Friday, October 12, 2012

Hank Williams - On the Lost Highway

DAMNED COLD. An ice storm over Nashville has closed down flights across the state of Tennessee.
Driving is just as treacherous, but despite the weather a startling 1952 powder-blue Cadillac convertible hurries on through the night along a rising, twisting road marred by patches of ice, fog and flurries of snow.
A teenager looks into the rear-vision mirror as oncoming headlights flare into the vehicle to reveal a figure on the back seat, sedated and asleep at last. There is a blanket over the dozing man, one arm across his chest holding it in place. A white Stetson cowboy hat sits beside him.
Charles Carr, the 17-year-old driver, and his 29-year-old passenger, country music phenomenon Hank Williams, had started their journey well, just two young men on the road and having fun as they got to know each other. Sure, Williams had taken the usual hit of morphine from his doctor to ease any back pain that might worry him over the journey ahead. But he was otherwise sober and ready to sing his heart out.

The pair left their home town of Montgomery, Tennessee on December 29, 1952, for a trek of several hundred kilometres across three states. Carr was ferrying Williams towards two big shows booked for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day 1953. They were getting on so well the boy even dared to tease Williams about his latest song, Jambalaya (On the Bayou), saying he could not understand what the singer was going on about.
Named after a Creole dish, the song involved unusually abstract lyrics from Williams that suggested a Louisiana wedding feast and, perhaps, the groom relishing the consummation of his marriage. Heightened and blurred by Williams's colloquial mix of Cajun French and English, and his vowel-bending singing style, Jambalaya conveyed a good-natured, sensual joy rarely heard on radio outside of blues music stations.
Despite his claims of confusion, Carr must have grasped the innuendos behind the song. He reports they both laughed when Williams called him "a son-of-bitch" for criticising it, further declaring the teenage boy's French to be just as good as his ever was.
In a recording career of only six years, running from 1947 until the end of 1952 -- a year of which was mostly scuttled by the musicians' union strike of 1948 -- Williams notches up 30 hit singles in a row. Another five songs of his will be released posthumously. All 35 singles register in the Top 10 of the Billboard country & western best sellers chart. Eleven go straight to the No 1 spot, including instant classics Cold, Cold Heart, Hey, Good Lookin', and, as of this New Year's Eve, Jambalaya.
In 1951 crooner Tony Bennett had turned Cold, Cold Heart into an even bigger international pop success, backed by a lavish string arrangement from Percy Faith. Soporific and overdone, Bennett's version nonetheless thrills Williams. "This is a song that has kept us in a lot of beans and biscuits," he says when he introduces it in his own show.
Williams himself is considered too primitive for the mainstream, but the figure who will become known as "the hillbilly Shakespeare" is still the artist of choice on Wurlitzer jukeboxes across the nation. If you're drinking in a bar, or live anywhere in the American south, Williams is the king.
Any wildness or bleakness that makes it difficult for the industry to digest him only feeds into a catalogue of great songs that more conventionally smooth pop singers can re-interpret for mass consumption. Bennett wants more; Bing Crosby is sniffing around. An earlier Williams hit, 1948's rollicking Move It On Over, will later provide the musical template for Bill Haley and the Comets' Rock Around the Clock in 1954, opening the door for rock 'n' roll. It will not be until the likes of Bob Dylan in the early 60s that a white crossover artist of Williams's songwriting calibre and revolutionary influence emerges again.
He should be in an untouchable situation as he heads across the Appalachian Mountains, as luminous as the white Nudie cowboy suits he wears on stage with their embossed blue musical notes strewn across him. Instead, Williams has been sacked from the Grand Ole Opry, the live Saturday evening WSM-AM radio broadcast that goes out from Nashville's Ryman Auditorium to the entire nation. Though integral to the Grand Ole Opry's popularity, Williams's boozing has made him insufferable. The impression is Williams is glad to escape the "family values" the program imposes on his image and behaviour.
Unfortunately, producer and mentor Fred Rose has also told Williams he can't work with him any more after the pair recorded Your Cheatin' Heart the past August. The rift with a father figure such as Rose is a much deeper wound. Williams's regular band, the Drifting Cowboys, have just about had their fill too, and these days prefer to tour with his more amenable drinking buddy and imitator, singer Ray Price. A reputation for unreliability sees Williams scrabbling to book shows on a club circuit that should be desperate to have a radio and recording star of his magnitude.
This past year he has also reluctantly divorced his wife, sometime manager and greatest muse, Audrey Sheppard, for the second and final time, swearing if she cut him loose him he'd be dead within a year.
He then marries 18-year-old Billy Jean Jones Eshlimar, memorably described as the type of girl who causes a car wreck every time she walks down the street. Williams reputedly steals her away from fellow country artist Faron Young by waving a gun at his head and letting him know the gal is now his.
Between his divorce from Audrey and his marriage to Billy Jean just a few months after meeting her in 1952 -- a marriage performed three times, twice in public for paying audiences at shows in New Orleans (done, it is said, to repeatedly spite Audrey) -- Williams has managed to get another lover, Bobbie Jett, pregnant.
If that weren't enough, he has fallen deeper into a ferocious dependency on chloral hydrate and morphine prescribed to alleviate lifelong back problems that have reached an excruciating pitch after a botched spinal fusion operation the previous Christmas, 1951. A rumoured loss of control over one of his legs, incurred by the back operation, sometimes causes Williams to fall on stage, only worsening the nonetheless accurate impression of him drinking and pill popping to grand excess.
Nicknamed "Bones", Williams has always been a lean 1.88m tall, prone to hunch over a microphone and mesmerise an audience with his black stare. But lately people say it is as if his face is being sucked inwards. The dark spark in his eyes is going, leaving only a weepy glaze from drinking. He weighs in at just under 60kg, lives on a diet of eggs and tomato sauce when he eats at all. There are tales of his gaunt figure staggering across the stage gobbling a fistful of chloral hydrate tablets to kill the pain. Those who see him in this final year variously speak of his shows as either a tragic shambles or the best he has ever sung.
The word haunted springs to mind to describe Williams, but it is too romantic. He is more frightening than that. A few days before his last car journey he wakes from a nightmare and jumps up, frenziedly shadowboxing around the bedroom. Billy Jean calms him down and asks what is the matter? He tells her he saw Jesus coming down the road to take his soul away.
While Williams and his young driver are joking in their sky-coloured Cadillac about the meaning behind Jambalaya, the fast-moving singer knows he has another song being pressed for delivery into the stores. It too will hit the No 1 spot the moment it is announced he has come to the end of his journey. Its title has Williams's fatal, frog-like smile underlining every word: I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive.

