All posts by michael

writer, critic, teacher, musician

Afraid in America

So this happened 14 years ago today.  Six months after 9/11. A skyscraper in New York. 10am. I’d had a sleepless night. The new album was swirling in my head. Dave was kind enough to forgive my clumsiness.

Naturally I cherish the memory. And the album, which always drags me back to that surreal night of jetlag and anxiety in that hotel room on 7th Avenue. The perfect headspace for Heathen to haunt.

I wrote two stories about it. Both were published June 2002. The Age story is still on site. This was for Rolling Stone.

Time flies when the end is nigh. It’s 30 years this month since the cosmic arrival of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie’s doomed rock messiah construct of 1972. Even then, according to the first track of the fledgling glam rocker’s conceptual masterwork, planet Earth was dying. “Five years, that’s all we’ve got,” Bowie howled as the violins sawed like the Titanic house band.

Armageddon loomed large again on Aladdin Sane the following year. “(1913-1938-197?)” read the title song’s ominous subscript. By Diamond Dogs in ’74, Bowie’s apocalyptic vision was in full, terrible bloom with images of mutant tribes clawing the glass fronts of crumbling skyscrapers on Love Me Avenue.

By some miracle, most buildings are still standing on this spring afternoon in New York City in 2002. From the 35th floor of Sony Music’s Madison Avenue HQ, the 55-year-old incarnation of David Bowie takes in the view with an awed murmur. To quote the first track of his 25th studio album, Heathen, “Nothing has changed/ Everything has changed.”

HeathenHeathen is a return for Bowie in several ways. Most notably it reunites him with Tony Visconti, who produced the lion’s share of his classic albums from Space Oddity to Young Americans to Scary Monsters. It also finds Bowie’s overbearing band of the ‘90s – including former Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels – on the bench in favour of the hands-on approach of much of his ‘70s work.

Then there’s the apocalyptic thread; the familiar, chilling fatalism in Bowie’s distinctively fractured lyrics. If you didn’t know him better you’d guess he didn’t put pen to paper until September 12. He replaces a saucer of sliced fruit onto the table and shakes most of his graceful frame at the suggestion.

“The first thing I heard when I started playing the material to people was ‘Wow, how prescient,’ and all that,” he says. “Well it’s not. I think there’s a lot of artists that you can find who were writing – that have always been writing – in that kinda vein.

“My albums have not necessarily been the happiest albums in the world. I think there may be two or three of them you could have taken, had they been recorded just before 9-11, you could have said ‘Ooh, wow!’ But no, it’s not (related to) that. It’s just there is a particular kind of angst that is contained in my work.

“I think I’m very good at non-specific nagging fear,” he elaborates with a grin. “I feel it very strongly, that low-level tension that I understand we all have, and I’m good at kinda capturing that in musical form. I’m not very good with overall world pictures or politicisation of affairs but I can get into those rather negative corners of our psyche and relate to them quite strongly.”

He may have grey clouds in his head but from the outside, David Bowie looks fantastic. He’s been drug- and alcohol-free since the late ‘80s and today at least, he’s winning a long fight with tobacco. His unkempt mop of ‘99/’00 has been refined to a sharper crop, immaculately dyed in various shades of blonde and parted in the middle. His eyes are… well, his eyes. And they seem to know it.

For the record, if there was a single catalyst for prayer-like new songs such as “Afraid”, “I Would Be Your Slave” and “I Demand a Better Future”, it arrived a full year before 9-11. Alexandra Zahra Jones, Bowie’s first child with his wife of 10 years, Iman Abdulmajid, inevitably shaped the direction of the new album, he says.

“The full reality of having a new child is the full reality of the world that you’ve brought her into. You don’t want her to have to just survive, to dodge bullets and skirt things. The dream is that she can walk headlong into her ambitions and fulfil them. That would be great.” As far as he’s come from his many paranoid preoccupations of the 1970s, he doesn’t sound overly optimistic.

The Jones family’s regular abode is “about a thousand yards” from Ground Zero. As the World Trade Centre fell, they were safely closeted in a spectacular residential studio called Allaire near Woodstock. Bowie was alerted to its existence by guitarist David Torn, who subsequently played on much of the album that would become Heathen. The core musicians also included one time Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain and, for the first time since 1970, Visconti on bass guitar.

