Grief & Heroes: 2nd of February, 2016

The first time I saw Star Wars was in 1977. It was a day of Firsts – the first Star Wars, the first time my brother Alan took me to the movies. We lived in the country and it was a long journey into the city (Melbourne) to visit a cinema, involving two different modes of transport – three, if you also hopped a tram at the other end. Going into the city was an event. Going to the cinema was an event. Going to see this Star Wars that was the biggest thing on the planet and certainly the biggest thing to have yet come along in my seven years of life thus far, was THE EVENT.

We sat down the front. Alan, who had already seen Star Wars thirteen times by that point, quoted bits of dialogue all the way through. You start off thinking “Wow, that’s a big spaceship”, only to see your first Star Destroyer blot out everything and you think “Nonono, I knew nothing of big spaceships until this moment”.

It was dark when we came out of the cinema (another first – the first time I recall being in the city at night) and nothing would ever be the same again. I now knew how big dreaming could be.

Inevitable, of course, but I became obsessed with Star Wars. Inevitable, too, that Alan was my chief enabler. He gave me his own copies of the novelisation and a collector’s magazine, kick-starting a rather nerdy collection, and imparted the wisdom of retaining original packaging.

That collector’s magazine. I can’t put my hand on it right this moment, so I can’t tell you what it was actually called, but there were images in there that lit up my imagination almost as much as Star Wars itself had. In examining the influences and aesthetics of Star Wars, it showed me Brigette Helm as the female robot in Metropolis, Basil Rathbone and Tyrone Power duelling in The Mark of Zorro, Gary Cooper in High Noon. It wasn’t just the world of that particular galaxy far, far away that Star Wars opened up for me, it was the entire world of cinema and genre story-telling.

Star Wars made me feel… smart. I don’t think “smart” was something I’d ever really contemplated before. But there I was, a seven-year-old who read adult science fiction novels and knew who Fritz Lang was. Star Wars gave me that. It was confidence-building.

And, of course, there was Han Solo.

Although I don’t think I developed a really serious crush on him until The Empire Strikes Back came out three years later (those trousers they poured Harrison Ford into held a lot more interest for a ten-year-old than a seven-year-old), Han and his co-pilot Chewbacca were my faves. (don’t ask me how many wookiees I own – even I don’t know) Well, Princess Leia was my fave as well, but that was more because I wanted to be her. Han and Chewie were the mates I wanted to knock about with.

But Han Solo wasn’t the only space-man who blew my world open in 1977. That year, as well as Star Wars being released, also saw the arrival of David Bowie’s “Heroes” album.

David Bowie had actually entered my family’s orbit the previous year, when my brother Alan met a girl at a party who was a Bowie fan. Eager to impress her, Alan fibbed and bluffed about the many Bowie records he didn’t, in fact, own. I don’t know if he ever even saw that girl again, but a few days after the party, Alan made a point of buying some of the Bowie records he’d lied about owning, perhaps to assuage his guilt. He may not have won the girl, but there was undoubtedly a new love in Alan’s life. In no time at all, Alan was the biggest Bowie fan on the planet. As with most things, it took me, running behind my big brother, a bit of time to catch up.

The first track on “Heroes” is Beauty & the Beast – that was it. That’s all it took. David Bowie’s voice and Robert Fripp’s guitar. That song was my In.

Suddenly, the world of music opened up just like genre story-telling had. Hell, the way Bowie went about music WAS genre story-telling.

It’s fair to say, I think, that David Bowie has been the number one musical influence of my life. Although really, it’s all down to Alan. Everything, really, comes from Alan’s influence. As I said, he was my chief enabler. The movies I watch, the music I listen to, the books I read, the comedy I laugh at, the art I appreciate, the people and styles I’m fascinated by – it’s all because of Alan.

Which is why, when Alan died – suddenly, accidentally – on the 2nd of February 2005, I couldn’t find comfort in any of my usual go-tos. I couldn’t comfort myself with any music or favourite movie because there was nothing that didn’t make Alan’s loss all the more acute, that wasn’t a terrible reminder.

I had thought, the previous year, when Bowie had his heart attack, how sad the day would be for Alan, the inevitable day when Bowie leaves us. It never occurred to me that Alan would leave us first.

