
mark where we might live or pass
like things inside machines

back a way, one moon glows on the river
as if it were a drowned thing
nature no kinder than the manufactured world

it’s a cold twilight, ash cold
the train you’re on is crumbling forward
gusting, shaking, rails and stops and rails
rails and stops and rails
rails and stops and rails…

soon the window will have only your face
soon the orange fire will be gone
your skin evaporates till sleep buries your fears
neon now like off milk tracing your nerves and dreams
rails and stops and rails.

- Mark Mordue

Above image sourced from:

Almost Poetry

A funny thing happened to me earlier this year. I was listening to the radio when a new song by the Go-Betweens came on the air. It was called ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, and in his typically declamatory way singer Robert Forster commanded my attention as he told of how he opened up an old diary and ``out jumped some tears''.

I recognised the song immediately as a paean to the 1980s inner-city music scene of Sydney, and a more intimate circle that revolved around the Go-Betweens. Though I wasn't part of their particular scene, I had crossed its path and knew the same back streets and minor characters well.

Even so it was an unexpected punch to the heart when I heard Forster reminiscing about ``Gut-rock spaghetti, [and] gut-rot rock'n'roll through the eyes of Frank Brunetti''.
Back then Brunetti was a freelancer for RAM (Rock Australia Magazine, now defunct). As I was too. He went on to play organ with Died Pretty for a while, hunched in his own spiral ecstasies on stage as they let fly with their own brand of post-punk Doorsy riffing. But it was through rock journalism that Frank and I fleetingly connected, usually on the first floor of the Trade Union Club, Sydney's post-punk central, at some ungodly hour and in some ungodly state.

Shit happens, as Alain de Botton might say, and Brunetti slid off the edge of my pulp literature and music worlds. We all moved on in different ways, all had to grow up or get lost, I guess. But those who reminisce about such things still regard him as one of the finer rock'n'roll writers to take a stab at the genre in Australia.

And suddenly there he was again two decades later being name-checked in a great rock'n'roll song. I have to say I felt a shot of pride for him. It made me feel that this thing we were a part of, this bastard and disposable art called rock journalism, was not something entirely worthless, even if its evanescent qualities and cheap thrills are inevitably caught inside the pop culture moment, and mostly sacrificed to it completely.

‘Darlinghurst Nights’ reinforced a strange new pride I'd been feeling for my own origins in rock journalism, and I'm grateful for that. These are origins I'd fought in my younger days whenever anyone sought to define me as a rock journalist, a backhander of a phrase that was usually laid on you like a vague insult.

You only have to consider the Frank Zappa quote that endures as a comprehensive put-down of the genre to understand why it has such bad juju: ``Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read.''

Musicians love this Zappa quote, though they usually overlook the part about ``people who can't talk''. Their idea of literature, of course, is stories that make them look cool.

But even the most articulate musicians will often tell you rock journalists are a parasitic subspecies barely deserving of the designation ``human'', let alone ``writer''. In his notorious song Scum, Nick Cave laid into English rock journalists Mat Snow and Antonella Black with relish: ``He was a miserable shit-wringing turd/ Like he reminded me of some evil gnome/ Shakin' hands was like shakin' a hot, fat, oily bone./ ... Mean and vicious, her microphone always smelled suspicious/ His and herpes bath towel type/ If you know what I mean.''

Ironically enough, it is this supposedly parasitic symbiosis that has kept the reputation of many an act alive and even revived many a lost cause.

For all his indisputable greatness as an artist, Cave himself benefited from years of print deification when no one in the mainstream cared for his work. The push from the early underground press in Australia and writers such as Frank Brunetti; those later New Musical Express cover stories from England and all their orgasmic blather that mixed Baudrillard, Baudelaire, Ballard and a dash of William Faulkner into something other than an interview or review and something more like a wild literary collusion between the subject and the writer.

As a child of the punk era I was part of a new generation of writers inspired by the experimental do-it-yourself ethic in publications such as NME and RAM to pick up a pen (rather than a guitar) and write whatever I thought and felt, and regard it as a legitimate creative act.