A number of hotshot guests were invited up to the ranch but Carlos Alomar, Dave Grohl and Pete Townshend were among the few who made the final cut.

“As I was layering a lot of the things on, I’d bring people in to replace my parts, thinking that I’d get ‘em played more professionally. But actually we were losing something. When they played it note perfect, Tony would say ‘That’s great but it doesn’t SOUND as good, does it?’ So we’d thank him and he’d go away and we’d put my part back on again,” Bowie says with a thigh-slapping laugh.

“So it’d hiccup and there’d be the occasional clash of notes and things but it had a certain amateurishness to it that I actually appreciated; an earnestness. It captured the emotion of it, which for me was very important.”

The result is an album with more direct musical input from David Bowie than anything he’s recorded since Diamond Dogs. Among the many subliminal links to his past is the original EMS AKS briefcase synthesiser that Brian Eno played on the Low and ‘Heroes’ LPs of the late ‘70s. Bowie bristles at the suggestion of an implied nostalgia in all these familiar faces and textures, but allows for one pointed exception in the case of “Slip Away”, a magnificent piano piece which uses ‘70s cult TV show Uncle Floyd as a metaphor for lost innocence.

“I wanted something on the album that pointed to a nicer time, a better time, a more fun time, even if it wasn’t necessarily true,” he says. “For me it was a fun time, the late ‘70s, it really was. It was an American show and it was on some unheard-of cable station out of New Jersey and I think he did the show in his living room. The Ramones played the show quite a few times cause they also loved it.

“Saying ‘Uncle Floyd where are you now?’ is really like Ray Davies saying ‘Where Have All The Good Times Gone?’ (Bowie covered the Kinks tune on his Pin-Ups LP of ’73). So yes, that’s my yearning song, as far as looking backwards. But most of it is about looking rather anxiously into the future.”

Like the man says, it’s tended to be what he does best. But it’s hard to shake the impression that Bowie’s sixth decade has been somewhat weighted towards refection. His last studio album, Hours…, took midlife crisis as its central premise, albeit from a philosophically detached perspective. Since then there’s been the double-CD timepiece Bowie At The Beeb: The Best of the BBC Radio Sessions 68-72, and curious reports about a new album called Toy, which is still to see the light of day.

“Absolutely,” Bowie confirms with gusto. “They were the very first songs that I ever recorded (with the ill-fated likes of the King Bees and the Manish Boys in the mid-1960s) and I was kinda pulling them all together to re-record them. In 2001 I had virtually done the whole thing, then I really had second thoughts about the record company I was with…”

Bowie stresses his abiding faith in Virgin Music’s controversial Vice President Nancy Berry, who was dismissed in October after negotiating Mariah Carey’s disastrous US$80 million contract. Nonetheless, he left Virgin for Sony Columbia in April with both albums – Toy and Heathen – under his arm. “Which I’m quite happy about,” he says. “But Heathen I wanted to come out first.”

The delay appears to have steamrolled another retrospective project. As far back as 1998, Bowie was heralding plans for a 30th anniversary multi-media celebration of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. He refused film producer Michael Stipe’s request to use Ziggy-era songs in Todd Haynes’ glam flick Velvet Goldmine that year, ostensibly because he had his own film, stage production and interactive Internet site on the drawing board. So what gives?

“Yeah, I know, I’m running like fuck from that one,” he replies with another floor-shaking belly laugh. “Can you imagine anything uglier than a nearly 60-year-old Ziggy Stardust? I don’t think so!

“We actually tried a few years ago to pull a movie together but at every turn it was like…” he throws an anguished shape. “You know, every person has their own idea of what Ziggy is and what it represents. To kind of nail him down like this is almost doing him an injustice and I’m wondering more and more now, is it not just better to leave him as an idea rather than an actuality

“As an actuality I think it’ll probably close all the doors that maybe a lot of people had opened for themselves and hopefully I helped open up, and gave their own imaginations a run for their money. I wouldn’t want to stymie all that by presenting some nerd in a red wig, having run through a really slack-arsed movie script. As an idea, I think he works better.”

