Posts Tagged ‘Robert Forster’
Robert Forster played songs and talked about his collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock & Roll at the New Theatre in Newtown during the Sydney Writer’s Festival. The theatre was presenting Waiting For Godot at the time. One of Robert’s first bands, before he formed the Go Betweens with Grant McLennan, was called the Godot’s: “the band you’re waiting for”. It was the kind of absurd, charming and precise detail that runs through Robert’s songs and writing.
He talked about finding most of what he needs to know about an album in the packaging, in the musicians and producers and composers credits. In the artwork. Even in the decision the musicians make to print the lyrics or not.
Compare that with iTunes which has a text box for composer’s credits, but rarely lists them, no place (other than a comments box) to list musicians and often prints misleading release dates – showing when the album was released to iTunes rather than when it was recorded. Some albums have the CD packaging scanned as a PDF booklet, some don’t.
Foruli has released a limited edition hardback copy of Robert’s book with a 7”single with versions he’s recorded of songs that relate to the book: a cover of “I’ll Spend My Life With You” recorded by The Monkees. “The Prisoner” by The Saints. “Just a King In Mirrors” a Grant McLennan song from the Go Betweens album Before Hollywood. And “Walcott” by Vampire Weekend.
I’ve been thinking that I want an electronic version of Robert’s book, that updates (with a subscription) to pull in new reviews he writes for The Monthly, and links to previews of the music. I’d also like to be able to click through to Robert’s own music on iTunes. His cover versions expand upon his criticism. I’d like to be able to listen to his version of Guy Clark’s “Broken Hearted People” after reading his story about Guy Clark, or his version of “Look Out Here Comes Tomorrow”, originally recorded by The Monkees, but written by Neil Diamond, after reading his review of Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs.
But then it occurred to me that The Monthly has both an iPhone and iPad app. The iPhone app is a guide to what’s in the issues and allows me to buy them, individually, within the app. I haven’t bought an iPad because Australia is a secondary market and much of what I want to watch and read and hear isn’t available for sale through iTunes or Kindle in this market.
They’re never blockbusters: L.A.chef Suzanne Goin’s cookbook hasn’t been published here, and I can’t imagine her becoming a television celebrity here. And Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water, while brilliantly written, and an incisive account of California’s irrigation system, doesn’t seem like a hit waiting to happen.
I have an iPhone 3G that is, as William Gibson would say, “rapidly obsoleting” but I’m stuck. There’s no use going into a 2 year plan on an iPhone 3GS which is itself, “obsoleting” but no indication of when I’ll be able to get an iPhone 4. Most of Apple’s products, when they become available in Australia, sell at a modest premium above the currency translation but phones are insanely priced.
The iPhone 3GS 8GB which retails for $99 US ($108 Aust) is $719 Aust. I start to see the appeal of vinyl albums and hardcover books again. In David Tennant’s final appearance as Dr Who he places the Tardis one second out of sync so that it becomes invisible. That’s what it’s like being in Australia, where local publishers can tie up the rights on things they may never plan to broadcast or publish.
I live in Sydney. I write for The Huffington Post, an online publication based in Los Angeles. So where am I for the purposes of reviewing? When I wrote a post about Enhanced Editions wanted to refer to the forthcoming edition of David Simon’s Homicide. Given the way that David Simon’s city desk reporting translated to television, in The Wire, it seems like a perfect title to be augmented by video. And extras. But the English edition isn’t likely to be sold in America.
I’ve been using the Shazam app to identify the music I hear in The Wire. When a song comes up as “unrecognised” and I’m sure that it’s perfectly clear and audible to the app, I wonder, is it not in the Shazam database, or is it designated unrecognisable because it’s not available through iTunes in Australia? I’ve asked Shazam and am waiting for a reply.
Robert’s music criticism builds upon the tradition of the Rolling Stone interviews. Jann Wenner was inspired by the Paris Review’s interviews with authors that took the readers into the “working process of the artist.”
Robert’s song “Darlinghurst Nights from the final Go Betweens album, Oceans Apart, is what I want to achieve with writing about music now. It’s a portrait of a group of people, a description of a city, and an evocation of a mood, of melancholy and possibility.
The specific inspiration that comes from The Wire is having an illustration when I talk about wanting to write about music as it exists in the city. Music is only heard when the characters hear it, in situ, from car radios, in bars and homes. And The Wire is something to have onside when I describe wanting to write stories about ordinary moments, ephemeral things. It’s incredible and wonderful that the pace started out slow on the first season and then just got slower.
David Simon’s new series, Treme, is about music and musicians and set in New Orleans post-Katrina:
Steve Inskeep, National Public Radio: I get a sense, watching an early episode of “Treme,” that you’re not even worried too much about explaining all the nuances of this. You’re just trying to present it accurately, and Im going to dive in as a viewer and get it or not.
David Simon: Well, you know, there’s two ways of being a tourist. The first way is you get on the tour bus and the guide grabs the microphone and you drive down the streets that everyone has driven down before. And he tells you, you know, when this church was built and then you go in for 15 minutes and you come out again. And you go to the next country. And then there’s the other, which is when you go somewhere for a while and you don’t have a tour guide, and you walk into the nearest bar or shebeen and you just be. And you start figuring out a place from the people up. And the way we try to do television is that way, which is to say exposition is pretty soul killing, and denies the fact that people have a right to live their lives without explaining it to you, the viewer, first. And it trusts that the viewers are intelligent.
There’s an iPhone app that I’m dazzled by, the iBird Explorer Interactive Field guide to North American Birds. It helps me identify birds I see in a San Francisco forest, from a suburb of Sydney. I became interested in bird watching when Ken Goldberg set up a remotely operated robotic camera, that can be directed by anyone over the internet, on the deck of Craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s house at the edge of the Sutro forest outside of San Francisco. The project is “investigating range change in subtropical birds and possible links to global warming using a publicly-accessible robotic camera.”
The iBird app has photographs, recordings of birdcalls, data about the bird’s range, identity and habitat, and factoids: for example, some of the many collective nouns for the bald eagle are ‘convocation’, ‘tower’ and ‘jubilee’, and at one time the word ‘balde’ meant white not hairless, and referred to the eagle’s white head and upper neck. I wish I had an equivalent to iBird to identify music.
I also consult iBird when I’m reading about the wild bird sightings in Manhattan, posted on the Urban Hawks blog. I’m looking for context not easy identification. I’m interested in wild things in cities and the Urban Hawks blog deals smartly and sensitively with the murky ethics of wild and tamed creatures living alongside one another, particularly how to coexist with the Central Park coyotes.
THE ROBERT FORSTER FIELD GUIDE TO MUSIC
Two weeks ago I read Robert Forster’scollection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, and last week I saw him speak at the New Theatre in Newtown as part of the Sydney Writer’s Festival. “Great artists present a world” he said during his talk. His music presents a world and as a critic he maps the worlds of other artists.
The physicist Richard Feynman wrote about how his father instilled a love of science in him as a child. He’d take him on walks through the forest and his father would say, look at that nest, what kind of bird do you think lives there? And they’d talk about what materials the nest was made of, where it was placed, how it was camouflaged, and develop a picture of the bird and how it lived in its habitat. If a T Rex was standing outside the house his nose would be poking through the second floor window, Richard’s father would tell him. Robert’s music criticism has this quality. I read something he’s written and come away with a vivid sense of music alive in its world.
“It’s lonesome out there on the prairie. There are eagles up in the sky, and birds, lots of birds, and lakes, and wolves, plenty of wolves, and rivers, branches and trees, and even the odd bee. The songwriters that describe this landscape are urbanites who may not feel comfortable in nature but are happy to refer to it and the early-’70’s song styles and sounds that accompanied the first golden age of music that brought together the rock world and the great outdoors.