Indulgent, inaccurate, ridiculous maybe, but also inspiring and just as electric as the bands I was listening too when I hit the mark, sometimes better than the music itself. Probably the main thing rock journalism taught me, the necessary pretension it inspired, was that a magazine article or review could be as good as any other literature.

What no one says about rock journalism in all the weary head-shaking about its unprofessionalism and grotesque self-indulgence is how often the writers are as raw and unpaid as the young bands they are writing about.

How much they, like the musicians, have to do all their growing up, and make all their mistakes, in public too. This is also the great virtue of the form, as we might call it.
For all the enthusiasm for the internet today, there aren't that many places left in the media where artistic vision and openness of style and thought get a run. For all its pitfalls, what makes rock journalism so important and so exciting is nothing more or less than freedom of expression.

No doubt this is sacrilege to many ears. But I've always liked the Oscar Wilde quote, used, appropriately enough as an epigraph to Let it Blurt, Jim DeRogatis's biography of wild and sad American rock journalist Lester Bangs: ``Is criticism really a creative art? Why should it not be? It works with materials and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful. What more can one say of poetry?''

- Mark Mordue

* This story was first published in The Weekend Australian Review, July 22-23, 2006.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Boys Are Back In Town

We used to play in the park by the highway
panic and laugh about the cars,
carry our bikes across the railroad tracks,
throw rocks half-heartedly
to try and break a signal-box window,
then run and run and run
hands sticky with blackberries.

You smoked cigarettes, I didn’t.
You knew more about motorbikes.
We both talked about girls.
Talked porno at what we didn’t know
were pre-recorded messages
in the public telephone booth,
laughing to ourselves so sensationally.

Yeah we were champions of the secret life,
could sit in trees and squirt passing cars
with water pistols so nobody knew
what the fuck was going on,
promised to return to our secret carvings
among the branches in ten years of endless time.

Our playground around Broadmeadow
was the storm-water drains we loved when they flooded,
sluicing our ‘pushys’ down through the fake rush of a tide.
‘Don’t go near them now’ instructions were never listened to!
‘Styx Creek’: I couldn’t make a name like that up and be serious.
Yeah that was where we hung out, grey and furious and free like the sky.

So Tony where did the boy go?
How did you bend down into madness
like a peaceful sleep that wrapped you better than
a blanket from the southerly’s cold?

Man, I sit with you at the club over a beer
and we laugh about your passing fits and playing smoke on the water.
You say, ‘I tried to baptize myself in those drains when I thought I was Jesus!’
Then you smile, one tooth missing, drastically fat:
‘Been getting myself off the medication -
I don’t want to have to live with it.’

Some living man.

Where did the pretty boy that you were go?
The one that blonde girls chased
through their blue, cool polaroids,
listening to ‘Young American’
while we dreamed of being you?

The whole thing snapped.
You gave away your watch to her.
There was no replacement.
Your exercise books were filled with tiny words
that you told me you were ‘learning’.

The one that kicks in television sets,
runs naked down his street,
says his prayers at traffic lights:
who is he in the stop-go scratchy dawn?

Hey Tony, there’s still another way…
on our bikes, out in the rain,
you riding with a broken leg in plaster,
Thin Lizzy on the record player way up loud,
the shimmer of ‘Still In Love With You’
on your bright red buzzing guitar.…
God it seemed to burn from your fingertips
when you let it run.

Yeah Tony, where did the boy in you go?

Now these crackups of yours that come about once a year
to rest your weary soul,
it’s like some escape clause, I just know it
but it gets harder for you to come back
from the white and wordy shuffle of your mind.

Some living…

It has to end.

And sure enough I make a Christmas call to your mum,
Raving at me in her Italian rosary of unreason,
she tells me: ‘Tony, he is gone to hospital. He is finished now.
He won’t be no good no more.”

Click. The dial tone death.
The nostalgia for a life I can’t properly remember
without you talking too.
Here, it’s all through me, what I have of it.

Oh man, where did the boy go?
Do you even know it’s summer now again,
that twenty years have passed and our branches are bones,
that our names are still there like wounds healing?
That a dry sheer curtain pale as a ghost
just blew over me as I sat slumped beneath the window,
its blurring frost burying my face like a bride.