Which is not to say that Bowie has neglected his protégé’s birthday entirely. Heathen includes a dramatically rearranged version of “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft” by The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, an obscure country singer who was, in part, the inspiration for Ziggy. “I read on his site that he thought that because I’d borrowed his name that at least I should cover one of his songs,” Bowie says. “I got guilty and wanted to make amends immediately.”

The normally reclusive Cowboy has also earned a guernsey on Meltdown 2002, the annual music and performance festival at London’s South Bank Centre, curated in past years by Nick Cave, Scott Walker and Damon Albarn. This year Bowie’s selected the program, which so far includes Coldplay, Suede, Mercury Rev, Television, Asian Dub Foundation, Supergrass and Albarn’s Gorillaz.

“I’m opening it up with Little Richard and The Dandy Warhols are doing it with me at the end,” he enthuses. “There’s certain bands I couldn’t get and I’m really pissed off. I wanted to get Grandaddy so much ‘cause I really love ‘em but they’re still making their new album. I think they’re just a wonderful band and they could be the salvation of American rock. I hope they’re not treated like the Pixies (he covers them on Heathen, too), who were totally abandoned by this country.

“But the most exciting part of it is that I’ve actually got, for the first time, a visual art side. I started pulling in people from all the art schools in Britain onto my art site (Bowieart.com) and sold their stuff for them with no commission so they could get a good start as artists. I’ve got several of them doing the foyer with some incredible pieces of work. Plus we’re doing a digital film festival. All the films were made on digicamera, camcorders and shit like that. So it’s gonna be quite good this year.”

Meltdown will be one of the few opportunities to see David Bowie perform in 2002. Apart from the Dandys gig, he’s only confirmed a handful of European festival dates and one New York show for BowieNet members in July. As for Australia?

“Not this time. But you know, I really think they’re gonna be pushing for a world tour next year cause l’ve not done one since 1990. I got near to a program for a world tour when I did Glastonbury a couple of years ago. I think the show reflected pretty much what I’d do for a world tour cause I was sort of half thinking of it then.

“But the baby and all that…” the colossus of rock abdicates responsibility with a helpless shrug. “One never knows.”

This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone magazine (Australia), June 2002.  (And if you happen to own a copy, I’d love a scan).  

 

 

Ziggy Stardust: Mind the gap


Blog #4 about the new Bowie box set, Five Years [1969-1973]

THE PHONE BOX rocked on its heels as I opened the door. There was no dial tone but the lightning bolts of graffiti made it clear I’d made contact.

It was the London winter of 1993. Twenty-one years since Brian Ward snapped Ziggy Stardust landing here in Heddon Street, a gloomy dogleg off Regent Street in Mayfair. I savoured the moment, wrapped my coat around me and headed off to find Apple Corps HQ in Savile Row.

ziggy-stardust-heddon-street-2I felt at home in London. I had from the first time I came, as a kid, in 1977. I’d bought The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars back then, from HMV in Piccadilly. Also Hunky Dory and Abbey Road and Revolver … plugging holes in my fledgling collection at UK prices.

Strange, that feeling of belonging. America, when we lived there in the ’60s, hadn’t felt like that at all. I’ve since accepted the preposterous notion of some kind of race memory, or at least an insidious cultural affinity with the homeland of my ancestors.

It might explain why British rock always spoke loudest to me. Like the Beatles, like David Jones, I’d come to rock’n’roll as a refugee. We couldn’t pretend to its heritage; soak it up through the Mississippi mud, jumping box cars or cruising Route 66. We could only peer from afar: fascinated, wanting in, but irredeemably foreign.

Aliens.

That gap is what makes English rock “art” by default. We can’t actually do it, we can only fashion something in its likeness. That’s how it mutates.

Ziggy Stardust — look at him in that royal red phone booth, a camp pisstake of Superman — was the guy who owned up to all this. He was the mutant who stood up and made a claim for the rest of us misfits. The one who made my neck hair electric when he  bawled in the throes of Rock’n’Roll Suicide, “Gimme your hands. You’re not alone.”Bowie plaque unveiled

The mystical dichotomy of distance and oneness was hardwired into this guy. He was simultaneously a sci-fi invention from planet Nowhere and a real-life alter ego of his maker. Magnetic attraction to this fantastic otherness was what drove young Mr Bowie out of stultifying suburbia and into his own destiny. “I could make it all worthwhile as a rock’n’roll star.” He judged the gap and he jumped it. Who, in the isolation of  some godforsaken colonial backwater, couldn’t appreciate that?