Back then it was called country rock or cosmic country, and it included everyone from The Flying Burrito Brothers to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jerry Jeff Walker to Waylon Jennings, to those denim kings of the cash register the Eagles. Then it faded, as the fashion passed, and everyone cut their hair and shined their belt buckles and played it way straighter.
The past ten years have seen a re-engagement with both the era’s music and its mother-nature muse. And where once the gaze was post-60’s comedown, with plenty of dope and whisky to knock off the edges and keep the beat loose, the current crop has forsaken the cowboys and their ladies and the good times past for a more neurotic and charged reading of the landscape itself. So there are rocks and valleys and rivers, and songwriters in their twenties and thirties investing these words with new meaning to the sounds found in the hippie record collections of their mums and dads and turned-on, lay-about friends.”
Robert Forster. “In Search of a Songwriter”. May, 2009
Robert’s reviews introduce me to worlds I don’t usually visit. His solo records are almost the only pop records I have in my collection. He frequently writes about musicians I’ve never heard of, or, if I know the names, I have no idea what they sound like.
During the punk rock era in Australia people tended to be gypsy’s. I sometimes lived in the same Australian city as Robert and Grant McLennan, but almost always when the Go Betweens were recording rather than performing. My time in Los Angeles co-incided almost exactly with the time when the Go Betweens were on hiatus. Robert was popular there in an underground kind of way. His records were played on public radio. He toured occasionally.
When Robert and Grant told me about records and books and films in Australia it was nearly impossible for me to find them. Foreign movies might play occasionally in revival houses. And I seem to remember it was illegal to import records and books and there was some kind of black market operating that was shrouded in intrigue.
In Los Angeles it was easier to follow up on the things Robert told me. I could go to Tower Records and Book Soup on the Sunset Strip. I once saw Courtney Love in a nightgown and Kurt Cobain in pyjamas looking at books about classical composers at Book Soup. William Gibson immortalised the Tower Records on Sunset in his novel Spook Country, the locative artist Alberto had created an installation memorial at the site of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s heart attack, near the world music section. And lots of screen-writers and producers lived in my neighbourhood so the two video stores had deep inventory: sci-fi and Japanese monster movies, obscure foreign movies, every screwball comedy ever made.
Book Soup is still there but Tower Records is out of business (apparently it had become a Virgin Megastore and they’re all gone too). Not many of the movies made it from video onto DVD, at least not that I’ve been able to find in Australia, and fewer still will move over to Blu-Ray, or whatever’s next. But the internet has compensated with strange online museum-shrines to musicians and albums, film curios posted on YouTube, and sales outlets in out-of-the-way places around the world that will ship internationally.
When I read Robert’s reviews the words on the page pulsate before my eyes with the potential of links. When I read Robert’s review, “2274 Words Of Praise” about Guy Clark’s debut album Old No. 1 it reminds me that I probably first heard of Guy Clark when Robert recorded his song “Broken Hearted People” in 1994 on an album of cover versions called I Had A New York Girlfriend. I can google the song on my iPhone and discover it’s from Guy Clark’s Texas Cookin’ album made in 1976. As I read Robert’s review, I want to hear his version of Guy Clark’s song, and Guy Clark’s album, and then follow the other roads Robert plants signposts to.
“Imagine someone coming along who had lived. Someone with a failed marriage behind him, who had travelled and worked with his hands in a number of cities, and whose childhood was sufficiently distant to be romanticised or even understood. Imagine all of this sung about in a warm and knowing voice to killer tunes written by the singer on an acoustic guitar, and that the music to these songs took the honesty and craft of folk music, the best of country-music melodies, and then doused it with a wry ‘rock’ attitude that borders on hippy but in some bizarre way predates the bitten reality of Raymond Carver. This person is Guy Clark. He made Old No. 1 in 1975 at the age of 34.”
It took Guy Clark a long time to arrive at recording Old No. 1. “[He] was born in the small West Texas town of Monahans in 1941. It’s oil-well country, remote and bare, resembling – you would imagine – the dusty motion-picture landscape of Giant or The Last Picture Show.” He moved through folk clubs Houston, San Francisco, back to Houston, then to Los Angeles, and then he secured a publishing deal that led him to Nashville where, “he was not a natural fit … he’d seen and done too much, and his songs told this story and not the tales of cheating husbands and wives that were the bread and butter of the country-music songwriter. He did attract followers, though; young songwriters such as Rodney Crowell and a very young Steve Earle, drawn to country music but repelled by its restrictions, and in awe of the weight and majesty of the songs Clark was now gathering for a debut album.”
THE FORMAT OF THE FIELD GUIDE
Robert described finding everything he needed to know on the covers of records/CD’s, in liner notes, photographs, design, credits. I wonder how long CD’s will even be a mainstream medium? They’ll probably always exist: old technologies shrink and survive in back alleys. But it’s doubtful he’d find the details he looks for if digital downloads or files in clouds are the dominant music delivery system. The details may even be misleading: if it’s an older record the date may be when it was released to iTunes rather than the actual release date.
I remember when I was living in New York how vinyl records became nearly extinct overnight. One day I went into Tower Records on Broadway and there were racks and racks of vinyl albums, and a few days later they’d almost all gone, replaced by CD’s in clunky cardboard ‘longboxes’ wrapped in cellophane. There were a few vinyl albums left, at the back, in a dark corner. There was no gradual transition.
An audience member asked Robert what he thought of e-books. He doesn’t read them he said, and he doesn’t Twitter. An e-book version of Robert’s criticism mightn’t be anything like regular books on paper or even the current e-books, which translate regular books, in a similar format, onto electronic devices. It would be dynamic.
In the past few days Twitter has brought about a change in my online information gathering that’s as staggeringly swift and brutal as the vinyl to CD switchover. Twitter’s been shaped and driven by its users: I read, on a tweet from its founder, I think, that the indicators “@”, “RT” (retweet) and the # that groups subjects, for example #SWF2010, aggregates posts about the Sydney Writer’s Festival, were all thought up by users, and adopted as standards by Twitter.
Then Twitter opened up its API (application programming Interface) which allowed people to build applications on top of the service that added enhancements, searching, saving tweets, finding other users, following breaking news. There was an app called Tweetie that opened up links and photographs within the application, made it easy to search for people and topics and export tweets to save them, or the links. What it also does is allow you to open up the website of the Tweeter, within the app. So Twitter bought Tweetie, and it’s now the official Twitter app.
A few weeks ago, at the height of iPad fervour, before the device was released, I read that Instapaper could be the ‘killer’ app for the iPad. It allows you to save stories and page views, read them offline and archive them into folders. The Twitter app archives to Instapaper. It’s very nearly the newspaper app I mused about a week ago. You can also open up your RSS feeds within Instapaper and archive posts.
In four days Instapaper has become my exo-brain. Over coffee in the morning I round up links from my Twitter feeds (it loads from where I’d left off the night before) and read them from Instapaper. It doesn’t matter anymore if a cafe has wi-fi or I can get a 3G connection that won’t cut out on my iPhone. My newspaper substitute is there, saved, to be read offline.
I can imagine Robert’s reviews, online, being underpinned by algorithms that gather up and save links into a folder in Instapaper. I’ll be able to preview the music he’s writing about and his music will be brought in from iTunes.