In July 1992, our sister Norma had died after a long battle with breast cancer. Alan’s death was the other end of the scale – no warning, no time to grow accustomed to the idea, no opportunity to say goodbyes. Instead, a phonecall that wakes you up in the early hours of the morning and tells you a nightmare.

And me with no comforting “old friends” music or movie to take solace in.

Instead, I watched some movies I hadn’t seen before, that hadn’t come into my orbit via Alan’s influence. Alan Rickman movies. (his name helped) As 2005 progressed, Alan Rickman became my go-to guy, his art helped get me through a lot of the immediate grief.

Let’s skip ahead to now. To these past few weeks. Just before Christmas, Star Wars was back in cinemas! And unlike the prequel trilogy, this one actually FELT like Star Wars! Crah, Alan would’ve loved this movie. I teared up at the first blast of the fanfare. I was a kid again. It was a joyous experience. New characters to love and old friends to visit with again and winks and allusions to almost forty years’ worth of singular pop cultural iconography.

And, of course, there was Han Solo’s demise.

I didn’t cry at the very moment it happened, but tears have most definitely been shed for my oldest crush. I’m not rage-y about it, no feeling of how-could-they? how-dare-they? It was, as much as these things can be, a good death. He was a swashbuckling space-pirate who chose to fight the good fight against evil – we all knew that his end couldn’t come peacefully. And while it was certainly no “blaze of glory”, it was respectful of our hero. And goddamnit, Chewie provided the glorious blaze and blew that place to smithereens. It was… fitting.

But still. We lost Han Solo, and that’s no small thing.

I’ve been thinking back a bit to 1999, to the anticipation of the release of the first prequel (Star Wars was back in cinemas!) and the subsequent disappointment. There was a lot of talk at the time, a lot of us asking Was It Us? Was it just that we were adults now? Maybe Star Wars was always this bad and we just hadn’t realised because we were stupid little kids? We had so much love for this phenomenon that we were prepared to take the blame for the prequels ourselves!

The Force Awakens has put paid to that, though. All over the world, there’s mid-forties people like me feeling childish wonder and excitement again. Sorry, George, but it was you, not us.

And this time around, we’ve got the Internet. At seven, living in the country, in Australia, the only person I really had to talk to about Star Wars was my brother Alan (for a long time, he was the only other person I knew who’d even seen it). Now, there’s Tumblr. And nerd blogs. And GIFs. Oh boy, are there GIFs. And slash archives. Oh boys, are there slash archives. Star Wars fandom is more accessible and intimate than ever before. Carrie Fisher’s Twitter account is a thing of beauty.

But in the middle of this period of joyousness, running through it like the Grim Reaper on ice, has been death, death and more death.

Three days after Christmas – Lemmy. Rock god, gentleman, bass playing superstar, leader of Motorhead, and a former bassist for my favourite band of all time, The Damned. A man who lived his life with such authenticity and generosity, such largeness of spirit, that losing him feels like the heart has been ripped out of rock music. I once stood my ground at a Motorhead concert, covered in vomit courtesy of the drunken arsehole beside me, unable to run off to the toilets to clean myself due to the fact that LEMMY WAS ONSTAGE; I couldn’t even look away, much less walk away, no matter how disgusting the situation. He was lightning in a bourbon bottle. We should all endeavour to live even half as fiercely as Lemmy did.

Ten days into the new year, not anywhere near long enough for rock music to mourn its heart, we lost David Bowie. Rock music had lost its mind as well.

We all hoped it was a hoax. That first hour and a bit after the news fell, we were all willing it to be a very, very bad joke. David. Bowie. He couldn’t actually die, could he? He was an immortal! He was Ziggy Stardust! He was the Goblin King! He was David Jones from Bromley who turned the world on its head!

In a way, it was like losing Alan all over again. I couldn’t play any Bowie, I couldn’t bear to hear his music, his too-familiar voice. Everyone else wanted it though, of course. I had to turn off radios, walk away from Twitter for a while – I even sat at my writing desk literally with fingers in my ears while my partner played Space Oddity in another room. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.

And just four days – four days! – into this abyss, Alan Rickman suddenly followed.

Han Solo, Lemmy, Bowie, Alan Rickman, all in under a month.

