Rest well, sir. The faith is kept.
Rest well, sir. The faith is kept.
Harlan Ellison died yesterday, at the age of 84. If you’re a fan of SF, or film criticism, or have a passing knowledge of American TV, then you know what that means: we’re down one giant, and about to enter an intense period of arguing over the legacy of one of the most complex and problematic human beings ever to work in the SF field. Certainly, my Facebook feed is awash with memorials, reminiscences, and as is the way with Facebook, denunciations, already. But then, that’s the crowd I run with. At the heart of it, no matter our differences, just about everyone on my feed loves speculative fiction. We’re all true believers, and if anything, Ellison was a true believer.
There was news of considerable importance in Australian music this week. Malcolm Young, founding member and iron-wristed bass player for rock gods AC/DC died, aged 64, a few weeks after his older brother, founding member and multi-instrumentalist for the Easybeats, Flash & The Pan and Vanda & Young, George. Within just over a month, we’ve lost 2/3 of the first family of Australian rock: only AC/DC lead guitarist Angus remains.
I wasn’t an AC/DC fan as a kid. Growing up in Rockingham, AC/DC was the soundtrack of brutality: it was the band of choice for the plaid-clad, DB-wearing bogan thugs that made my life a misery– underneath that plaid shirt was invariably an AC/DC tee-shirt, and if you didn’t have at least a Back in Black poster on your wall, you were certified poofter and fair prey. As a result I spurned their music, and got my heavy fix from other quarters.
It wasn’t until I escaped my teen years, and was able to fit them into a much wider view of musical taste, away from the Holy Bogan Trinity (AC/DC, Cold Chisel, and oddly, Australian Crawl), that I came to appreciate them, and just how individual and epic their particular brand of thunderous rock and roll was.
They may have– to paraphrase one memorable review some years ago– ‘released the same album seventeen times’, but it’s a hell of a sound, and a hell of a ‘same album’. The band’s anthemic high points have become family favourites, with three generations of heads banging whenever we’re all around and they hit the playlist.
So to commemorate one of Australia’s great rock and roll bassists, and the lasting impact he and his men have had on Australian music history, here are five of my favourite AC/DC bangers.
Rock in peace, Malcolm.
Five for Friday: AC/DC
It’s hard to understate the impact INXS had on my life. They were the first band I ever saw in concert by myself. They were the first band for whom I would call myself a fan. They were the best live band in Australia, and arguably the world. At the Australian Made concert in 1987 they came on as the headline act, after what is still the strongest concert line-up Australia has ever seen (Mental as Anything, Divinyls, Crowded House, The Triffids, the Saints, the Models, Jimmy Barnes, and more) and blew everything off stage.
For the better part of 9 years– from Shabooh Shoobah in 1982 to X in 1990, they were the band by which I measured all other bands.
Sad news today with the death from a heart attack of Tom Petty. Petty first came to my attention in the late 70s, just before punk hit the mainstream radio stations I was about to listen to in my bedroom when I could escape my parents’ AM tastes. Rock and Roll had been over-produced into a bland melange of easy listening tripe in which the likes of Chicago, Boston, and Steely Dan brought the elevator into your living room.
Petty represented a form of American rock and roll where voice was still important, where an individual sound could be identified, where an artist could have a look that stood him or her out from the beige, bearded multitude. He was at the crest of an awareness in my pre-teen self, a coterie that included the likes of Bob Seger, Suzi Quatro, Joan Jett as part of my musical awakening.
I would never have said that I was, outright, a Tom Petty fan. Yet every playlist I’ve ever created has used his music as a cornerstone. He’s one of those artists who has always just been there. His music has been a consistent part of the tapestry of my life. It’s not until you isolate him from the rest of the iPod and play him, one song after another, that you realise just how many great songs he recorded, how they’ve always been with you, and how, somehow, without ever really concentrating, you know every single word of every single damn song. And you sing along. You always sing along.
So here, by way of saying thank you for the music, for being part of my tapestry, and for giving me so many joyous riffs and rock and roll moments, are 5 of my favourite Tom Petty songs. They may not be the most famous, or the acknowledged classics, but they’re 5 of the many that loosen my vocal chords. I bet you sing along.
1. Don’t Come Around Here No More.
My absolute favourite Petty track, and one of my favourite songs by any artist. A swirling, defiant track, it’s the perfect combination of Petty’s unique vocal delivery, guitar style, and quirky arrangements. The accompanying video is, without a doubt, one of the greatest music videos ever filmed.
2. Billy the Kid
This is a broken song. Petty’s voice has diminished to a croak. The guitar layovers are discordant, and loose. Nothing fits. Where Petty’s arrangements were always as tight as William Shatner’s corset, here they’re all over the place, rambling and mis-timed. And that’s why it works. It’s a portrait of a beaten fighter, rising for the last time, whispering “You never knocked me down, Ray” as he’s carried from the ring, defiant to the last. It’s wonderful stuff.