ROBERT AS AN EFFECTIVE DATA FILTER
We’re already drowning in data and the floodgates are about to open wider. One of the services I like best from the Guardian is “datastore” which gathers data, and parses it, and makes it available on spreadsheets I can download to peruse. It carried a report yesterday about Government data in the UK probably soon being made available to the public. This is raw data on crime, spending, unemployment, climate, education, health. The Guardian quoted Adrian Holovaty who runs a Chicago based neighbourhood news site called EveryBlock. “As more governments open their data, journalists lose privileged status as gatekeepers of information – but the need for their work as curators and explainers increases. The more data that’s available in the world, the more essential it is for somebody to make sense of it.”
I’m bewildered by much popular music criticism, other than Robert’s, or the writing of my journalist colleagues, because I don’t have the reference points. It’s all raw data to me: There’s too much gossip and a lot of what bugs me is that critics define music as belonging to a particular category and leave it at that. I find the categories inscrutable.
There’s a Brian Eno story I read recently but didn’t bookmark where he talked about how musical categories may now be redundant because they’re too various. The entry for ‘ambient music’ on Wikipedia describes Eno’s intent for the music:
“Eno used the word ‘ambient’ to describe music that creates an atmosphere that puts the listener into a different state of mind; having chosen the word based on the Latin term ‘ambire’, ‘to surround’.” Then it lists subcategories that have emerged: ambient dub, organic ambient, nature-inspired ambient, dark ambient, black ambient, ambient house, ambient industrial, space music, isolationist ambient. A few of those categories are evocative enough to suggest a particular type of sound to me, but I doubt that I could distinguish ‘black’ and ‘dark’ ambient from one another in a line-up if all I had was the name to go on. Dark ambient is dissonant, black ambient relates to another sub-category where ‘second-wave black metal artists’ experimented with dark ambient. There are subgenres of black metal called ‘viking metal’ and ‘symphonic black metal’. The more links I follow the more rabbit holes open up into stranger and stranger worlds that I can’t relate to one another.
Robert makes categories a useful starting point: “In the tangled undergrowth of the indie-rock scene there are certain musical genres that re-emerge with some regularity. New wave, no wave, country, disco and garage rock all have their time in the sun, and then come back later in a new mutation. But three or four years ago, a genre appeared on the scene that hadn’t really made its presence felt before: psychedelic rock.
The originator’s of this music came from a gnarled branch of the British music world of the mid-to-late ’60′s. The commercial face was Donovan; behind him and deeper underground were The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Tyrannosaurus Rex and a host of other bands and individuals putting traditional folk sounds into the fire of the changing times. It was potent music wedded to the notion of hippie, and it died somewhere in the early ’70′s, when the glad rags and incense hit the unforgiving light of a new decade. With it went the far-out and far-reaching sense of journey – locked away, heard in the odd singer-songwriter, it’s traces found at the edges of every psychedelic-rock revival – but the full blast has not come back until now.
Its return is marked by certain changes. Drug use seems to be down, the major record labels are at arms-length and the starry-eyed acid-for-the-first-time lyrics are gone. The latter is the key change in a movement that now goes under a variety of names, including ‘freak folk’ and ‘free folk’. For while the predominantly acoustic nature of the music remains intact with, grounded, hooked on nature and ecology, slippery relationships and the kooky take on life that you find in outsiders (especially young Americans) writing their first songs.”
Robert’s clarity, the evocative directness of his metaphors and analogies, engages the musician’s world. As a musician he understands the process: the songwriting and recording and deciding on album covers and credits, but also the perspective of producers, record companies, concert promoters, journalists and audiences. What we mostly get in record reviews is marketing, how records are sold. What Robert explains is why they’re made.
He reviewed Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs that was produced by Rick Rubin:
“Neil Diamond and Rick Rubin are like two trains meeting, having come from opposite directions. Diamond is the veteran: 40 years in the business, hit singles, Vegas, movies, and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” with Barbra Streisand. Rubin is the hip record producer: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash’s last four albums, System of a Down and the Run-DMC and Aerosmith Smash “Walk This Way”. Two guys from different sides of the tracks, but together they’ve done it. At 60-plus, with Rubin by his side, Neil Diamond has cut an album he can be proud of. There are gold singles on his wall; platinum-selling albums, too. Yet with 12 Songs he’s thrown a real punch: probably no hit singles, just a sustained cycle of songs that crowns what at times has been a tinsel career.
… In an interview Rubin referred to Diamond as “Springsteen before Springsteen”. Diamond, in his wonderful accompanying sleeve notes, describes the listening sessions both of them had before recording started, “like two teenagers”. Diamond wanted to hear early rock ‘n’ roll. Rubin went to Diamond’s early work, quizzing him, leading Diamond to listen to his own first recordings. Perhaps it was out of this that one vital change came. Amazingly since the late ’60’s Diamond had not played guitar on any of his records. Rubin put him back on guitar and with one stroke made him a singer-songwriter again.”
Lately my favourite novelist William Gibson has been championing the quality of being atemporal, accessing the whole continuum. It started me thinking about how I might have been an ineffective music critic in the early 1980’s because I pushed the continuum all the way back to the Big Bang. I grew up in the Flinders Ranges region of South Australia where outlandish fossils are always being dug up. I remember looking up at the night sky, as a child and wondering what existed before the universe. Cosmology and palaeontology and the Harlem-era jazz of Duke Ellington weren’t a great preparation for evaluating breaking news in popular culture.
After a couple of years I switched to writing about architecture and design and, once the world had opened up to me and I’d moved to New York and then California, began specialising in writing on engineering, and carving out a hyperspecific microniche writing about remotely operated robots.
I’d always thought of punk rock as a phenomenon of urbanism, young creative people moving into downtrodden parts of cities worldwide and creating their own worlds. Maybe it’s cyclical. There was a story today in the New York Times about arty types moving into abandoned industrial parts of cities and giving them a new life having reached a ‘critical mass’: a restaurant in a coffin factory in Paris, the fish-packing district in Iceland aping the makeover of the meatpacking district in New York as a place where art galleries and cool cafe’s and boutiques are congregating. I don’t know if it was in New York, but I read about a Comme des Garcons ‘guerrilla’ boutique in a former butcher shop where the clothes were hung on meathooks and the screens for the changing room were the fringes of heavy-duty plastic that act as flyscreens in butcher shop walk-in fridges.
The new life being brought to ruined and abandoned parts of cities worldwide was the most fascinating aspect of the punk rock era to me. But it wasn’t a city-council backed urban-renewal strategy with arts grants and marketing slogans and chambers of commerce collecting friends (customers) on Facebook. St. Kilda in Melbourne and Darlinghurst in Sydney and the Bowery in New York, for example, to the extent that the wider cities considered these areas at all at the time, weren’t considered to have been improved by punk rock.
I was obsessed with the holy trinity of the era: The Sony Walkman, William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner. “I knew I’d done a pretty interesting movie which, in fact, was extremely interesting but was so unusual that the majority of people were taken aback,” Ridley Scott told Wired in 2007. “They simply didn’t get it. Or, I think, better now to say they were enormously distracted by the environment … In Blade Runner, my special effect behind it all would be the world.” William Gibson has said he considered quoting “watch out for worlds behind you” from the Velvet Underground song “Sunday Morning” as an epigraph for Neuromancer.
The punk rockers were creating invisible personal worlds from music, film, art, literature. The Walkman made listening to music something private and portable, as Gutenberg’s printing method had done for reading. I deliberately misread William Gibson’s idea of ‘virtual reality’, a synthetic world conjured within a screen, as ‘distal reality’, the real but geographically far away world you’re in when you connect to the video feed of images from the Mars Rovers or Dr Robert Ballard’s robots finding howlingly ugly tubeworms using chemosynthesis to live at the edge of hydrothermal vents where the earth’s molten crust is constantly moving, or connecting over the internet to the robot arm that’s planting seeds, watering plants and weeding Ken Goldberg’s Telegarden.