I think that maybe Bowie, and definitely my brother Alan, would get a chuckle out of the fact that the first Bowie song I ended up hearing after the tenth of January, was his Little Fat Man ditty in the episode of Extras he guest-starred in. It took well over a week, but I was able eventually to listen to him again. I’ve even made it through Heroes without sobbing a time or two.

I haven’t subjected myself to All The Young Dudes yet though. I don’t always have the emotional fortitude for that one these days anyway, as it was the song, at Alan’s funeral, that played as he was carried away from us.

The biggest comfort I’ve found in Bowie’s passing has been recognising fully his utter, utter commitment to his art. He turned his own death into art – there are precious few who have the will, let alone the opportunity, to do that. The sheer audaciousness of that act is just so… Bowie.

Today is the 2nd of February 2016. It is eleven years since my brother Alan died. He gave me the world (and a galaxy far, far away) in 1977, and I thank him every day for it. Along with missing him.

Nick Cave: I Wanna Tell You About A Boy

I wrote a feature article about Nick Cave around the time of the release of his “The Boatman’s Call” album in the late ’90s. It was published in an art’n’fashion mag called Sin under the title “Nick Cave – Songs of Love and Hate” (a title I didn’t compose and never liked).

The original title I submitted the article under was:

Nick Cave: I Wanna Tell You About A Boy

I

When you stop to think about it, the bronzed action bloke isn’t the only archetypal Australian man. If he was, where would great Aussie men like Robert Helpmann, Barry Humphries and Brett Whiteley fit into the picture? Cultured, intellectual, artistic men who found mainstream Australian society had little place for them until they’d somehow “proven” themselves overseas first. Add to this list, one Nicholas Edward Cave.

Having been part of the Australian subcultural consciousness since the mid-’70s, Nick Cave is finally oozing into mainstream Australia’s consciousness, too. Two best-selling books about him and his bands have hit our bookstores. The ABC/SBS have indulged us with documentaries and retrospectives. One Melbourne commercial radio station put “Where The Wild Roses Grow” on high rotation. Every mum’s favourite singer, Denis Walter, did a cover of “The Ship Song”. Even our newspapers have worked out who he is. True, it appears to be something of a morbid fascination, but the fascination at least exists now.

So, when did Nick Cave become acceptable? How did it happen that a man who was once berated as a purveyor of “sleazy art” (as an art-school teacher did, shortly before young Nick was kicked out) become a songwriter whom TV weatherman Denis Walter would seek to record the work of? That everyone’s favourite Girl Next Door, Kylie, would want to be alone in a studio with?

For a start, he’s not a heroin addict anymore – that scores him big points with the Acceptability Police. To be a reformed drug addict is to be seen as a person of strength and will-power, someone who’s seen the nastiness of life and taken great, often painful measures to rise above it. To remain drug dependant is to be seen as indulgent, sleazy, without constraint. It’s easy to see which is more respectable to the public at large.

‘It lurks in the back of my head all the time,’ he says, when asked if he’s afraid of returning to his old ways. ‘I feel very, very tempted at times, yes. Unfortunately, you can’t destroy yourself without destroying other people. I pretty much don’t care if I destroy myself, but all the people around me become victims, and that is something I would prefer to avoid. [But] I’ve learned, amongst other things, how to make the most out of the good things in me. And I know that even if the demons are shaking me, I won’t be destructive for the rest of my life. I’m more in control now.’
(Ekstra Bladet, 1996)

Then there’s the fact that Cave is now a responsible and doting father. This may well be the same individual who pranced around a Melbourne tip in a loincloth with “Porca Dio” painted on his bony chest, or the drunk guy arrested for pissing off the back of a ute in country New South Wales onto the car bonnet of the local policeman’s wife. Of course it’s him, but try telling your Denis Walter-loving mother that! No, this Nick Cave is a nice man – he wears suits and ties now instead of loincloths or leather jeans, and has a definite air of trustworthiness about him.