3. Last Dance With Mary Jane
Petty’s stock in trade was a dark Americana that played like a shadowed counterpoint to Bruce Springsteen’s more obvious work– filled with hopeless characters that accepted their fate and rolled the taste of failure around their mouths, savouring it. Springsteen’s characters went down to the river. Petty’s smoked dope and had desperate, doomed sex. This is a slow, despairing love song to a girl who escaped his dreams, but we all know that where she escaped to was just another version of where she had escaped from. It’s darkly delicious.
4. You Don’t Know How it Feels
The later you go into Petty’s career, the more his slides from pure rock and roll into an electrified country sound that was the perfect primer for my discoveries of Steve Earle and Todd Snider. This is a great example, full of fuck-you false humility and a love of poking at the pain centres in the artist’s own psyche.
5. Two Gunslingers
Two gunslingers meet in the middle of a deserted street. The ultimate symbol of Americana. Then Petty does what Petty does: twists the image into a story of loneliness, and despair, and ultimately, the rejection of a story that was written by others with the hero as unwilling and un-consulted victim. There’s hope at the end: battered and damaged hope, flickering only because the characters reject their assigned roles in favour of a sort of despairing unknown.
Tom Petty was a unique voice, a dark jester who picked apart the false nostalgia of the Bruce Springsteens and John Cougar Mellencamps and laughed at its pretensions. He coloured my sense of what a rock and roll song could do, without me ever really noticing or valuing it as I should. He will be missed.
So, a few muddled, incomprehensible words, because I still can’t quite comprehend the event itself.
Like many of my friends, peers, and contemporaries, I’ve spent the last 4 days wandering around in somewhat of a daze, trying to come to terms with news of the sudden death of David Bowie at the age of 69.
Much like Robin Williams last year, I’ve experienced a form of genuine grief, borne of the fact that Bowie has been an ever-present flavour of wallpaper in my life. I’ve never been without a Bowie song somewhere in my consciousness– on the radio, in my Walkman/disc player/iTunes playlist. When I checked, shortly after I heard the news, I had 98 Bowie songs on my iPod. Whenever I’m interviewed, and discuss my influences, he’s the first name listed. Actor, artist, musician, fashion icon, Bowie was exactly the kind of polymath artist that fascinates and inspires me, and to which I aspire.
My first exposure came relatively late in his first great period– the video for Ashes to Ashes, at age 9, on Countdown (where else?). There was nothing else like it in the world. I was simultaneously awestruck, intimidated, and scared– it was clearly dealing with subjects and emotions I was unaware of, and using a suite of imagery I wasn’t able to process. I was only just discovering music in any meaningful way. My world was still dominated by my parents’ 50s and 60s MOR sensibilities. My mother hated the Beatles for turning into hippies, for fuck’s sake: what chance did I have? The man, the song, and the video stuck with me, and stuck hard, but at the more threatening, deeper end of my experiential awareness. It is, of course, exactly where he would want to be, and where he deserved to be.
While I grew into a Bowie fan, I grew into a ‘classic’ Bowie fan. I loved the songs, but they were the same suite of songs that the entire Western world seemed to love: those genuine classics that dominated the 1970s and early 80s. Apart from the radio standards, his currency dropped off my radar by the time I was in Uni in the very late 80s, sometime between Tonight and regular sex. A brief flurry of interest around the time of The Saint movie in the mid-90s, when his song You Little Wonder made the soundtrack and a couple of rotations on JJJ, almost as a curiosity notwithstanding, it was his acting that I was drawn to. Sure, there was his performance in Labyrinth (Oh, the hair, oh the codpiece, oh the second-rate Muppets), but discovering The Man Who Fell to Earth and (of all things) The Linguini Incident opened up a new appreciation for the man’s ability to switch roles and faces. And, of course, he could act. Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence was a revelation, a high watermark he did not surpass until a perfectly-pitched turn as Nikola Tesla in the otherwise teeth-itchingly irritating The Prestige.
But there he was, always there. Always Ziggy, and The Thin White Duke, and Aladdin Sane, thanks to radio and my burgeoning music collection and the sheer weight of his presence within popular culture. He had become an ornament, pressed in amber.
Then, a few years ago, a chance comment to my good friend Grant Watson opened a discussion of Grant’s Bowie fandom, which was gathering strength just as mine was receding. In the process, I was exposed to the music I’d missed, all those synth and electronica-heavy experiments from the 90s, and (what we thought) were the final, atmosphere-heavy mood pieces from (what we thought) his final works, Heathen and Reality. And I fell in love all over again. My favourite songs come from this period, particularly his jungle-and-synth-infused trio Outside, Earthling and Hours. Indeed, apart from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Earthling is the only album I have in its entirety on my iPod. And, in the last few days, Blackstar, as I listen to it over and over, trying to unpick the last messages to the world of a dying man. But that, of course, is a different thing. And, of course, that’s what the man could do. Disappear from public view for ten years, and stop the world with his return. The greatest prodigal son 20th Century art ever had. Even his absence was an event.