THE LOST NOTEBOOKS of Hank Williams is an album of new Williams songs put together under the direction of Bob Dylan. It features artists such as Jack White, Lucinda Williams (no relation), Levon Helm, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow and Merle Haggard, along with Dylan himself, completing lyrics and ideas left behind by Williams in a set of four notebooks, one of which was with him on the night he died. The content has been speculated on for some time, a Turin shroud of sorts within the country music fraternity. There's certainly no doubting the devotional intensity behind the project now.
In his memoir Chronicles, Volume 1, Dylan wrote of being a young man when the sound of Williams's voice "went through me like an electric rod". It is hard to capture that specific jolt, but country singer Rodney Crowell articulates the right spirit for the Notebooks project when he explains how Williams "provided something that was a really big part of my family and the culture from whence I came, which was Saturday night sinning and Sunday morning redemption -- that's what Hank Williams's music always sounded like to me." Within days of the release of The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, Time-Life will put out a 3-CD box set, Hank Williams: The Legend Begins, featuring rare radio material known as "the Health and Happiness recordings".
These are big steps in a renaissance of the singer's life and work, sparked by a long-running exhibition at Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame entitled Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy. Beginning in March 2008 the exhibition has become the most popular in its history and will not close until December 31. In addition, a film entitled The Last Ride in the USA is making appearances on the festival circuit. While it does not name Williams, or feature any of his music, it is clearly based on Carr's account of their last journey together.
Earlier this year, singer-songwriter Steve Earle released a debut novel inspired by Williams. Titled I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, it imagines the life of the shonky doctor who regularly shot up the country singer with morphine, prescribing chloral hydrate tablets as a cure for his alcoholism, pain and sleeping problems. In Earle's novel, Williams's one-time doctor has become a heroin addict haunted by the singer's ghost.
There are other convergences that are simply the by-product of a great songwriter's material never going out of fashion. In Australia, Kasey Chambers has just recorded a cover of the Williams classic I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry for her Storybook album. On it she duets with Paul Kelly, who plays guitar. She says they did the song in one take, with one microphone, live, "no layering, just the way we thought Hank would have done it and liked it".
"It is my most favourite country song ever," she says. "It's totally heartbreaking but you don't want to stop listening to it. Oh God, it just makes you want to crawl into a hole," she says with a laugh. "It has that combination of making you feel good and bad at the same time, which is what all great country music does."
Kelly says, "Hank Williams songs were some of the first songs I learned. Your Cheatin' Heart, Hey Good Lookin', Rambling Man, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. Lovesick Blues still floors me. The music is so rambunctious in contrast to the lovelorn lyrics. Hank was on to something there.
"Many people have covered I'm So Lonesome and every cover I've heard is slower than the original. The lyrics are so desolate singers want to wallow in the emotion. Hank's version is lonesome all right, but listen to the bounce in the music. There's a perk in it. He always had that, even at his saddest. A good lesson for songwriters."
On the Lost Notebooks recording, Holly Williams, Hank's granddaughter, nonetheless delivers a plaintive ballad called Blue is My Heart. Bone simple, it circles around the words "blue is my heart, blue as the sky". She says this simplicity is the hardest thing to recapture and transform into something great. In many ways Blue is My Heart is her attempt, she admits, "to get to know him". With backing vocals from Hank Williams Jr, the son of Hank and Holly's father, it's possible to hear the ruptured intimacy of three generations in a matter of a few lines.