THE STREET FINDS ITS OWN USES FOR YOU
William Gibson’s first novel Neuromancer, published in 1984, could have carried his observation “the street finds its own uses for things” as a tagline. In interviews he talked about how the inventors and manufacturers of new technologies can’t control, or even imagine, how they’ll be used. Drug dealers using beepers and pornographers making and distributing their movies on video aren’t the early adopters marketing departments dream of. And Grandmaster Flash creating a new musical form from scratching sequences from vinyl records together isn’t a predictable use for hi-fi equipment. “Other technological artifacts unexpectedly become means of communication, either through opportunity or necessity,” wrote William Gibson in an essay published in Rolling Stone in 1989. “The aerosol can gives birth to the urban graffiti matrix. Soviet rockers press homemade flexi-discs out of used chest x-rays.”
We’re in a post-cyberpunk world now: “In the city-as-platform, the street finds its own uses for you.” Justin Pickard tweeted this wry updating of William Gibson’s aphorism a few days ago. I’ve relied on the Google Maps application on my iPhone for the past two years because I have a chronically poor sense of direction. Now I just follow the pulsating dot down the purple line to my destination. Downloading the Twitter app a couple of days ago made me realise that nearly all of the apps I rely on work because they know where I am. There’s an etiquette. Launch the apps and they ask “may I use your current location?”. And I’m not sure that I can define ‘current location’. I live in Sydney but I’ve constructed an ersatz New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco through Twitter feeds that are equally ‘real’ to me. There’s an application called Museum of the Phantom City that maps ‘otherfutures’ onto Manhattan, with descriptions and drawings of projects imagined by “architects and other visionaries” for particular sites. I launch it and imagine what’s being presented. I can’t access any of the projects because, being in Sydney, I’m considered ‘out of range’ WAY out of range.
The technology in William Gibson’s novels of the twenty first century is what exists around him as he’s writing. “A friend of mine had been sending me links to locative art Web sites and I found it all excessively nerdy and very conceptual,” he said in 2007 while on an author tour for his novel Spook Country. “But I was drawn very strongly to the idea that the entire surface of the planet is literally divided up into a digital grid. I read about geo-caching and geo-hacking, but my needs as a storyteller were not being met. So I came up with something that was like the lowbrow version – locative art that would be on the side of vans or as it would be done by the people whose work is in Juxtapoz Magazine. And that generated [the holographic artist character] Alberto and his art, which I like a lot. The cognitive dissonance comes from the idea that this guy’s using it to make memorials to River Phoenix and Helmut Newton.”
ROBERT FORSTER, ARCHAEOLOGIST
Robert Forster talked about his collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, and played a few songs at the New Theatre in Newtown last week during the Sydney Writer’s Festival. He’s as skilled as an archaeologist at divining whole worlds from a few artifacts. He said that this quality that makes his reviews so vivid began with the attention he paid in childhood to looking deeply into record covers and seeking out interviews with bands to read. “Great artists present a world,” he said. He considers the significance of the photographs and artwork on album covers and reads the liner notes and credits, looking for clues. Bands drop hints he said, everything we need to know is there on the record sleeve. He considers how and where a record is recorded, who produces it, when it’s released, and the affect it might have on its audience.
“To release an album in January or early February is, sometimes, to make a statement. There are two blocks of the year when most records come out: March to June, and September to November. July and August are European and American summer holidays, so little is released then. December is a favourite dumping ground, home to many a bad record hoping to be lost in the rush. That leaves January and February as the one time of tranquillity, the time when a light can be shone on something special. People have not been bombarded yet, so a record can slip through and travel on word of mouth, and if it does ‘bite’, the artists have the rest of the year to tour it.
Chan Marshall (Cat Power is the moniker for this one-woman band) and Beth Orton have a few things in common. Both are in their mid-thirties, and emerged in the mid-’90’s with records that made an impact: Marshall with her fourth album, Moonpix, and Orton with her debut, Trailer Park. Since then they have consolidated, but not gone supernova. Both have wandered; both have done good work and bad. Neither is prolific. Now, about ten years into their careers – always seen as a vital point in the arc of a recording artist’s life – they have albums out close to each other, in the early part of the year.
… Focus is not a problem for Beth Orton. She has gone to New York and hired Jim O’Rourke as her producer. O’Rourke is hip; so hip Sonic Youth asked him to join. He made a number of good, influential solo albums in the late ’90’s, filled with hypnotic guitar-figure songs. Since then he has carved out a role as producer, often working with bands with a more mainstream lilt than himself, such as Wilco. It’s a bold choice for Orton, considering the strength of the 14 songs she has written. Big names would have loved this job, but O’Rourke is the inspired choice.
… And yes, there’s something of the Swordfishtrombones, Achtung Baby and Blood on the Tracks about all of this: the artist unexpectedly shedding an old skin, and achieving the breakthrough. As so often, the key is simplicity: the long-sought-after alignment of an artist’s root worth with the means of expressing it.”
Robert Forster reviews Cat Power’s The Greatest & Beth Orton’s Comfort of Strangers
The records made by musicians of the punk rock era have built up a rich fossil record: the conceptual art piece Robert Rauschenberg made of the cover for the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues. The powerful, sere graphic identity of the records released by the Factory Label from Manchester. A craze for candy coloured vinyl: Television’s single “Little Johnny Jewel released on red vinyl”. In the American remake of the British television series, Life on Mars, not so much named for but generated out of the David Bowie song, Detective Sam Tyler, who has tumbled back into 1973 from 2008, goes into a record store he visited as a child. “This is where I bought my first Hall and Oates, er … my first Led Zepplin album,” he tells Policewoman Annie Norris. “What you see here, all of this, vinyl albums, they all become obsolete. Replaced with CD’s and digital music you listen to on MP3 players this big” – he holds his thumb and forefinger a couple of centimeters apart – “and the sound is, well, it’s much worse.”
We’ve lost a lot more than rich sound as music moved first to CD and then digital files, we’ve lost a lot of context, the equivalent of the soft tissue that indicates how a creature lived and the organic external features (hair, skin) that shows what it looked like. The size and proportions of CD covers aren’t as appealing as LP’s. And there’s an almost total eradication of context when buying music online: rarely any composer’s credits given for songs, no musicians and producer’s credits, and the year quoted may be when the album was made available on iTunes, not when it was recorded. And maybe the technological platform is about to shift again, from the contained, closed world of iTunes and iPods and iPhones to the cloud, where music will just sit amongst every other kind of data: spreadsheets, games, e-books, e-mail, twitter streams, and be pulled down onto any kind of device, whenever needed. This is the vision Google is sketching: “Cloud based music will represent the psychological with the idea that entertainment is somehow physical,” Farhood Manjo wrote in a post on Slate a couple of days ago. “In the future, not only will you not get a CD when you buy an album, you won’t even get a digital file. All you’ll have is an access flag tied to your account in a database in a server farm in some far off world.”
THE GOOGLE AURA
So where are the details now that Robert uses to construct the worlds of musicians? How are they presented and gathered? “One of the things I discovered while I was writing Pattern Recognition [published in 2004] is that I now think that any contemporary novel today has a kind of Google novel aura around it, where somebody’s going to google everything in the text,” William Gibson told Amazon.com. Readers can follow his footprints and what he calls a “nebulous extended text” is built up across blogs and discussion boards. He even leaves crumbs out for readers to follow, unexplained pieces of action that read like pages torn from a novel that already exists, but not yet in our time. Warm up exercises for his new novel began appearing on his blog last year. They featured the musician Hollis Henry, who’d become a journalist. She was one of the main characters in Spook Country from 2007.