‘I’m not happy all the time, but I have access to a newly found joy, which my son is mainly responsible for. Becoming a father has helped me a lot. I couldn’t do drugs and at the same time take care of my son. He’s a big part of my good side. Something I’ve made which is really good. I used to wake up in a terrible panic about dying… but I don’t anymore. I think that was more to do with a kind of chemical residue in my body or something. Now I just feel that if I can make as much out of this life as possible, then it’s not going to be such a worry. I feel there is something… but at the same time, I don’t believe in heaven and hell. I certainly hope that I’m right in that respect.’
(Rolling Stone, 1995)

Perhaps the overriding reason that Nick Cave seems to be becoming more acceptable and popular in his homeland now might be that it took us this long to catch up with him. His ideas have always been slightly ahead of their time, though he says he simply does what he wants to do, without regard to acceptance. The fact remains, though, that he and his fellow Boys Next Door / Birthday Party members were fiddling and twisting with the bounds of the punk movement in the mid-’70s. They helped inject a movement which was (until then) a largely British working class and New York art-scene with some suburban horrors and spitting cynicism that were uniquely Australian. Their influence was far reaching, if mainly outside Australia. While the majority of Australian music listeners were buying Cold Chisel and Aussie Crawl records in truckloads, Nick, Mick, Tracy, Rowland and Phil were impressing the pants off the “seen-it-all” audiences of London and Berlin.

Australia had produced something it didn’t know what to do with. We had to look at this screeching monster with ten legs assaulting the ears of the Old World and be forced to admit that this thing had somehow come out of us. With our cringing kulcha hugged to our collective bosom, we steadfastly ignored them. We applauded the Little River Band lurching into the American Top Five. We patted Air Supply on the back as they peddled their homogenised lerrve ditties across the North American continent. But we hoped that if we overlooked The Birthday Party long enough they might do us all a favour and go away. They did. Firstly, in a physical sense by spending less and less time back home, and then in a very final sense by disbanding in 1982.

With their next band, The Bad Seeds, Nick Cave and Mick Harvey have continued to spend most of their time out of Australia. Berlin, London and Sao Paolo are the cities that have nurtured and encouraged Nick Cave and his wide-ranging talents, instead of Melbourne or Australia as a whole. But everything happens for a reason. Without Berlin, The Bad Seeds would be a drastically different band, as Berlin gave the talents of Germans Blixa Bargeld and Thomas Wydler a place, paradoxically, in the history of “Australian music”. Berlin, also, is the city Cave credits with instilling him with confidence in himself – that Berliner attitude of making the art you want to make, of believing in what you are doing.

‘I don’t see my job as an artist is to sit around and write happy songs that congratulate the world for the way it is. I think the world is fucked, and I think that there are a lot of humans behaving very badly in this world. One side of me feels that very strongly. On the other hand, I do have quite a broad sense of humour about things. I’m an Australian, I have an Australian sense of humour, and I like to give that a bit of breathing space as well.’
(Rip It Up magazine, 1996)

One of the paradoxes about Nick Cave that I’ve come to love is his undoubted Australian-ness, which stands so stridently (so yobbo-like, perhaps?) next to his widely travelled, widely read, cosmopolitan sophistication. So what was the big change? Perhaps we needed a prodigal son like Nick, a man who can be both tenaciously Australian and cosmopolitan, to teach us we can be ourselves overseas without being dickheads. That a bloke could be into art and books and stuff without being “a poofta”.

‘I often have it in the back of my mind to [move back to Australia to live], because I love Australia immensely and I think it’s an incredible country. But it’s too difficult for me to operate a career out of there, really.’
(Australian Style, 1994)

Here’s a man who loves his beer, who has the height of an Aussie Rules footballer, whose accent is barely (if at all) modified despite his considerable time away from our shores, and just might, one day, end up being regarded as one of our greatest poets.

II

And I’m off to find love / Do you love me? / If you do I’m thankful.
Do You Love Me? (Part 2)

He’s a sensitive man, this hard-living Australian. We see this readily in his lyrics and writings, in the pained expression he so often wears and in his easy, almost goofy, grin. Less readily, we see it in the familial structure of The Bad Seeds – more than just a rock group, this is a family unit, a support machine with fluid, moving parts but always with respect at its core. Despite Cave being so obviously the father figure of this post-nuclear family, what is it about him that makes other talented men – each remarkable and notable in his own right – so pliant, so yielding to his authority?