RAISED POOR in Montgomery, Alabama, Williams had a childhood clouded by his father's nervous breakdown after injuries sustained in World War I, leading to his early departure from the family. To make ends meet Williams's dominating mother ran boarding houses that some claimed were really bordellos. Her life motto was "take no crap", and Williams would tell band members "there ain't no one I'd rather have backing me in a fight than my mother with a broken bottle in her hand".
Helping to support his family by selling newspapers and peanuts, Williams learned the knack of selling a song too, inducted into the trade by a black street musician named Rufus Payne. Williams would badger him for lessons in blues songs. Payne tended to play hillbilly music on the street because it made him more money. It's often said country music is just the white man's blues anyway. It was always a mongrel experience to survive, and every musician knew it. Years later Williams would have a smash hit with a traditional song Payne taught, My Bucket's Got a Hole in It.
Payne was known around town as "Tee-Tot", a pun on teetotaller. Williams may have tried alcohol with him, and he was certainly drinking moonshine liquor with his cousins by the time was 11, getting so drunk, the locals joke, they'd lay down on the earth and fall off it. It's now well-established Williams suffered from an undiagnosed case of spina bifida occulta, a congenital disorder of the vertebrae. A look into his teenage notebooks reveals one of his first original songs was titled Back Pain Blues.
By the time Williams was 14 he was winning talent contests, appearing on local radio and putting a band together. He'd soon be touring a honky tonk circuit known as the blood bucket. As a matter of routine Williams kitted his band out with blackjacks for defence, preferring the use of his steel guitar as an argument settler when under threat.
It was in this kind of environment Williams's songs had to work. And yet their emotional vulnerability is exceedingly unusual for men of that era to express, one reason why his songs were equally as popular with women.
With the looks of a movie-star blonde, Sheppard would hardly be the first female to find Williams charming, but it's fair to say she was by far the most important, however stormy their marriage proved to be. It was for her most of his lovelorn songs were written.
There's a saying that when it comes to life in the American south, "William Faulkner wrote it, Hank Williams sang it". Williams was barely literate, of course, his favoured reading being comic books and romance magazines to fuel song-writing ideas.
Most of the Memphis Sun Studio artists who would lay down the foundations for the birth of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s were raw Southern boys just like him -- Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley. Not for nothing is the wall of Vince Everett's cell in Presley's 1957 film Jailhouse Rock decorated with a photo of Williams.
But by then the traditional country music Williams had once represented was being swept away by the new musical tide, while a refined and orchestrated Nashville sound was evolving to secure whatever parts of the popular market were left.

WILLIAMS'S UNEXPECTED DEATH from what an autopsy declared as "insufficiency of the right ventricle to the heart" (prosaically, a broken heart) made no mention of drugs. But as his road journey unravelled and bad weather caused Williams to miss his New Year's Eve show, the singer did begin drinking. At a brief hotel stopover he is reported to have been wracked by coughing fits and hiccupping, and unable to walk.
A doctor called to the scene gave him two shots of vitamin B-12, laced with morphine. He was in such bad shape he had to be taken back to the car in a wheelchair before he and Carr set off again into the night. Whether or not he also took his tablets is not known, but Williams always had a prescription of chloral hydrate on hand to ease the ride.
In the movies of that time chloral hydrate and alcohol were the deadly cocktail used to slip people what was called a Micky. It is essentially the same type of combination cited these days in date-rape cases. One of the drug's by-products when taken with alcohol is psychosis. That combination with morphine can only be imagined, but back in the 40s and 50s it was a mixture favoured for euthanasing terminally ill patients.
Carr had been driving for almost 19 hours total without sleep when he pulled over for gas in Oak Hill, West Virginia. "He [Williams] had his blue overcoat on and had a blanket over him that had fallen off," Carr said. "I reached back to put the blanket back over him and I felt a little unnatural resistance from his arm."
People still take Williams's last backwoods journey by car as if it were a stations-of-the cross experience, listening to his slyly sexy hillbilly music and lovesick blues as they ride along. It can be a spooky business. As Carr has recalled, "It's a tough drive, I can promise you that."
On New Year's Eve, 1952, before or after midnight, no one knows, Williams scratched away in his thin, spidery hand on a piece of paper, then closed his eyes. The outline of a song slipped from his hand and came to rest amid a few Falstaff Winter Beer bottles clinking at his feet with every turn the car took as it travelled northwards.