- Mark Mordue

* This poem was first published in ILUMINA Poetry UnLimited Press Journal 2007 with thanks to Editor Roberta Lowing and Guest Editor Judith Beveridge.


I think I am about 14, but maybe I’m 15, and it’s after midnight so I know the local ABC radio station has switched to transmitting the then very alternative Double Jay from Sydney. The transistor I have is small and bound in a stiff brown leather case. It used to belong to my grandfather, who died of cancer when I was 9, and sometimes when I hold it and put my ear to it I sense very vaguely that I am holding a part of him to me and that this makes me feel less lonely though I’m too young or unsophisticated to know I am lonely or just so used to a certain kind of aloneness the idea of an absence in my life isn’t outlined yet.

So I lie there in my bed listening to the radio covertly, pressed between my ear and the pillow. I don’t want my grandmother to know I am awake; I don’t want my grandmother to know I am listening to music.

I track all kinds of things at these late hours and have ever since my grandfather’s death and the gift of his radio. At first it would be the cricket, test matches in England with names like Snow and Lever, Cowdery and Walters, Marsh and Mallett and Lillee. Then I found a broken hearts and lost spirits channel where a hip priest dispensed advice and listened to stories and arguments and regrets about God and violent husbands and grog and getting pregnant young and all manner of death and weakness and unfairness and the odd happy story too, of course, the child who got better, the man who sobered up.

So there I was, a boy in his bed in Newcastle, astral travelling via radio waves. Leaning into the world as surely as you would place your ear to a shell and hear the sea.

One night I actually managed to use the S-W channel to drop in on a couple calling friends from their yacht. I felt like a spy, like they might catch me if they heard me breath. I could make out the beating rhythm of water against the hull, the sound of their voices inside a cabin, the echoing space of the boat, its pings and sighs, and what sounded to me like the night itself, black and wet, while these people laughed and talked about stupid things that finally bored me.

It made me think about this idea I had that no voice is ever lost or gone. That they all just gather up into the wind and keep on blowing forever. So maybe one day there will be a device that can unthread the voices from the wind and then we can hear Napoleon and Captain Cook and whoever else we might like, clear as a bell.

My parents have left me here in Newcastle to think and listen like this. Because I was doing well at school and it was better for me to stay behind. Where they went, the school was no great shakes. Kids dropped out in their third year or even sooner, got like ‘Z’ grades, and teachers came and went in a matter of months. They took my sisters with them, though - not because my father didn’t think they deserved an education like me, but mostly because he didn’t think their education mattered quite so much and anyway they didn’t have the interest like I did.

Where they went – where they went - was a mining town in the Northern Territory, bauxite, red as rust on the ground. I always knew it as ‘up there’. The plan was for them to make some money and return a year or two later. I’d visit them for Christmas holidays. Keep doing well at school; maybe become the first in my extended family to get to university. The time would pass quickly.

But one or two years turned to three, then four and this feeling of being adrift from my family became a way of life.

I was living in my grandmother’s house, keeping her company after the death of my grandfather. Watching Bill Collins’ At the Movies, then Creature Feature when she went to bed, living on Coco Pops for breakfast and devon and tomato sauce sandwiches for dinner and the world’s most horridly boiled vegetables for tea. I used to throw the vegetables over the fence into various neighbours’ yards. They’d report strange findings: carrots, potatoes, brussel sprouts, pumpkin pieces, like meteorite particles mysteriously crashed to earth. The clouds had vomited again.

My grandmother liked me better as a boy than a young man and as I started to get interested in music it signalled a change in me she could not control. The cup of tea I still made for her, the apple I peeled, it wasn’t the same, and I was resentful, distant, a surly servant. More interested in my world and the way it had to be protected - as if there was something in me, a thing that could be hurt or put out by her.