‘Well, obviously Nick’s the head of the group, but when it comes to deciding about things… if it’s anything that is relevant to everybody else, it gets discussed with them, too. They’re all band members, they’ve got to like what we’re gonna go ahead with, too.’
(Mick Harvey – “Straight To You” documentary)

‘Each member of the band is quite free to express themselves however they like and are tolerated. We find the idiosyncrasies of each member quite interesting, quite funny really, so there’s very little bitching going on between us.’
(Nick Cave – “Straight To You” documentary)

There is obviously something about him, something that makes other gifted individuals acquiesce to his plans and visions. Witness Blixa Bargeld, a giant of European music, a pioneer of the Industrial subculture, a man of deity-like status to thousands of loyal followers. Like Cave, on the surface he can seem manic and frightening, a man whose art involves much Teutonic screeching and bashing the fuck out of any inanimate object at hand. But also like Cave, he has a quick, mischievous smile and a penchant for ridiculousness (just watch what fun he and Nick are having in “The Weeping Song” video – is it just me, or are they really dancing like fathers tend to at family parties?) For many, Blixa is the personification of the genius of avant garde music-making. He is also one of Cave’s closest friends, a relationship which allows him to take up his support role in The Bad Seeds with ease and good will. Obviously, he believes in what Cave is doing and is pleased to play a part in making it happen. It’s a similar story for every Bad Seed – past, present and undoubtedly, future.

‘I get inspired by people that I know and often see it as my job, in a way, to somehow document the types of people that they are.’
(Nick Cave – “Straight To You” documentary)

Cave (and friends) note that he hates to be alone, that he needs to be surrounded by people, but also that it takes him a long time to trust others, to build a friendship. Once those friendship are struck, however, he appears a loyal, unbending companion, extremely generous with his talents. What greater gift can the artist give loved ones than a piece of his art, which is at once a piece of the artist himself and his metaphorical child? Cave gives these pounds of flesh away magnanimously to those he loves and admires – an album of songs to friends in German band Die Haut; countless songs, vocals and studio assistance to ex-girlfriend Anita Lane; numerous soundtrack pieces to film-making friend Wim Wenders; an achingly beautiful vocal for Kylie Minogue to sing, simply because he admired her beauty and her voice.

Do we love him like he loves us, he wanted to know in “Do You Love Me?”. Best-selling albums and books, sold out concerts, surely these should tell him? Vulnerability is understandably common among artists – they give birth to metaphoric children and send them into the world, only to have a fair percentage of people tell them their babies are ugly. But our Nick is quite a battler, quite capable of getting back on his feet, dusting himself off, giving a disdainful shrug and getting on with the job. Yes, we love him. We love him for his fortitude and vision, for the many lovely gifts he gives to us, for the roguish grin he does so much of it with. And we also love him for that endearing look of vulnerability we often see about him.

Sensitive, loyal, magnanimous, vulnerable. Quite a different picture of the man than we’ve been used to in the past, isn’t it?

‘Nick Cave – No more myth, a nice guy.’
(The Age EG, 1987)

III

Cave’s 1989 novel “And The Ass Saw The Angel” was advertised upon its release as “the second greatest story ever told”. Quite a rap for a first time novelist. But Cave had been sharing his stories and characters with the world for many years before his novel saw the light of day.

This is the essence of his art – he is a story teller. His characters live and breathe with colour and roundedness, despite their often complicated stories being told in the confined format of popular music’s average three and a half minutes. Nick the Stripper is “a fat little insect” of a man dancing in his birthday suit. John Finn’s wife has “legs like scissors and butcher’s knives, a tattooed breast and flaming eyes”, commanding every man’s attention. The man for whom the devil jumps up possesses a heart “blacker than the chambers of a dead nun’s heart”. Cave’s version of Stagger Lee would “crawl over fifty good pussies just to get to one fat boy’s asshole”. And the jailer of “Mercy” speaks with a voice “thick with innuendo, syphilis and greed”. All succinct, potent images that leave vivid etchings on the listener’s mind.

With his two most recent albums, “Murder Ballads” and the brand new “The Boatman’s Call”, Cave told a story in every song, each based around a common theme. On “Murder Ballads”, obviously, that theme was murder. On “The Boatman’s Call”, Cave is telling love stories.