by Mark Mordue

       *  First published in The Weekend Australian Review, October 22, 2011. Then in The Word, UK, February 2012. Images of Hank Snow courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Top solo shot a publicity photo for WSM. Group shot of Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys features Audrey Sheppard Williams. Both photos taken in 1951. Hank Wlliams' death car is Creative Commons courtesy of Final image is the entrance to the Hank William Memorial at Oakwood Cemetery, Montgomery, Alabama.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

American Frankenstein: Bret Easton Ellis and Imperial Bedrooms

If I were to have a nervous breakdown and come apart, I can see how reading too much Bret Easton Ellis would help me along.

I've spent the past few weeks wandering through his novels, alternately amused by his wit (there is never enough emphasis by critics on how funny he can be), depressed by his detachment, and ultimately disgusted, somehow soiled, by the violence he elaborates with such clinical precision. More than once it crossed my mind that the body of his work is a preparation for suicide: of an individual, and of a culture. His message is simple: either we pull the plug or someone should do it for us.
American Psycho (1991) remains the most famous expression of this bleak and relentless ethos. There's still a "Category One: Restricted" sticker on my copy, which I had to buy shrinkwrapped from over the bookshop counter when it came out, as if it were hardcore pornography. No doubt this arcane process gave the item a degree of groovy cultural voodoo all its own: a marketing triumph in the age of appearances.
In Ellis's books there's certainly an overarching notion that identity is nothing more than a role we adopt to move across the surface of this world. Or, more truly, an interchangeable set of roles we change, masks we wear, as we pass from place to place, scene to scene. Until it's clear we are not anything at all. Which may be why the star of his first novel, Less than Zero (1985), and its much-heralded, just-published sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, is named Clay.

To reinforce its veracity as a saturnine midlife return, Imperial Bedrooms builds on references to Less than Zero. From the start of Imperial Bedrooms there's an emphasis this is Clay's monologue for real and not some secondhand author's version or Hollywood homogenisation. With that in mind, best run for the Hollywood Hills, everybody, because the truth is the Harold Robbins of postmodern oblivion is back in town, as this superb Ellisian opening declares:
They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book by someone we knew. The book was a simple thing about four weeks in the city we grew up in and for the most part it was an accurate portrayal. It was labelled fiction but only a few details had been altered and our names weren't changed and there was nothing in it that hadn't happened. For example, there actually had been a screening of a snuff film in that bedroom in Malibu on a January afternoon, and yes, I had walked out onto the deck overlooking the Pacific where the author tried to console me, assuring me that the screams of the children being tortured were faked, but he was smiling as he said this and I had to turn away . . .
As for the morality Ellis espouses -- the antagonism to materialism and narcissism that obsesses him to the point of a fetish (what an irony) -- it once again climaxes in self-dispersing acts of violence, momentary ecstasies that allow us to bathe in a sex-and-death abyss where we finally recognise ourselves. Maybe.