So I think I’m 14, but maybe I’m 15 and I’ve found this radio station called ‘Double Jay’ that comes onto the ABC bandwidth after midnight and it plays all kinds of music I haven’t heard before and sometimes the DJs swear or make jokes about drugs and I have friends who begin to listen to it as well and so we interpret this world and the bubbling moments when it sounds like the DJ is having a bong and the stories we’ve heard that the female DJ does her show naked.

And this night is the night I hear Patti Smith singing ‘Piss Factory’, snarling poetry about how she’s sixteen and it’s “time to pay off”, how she’s gotta get out of this place, this factory, how she’s “got something to hide here called desire”, and it seems like the whole song is an urgent spiral with the piano galloping along beneath her and the words get more intense and everything about it is like some beautiful emergency, some perfectly melodious siren going off inside of me.

I don’t know this is about Smith’s first time reading Rimbaud and how he inspired her to leave a factory job and go to New York. But her song affects me the same way as Rimbaud must have hit into her - and I start to realize there are other places and that I can go to them as well. But I’m just too young and even though I know these places are physical they still feel like a dream to me. I don’t know what the city is, not really. I’m just a kid. But it’s a voice and a seed and a light all at once and it is calling me.

Maybe this is what the capital does to the provincial; what Sydney, in this case, does to me in Newcastle. Call us and corrupt us by letting us know another world exists, even if what we receive of that world is skewed and re-imagined through who we already are. So when I think about being a boy from Newcastle I see deep down that I made Sydney up, that I invented it through songs I was receiving on the radio – songs like Patti Smith’s ‘Piss Factory’ and The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’ - and not that much later a more specific underground Sydney music scene that featured the thunder and moan of the Laughing Clowns rock ‘n’ roll jazz, the jagged ecstatic lyrical panic and pin-splatter of Tactics, the amniotic and cluttered soundtrack strangeness of The Makers of the Dead Travel Fast, and the simple bursting desire to fuck and to love and still feel alone and strong that possessed The Sunnyboys and of course me along with them.

In Newcastle, I invented Sydney.

And to me it was a city of enlarged identity, artistic, experimental, dangerous with poetry and drugs and different clothes, like some wild masked ball where people started to act out the way they were and become all the freer for it.

I remember finishing uni and overloading a van with every piece of junk I owned and setting out for Sydney. Crossing the Harbour Bridge on a perfect sunny day, the water below blue as sky, the Opera House shell white. Light ribboning between the pylons and cables as I rode high in the driver’s seat of the hired van, promising myself that I would be someone and make a mark on the city. That it would know me. I was 21 year’s old.

Of course that’s very Saturday Night Fever meets Holden Caulfield, with a slightly power-mad dash of Alexander the Great thrown in for good measure. But it doesn’t embarrass me to admit such feelings. Because I can still feel the sincere hope, the becoming force, the way the Cahill Expressway gulped me down into one last arresting moment as I let its momentum take me into the city. Zoom.

Now I’m trying to go back home. And only songs can help me truly get there.

My family still lives in Newcastle, which means it’s the place I don’t go return to as much as I really should. When I do it’s usually by train, against the inevitable resisting tides of track work, along the silvery solitariness of the Hawkesbury and its oyster beds, then through the scrubby outer suburbs till my stop at Broadmeadow – now the Newcastle Knights’ official home station, I’m honestly proud to say.

It makes me think of how Newcastle can get at me now physically. Like the year, 1997, when the Newcastle Knights won their first Rugby League grand final, the underdogs triumphing over the silvertails, Manly. I read the Daily Tele’ before the match, how everyone lined the road for 30 kms all the way out to Swansea as the Knights’ team drove their bus south to do battle in the big smoke. They’d asked the team captain, Paul Harragon, if he felt pressured by that and he seemed stunned. “Oh no, it’s like they’re carrying us on their shoulders.” I almost cried when I read the words and in a flick it was this deep down stuff that reminded me of who I was, who I belonged to.

A different but similar belonging hit me in New York one year later when I saw Silverchair playing at the Bowery Ballroom to a full house. They weren’t just Australian like me, they were from my hometown and what was strange and true was that I could hear all this steel and surf in their sound, a kind of ‘bigness’ that made me think of looking across the Hunter River at dusk to see the BHP factory works all flamey and orange lit and heavy with distant industrial thunder, me like some grungy Jay Gatsby looking for my own version of ‘the green light’; or the way the ships waited in heavy, faraway lines while bad weather sent violent waves cresting over the breakwater at Nobby’s, blocking their entry to the harbour.