‘Murder Ballads was such a disgusting record to make, you kind of remedy the situation by writing a whole lot of very different sort of songs. Some kind of re-dressing the balance.’
(Rip It Up magazine, 1996)

Some of the most heart-achingly beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard were penned by Nick Cave. But even here, dealing with the rhetoric of tenderness and love, his words still throw up stark images of violence and tragedy. In “The Ship Song”, he murmurs “Come loose your dogs on me” before telling us the time is nigh “When I must remove your wings and you must try to fly”. “Straight To You” brings words of Biblical-Armageddon proportions where “the seas will swallow up the mountains”, “the saints are drunk and howling at the moon”, “the chariots of angels are colliding” and even “the swallows have sharpened their beaks” – but he’ll come running straight to us, even though he’ll be crying. And in “Slowly Goes The Night” he watches “the moon get flayed anew until the moon becomes the skinning tool, I send the skins of my sins out to cover and comfort you”.

Images of doom work in love songs because of the all-encompassing, cataclysmic sensations love induces in us. Even if we can’t articulate how it is our lover can make our heart leap to our throat, our stomach churn with nerves, our head swim sickeningly, we can still listen to “Straight To You” and nod sagely – yes, chariots of angels WILL collide, the sea WILL swallow up the mountains. We understand this notion deep inside ourselves, that the fall into love is a dangerous and thrilling ride, that the future of the world is dependent upon this perfect feeling.

With the new album, “The Boatman’s Call”, the imagery isn’t quite so catastrophic. This is an intimate, personal album telling languid tales of people drifting together and drifting apart. Even so, in “Are You The One?” he is arguing with himself – “stars will explode in the sky, but they don’t, do they? Stars have their moment and then they die” – and in “Brompton Oratory” he tells how the world has gone to war outside his window, then accuses his lover “No God up in the sky and no devil beneath the sea could do the job that you did, baby”.

Everyone from Shakespeare to Leonard Cohen has recognised how well it works to use the irony of words of pain, death and destruction to describe the beauty and tenderness of love. Cave also knows the incongruous worth of so-called ‘swear words’ for describing scenes of gentleness, a fine example of which appears on “The Boatman’s Call”:

In the colonial hotel
We fucked up the sun
Then we fucked it down again.
– Where Do We Go Now

Word play and sophisticated symbolism aren’t the only traits which make Cave a great poet though. He also brings the musician’s gift for tempo and pace to the flow of his words. Look closely at the meter of “The Mercy Seat”, for example. I still smile every time I hear him sing this – the language is so perfectly manipulated, the words so utterly his tools. The beat (bolded here) falls perfectly on every second syllable without fail:

I hear stories from the chamber
Christ was born into a manger
Like some ragged stranger died upon a cross
And might I say it seems so fitting in its way
He was a carpenter by trade

Young writers could do far worse than to study how Nick Cave uses language.

IV

How many Nick Caves are there? There’s the songwriter, the singer, the musician – we’ll all familiar with those three by now. But there’s also the actor, the artist, the author, the film-maker, the poet, and these are just his “public” personas! Something they all have in common is that they turn forty years old this year. Would it be at all appropriate to suggest, even for a nanosecond, that a man who has lived as wildly and unconventionally as he, is only just approaching the age at which ‘life’ is supposed to begin?

‘As you get older, you get hooked into your own idiosyncratic habits and eccentricities. I like that.’
(Billboard, 1996)

There’s no sign yet of Nick Cave ‘slowing down’ in any respect. When he glowers onto the upturned faces of an adoring audience and grumbles “I wanna tell you ’bout a girl” before ripping into “From Her To Eternity”, one could barely pick his age – he looked the same performing that song in the early ’80s as he does now in the late ’90s. Well… the hairstyle’s changed a bit.

When “The Good Son” was released in 1990, some observers complained Cave had sold out or grown old, using the slow, intimate songs of the album as their ‘proof’. But two things proved them wrong. Firstly, live, The Bad Seeds positively blister their way through even the most drowsy and unhurried of recorded ballads – the energy of their live performance is undeniably fever-pitch and very nearly tangible. Secondly, they followed “The Good Son” with first, “Henry’s Dream” and then “Let Love In” – would anyone like to try and cite “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” or “Jack The Ripper” or “Loverman” or “Red Right Hand” or “Thirsty Dog” as examples of a man who has grown old and sold out?