Which means that although Imperial Bedrooms is promoted as a sequel to Less than Zero, what it feels like is a prequel to American Psycho, and part of some larger meta-novel that Ellis has been weaving for an entire career. When this larger vision is glimpsed, it's possible to sense genius in Ellis, however flawed and inconsistent his writing can sometimes be.
The author has been toying with postmodern games that link all his books for some time, culminating in Lunar Park (2005), his mock celebrity memoir. Blurring fact and fiction altogether, the novel is an hallucination of what an autobiography can be. This could be incredibly tiresome, yet another hall of mirrors project that numbs us as we are taken for a wildly distorting turn through literary puns and cross-references. But Ellis saves himself by being amusing, then eerie if overly inclined towards a Stephen King pastiche, and finally distressingly poetic as he reaches out futilely for an imaginary son he has lost.
As a work of self-criticism, Lunar Park begins dutifully enough with an analysis of the opening passages to Ellis's novels up to that point. This also makes Ellis difficult to review since there doesn't seem much left to say about him that he that hasn't already said. I had, for instance, also considered beginning this review with a comparative analysis of the openings to Less than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms. It's the type of comparison that not only seemed obvious but necessary, given Less than Zero has one of the most brilliant openings in modern American fiction: "People are afraid to merge on the freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city . . ." Of course, it's a young Dante wearily entering hell. Once that journey was taken, the been-there, done-that feeling would cast a foreboding over all his novels. Rereading Less than Zero, it's all the more amazing to witness the consistency of it, something Ellis has had trouble repeating as his books have swollen in length and complexity, then bloated into failure with Glamorama (1998), a ramped-up tale of fashion models who become terrorists.
Despite this misstep, it is nonetheless possible to argue Ellis's greatest progress until now has been as a comic writer, as evidenced by his return to form in Lunar Park. But the fact remains Ellis burst out of the box with Less than Zero in a fully formed state and he remains little changed as an American existential stylist whenever he leans toward tragedy. That's devastating to see from the outside; it must be tough to negotiate from his perspective. In some ways you can read Imperial Bedrooms as an attempt to shut the door on that forever.
For all its notoriety American Psycho isn't Ellis's best novel, largely because it's too epic, teeming with everything he has to offer as a writer. The Ellis aesthetic here is more, and more again. To the point where you wish an editor had cut the book in half instead of letting Ellis's Armani-clad serial killer Patrick Bateman dismember yet another body.
Until the torture and murder really set in, however, the biggest shock was how hilarious that book was for the first 100 pages. Rather than blood and guts it featured stockbrokers one-upping each other with the quality of their business cards (fretting over the merits of bone, eggshell and off-white backgrounds), as well as drolly written chapters focused on Bateman's appreciative album reviews of Genesis and Whitney Houston. This is one of Ellis's favourite techniques, placing the comic-book mundane beside the vicious. A running gag where an advertisement for the stage show Les Miserables keeps cropping up is another sardonic example in American Psycho. Ellis loves working off this accumulated detail, until the funny becomes nasty and he buries you.
Like all of Ellis's narrators, Clay included, Bateman is unreliable. In his discussion of American Psycho in Lunar Park, the equally unreliable Ellis observes:
If you actually read the book you could come away doubting that these crimes had occurred. There were large hints that they existed only in Bateman's mind. The murders and torture were in fact fantasies fuelled by his rage and fury about how American life was structured and this had -- no matter the size of his wealth -- trapped him. The fantasies were an escape. This was the book's thesis. It was about society and manners and mores, and not about cutting up women. How could anyone read the book and not see this?
To call American Psycho a pure satire, though, is a little kind, as it's never been clear what Ellis attacks and what he celebrates.
The author plays the complicity card so closely to his chest my suspicion is he's not really sure where he stands. Maybe that's the necessary truth of his oeuvre as he lacerates everything and everyone, including himself.
The rage and fury, the wit that can curdle into something so black-humoured you wonder what the hell you are laughing at; it's not just satirical, it's brutalising.
That Ellis admits having based Patrick Bateman on his own abusive, status-obsessed father just makes this fury all the more palpable.

Imperial Bedrooms once again confirms that rage in Ellis's typically leached pulp-fiction style. It's especially notable in Ellis's commanding grasp of minimalist dialogue, with blankly counterpointing, single-line riffs of conversation that carry on like something out of an Albert Camus novel, then slide off into the scripted camp of an episode of The Young and the Restless (a soapie tone Ellis only seems half in control of). Together with Clay's point of view and alienated scenes that tend to run for barely more than a page at most -- and which Ellis has rightly called "controlled cinematic haiku" -- the amount of white space on the page adds to a deserted feeling, an LA emptiness. Like everything else in Less than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms, this is a highly visual quality, movie-like, voyeuristic, floating.
Unfortunately, the book does not sustain its opening rush, and its plot devices, featuring drug debts, elite prostitution, threatening text messages and a blue Jeep that follows Clay around, seem contrived and false, an over-loud echo of Less than Zero's more muted and believable voids. Ellis has got the voice right in the sequel, but he can't quite catch the old scene's pointless momentum.
And yet there is something strangely spiritual permeating the edges of Ellis's writing in Imperial Bedrooms, a shimmer, spooky and beautiful -- and available in only the slenderest of his passages -- that implies some regard for the haunted and even the transcendent that has always been present in his work.
Indeed, if one were to select a genre for Ellis, modern horror would seem most appropriate, conjuring as it does the attendant clash between technology and spirit, surface and soul. Which of course makes Ellis an essentially romantic artist, and typically death obsessed at that. It's just instead of the mechanistic, Industrial Age clash with science the likes of Mary Shelley originally dealt with in Frankenstein, Ellis is wrestling with late-stage American empire capitalism, television, celebrity, modern drugs, communication and identity itself as products.
It's even possible to say that Ellis's Frankenstein is himself. Which is not so far away from the original theme of Shelley's novel, if you think about it, given that she based her monster on Lord Byron and his tormented image of himself.
Very late in Imperial Bedrooms and flowing on from a deeply disturbing scene featuring a young male and female paid to be beaten and sexually violated at a desert ranch house outside LA, a scene so disturbing I'm not sure I am happy I read it at all, this reverie emerges:
The sky looked scoured, remarkable, a cylinder of light formed at the base of the mountains, rising upward. At the end of the weekend the girl admitted to me she had become a believer as we sat in the shade of the towering hills -- "the crossing place" is what the girl called them, and when I asked her what she meant she said, "this is where the devil lives," and she was pointing at the mountains with a trembling hand but she was smiling now as the boy kept diving into the pool and the welts glistened on his tan back from where I had beaten him. The devil was calling out to her but it didn't scare her any more because she wanted to talk to him now, and in the house was a copy of the book that had been written about us twenty years ago and its neon cover glared from where it rested on the glass coffee table until it was found floating in the pool in the house in the movie colony beneath the towering mountains, water bloated, and then the camera tracks across the desert until we start fading out on the yellowing sky.
Within this strange luminescence one senses another realm that Ellis might enter. A dream world rather than a nightmare, although it is couched in seductively evil terms above and so hardly light yet. The tone of initiation and ritual is similarly hard to miss. One might extend this to the act of writing and reading itself. And ask if Ellis is indeed his father's son, or someone else.