For all the holes in Ziggy‘s plot, the objectification of the rock star as an alien visitor was conceptually inspired. Like Little Richard had for David Jones, the Starman beams in through thin air, on the radio and on TV. Like every rock star that ever touched any kid before or since, Ziggy was  a living act of revelation. A cosmic link to some shared tribe we could only dream about in our lonely bedrooms.

Oh no love, you’re not alone.

Bowie ups the messianic implications, of course, with the imminent doom of Five Years. And he liberates our hero in previously unthinkable ways, mainly with the gender pronoun muddle of Lady Stardust, but also the space-Dylan doggerel of Moonage Daydream (did I mention Mick Ronson yet?) and the mythic aspirations and destinations of Soul Love and Suffragette City.

IMG_7203
The new vinyl pressing of Ken Scott’s bodacious 2002 mix.

Yeah, we’ve all heard the jeers from the authenticity police, the kind of rock’n’roll authorities obsessed with “the real deal” who can only scoff at an imaginary omnisexual alien guitar god who wears his fake credentials like a badge. To kids like me and, oh,  Johnny Rotten, say, the revelation of a cartoon rock archetype yelping about dislocation in his own posh-guttersnipe accent was far more real than another wannabe swamp dog wrapped in denim and the blues.

A few years after I visited that phone box in Heddon Street, Dave claimed to have a plan to resolve all of Ziggy’s vagaries and contradictions in a film or stage show or somesuch supposedly under construction. I was anxious. Wasn’t he, like Bowie himself, far more powerful as an enigma than as flesh and blood?

“Yeah, I know, I’m running like fuck from that one,” he told me when we met in 2002. “Can you imagine anything uglier than a nearly 60-year-old Ziggy Stardust?… As an idea, I think he works better.”

Always did for me.

Hunky Dory: Lay me place and bake me pie

Blog #3 about the new Bowie box set, Five Years [1969-1973]

“IT TOOK ME four years to paint like Raphael,” quoth Mr P. Picasso, “but a lifetime to paint like a child”. Funnily enough, it took Mr D. Bowie four years to make Hunky Dory too. Coincidence? Hmm.

It’s easy to forget that his first album arrived (and sank) on the same day as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: June 1, 1967. You know, the music hall one; the Laughing Gnome one. Easy to forget because of its routine omission from retrospective box sets like this.

Four years on, the strings-laced jazz piano chords that introduce Changes announce a work of art as classically crafted as pop music gets. The sophistication of the ch-ch-changes is Broadway-esque. The sentiment is a manifesto of Climb Every Mountain grandiloquence. The arrangement (wow Mick Ronson, gosh Rick Wakeman) is an act of perfect symmetry, right down to those same jazz chords elegantly bowing out backwards.

Look out, you rock’n’rollers.

hunky 1I recently interviewed a rock star who had a minor hissy fit because Bowie doesn’t make songs like Life on Mars? anymore. Like, how dare he possess that kind of classical aptitude and then refuse to milk it for our ongoing gratification?

Well the trouble with classicists, as Andy Warhol was once quoted as saying, is they look at a tree and that’s all they see; they paint a tree. Andy was an accomplished painter too, by the way. But nobody would have written a song like Andy Warhol if he was just another jobbing post-Raphaelite.

Hunky Dory flagrantly stands on the shoulders of Warhol, Sinatra, Dylan and Lou Reed, as referenced in Dave’s hand-scrawled back cover. The audacity of that gesture blows my mind from way over here in the future, where we know everything’s been done but we’re desperate to cover our tracks and claim reinvention.

“The actor,” he calls himself in said scribbles. He insists it’s just a role he’s playing, even at the very point where he suspends all disbelief with a confession as erudite as Joni Mitchell (oh, Quicksand) and a grave riddle as beguiling as Dylan in his languishing prime (oh, oh, oh, The Bewlay Brothers).

hunkyAt its heart, this is a music hall album too. Oh! You Pretty Things oom-pahs like a panto matinee. Kooks is all jaunty elbows and knees and thumbs behind  braces. The token cover, Fill Your Heart, swings ’round the lamp-post between sides one and two like Tony Newley just been kissed.