I think the crux of Cave’s secret is that all he ever wanted to be was an artist. His parents encouraged him to become one, he told his teachers that’s what he was going to be, Berlin taught him to believe in being one. I don’t believe he’s in any danger of slowing down while his desire to explore his art remains. Obviously, his explorations won’t always be to everyone’s taste, but he just moves along, doing what he wants and occasionally he might rub shoulders with fashionability, then he moves on again (“he went on down the road”). The artist, by his very nature, is the observer, the chronicler of the lives of others – but where does this leave the artist’s life?

‘Most people learn to deal with life and deal with relationships and become “real” people in a way. The artist doesn’t because he’s unable to spend the time doing that. My personal life tends to remain in a state of chaos.’
(Nick Cave – “Straight To You” documentary)

They will interview my teachers
Who’ll say I was one of God’s sorrier creatures
There’ll be informative six page features
When I go
– Lay Me Low

~fin~

and the work-in-progress makes me feel about the same, too…

There’s a quote I picked up from someone, somewhere, years ago – “You want to know the state of my mind? Take a look at the state of my house”.

The move of our household from rented flat in the inner city to 3bedroom/large block in the boondocks is complete. But the transition of goods from Point A to Point B was only one battle. The war proper looks to be a long one, entrenched even. Our common enemy? STUFF.

We used to joke at the old flat that we had “3 bedrooms worth of stuff in a 2 bedroom flat”. Having moved said STUFF into an actual 3 bedroom house, I think I can safely say we underestimated our amount of STUFF.

In many partnerships, nature seems to hook folk up with roughly equilibrium-sustaining attitudes to STUFF. One often sees partnerships where one party is the “That’ll come in handy one day, can’t throw that out!” voice and the other party is the “Hope you’ve finished reading that ‘cos it’s recycling night tonight!”. Something went wrong with this equilibrium in our partnership.

We’re both packrats. The amount of empty boxes we possess, alone, is matter for concern. (They’re nice boxes, okay? Some are just really nifty design or others look too useful or more again we think we’ll need to re-pack things into when moving. You can see where the potential for serious hoarderism is a worry.)

So. We’re moved in. But we accept the fact that we need to pare down the sheer amount of STUFF we own. This means sorting through everything -everything!- and deciding on what to purge. It’s a daunting task, one that I started with a little motivation and more than a little over-optimism. One that I now just find myself bogged down in (entrenched, even).

Here’s one of the problems – sorting a large amount of STUFF requires space in which to do the sorting. But we currently don’t have that amount of space. Can you guess why? Yup. Because it’s full of STUFF that needs to be sorted.

This cycle is vicious.

NOT a mercenary.

After an absence of “quite a while”, I’ve twice in recent weeks been put on the spot of explaining my relationship with my writing to curious strangers.

How long have I been writing? What do I write? Have I been published? Is it a living? Why do I do it? (Since always. Stuff. Quite a bit actually. Hell no. Um, because?)

I’m not particularly good in these moments, not great at coming up with zinging sound-byte responses that sound positive without coming across as self-defensive or desperate or over-compensating. It’s like how, sometimes my partner will ask me a profound question I can barely articulate an answer for and then protest “You’re a wordsmith! You should be able to give a better answer than that!” – right, so let me go away on my own somewhere with paper and pen and time to ponder my answer and I’ll write you something better than what my brain/mouth just gobbed out on the spur of the moment, okay?

My list of publications, btw, runs to three pages if I let it. In order to keep my writing CV to the recommended two pages, I have to put the whole thing in very tiny font and every now and then delete less impressive listings in order to fit in “better” achievements.

No, I haven’t done anything anyone’s ever bloody heard of.

Books containing my stories have been for sale in huge chain bookstores. I’ve been invited to interview some relatively big names. I was published more than once in a national mainstream magazine. Three years of reviewing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival have got me into a lot of shows. My words have been exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria.

I’ve been getting published since 1987. Total monetary earnings from my writing over that time – probably about $1,600.

I had a contact -an extremely good contact- at a very major, international publishing house. This contact expressly contacted me for a novel treatment, stating they very much wanted to work with me. I demurred and instead presented them with a friend, a fellow writer, who of course was then published by them.