-         -  Mark Mordue

* First published in the Australian Literary Review, August 4th 2010.

Friday, June 15, 2012

New York Am I

Kenneth Branagh at a You Am I gig?! I had to look twice. It turned out to be an ostrich-like version, but that's New York for you: imitations, echoes, shadows ... of fame, fatal fame. It's been styled into people's DNA.
The Mercury Lounge sings with those dreams, with bar-land ambitions and grungy possibilities. Welcome to New York: the font of opportunity, the home of lost souls.
This is the last night of You Am I's American tour to promote their new RCA release #4 Record. Back home in Australia this group shimmer with critical and commercial success. But when singer-guitarist Tim Rogers, drummer Russell Hopkinson and bassist Andy Kent hit the stage it's a shock to see this much-vaunted group (their admirers include Sonic Youth, the former Soundgarden, Oasis and silverchair). They look battered, ragged, puffy, greasy, pale, just plain unwell and messed up by the road.
A full house of some 200 people, 50/50 American/Australian, greets them enthusiastically. I've made the mistake of saying to Andy Kent earlier at the bar that it's great to hear so many Australian accents. The comment seems to trouble him - why grind away here for an audience they already have back home?
Tim Rogers may have answers to that. He comes on as if James Brown has possessed his spastic, skinny white-boy body, thrusting his arse out, jutting his chin, giving a declarative rap about "showtime". A moustached Russell Hopkinson has a look best described as bottleshop Spanish, with a drumming action indebted to a loopy Keith Moon sensibility that seems to push the songs forward into the audience. Andy Kent's huge bass chords cable the whole beast together.
This is a great three-piece down on its luck. And it takes a few songs before You Am I really start to burn. During that build-up it's interesting to watch how utterly driven Tim Rogers is - the increasing intensity of his physical performance.
From the by-now-standard windmill fury of his guitar style to the gravelly, throaty envelope around the sweeter thinness of his recorded voice ... to the spitting, the wisecracks, the sense of danger that underlines him at every turn, most explicable in a ferocious version of Junk where he almost eats the microphone in two or three gestures that are strangely chilling.
Rogers's energy is phenomenal. He appears to have literally worn Hopkinson and Kent out with his drive, to have chewed up their existential energy and to push on the ghosts of what is left of them.
Rogers tries to use humour to cover or mask what is an extraordinarily angry performance. But it continues to pour out of him.
Trike has much more power than the recorded version but it doesn't shine as a song. It also hints at a wrong turn in Rogers's writing - the '60s affectations, The Who meets The Jam fandom that has taken the band away from the direct and raw muscularity of their Sound As Ever debut.
It is as if he has gotten too smart, too embroiled in his love of pop history. He's still a brilliant songwriter, of course - studious, encyclopedic, ruthless as a craftsman, but he seems to be commenting all the time, pointing and observing rather than feeling. He's losing the centre of the music, himself.
Perhaps that's the source of the inexplicable rage that has always been a part of Rogers's mocking stage persona. After the show I see him sitting alone downstairs with a black glass of Guinness in hand, looking morose. I ask him, "What's the matter - you look down in the mouth?"
Rogers tells me and repels me at the same time with the comment, "Everybody has their problems, you know." I can't tell if it's an appeal for intimacy or a snarl.
It's been a great night. Powerful, intelligent music from a band quite clearly injured by their own quest to make it in America.
Tim Rogers must wonder where it's going to end.
- Mark Mordue

* First published Sydney Morning Herald/The Age, December 24, 1998
+ Image of You Am I taken from a promotional poster for You Am I's #4 record. More images and details at

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Hold That Tiger

A tyrant can shoot down a tiger but shakes in fear when someone whispers a poem.

A poem whispers down a tyrant but shakes when a tyrant shoots a woman.