“Eventually she sighed, asked the Italian girl for a white coffee, a cup rather than a pot. Got out her iPhone and Googled “Gabriel Hounds”.
By the time her coffee arrived, she had determined that The Gabriel Hounds was the title of a novel by Mary Stewart, had been the title of at least one CD, had been or was the name of at least one band.
Everything, she knew, had been the title of a CD, just as everything had been the name of a band. This was why bands, for the past twenty years or so, had had such pointedly unmemorable names. But the original Gabriel Hounds, it appeared, were folklore, antique legend. Hounds heard coursing, high up in the windy night, cousins it seemed of the Wild Hunt. This was Inchmale territory, definitely, and there seemed to be even weirder variants. Some involving hounds with human heads, or hounds with the heads of human infants. This had to do with the belief that the Gabriel Hounds were hunting the souls of children who died unbaptized. Christian tacked over pagan, she guessed. And the hounds seemed to have originally been “ratchets”, an old word for dogs that hunt by scent. Gabriel Ratchets. Sometimes Gabble Ratchets.
Inchmaleian totally; he’d name the right band the Gabble Ratchets instantly.”
From William Gibson’s blog. Material related to Zero History, to be released on the ninth of July.
There’s drama and even great beauty in the juxtaposition of opposites. Good and evil. Light and dark. Tragedy and comedy. Sacred and profane. Digital and analogue.
The pairing of Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey performing songs from the three albums they made together as The Saints, and selections from their subsequent solo careers is a conceptually profound juxtaposition of opposites. There are obvious differences in character and style: Chris’s powerful soulful voice and his deadpan goofy theatricality. Ed’s evenness and calm within the electrical storms of sound he generates with his guitar. At times over the past few years they’ve both performed pared-down versions of their songs and at these shows it’s just the two of them, each playing guitar and singing.
I bought two practically acoustic recent records by Chris, and I’ve gulped down twenty years of Ed’s solo albums in the last couple of years, after returning to Australia from living in America. What I’ve gleaned is superficial, without context, but the extremes of the differences in their solo work are riveting. Chris’s traditional Delta blues readings of Saints songs and ballads with bright flourishes of acoustic guitar and Ed’s abstract, phenomenally beautiful washes of sound in the spare new arrangements for Laughing Clowns songs.
By chance I called into the Customs House library on my way to see Ed and Chris perform at the Vanguard in Sydney and borrowed Robert Forster’s collection of music criticism, which was among the display of books from writers featured at this year ‘s Sydney Writer’s Festival. I re-read Robert’s review of the first Saints show in thirty years, in 2007 in Brisbane.
“Punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia,” Robert writes. “The tentacles that grew out of New York and London from the musical explosion of 1976 affected the receptive waiting enclaves in each major city around the globe in various ways. As the music and images of the Ramones, Patti Smith, early Pere Ubu, Television and the Sex Pistols were heard and seen, bands formed, systems started and the word spread. Brisbane was different, for two main reasons: we had Bjelke-Petersen and The Saints. Bjelke-Petersen represented the crypto-fascist bird-brained conservatism that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against. His use of a blatantly corrupt police force, and it’s heavy-handed response to punk, gave the scene a political edge largely absent in other states. And The Saints were musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart.”
The timeline is clouded but it’s possible that The Saints single “(I’m) Stranded” might have been the first punk rock single, and it gave them enough momentum to move immediately to London where they compressed an entire geological epoch into a couple of years: going from wild primitive rawness to remarkable refinement and complexity, without sacrificing any of the brute strength of the sound, in just three albums. Then they stopped and Ed and Chris went in opposite directions.
The only time I ever saw The Saints perform was at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival on Cockatoo Island in 2008. I only ever owned the third and last Saints album, Prehistoric Sounds, and I never listened to it properly until I was already completely in thrall to Ed’s next band the Laughing Clowns, who were a wonderful, incredible shock to my system. Until then I’d listened almost entirely to silky, sensual jazz: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie with Lester Young, Miles Davis when Gil Evans was his arranger and Bill Evans was his piano player, and the electrifying funk groove of Weather Report. Any of the Laughing Clowns songs might have produced the shock that profoundly altered my appreciation of music, but “Holy Joe” is a good example. There’s dissonant piano, an almost painfully wailing saxophone, the precise, powdery thunder of the drums, a morse code kind of bass line but with the addition of a driving guitar rhythm and catchy lyrics it seems like a potential rock hit. I quite simply never heard music the same way again after hearing the Laughing Clowns. The Laughing Clowns of the 21st century are a polished and mature evocation of the 20th century lineups. They’re experimental in a sharper, more cerebral way and the old songs have new sonic textures of singular beauty.
I’ve gained some appreciation of the breadth and intricacies of Chris’s music indirectly. He sang on “Bring It On” from the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Nocturama. It’s the most moving and inspiring love song of our time from an album that deals unflinchingly but with tremendous warmth with the challenges of our generation. In a ruined world where we can have no hope that things will get better, we must face reality but still create joy and live meaningful lives with humility about our place in the natural world. Nick’s songs have multiple perspectives: In “Bring It On” God is telling humankind He will not abandon us though we are in the process of destroying the earth. And Nick is encouraging the woman he loves to tell him her faults, the mistakes she’s made, and he will accept them and love her even more. Chris’s performance is grandly romantic, not with sweet words and hypberbole – the lyrics are in no way sweet – but the sheer soulfulness of his singing, which makes one gladly swoon at the prospect of facing up to bad news with courage.
Mick Harvey’s talent for intelligent appreciation doesn’t re-make the songs he covers in his own style but removes the clutter and distractions of style from the originals. His version of Chris’s song “Photograph” uncovers a tenderness and vulnerability at its heart. Mick’s cover versions are generous of spirit, he sends one back to the originals with a more nuanced appreciation of their qualities.
My disappointment with Ed and Chris’s show at the Vanguard had nothing to with the musicians or the music or the performance and everything to do with a lack of imagination in the support systems: the staging, the merchandising and the absence of a vibrant independent media with critics whose insights might give us a context for a repertoire that includes Saints songs that Ed and Chris created together as well as songs from their markedly different solo careers that they play now together. It’s a show that deserves a thoughtful appraisal.
Chris made an ironic reference to himself and Ed being part of string quartet playing to an aged audience in a dusty conservatory. There was a creaky, ramshackle quality to the atmosphere and dinner/theatre format that did them a disservice. I wished for a sense of occasion, that the show had been staged at an arty, classy joint, the side room at the Museum of Contemporary Art, perhaps, where the Creative Sydney forums are held, which has the atmosphere of a speakeasy for eggheads. They deserve a sexier, more elegant setting, with well designed chairs and good lighting, and seriously good martini’s at the bar. It’s a show that can and should have a polished, coherent structure. The new Laughing Clowns shows have seemed spontaneous but planned. The Laughing Clowns show at the Forum in Melbourne during the jazz festival last year was flawlessly plotted: opening with a slow instrument by instrument tuning up that becomes a collective dirge which had the quality of a prologue and a crisp, upbeat clearly defined finish, the sonic equivalent of a “the end” title card.
One of the many joys in seeing the shows played by the Laughing Clowns Mark II is how the arrangements change and that each show has a different repertoire. With these performances Ed and Chris deserve to have the show augmented by an online playbill, which lists the pool of songs they’ll be drawing from and links to buying them through iTunes, and the playlists for each show in each city, as they happen.