But Hunky Dory is the ultimate tilt of that old hat, an homage to old-school songcraft meticulously hand-tinted for the times like the colorized Hollywood glamour shot on the cover. Give or take the doily-ruffling  Queen Bitch, it’s the Bowie you take home to meet your mum. The one with the classical strings and impeccable manners and an Eight Line Poem sitting up like a Hallmark card in a neatly  poised bouquet. (Actually it’s 16 if we count Ronno’s intro. And we must).

The point, from here on the bunker couch on a balmy spring Melbourne evening 45 years after the fact, is that this marks the end of the young Mr Jones’s growing up, and the beginning of an endless childhood of discovery.

This flawless singer-songwriter’s masterpiece might have been the springboard to his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or his Blood on the Tracks; his Harvest  or Court and Spark. But this painter saw the wood beyond those trees. Within the year he’d be watching it all burn from a great height: a Starman adjusting his thrusters for limitless horizons.

The thing I love is the clue to all this in the last, crackling grooves of the album. Barely have The Bewlay Brothers shared their last pastel sunset  from the Mind-Warp Pavilion when the freaky multi-tracked and vari-speeded coda slices in like nails down a blackboard.

“Lay me place and bake me pie, I’m starving for me gravy

Leave my shoes and door unlocked I might just slip away…”

Ah, so soon? Thanks, geezer. We’ll always have Mars.

The Man Who Sold The World: He wasn’t there again today

Blog #2 about the new Bowie box set, Five Years [1969-1973]

HAD A WORD with Woody Woodmansey about this. He’s the geezer played drums. Woody was  a Spider From Mars, for heaven’s sake—the last survivor now, since bassman Trevor Bolder followed mighty Mick Ronson into the rock’n’roll hereafter a few years back.

Hang on, I’m flashing forward.

I told Woody this record shook me cold as a kid. That first sweep of backwards reverb on Ronno’s guitar at the very start of The Width of a Circle was… I dunno. It sounded like a leering chorus of demons inside the airlock of some secret pocket of purgatory that squeezed shut behind you. Down, down, down went that ominous riff in the left ear. A cellar, dark and grim. Smell the burning pit of fear.

There’d be no light at the end of this tunnel. Just Satan in leather chaps and All The Madmen tootling recorders. Mandolin-trilling inmates intoning “oh by jingo” in some echoing dungeon of waltzing children. Lunatic war vets with Running Gun Blues. That man on the stair who wasn’t there. And finally, one last circle of Hell where timpani pounded and fallen Supermen gnashed their teeth.

Woody gave a rattling laugh. He explained the lay of the land in his chewy Yorkshire brogue. He and Ronno, his mate from Hull, had only just met this swishy Londoner. This was their first big studio session. The producer, New Yorker named Visconti, played a mean bass. “Everything was  really cool,” Woody said. Even if this singer was a little light on, well, singing.

TMWSTW original
1970 bloke-in-dress  cover, now reclassified not shocking

“He did have lyrics written but a lot of the time we wouldn’t know what they were. We’d just get the subject matter so we’d kind of know what it was about but we didn’t really rehearse it as a band with vocals on it. He would give us the chords and say, ‘This is kind of about a machine that’s ruling the world that goes wrong,’ or whatever it was. ‘Does God really exist?’, you know. It wasn’t really the kind of boy-meets-girl stuff that was in the charts of the time. In fact I don’t think he’s ever written a normal boy-meets-girl song.” Wheeze. Splutter. Cough.

“A lot of it was really dark, so we had to get to that place. We’d take the chords and sit in the studio. Just jam until something clicked; until we had a good feeling, a good atmosphere created.”

Woody, Ronno and Visconti were all into sci-fi and prog/ blues so they dug the heavy concepts. The fact that the singer wasn’t there much—newlywed, he was—clearly meant they got to sculpt the atmos a little more thick than a cross-dressing mime who’d recently enjoyed a smash hit about a fey spaceman who loved his wife very much might have directed on his own.

