Thursday, November 15, 2007

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.

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