Music downloads strip the music of context: dates, musician credits on the tracks, liner notes. Some albums have pdf booklets, but they’re generally unsatisfying, seemingly just scanned from regular cd-inserts. With Ed and Chris’s performances there’s an opportunity to invent a new kind of boxed set, spending the t-shirt and stubby cup budget on commissioning intelligent liner notes for their solo music, which could be brochures with or without redemption codes for the music, or viewed online, in a format that makes it easy to follow.
Ed’s solo records are impressively varied and unusual but I have almost no frame of reference for them. I yearn for the kind of liner notes that Bill Evans wrote for MIles Davis’s Kind of Blue album, where he likened their intuitive, spontaneous development of tunes from mere fragments, to a form of painting practised by Zen buddhists in Japan.
And augmented by the kinds of technical appreciations of musicians that Bad Plus piano player Ethan Iverson writes on his blog, for example his appreciation of Lester Young:
“Lester Young was born 100 years ago today. He died just over 50 years ago, in March 1959. Young is the most important link in the chain between early jazz and modern jazz. He sounded good playing with both New Orleans-style musicians and beboppers. If he were around now he could probably go to Smalls tonight and sit in with whoever was on the bandstand without any problem. While few other jazz musicians from the pre-1950 era continuously invented new phrases, serious Young lovers get every record he’s ever made because they know that there’s always the possibility that he will play something they haven’t heard before. In addition, Young had one of the most swinging beats in the history of the music. And though he could deliver a honking, stomping tenor, even his most frantic outbursts sound curiously relaxed. He never tried too hard or worked for the impossible. He just was: Cool. In fact, he may have literally invented the word “cool” and given it to the English language, for his verbal jousting and pre-beatnik beatnik behavior gave him a iconic mystique almost inseparable from the sounds coming out of his horn. The improvisation, the beat, the cool, and the mystique has made him one of the most well-loved musicians of the 20th century. These posts document my attempt to learn from Lester Young in the 21st.”
It’s hard to find a way to evaluate Ed’s skills and the way he thinks about music: I’ve always considered him a masterful arranger as well as a musician and admired him the way I admire Gil Evans. Ed surrounds himself with musicians of dazzling virtuosity – the piano players Chris Abrahams and Alister Spence, and drummer Jeffrey Wegener – and his arrangements for them are a kind of cartography, a landscape drawn for them to inhabit. Gil Evans’s arrangements for Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain are sonic landscapes, for example, and the new arrangements for the Laughing Clowns are panoramic in this way. Gil Evans had an expansive definition of brilliance and wrote arrangements for Jimi Hendrix’s songs that Hendrix himself would have played if he hadn’t died. Jazz can relate to the Laughing Clowns rock songs in a similar way.
Ed’s curiosity and ideas can’t be explained by observing trends. In the liner notes for the Laughing Clowns three volume retrospective – which I don’t have to hand, so I can’t check the reference – it’s suggested that his unusual perspective might have its origins in perversity. When he was recording the Saints albums in London, and the Sex Pistols were at the centre of a savage media and fashion storm, Ed mentions he was listening to the Tony Bennet and Art Blakey album, Beat of My Heart, which features cool, Cary Grant suave renderings of high society songs. But it’s perverse in itself for wholesome renderings of decadent subjects. Tony Bennett doesn’t acknowledge the dark, haunted Southern charm of Johnny Mercer’s songs, or that Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” is a hymn to intoxication. The drumming however, at the centre of the arrangements, is crisp, intricate, sophisticated, full of personality and with that relaxed cool that Ethan Iverson attributes to Lester Young, and has the qualities that Jeffrey Wegener would later bring to the Laughing Clowns.
Ed appears, like Gil Evans, to see what’s going around him from a sharply different angle than everybody else. When Gil Evans started his orchestra his points of reference were the dapper orchestras led by the likes of Duke Ellington, but he encouraged his reed players to play oboes, flutes and English horns. “His use of woodwinds in a dance band context was almost unheard of at the time,” the Gil Evans biography Out of the Cool observes. “Twenty years later, Gil’s scoring for these instruments in a jazz setting was still considered unique.”
There are threads running through Ed’s solo albums I wish I could follow: for example, he’s remade the Laughing Clowns dirge thriller, “Collapseboard” with its trapdoors and false-endings into the surf guitar “Diving Board”. His music has clearly defined cues and clues – Indian ragas, Civil war era drummer boys marching with soldiers, Euro-disco – and I want to be able to intelligently evaluate these references.
Ed and Chris are two different substances balanced on a set of set of scales. The worst of rock criticism reduces them to a pantomime: wicked Mr Punch ridiculing and bludgeoning the nearly silent authority figure. Chris Bailey deserves a portrait drawn with a finer granularity. I’ve seen him perform exactly twice, but it’s enough to sense that his bizarre wit is drawn from some deep well of cultural references. His lyrics allude to literature. He’s recorded a slow version of W C Handy’s jaunty “Careless Love” suggests a knowledge of early jazz. Maybe it’s an homage.
There are a lot of reasons for the renewed interest in Chris Bailey and Ed Kuepper: Ed’s inclusion in the Bad Seeds at a time Nick Cave’s fame is growing is provoking an interest in the origins of these musicians, the middle-aged existential dread of their original audience, the interest of a whole new generation sparked by performances of The Saints and the Laughing Clowns. And the fact that Ed and Chris still have new ideas and confound expectations.
“The Saints strode the stage like giants,” Robert Forster wrote in the conclusion to his review of The Saints first reunion performance. “This is a band that still breathes fire. If they do no more, ever, then this one-off show has burnished the myth rather than tarnished it. More shows in the future, or a tour, would be most welcome, and if the rebirth of The Saints as a live band turned out to have occurred in Brisbane, it would be a lovely touch. And finally, if there is recording to be done with this line-up, then, based on the sparks on display an album to join the glory of the first three would not be beyond them.”
That fourth album may be a recording from these duets between Ed and Chris.
For a couple of weeks after the poster for the Sonny Rollins concert went up at the Sydney Opera House last year I’d stand in front of it debating whether to buy a ticket or not. Roughly 4.2 of the 7.7 days worth of music on iTunes on my computer is jazz. Much of the rest is taken up by the complete catalogues of Nick Cave and Nitin Sawhney and Bruce Springsteen (since The Ghost of Tom Joad). But I only have one Sonny Rollins record, the corny Way Out West, which I bought for his version of Johnny Mercer’s Hollywood cowboy song “I’m An Old Cowhand”. At 79 Sonny Rollins was still playing at the top of his game. “Perhaps hidden in his attic is a magical reel of tape, aging into a lump of flaking iron oxide, while he defies time’s gravity in life as in music,” wrote Gary Giddins.
But I had the sneaking feeling that I was mostly wanting to go to the concert to cross his name off the list of ’1001 jazz musicians we must see before they die’. Whatever appreciation I have of the experimental genius of Sonny Rollins comes from Gary Giddins’s jazz criticism and conversations with Laughing Clowns drummer Jeffrey Wegener. The same with Ornette Coleman, another one of the 1001 guys on the list, who also performed at the Opera House last year. I didn’t go and see Sonny or Ornette. What I really wanted was to see the Laughing Clowns again. But they hadn’t played for about twenty five years, so how likely was that to happen? Inevitable as it turned out. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds asked them to perform in the All Tomorrows Parties festival that they curated last month. The Laughing Clowns were sublime. “I loved that band,” Nick told Toby Creswell.
All Tomorrow’s Parties was a slice of time come to life again. Seeing the Boys Next Door and the Go Betweens and the Laughing Clowns on the same bill was remarkable in the early 1980′s. But that time was just a springboard and what these musicians are creating now is exponentially more remarkable.