Ronno’s the engine, of course. Jeff Beck was his hero but as Elton John has jealously noted, his gifts for arrangement were Stravinsky-esque. He had Visconti “play like Jack Bruce”, then mixed him to pummelling pitch. Black Country Rock, Saviour Machine and She Shook Me Cold are sheer axe monstery. Woody’s a bleeding octopus with bells on. Sinewy power-trio grunt for frightening children. That 50-something bloke from the newfangled Moog lab must have seemed like a blow-in from Doctor Who, but those demons grabbed and milked him good, too.

the man who sold the world
Post-Ziggy ’72 reissue. Ample darkness pictured.

Visconti tells a slightly different story in the book. Claims Dave was there in rehearsals, strumming away on his 12-string in the Haddon Hall wine cellar with egg cartons glued to walls and amps on 10. And yeah, I’ve heard pre-studio Peel sessions where some of these songs are more or less intact. But 45 years later, Woody and Visconti felt enough ownership of this record to take it out on tour, with Ronson’s daughters singing back-ups. They made it as far as Japan. Woody asked me to put feelers out for Australia. Alas, nobody felt back.

Lying here on the couch with the magnificently remastered artefact, it’s the vacuum at the heart of this strange, noir-metal universe that sucks me in. “Although I wasn’t there,” the singer hisses like a double-tracked ghost on the title track: a consciousness searching for form and land between these scaffolds of chords he’d scribbled earlier and left to virtual strangers while he went to bed to dream up the next one.

The next one. Hard to believe it’d all be Hunky Dory in the blink of a mismatched eyeball. Ah, there’s that light after all. Now get me out of here.

Space Oddity: This time it’s personal

Blog #1 about the new Bowie box set, Five Years [1969-1973]

THE POSTMAN delivered about seven kilograms of highly concentrated personal backstory this week. Poor guy got drenched for his trouble. I’d barely lowered the needle in my cosy basement vinyl bunker when the cold front sliced through.

This rain hit the glass with perfect timing, blurring the here and now to insignificance.  As I lay on the couch, watching the garden bounce and the droplets dance sideways, it occurred to me the record spitting at my shoulder had always existed in its own bubble.

As it was: reissued post Ziggy in ’72

As far as I knew this anxious, wistful ’60s comedown had only ever mattered to me and two or three friends who had ventured beyond the obvious charms of the title song into the psych-folk darkness within. Their secret insights drifted back like voices in my head as the less-travelled tracks rumbled.

Larry had his theories about Cygnet Committee—or maybe that was me. I know I tried to verbalise them in an English poetry class: the sheeplike demise of the hippie dream, gleaned from several bitter angles. Like the counter culture, I failed—according to a less empathetic friend. Cruel but fair, his critique hurts less now that I know where our respective lifetimes of enquiry have led.

Years later, Larry reminded me I’d written out the heartsick lyrics to Letter To Hermione and posted them to an ex-girlfriend. If you can call a girl I kissed once, rang up twice and never much liked a girlfriend. I don’t remember doing that. But it sounds like me. Without that desolate sigh of a melody though? Without those silk sheets of 12-stringed chords? What was I thinking.

We had a bash at God Knows I’m Good on acoustic guitars. A nice old lady shoplifter gets caught. Unlike the street-shouting  cacophony of Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed, this had chords we knew and words we could sing. So we did, in the back of his kombi parked on the Black Mountain Peninsula on a Saturday night when the freest thing in the world was to stay up late away from home and maybe smoke a cigarette.

It was Colin (he loaned me the record, I taped it crackling and skipping on a rose-tinted translucent cassette) who understood Memories of A Free Festival. Its soporific glow of communal ecstasy wasn’t for us. No, it was about “how things used to be,” Col surmised with a finger raised. He was right. Paradise has to be lost, like a dream, before the truth can be sung.

DavidBowiePhilips
As it ever shall be: reinstated original cover of ’69

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud was the jewel of side two. I worked out the crestfallen chord cycle—D major, major 7th, 7th, 6th; G minor, A—but the story remained a conundrum. Like a dark Tolkien fragment with the ending opaque. I wonder if we twigged back then that that immense orchestra was telling us as much as the words.

The one I rediscovered during the storm was An Occasional Dream, with its lonely canons and trills of recorders and flutes: a song of youthful elation cloaked in the melancholy of past tense. “The ‘other’ Letter to Hermione,” is how Tony Visconti describes it.