A woman is a tiger shooting poems through a tyrant's dreams.

Twice in the chest, once in the shoulder, and once in the head at point-blank range.

Hold that tiger, hold that tiger...

- Mark Mordue

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Orhan Pamuk's Snow

By Orhan Pamuk
Faber/Penguin, 436pp, $29.95

‘The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of a poem he would have called what he felt inside him "the silence of snow".’

As soon as I read these lines, I knew I wanted this book. As I went deeper, I realised I also wanted to be inside it, as we always feel when great literature affects us - because we know it or, more strangely, feel it knows us.

That the author of Snow plays a literary shadow game - as a nameless narrator attempts to retrieve the details of a turning point in his friend's life - adds to this curious feeling of remembering rather than reading, of melting into the process of the story.

It would certainly be hard to find a more perfectly titled book than Snow. With its meticulously formed sentences, floating atmospheres and endlessly swirling storylines and characterisations, not to mention the snow itself that falls so constantly, it could take on a heavy-handed quality. Yet the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk never runs out of ways to make you feel, taste, see and "hear" its quiet power.

When Snow opens we are introduced to Ka, a well-known poet and would-be journalist on his way to a Turkish border town called Kars. Having spent the previous 10 years in Germany as a political refugee, Ka has returned home. Ka has lived a creatively bereft life in Germany, writing nothing and feeling the shame of an immigrant's life at the bottom of the social heap: "it had been a long time since he had enjoyed the fleeting pleasure of empathising with someone weaker than himself."

He has been commissioned by a newspaper to report on a municipal election in Kars and to investigate a mysterious "epidemic" of suicides among local young Islamic women. But Ka is really taking the journey west to seek out a beautiful girl called Ipek, whom he hopes to make his wife. As he trudges through Kars pursuing the details of the election and the more troubling events that motivated so many young women to kill themselves, a snowstorm cuts the town off completely.

Questions of politics, faith and identity dog Ka and all those he speaks to. Eventually these tensions overflow in a local coup that takes on the dimensions of farce, while Pamuk sustains a terrible sense of matter-of-fact brutality and evil nonetheless.

At one point, Ka observes how the "pale yellow street lamps cast such a deathly yellow glow over the city that he felt himself in some strange, sad dream, and, for some reason, he felt guilty. Still, he was mightily thankful for this silent and forgotten country now filling him with poems."

It becomes clear that the narrator who is telling us Ka's story is drawing from Ka's diaries in order to track his movements and hopefully find these lost poems, the "soul" of the events. The gap between this narrator and friend of Ka's and Orhan Pamuk himself begins to narrow till any line between what might be fact and what is presented as fiction becomes hard to determine.

Despite the European postmodernist tag he gets, there is something very Eastern and traditional about Orhan Pamuk. His style echoes the elaborateness of Turkish art, Sufi mysticism and the role of the storyteller as a conjurer. As corny as the metaphor sounds, reading this book also feels as if you are looking at a world in a snow-dome (or a television set), with all the melancholy distance that might imply.

At times there are just too many digressions into history, philosophy and character background, and I wondered how much my own travelling through Turkey kept me involved in the internecine political and religious arguments that power this highly soulful thriller. Would others understand, or wish to understand? In the end, the book felt too long, though I was no less moved towards tears for all that excess.

Written before the events of September 11, Snow is a Dostoevskian political thriller that could happily sit beside The Possessed (aka The Devils). It confirms Pamuk's place as one of the most important writers at work today. Where Dostoevsky, however, was fevered to the point of manic, Pamuk is made of altogether cooler, if no less romantically fatal, stuff.

-         -  Mark Mordue

Review first published in Spectrum Books, Sydney Morning Herald, September 11, 2004
Passport image depicts Orhan Pamuk's first passport, sourced online, no credit available.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Smoke Signals: Tex Perkins' Dark Horses

It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon and Tex Perkins is still in bed. "I've been doing interviews on the phone all day," he says. "Thought I may as well make myself comfortable. It's freezing up here. Absolutely pissing down. About time I got up, I guess."

Somewhere in the heavy green hills above Byron Bay, the 38-year-old singer is alone on his property, "40 acres of scrubby bush backed onto a rainforest. If you don't want to see people, you don't."

This rustic isolation absolutely oozes out of Perkins's third and latest solo release, Sweet Nothing. He has called it a move from "portraiture to landscape" in comparison to past recordings, as well as "smoke signals from the subconscious", a description that especially pleases him.

"I just didn't want to make another record that sounded like there was trouble at home," he says of the moody, love-damaged material for which he is known. "Inevitably, you invite speculation when you write songs of that nature.

"I'm very aware that people are obsessed with that thinking." What Perkins calls "the Woman's Day approach - that songs are windows into your personal life."