I remember the excitement of seeing Grinderman perform in Sydney in 2007. Much had been made in the press of Nick turning fifty. This side-band of his was a brave blast of energy from people grabbing life by the throat and storming into the future. All of that rude energy acts as a Trojan Horse, cloaking smart, provocative lyrics. The Grinderman song “Go Tell The Women” is a folk song for our era; our problems, our delusions, our mistakes are described but at the end we’re encouraged to “come on back to the fray”. When Michael Almereyda explained his motivation for filming an adaptation of Hamlet in 2000 he quoted Emily Dickinson’s response to Shakespeare’s writing: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head is being taken off I know this is poetry.” This electrifying sense is what I always feel at performances by any of Nick’s bands and the Laughing Clowns, then and now.
I loved the Laughing Clowns on first sight twenty five years ago. The instrumental complexity was familiar to me, from jazz, and Jeffrey Wegener has always provided for me the equivalent of the sharp liner notes that were printed on jazz record sleeves. But what Ed’s songs and musical arrangements introduced me to, that has deepened slowly over the years, is an appreciation of the heart-lifting qualities of soul music. The sexy groove of the brass arrangements is exhilarating but the Laughing Clowns have a vast dynamic and emotional range and what was most moving for me was the sweetness in their quieter moments.
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter delivered me to the Laughing Clowns. And Duke Ellington delivered me to Wayne Shorter.
Duke Ellington guided me through life. He had a reverent curiosity so he kept evolving and progressing and expanding the boundaries of his music, and he brought into his orbit younger musicians who had the same inquisitiveness. I discovered Charles Mingus when he made The Money Jungle with Duke Ellington. I discovered John Coltrane through his duet with Duke Ellington on “In a Sentimental Way”, which remains one of the most elegant pieces of music I’ve ever heard. They make sound feel richly soft, as if it were cashmere or velvet. In his autobiography Duke Ellington called John Coltrane “a beautiful cat” and rhapsodized about how smooth their recording session had been.
When Duke Ellington died in 1974 I was looking for another mentor. I read somewhere that John Coltrane had suggested Wayne Shorter as a replacement when he wanted to leave Miles’s band. Wayne Shorter is a Nirichen Buddhist. His musical portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has never wavered from Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassion in her struggles with the brutal dictatorship that prevented her from governing after she won an election in Burma in 1990, was constantly referred to in news features about the riots there a couple of years ago.
He has Duke Ellington’s reverent curiosity: “I need to find out more about other people’s cultures with the time I have left,” Wayne Shorter told Ben Ratliff, the music editor of the New York Times, in 2004. “Because when I’m writing something that sounds like my music – well, not my music. I don’t possess music – but when they say ‘Wayne Shorter’s playing those snake lines,’ I should take that willingness to do that, and extend it to the desire to find out more about what is not easy to follow, what is difficult to follow in someone else’s life.” He supports the endeavours of new generations of musicians. Long before the pop world could accept the seriousness and strength of Joni Mitchell’s jazz impulses, Wayne Shorter played on her records. And last year he appeared on Herbie Hancock’s tribute to Joni Mitchell, River. Amongst new arrangements of her songs they played Wayne Shorter’s composition, “Nefertiti”, made famous by Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock played Duke Ellington’s “Solitude”.
When I was a teenage journalist Wayne Shorter was the first person I conducted a long radio interview with. He was touring Australia with Weather Report. It was a great late line-up of the band with Joe Zawinul on piano, Peter Erskine on drums and the explosively soulful Jaco Pastorious on bass. It was thrilling to see a jazz band walk onto a concert hall stage lined to the rafters with stacks of speaker boxes. A heavy metal band might have emerged from the wings. Or Parliament might have walked onstage, plugged in their instruments, and stirred up some incendiary funk. Later the same night I saw Weather Report play an acoustic set at a small jazz club and what they played had a profound, painfully tender beauty.
A couple of weeks ago Ben Ratliff was taking questions from New York Times readers. He was asked which of the musicians he’s interviewed he found the most opaque or confounding. “Would be Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter, who are ninjas of the opaque,” he replied. “But I think there’s a reason we like them opaque: around the fifth time you read what they have to say – about harmony or memory or life and death or what happens when we name things – you see that underneath the oracular statements are some strong and simple ideas and a lot of humour.” It’s with that spirit I approached the Laughing Clowns.
There were long stretches where I saw them perform every week. They struck me as something highly original. In speaking with Jeffrey and Ed it became clear that there was little overlap between the jazz I was familiar with and what they listened to. I had practically no frame of reference for anything from popular music. It was obvious they were drawing from a wide range of inspirations but there was something about them that was entirely themselves. They inspired trust. I was less interested in trying to reduce them to something familiar than waiting for what was entirely new about them to become familiar on its own terms.
The bizarre thing that Ed has to deal with is that one of the legends he’s constantly being compared to is himself. Technically, the Saints independent single “(I’m) Stranded” is the big bang, an explosion of energy out of nowhere that brought the punk rock movement to life. There was magic and danger in the combination of Ed’s guitar and Chris Bailey’s voice. Punk rock was a global phenomenon, a response to a time not an artistic movement, and it now seems inevitable, but the Saints were first.
I was curious and grateful to see the Saints perform at All Tomorrow’s Parties. They hadn’t been a part of my world. It was probably Clinton Walker who played for me the records that Ed made with Chris Bailey, and I responded most to their third and last record together, Prehistoric Sounds, which is moving along the path Ed would take with the Laughing Clowns. Robert Forster wrote about the first time in thirty years that the Ed and Chris Bailey and original drummer Ivor Hay played together as the Saints, a year and a half ago in Brisbane: “The set is a dream run through the band’s early catalogue. Helped by a brass section that trots on and off the stage, the songs visit two camps. There are the big, driving ballads from Prehistoric Sounds: “Chameleon”, “The Prisoner” and “All Times Through Paradise”. And there are the very best of the short, sharp tunes scattered across the first two records: “(I’m) Stranded”, “No Time”, “Know Your Product” and “This Perfect Day”. The total effect is unrelenting quality and depth of vision. This is no punk ram-a-lam but a full showing of the original breadth and beauty The Saints were able to put out in an era and in a town (London) which demanded that punk bands play by punk rules. The Saints’ wilful bucking of the trends then allows the music to storm now. There is wonder here, and the brass section, with its stabs and swing, is no ‘soul music’ affectation or quote, but welded into the rock form like few other bands have ever managed … And then there’s Ed Kuepper … It’s a master class in electric-guitar playing which has you realising that he’s one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses. Obvious comparisons are with Neil Young or Kurt Cobain, sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them, while also being able to solo a hurricane of notes that mean something to the song.”
I had no obvious comparisons for Ed’s guitar playing when I first saw the Laughing Clowns. The wonder of seeing the band now is that I have no comparisons at all. Although the Laughing Clowns have been dormant Ed and Jeffrey have been performing together for many years, recently as a duo touring Europe with the Bad Seeds. Experience and maturity suits them, they’re radiant and relaxed. I was reminded of something that Duke Ellington said to someone who remarked of his band: “They’re all so relaxed! How can they look so casual and play such moving music?” “They’re free, that’s why,” he replied. “A natural man is a free man. If they were tense they would only pour out noise. Because they’re relaxed, they play music. It comes from inside them. How could jazz be otherwise?”
Jeffrey’s doing with his drumming has the power to knock you off your feet but there are many quieter moments that are spellbinding. There’s a lot going on, his style is complex, but there’s clarity. The usual metaphors we apply to drummers don’t seem to apply to him. He’s not a backbone or an anchor, there’s something more organic about his role in creating the sound, he’s more like a central nervous system.