So, here I am, with that final statement, like everyone else, not so much listening to the songs as trying to assemble the narrative behind them, the one that speaks of an artist using his last remaining moments not to enfold himself with family but with his art, to shout one last time from the edge of the cliff in the hope that this time, this final time, the world will get it. He’s not the first, of course: he’s not even the first in my playlist. The stories behind Queen’s Made in Heaven, and Freddie Mercury’s long solo sessions in the studio, laying down vocal tracks for the rest of the band to orchestrate after his death, have become musical legend, as has Warren Zevon’s unbelievable last album The Wind. And they’re both legends, and I miss them both and the impact they had on my life.
But this is Bowie. And, in some ways, those four words sum up the man’s impact, not just on my life but on popular culture as a whole over the last 40 years. No matter your argument, over legacy or influence or cultural impact or precedent; no matter who you nominate as greater, or better, or whatever; no matter how I try to rationalise that what I got from him is no more or less than what he gave to the rest of the world– 27 albums, a bunch of movies, some art, some characters; no matter how much I try to rationalise and place him in the context of every other distant, unknowable public figure I’ve only ever experienced as a man-made object. The answer is the same.
Yeah. But this is Bowie.
I still keep waiting for the new that it was all a mistake, that he’s alive and well and there’s a new album coming. I still keep waiting to get it.
We lost another divine lunatic yesterday.
Robin Williams, who first helped melt my mind when I was a kid with his anarchic portrayal of Mork from Ork in Mork and Mindy, and who made regular incursions into my artistic consciousness through a series of brilliant live DVDs; early comedic movies like Moscow on the Hudson and Good Morning, Vietnam; mature middle-career performances in Jumanji, The Birdcage and others; and stunning dramatic tours-de-force in a range of intense dramatic roles such as Dead Poets Society; Good Will Hunting; One Hour Photo and Insomnia, killed himself.
For a man who had a profound impact upon my artistic, comedic and personal sensibilities, he was surprisingly young: he was only 63.
In many ways, Williams was an ever-present as I grew up. It’s hard to explain the impact of Mork and Mindy on my sensibilities: with a grand total of 3 TV channels to choose from and a much higher quota of Australian programming (not to mention viewing choices controlled by conservative, British parents), there was, quite literally, nothing on television quite like it. Mork was a force of nature, a fox in a chicken coop of cookie-cutter sitcom writing, and at a time when I was already glutting my imagination on science fiction and the Goon Show, I was an instant convert, a mini-Exidor running off at the mouth and driving my parents insane.
And, then, somehow he was always just there. Within a year or two we had purchased our first VHS player–at roughly the same time he was making the transition into movies, and if there was a Williams movie on the shelf, I watched it: Popeye, The World According to Garp, Moscow on the Hudson, Survivors, Club Paradise…. anyone who was surprised by his range and depth in later career movies should see these early films back to back. The depth was always there, the range always apparent. It was just the quality of production that altered, just the size of the marquee. Once I was old enough to travel the sixty kilometres to the nearest cinema by myself he became a staple of my cinema visits: Good Morning, Vietnam one of the first films I ever went to alone, without even the company of friends, the soundtrack to the movie a permanent fixture on my walkman (it still features on my iPod play list today).
When I took up stand-up comedy in the early nineties a group of comedic friends and I would gather together regularly to watch live videos and dissect them: Andy Kaufman; Richard Jeni; Steve Martin (another ever-present: when he dies, I’ll be just as distraught); Emo Philips, Richard Pryor, Billy Connolly…. the list was unending. Except Williams. Between us we had a mammoth collection, stretching right back to bootleg recordings of early Comedy Store appearances. Those, we just watched, and rolled around, in tears of laughter. Nobody wanted to dissect them. We knew we couldn’t learn anything, couldn’t replicate what he did in any way. We watched them because we wanted to see great art, and revel in genius.
And so I stopped thinking about him. He was furniture, as much as Billy Connolly and Steve Martin and the Goon Show and science fiction and Pink Floyd and my eyesight and hearing and all the things that are woven so deeply into my being that they are little more than autonomic processes. Always an awareness at the edge of my vision, occasionally popping into full view to stun me one more time– holy shit, the man did One Hour Photo, Death to Smoochy and Insomina in a single year— but more often than not just slightly in the background. Let’s be honest, he hadn’t starred in a decent movie since The Final Cut in 2004, and even that’s a flawed work. Supporting roles in Night at the Museum movies aside, it had been fairly slim pickings for a while.
But he was still there, part of my general awareness, a tightly-woven emblem in the pattern of my karass. I’d introduced him to my kids, through Jumanji and the Night at the Museum movies. We’d have gotten to Bicentennial Man soon enough, and Dead Poets Society in its turn.
I hadn’t really thought about his influence on my life, my ways of thinking, my approach to art, until I checked out my Facebook feed yesterday morning and was deluged by outpourings of shock and sorrow.
Now, I don’t know what else to say.
There’s a huge body of work, of various quality. There are artists who have been influenced, and will carry that influence into their own work. But Williams himself is gone, and my karass is wounded.
Mork has finally, irretrievably, signed off.