"I don't intend to write songs that are advertisements for how I'm feeling. I don't think they're relevant till they're out there in the world being a soundtrack for their listener," he says firmly, before acknowledging, "That said, you do reveal yourself unintentionally to a certain extent."

What's clear from our conversation and an earlier meeting in Sydney is that Perkins has come a long way rom the archetypal bad man of Oz rock who clobbered a guy with a beer bottle for harassing his girlfriend at a post-ARIA party a decade ago. This was the "Tex is sex" rock star of whom Henry Rollins once said, "Mick Jagger wishes he was Tex Perkins."

He had a loutish charisma on and off the stage back then, fiery and leanly brutish with the Beasts of Bourbon, lightened and poised with the Cruel Sea, while the Tex, Don & Charlie venture provided him with enough bar-stool reflectiveness to show what a great storyteller he was. It seemed he could do anything.

And what he did do, unconsciously perhaps, was slowly disappear: to the North Coast, to family life as the father of two girls, to a music immersed in atmosphere. Perkins's modern take on country-and blues-shaped rock has grown across all three of his solo releases - Far Be It From Me (1996), Dark Horses (2000) and now on Sweet Nothing - whatever he might say about the finer points of self versus landscape.

Indeed, he says what he may have done "is finally form a group", ending the idea of a solo career altogether. That this "might be the last release I do contractually under the Tex Perkins name. After that it could just be the Dark Horses [currently his backing band]."

This dissolving or surrendering intensity that dominates Sweet Nothing is hard to pin down. "One thing I did do intentionally was try to take out evidence of domestic artefacts in the lyrics, like cigarettes or cups of coffee, things that humans have. I didn't want to tie it down to talking about the human condition. These songs could be about bees," he says, with a slight smile.

"I was actually toying with calling this record Great Apes (after a track on the CD), with ape theme packaging and everything. But none of my female acquaintances thought that was a great idea," the smile grows. "I'm actually fairly obsessed with anything to do with our closest relatives on the evolutionary chain."

That said, human love still emerges. Midnight Sunshine gives the recording a bright charge of it early on, with cryptic, somewhat cosmic lyrics evocative of the film Betty Blue as Perkins celebrates how "we build a fire beneath the house" and burn off all the "things that rust". It was written quickly, then interpreted by the Dark Horses "just the way I imagined it. It's one of those rare songs you can't imagine being played any other way".

"Apart from the mood, though, I couldn't explain what that song is about," he says. "I usually start with the music first, when I'm writing, and a theme is already inherent in that when it comes to lyrics. Sometimes it's not till much later you know what a song is about. It can be long after it's written. Sometimes years." 

"With Midnight Sunshine there is this idea that a tangible energy is created by or from ..." Perkins hesitates. "I guess you can call it love. But it's not really love on that song. It applies to everything. Again it's not just about human relationships."

The record's physicality is obvious, as is the influence of Perkins's surroundings. "Even though I've been up here for five or six years," he says, "it hasn't been till this record that it's been evident in the music." He's careful to distinguish this local energy from the town itself. 

"I think Byron has a horrible vibe. The town is meaningless to me. It's just a constant procession of backpackers. Where I live is 45 minutes away. I don't think Byron Bay should get any credit."

The last sentence drips with typical Perkins contempt. But the subject is quickly dropped. Writing and recording Sweet Nothing last year, he found himself alone on the property while his partner was away in Melbourne working. Birds, dogs and horses were "my company".

"The isolation does affect you. Up here you are acutely aware of the elements, too. All your activities depend on the weather. You can go mad if you're stuck indoors and it's raining."

It's this curious blend of the elemental and interior that makes Sweet Nothing something of a voyage. "I will say it's a progressive record," Perkins says. "Almost like a day. The first couple of songs are morning time and it's up and bight. Then it gets progressively darker and darker."

A Name on Everyone, which comes towards the end of the record, has an epic weight reminiscent of Neil Young circa On the Beach. Perkins admits he's been listening to "a lot of '70s rock. Neil Young has been one of the cornerstones. And Bob Marley. With everyone else thrown in for variety. I think I returned to my childhood roots with this record. I must be getting old, I guess."

"You were asking me about the title Sweet Nothing when we met in Sydney and at the time I didn't have a great answer," he says on the phone. "But now I've had time, I think it refers to my idea of spirituality. Most religions and spirituality that humans involve themselves with is connected to this whole idea of something beyond life. That this is just a stage before the real deal. I completely reject that. God is here. God is life," he says with surprising passion. 

"That also connects with what I wanted to say about Great Apes. We are great apes. We are creatures of nature. We're not connected to God. We're creatures of the earth. And we are here."

- Mark Mordue

* First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 26, 2003

- Portrait shot by Krystina Higgins