What I sense in Ed and Jeffrey are qualities I admired in both Duke Ellington and Wayne Shorter: they’re still points in a shifting universe. They’re agents of change but have great composure. Rock writers tend to interpret music as literal autobiography and musical style as an extension of personality, so their brains overheat trying to link the powerful electric force of Ed’s guitar with his calm demeanour. But viewing the music symbolically, as poetry rather than prose, that coolness is the whole point, energy contained and directed rather than an erratic force. There’s a dazzling drama to some of Laughing Clowns songs, the trapdoors and false endings within “Collapseboard”, for instance, but also an abiding peacefulness, heard in “Eternally Yours”.
When the lineup that Nick and the Bad Seeds had selected for the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival was announced I was fascinated to see that they’d presented history as the future. With Nick’s success in particular there’s been a growing interest in the creation myth of that time. All Tomorrow’s Parties showed that it was a social history: the cumulative effect of so many different bands and people that created a whole world. Names of clubs, city landmarks, anecdotes about escapades, and trying to place a society by noting the credits on record sleeves won’t bring that world to life.
But Robert Forster’s song “Darlinghurst Nights” does. He captures the yearning at the heart of this time, that all of the big ideas and grand sonic experiments were trying to fill up an emptiness. The rich, soul stirring experiences of life always seemed to be somewhere else. They’d have to be willed into existence through music.
“I’m gonna change my appearance every day
I’m gonna write a movie and then I’m going to star in a play
And then I’m going to go to Caracas
’cause you know I’m just going to have to get away…”
“Darlinghurst Nights” The Go Betweens
The song reminds me of standing under the Coca Cola sign in Kings Cross looking at the traffic going up and down the ski-slope of William Street, feeling a little as if I were floating, and wondering just what was out there in the world. The song is an exquisite portrait of a group of people at a particular time. It fades out on a brass arrangement, hazy and magical that reminds me of the Laughing Clowns, who were part of the world of Robert’s song.
When I bought that Go Betweens record and heard that song, I remembered that there was something enchanted about the Laughing Clowns and yearned to see them again. There were always silk-screened posters of old-fashioned white-faced clowns stuck up on the walls of boarded-up buildings around Darlinghurst as if they were summoning people to roll up for a circus. And there was always a sense of occasion in going to see them, no matter how dingy the club was. A set of multi-coloured lightbulbs was strung up across the front of the stage, and the band had a theme song. If I’d known anything about mythology at the time I might have been able to quantify that sense of magic. Maybe a circus is where we “face the irrational savage beast within” as Joseph Campbell suggested we need to do if we’re to live without fear. People putting their heads between the jaws of lions, doing death defying feats on high wires, and clowns, taking the role of their ancestors, the court jesters, being the only ones who could tell the truth about life and not lose their heads. There’s a vague sense, in the lyrics to the Laughing Clowns theme song, that this might be the case. It’s a hopeful song.
After living in America for so many years I had a lot of Ed’s records to catch up with, and I’ve been gradually buying them through iTunes. The diversity and range of his music is awe-inspiring. There was the thrill of finding Chris Abrahams playing piano on “King of Vice”. I was a child when I first heard Duke Ellington’s music and loved it with a child’s intensity, listening for the piano because it was his instrument. As I grew into a more critical appreciation of music, piano continued to be special, and there’s no piano player more special than Chris Abrahams: lyrical, peaceful and quietly joyous. One of the many treasured experiences of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival for me was seeing Chris’s band the Necks for the first time. And on Ed’s Starstruck record the meditative Indian beats over a layer of electronic sounds locked into sounds I was mesmerised by in India. I’ve been buying the music directly onto my iPhone and the mobile version of iTunes provides even less information than the full program on a regular computer. Without a context I felt as if I was being distracted by exotic surfaces and not getting to the heart of the music.
I’m on surer ground with the pop standards he’s recorded and I’ve concentrated on buying and listening to songs whose histories are known to me. Ed’s version of “Ring of Fire” is simply phenomenal. He’s taken a song that chronicles lightning striking in two people’s lives, that seems to suggest complete destruction, and in his arrangement moves forward in time to show that far from ruining their lives, this was a turning point that led to eventual happiness. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is part of his legend, the driving rhythm of the song was his musical signature. Wild, out-of-control Johnny Cash impulsively falls for June Carter, tearing his family to pieces. He has a wife and four young daughters. On the record his eldest daughter Rosanne wrote after her mother, Johnny Cash and June Carter died within eighteen months of each other, she has a song, “Burn Down This Town”, about him storming in and out of her life when she was a child. The song which describes Johnny Cash’s casket being carried in a black Cadillac is underpinned by the Doors song “Riders On The Storm”. Ed’s arrangement reflects what we know with a lifetime’s hindsight. That Johnny repaired his relationship with his daughters, that June Carter became a deeply loved stepmother, and that reaching out to her was the smartest most life-affirming thing he ever did. Ed captures the whole life of the song. He slows Johnny Cash’s beat, sweetens the song with Mariachi horns, and sings it in a conversational tone. He takes it out on soft, solemn marching drums.
The reborn Laughing Clowns have limitless opportunities. It would be fascinating to hear them re-record their old repertoire as standards, reinvented and moved through time as Ed has done with standards on his solo records. On Cockatoo Island he said to the large, enthralled crowd, we’re an arthouse ensemble and you’re asking us to turn it up? But that’s the unique character of the Laughing Clowns. They have strong, dependable songs that can reel you in and hold you, at any volume, and skilled musicians who can, especially with the ease and intuitive understanding between Ed and Jeffrey, take those songs anywhere in performance. Unlike jazz bands who can fail to summon the magic between the musicians without an audience and the dynamic of a concert, the Laughing Clowns will be able to record new songs that are equally and differently alive in the studio.
The first time around the lyrics suffered. The small clubs often had inadequate sound equipment and the vocals could be lost. And it was a time between formats, analogue was dying and digital wasn’t yet ascendant. I never taped the Laughing Clowns records and listened to them on my Sony Walkman. I’m discovering now that Ed’s songs unfurl when listened to on my iPhone and I now realize just how much I’ve missed. Jazz was my default musical setting and to me was something almost entirely instrumental. Most of the jazz I liked had titles I considered to be punchlines from songs I didn’t get, yet! Perhaps I’d subconsciously linked the Laughing Clowns to a form of jazz, composed by Charles Mingus, that made me feel seasick and unsettled as a child that I grew to find exquisitely, unconventionally cerebrally, beautiful and love to distraction.
The titles of Laughing Clowns songs: “Mr Uddich Smuddich Goes To Town”, “Theme From Mad Flies, Mad Flies”, “Holy Joe”, “Ghlst Beat”, I found darkly, charmingly witty and pleasingly odd: more punchlines I didn’t get, yet! But there’s something else in Ed’s lyrics themselves, the quality of an interior monologue, that’s compelling and seems prescoiently invented for the way the Walkman made music part of our own interior monologues. He doesn’t seem to be telling a story but capturing a thought at a particular transformative moment: a single, unthinking gesture that changes the course of a relationship or a moment dramatic and deathly in the present that seems banal when thought back upon. Ed’s rearrangements and rerecordings of particular songs seem less about musical styles and sonic reinterpretations than memories, the way that perception changes with the passage of time, or considering something from another’s viewpoint. The angle of thought shifts and so does the way the song sounds.
“How do we produce work that touches the heart?” Leonard Cohen asked rhetorically in an interview with the New York Times in 1992. “We don’t want to live a superficial life. We want to be serious with each other, with our friends, with our work. That doesn’t necessarily mean gloomy or grim, but seriousness has a kind of voluptuous aspect to it. It is something that we are deeply hungry for, to take ourselves seriously and to be able to enjoy the nourishment of seriousness, that gravity, that weight.”