Why? Why did I do that? Some classic case of self-sabotaging, most likely. Also, I really liked that writer friend and really wanted them to succeed. But fucking HELL do I regret not being more mercenary at that time. I’ve never had an opportunity even approaching that level of goodness since and, the more time passes, the older I get, the more I fear I’m never going to get another opportunity like that ever again.

I had my chance -probably my one chance- and I blew it. I gave it the fuck away. I want to go back in time and seriously slap some sense into my younger self.

For most of the past decade now, beyond my work on the Comedy Festival, I’ve barely even made any effort toward publication. In my manic phases, I want TO WRITE AND PUBLISH EVERYTHING. In my depressive phases, I wallow in ALL THE UNACHIEVING-SELF PITY.

Setting aside striving for “legitimate” publication, I fell into the rabbit-hole of fanfic instead. Brilliant stuff happened there. I made friends through my writing for the first time ever. I got fans! I inadvertently wrote a “classic” of one particular sub-genre. People bought tshirts with words I’d written splashed across them. My prose improved beyond anything any writing course I’d ever paid for had given me.

And where does this all leave me now?

Self-discipline is a serious issue. I pride myself on the fact I’ve never missed a deadline required of me. But try to set myself a Date To Get Shit Done By and I fall into a slacker trough deeper than my own self loathing.

I WANT to achieve what I KNOW I can. But somehow I just can’t make myself do it. The stuff is all right here in my brain – I see it all acted out upon my frontal lobe. It’s the making myself sit the fuck down and write it the fuck out that I’m just not disciplining myself to do.

When I wrote that fanfic sub-genre “classic” mentioned above, I pumped out the prose on a regular basis, being as good as I could be on-the-fly, getting it done, knowing the fans were waiting for the next instalment, and finding I was actually proud (even, occasionally, actually impressed) by the quality of the work I managed to pump out. My darling brother, Alan, died unexpectedly early on in that writing frenzy. My cat, Vlad, died in my arms one afternoon around the middle of the frenzy. Was grief part of the propulsion? Would that mean Fear Of Impending Doom was the driving force?

I certainly wouldn’t welcome that fear back, even if it did mean a return to that drive.

I’m… maybe at a crossroads with all this. Not looking to make a deal. I still want this shit, but I’m not gonna sell my soul for it. I guess, if nothing else, that’s what that giving away of probably my greatest opportunity really illustrated. I’m not a mercenary.

I’m a writer.

Life Is Short / Filled With Stuff

There was one day in 1988 when I sat at a plastic table in the student union building of the university where I worked and answered a lot of tough questions from the writer with whom I was in a relationship.

What kind of writer did I want to be?

What did I want to write?

Who, exactly, did I want to write for?

Was I after world domination? My books in every airport newsagent?

I fumbled mentally and verbally for an example that fit the not-altogether-well-thought-out thoughts I had on the issue. And what I eventually came up with was not the name of a role model writer at all, but a punk band from America.

The degree of fame and status/respect I would like to achieve through my writing, I told my friend, was akin to what I perceived The Cramps as having through their music. They could go anywhere in the world and play to adoring fans, even though no song of theirs would ever enter a Top Ten chart. They were famous to a certain strata of society, the cool people all knew of them but the masses didn’t need to. That was the type of success I’d be happy with for myself – childhood fantasies about Oscar speeches and interviews on Parkinson notwithstanding.

I’d almost forgotten about that conversation until something jogged my memory the other day. But yes. The Cramps. As a teenaged writer with only one publication under my belt and a future to look forward to, The Cramps were who I was looking to as a career yardstick.

Cramps at my desk 2011

Archeological Dig Items #2

childhood notebook page crop

A portion of a “to do” list inside that POEMS notebook I found recently.

Get a load of No.8 there – “write poem while waiting”. Have to love the attitude of the kid I was. Got a couple of minutes to spare? Hell then, be creative and productive while you’re waiting around! Of course. That’s how all the great poets operate, y’know, scribbling profundity into their notebooks while waiting for Mum & Dad to finish getting ready so we can all go to the shopping centre (to “buy book[s]” no less!).

Please note that the spelling in No.6 is clearly in reference to the sort of practice future ARTISTES need to do. *cough*