Wednesday, November 14, 2007
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.