I was in New York, I was listening to a rock ‘n’ roll band from my hometown, and that’s what I was hearing in my heart.

It’s funny to think I so often felt strangled and stymied by Newcastle because now much of what I remember and recall has to do with space, light – often bereft – but free in its own peculiar way.

Music digs this space out of me.

Hearing Van Morrison’s ‘Got To Go Back’ and remembering the gravely lanes of New Lambton where I sat with my childhood gang, our backs against the paling fences, our talk loaded, always, with secrets. Listening to Thin Lizzy’s ‘Still In Love With You’ and remembering how beautifully one of my best friends, a young Italian guy, Tony Vallon, could play along to it in his parents’ shed, his practice amp buzzing like sweet blotting paper – how fluid and magical he was in every way till he started to fall to pieces and was diagnosed a schizophrenic by the time the rest of us were finishing uni and leaving town. I remember going with him to see Thin Lizzy at the newly opened International Sports Centre, thousands of rock ‘n’ roll youth from all over the Valley gathered, a gang of fortunately happy bikies right behind us skulling goons, the way Thin Lizzy came on and all of Newcastle took its thongs off its feet and hurled them in the air till it was raining thongs and the band realized we weren’t assaulting them, we were just letting them know their rock ‘n’ roll had us by the feet and we loved them so very much.

I remember the Star Hotel riot and deciding not to go that night because I thought it would be too crowded, the way the girls danced on the bar there and how good a version of ‘New York Shuffle’ a local band called Meccalisa did before they went punk and changed their name to DV8. I remember going punk too and wearing a suit jacket that I bought from the Salvation Army and how this was proof I was PUNK even though I had a beard that was half Beatnik, half mistake. Living in a share-house with an aspiring actor and a poet and two dogs and a lounge-room we’d decorated surreally, or so we thought, with hundreds of matchboxes blu-tacked all over the walls and ceilings to freak anyone out who had bongs with us while we nodded our heads to Public Image Limited’s ‘Poptones’.

Some days in Sydney I will see old faces. John, the feted one, dark and long haired and bare foot, the genius of the university, coming out the other side of his failures to be a success all over again; Jenny, now softer than I recall and yet still storming away, the pin-up radical girl of the era back then, an ardent Communist who I argued with once, very stupidly, about Catholicism and politics (the latter of which I knew next to nothing, the former of which I knew too well); Steve, the smoke-eyed clown, a star of absurdity, with his own ironic surf music band and a great, crazy terrace in Bull Street, Cooks Hill and a way with the women that always astounded those around him. I saw Steve yesterday morning on a film-clip for this punky-pop version of ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’ and the really funny thing about it, I thought, was yes, she usually was. You really gotta watch those funny guys.

Anyway, just thinking about them all I know I’m struggling to make the connections meet. But I’m proud to know these people and I think it’s striking we all do know each other in some way, however remote or coincidental the encounters – because Newcastle is/was a small-enough big-enough place to make us close and yet let us imagine other selves that have since gone out from the province into the lifeblood of the capital. For all the changes I never feel Newcastle people are strangers, more that they are allies - and even those that are really strangers are somehow familiars deep inside.

I think this goes down into something about Newcastle as a working town, and with that working town mentality a sense that you should never get too big for your boots. The flipside of that are the close-minded, small-minded inhibitions that step on anyone who is odd or artistic – one reason why we all had to escape. Though I also fancy the big spaces of Newcastle drove us to fill out something in ourselves we could never have done in Sydney. We really are a part of some secret society – ‘Novocastrians’ – and I get a kick out of that and even feel sorry for people born in Sydney, as if they were somehow born without dreams and songs to take them somewhere else and then to send them back home.

- Mark Mordue

* This story was first published in the Australian literary journal HEAT, Issue No.12 with thanks to editor Ivor Indyk for guidance and inspiration.