Monday, 7 March 2011

The day the music died (part II)

Discovering Hutchence was important, but in retrospect he was just a portal to something grand and quite unexpected. 

Allow me an anorak moment: Hutchence and INXS led me to Jenny Morris, from there to Neil Finn, from there to Crowded House, Split Enz and Schnell Fenster... Hutchence and INXS led me to Richard Lowenstein and from there to Hunters and Collectors, Pete Townsend, U2 and Aretha Franklin... Hutchence and Lowenstein led me to Dogs In Space and from there to Nick Cave, Ecco Homo, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Max Q, Whirlywird, to the plays of Sam Sejavka and the extraordinary live gigs of Ollie Olsen's No. Hutchence and INXS recorded Good Times with Jimmy Barnes late in 1986, from there came a greater appreciation for Cold Chisel, an entree into the Easybeats, etc, etc. Somehow everything I found on this journey of discovery was more than it seemed: each song was the key to another door, which in turn opened a room full of artists, musicians, film-makers, playwrights, each of whom had produced work which in turn became keys to open yet more doors. Amazingly I am still finding keys and opening doors. Amazingly I am still as exhilarated by stumbling across a work of art that gives me pause for thought, a song that gives me goosebumps, a sentence that I want to read and read and read again, seeing a film I get so lost in that I never want it to end...

So, Good Times. 
Gonna have a good time tonight
Rock and roll music gonna play all night...
An ode to hedonism. Simple, anthemic. And the perfect choice as the song to promote a series of concerts held around the country over the summer of 1986/7. Apparently INXS and Barnes recorded an album's worth of material from which Good Times was chosen. There was a rumour that the album was floating around on bootleg, but I've never seen it... Anyway, the concerts were billed Australian Made and INXS were the headline act. As the name suggests, all the acts were Australian: in addition to Barnes and INXS were Mental As Anything, I'm Talking, The Triffids, The Saints, The Divinyls and The Models. A great - and diverse - lineup.

And this is how my first musical hero led me to my second: David McComb. McComb was the enigmatic lead singer of the Triffids. I should've come away from the Australian Made gig in a state of INXS-induced euphoria - I was 15 after all. But instead I couldn't stop thinking about the pale, poetic man who'd been singing about things. It was the first time I'd ever heard poetic music, music with lyrics that plumbed the depths of places and emotions. I know this will sound naff given that Dylan and myriad other poet musicians had been plying their trade for a generation, but remember how small my musical horizons...

At the time my only income was $5 every time I mowed an elderly neighbour's lawn. So my income was dictated by the seasons: good growing weather would net me $5 a week, a slow season I might be lucky to get $5 a month... I saved my fivers and bought Born Sandy Devotional. I got it on tape and have long since lost it. It's been replaced thrice - once on vinyl, then on CD, then last year I bought deluxe CD... It was Calenture twelve months later that really affected me though. While BSD was (and is) sublime, it was an album of the desert and plains and open spaces of WA. Calenture seemed somehow more universal to my youthful ears.

Seven albums that I played to death during 1987/88: Calenture, Kick, Paul Kelly's Gossip, Weddings, Parties, Anything's Roaring Days, Hunters and Collectors' What's A Few Men and Crowded House and Tracy Chapman's debut eponymous albums.

Kick seems the odd one out, I was already outgrowing my first hero. Discovering The Triffids had unlocked a door to a trove of music with depth and relevance, music that made me think and feel as well as just listen and tap my feet... Listening to McComb and his cohorts made me want to write, made me want to string words together in ways that were beyond functional, to find that ethereal quality that he had that made his lyrics art.

This is a very circuitous story, but bear with me, I'm still on the way to the house on the hill. I wrote, I studied, I moved to Melbourne, I started uni. I spent most of my life terrified. In my three years as an undergrad at Monash University I made one friend: after our first German class on 28 February 1989 she asked me to lunch with her on the lawns between the Menzies Building and the Union. We chatted until we ran out of talk; she a Camberwell girl, me a bumpkin - it didn't take long to exhaust our conversational avenues. At which point she turned on her walkman (I thought it rude, but also accepted it with a shrug - it just reinforced how inept and out of my depth I felt...), before handing me one of the earbuds... I accepted, listened...

My eyes are filled with light
My feet can't touch the ground
From up here I can see the sight
Of my hometown city burning down

Now it blazes for me house by house
And my legs they buckle under me
But I don't mind, I sing the old song of joy
For I know why and why it had to be 

Higher, let the flames grow higher
Erase my name from your lips as we kiss
Higher, let the flames grow higher
Now there's one soul less on your fiery list

Now I drive familiar smoky streets
I know this town, I know where to turn
All the while I kept a road map in my head
I just came back to see the people and their houses burn

One soul less on your fiery list
Hometown farewell
This is my hometown farewell kiss...

Of all the things she could've been listening to she was listening to Calenture... I spent the next decade trying to get over her. Truly. She was even at the auction when I sold Perry Street. Bloody Calenture. It's defined as: Tropical fever or delirium suffered by sailors after long periods away from land, who imagine the seas to be green fields and desire to leap into them...

Leap forward that same decade: 1999. I'm busy fixing up my crumbling house with a view to selling it. I know that once it's fixed that it'll never feel like a home, it'll always feel like a project, a job, a burden. My brother (who is living with me at this stage) and I are driving to Heathcote to visit our grandparents. We're in his then-girlfriend's white Mitsubishi Magna. We've just driven past Calder Park racetrack. The radio is tuned to JJJ. The news comes on. David McComb is dead. Dead.

Herion, cardiomyopathy, heart transplant, alcohol, amphetamines, car accident. Dead.

And that was the day my music died.

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