It was a letter to me, too. The whole album was. A letter from one young man to another, each teetering from innocence to disillusionment. A letter he’ll read again and again, to feel the timeless comfort of a shared thought.

Yeah, I had to peek at Visconti’s notes in the accompanying book (mmm, hardback), even though I promised myself I’d keep attention wholly on the remastered goodness of the 180 gram vinyl (mmm, heavy). I did resist the temptation to pore over the artwork to the next nine records in the box. One at a time is good fishing, as my dad used to say.

The Man Who Sold the World is next. I wonder whose voices will fill my head this time. I hope it rains today.

The 100 Greatest Albums I Can’t Remember #3

Watched INXS: the Untold Story again. Shh, I don’t want your pity. Just curious that this rather interesting detail about where Hutch was heading artistically didn’t make the cut. This forgotten footnote landed 15 years ago this week.

HUTCHENCE’S LAST KICK
by Michael Dwyer

It was never going to be a face value proposition. When Michael Hutchence’s first and last solo album emerged from two years of legal limbo, it came with a truckload of baggage.

“So many people die these days and they’ve got the T-shirt printed up before the motherf—er’s cold,” gripes the self-titled album’s co-producer, Black Grape lynchpin Danny Saber. “I’ve always been turned off by that shit, then I find myself in that situation. What do I do?”

For Saber and Hutchence’s main collaborator, English guitarist/ songwriter Andy Gill, the answer was the same: respect their friend’s vision and proceed with integrity. The music was “95 per cent finished,” Gill stresses. “It’s not like someone found a box of cassettes under his bed and this is some kind of exploitation exercise.”

But if sales figures are any guide, public response has had more to do with morbid curiosity about a fallen star than genuine enthusiasm for his music. The single, “A Straight Line”, peaked outside the Australian top 40; the album debuted at #3 but fell fast.

Saber and Gill agree Hutchence had musical reinvention on his mind, but it’s his lyrics that tempt the imagination. You don’t have to read between the images of pain and violence to see a man taking account of a desperate situation – and to find shreds of meaning in a senseless death.

“This was a man who had made several very successful records and he was very much taking stock of his life,” Gill says. “Even a year or two before I met him I think things were a lot happier and more straightforward. For the first time, he’d come to feel the other side of media attention and he found it very painful.

“When the lyrics were going down I encouraged where he was heading. I thought they were honest, from the heart, autobiographical and in certain respects possibly deeper and richer than I had expected.”

Danny Saber, admittedly not an INXS fan, says he too was thrilled with the depth of Hutchence’s material, although he refuses to be drawn on the subject of the demons driving the singer’s creativity.

“Michael wasn’t no tragic f—in’ figure. He was a fun guy and he was using the drama in his life as inspiration, which is really healthy to me. That’s what you do if you write songs.”

Andy Gill opens up reluctantly on the subject of Hutchence’s ultimately suicidal headspace. “All I would say is that at certain times he would slip into a depressed kinda mood, which happened with increasing frequency during the last year. In those times he would focus on the vindictiveness of the British media and the problem with the legal wranglings about custody of Paula (Yates)’s children.

“It’s quite well documented that Michael took various drugs. In many respects he seemed to handle it very well, it didn’t seem to have negative repercussions but… there was at times a certain element of paranoia which I thought perhaps was slightly drug related.”

Saber counters angrily from the other side of the Atlantic. “I don’t know why Andy’s talking about that shit. When you work with people on an intimate level, that shit’s personal. I’m not gonna say anything negative about what kind of shit went down when we were in the studio together cause that’s a part of life. If people were a little more interested when he was alive, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Nor is that the only hint of strained relations emanating from the posthumous release. Andy Gill gave Bono pride of place on the final track, “Slide Away”, the song most obviously enhanced after Hutchence had sung his last tune. But Joe Strummer was not so lucky with his contribution to “Let Me Show You”.

“That was a very strange night,” Strummer recalls. “I thought I added a bit to the tune but I’ve no way of knowing cause I’m probably in the distance. That was Andy Gill, cause he used to be in the Mekons (Gang of Four, actually) and they hated the Clash. It’s all bad blood in the river. I was a friend of Hutch but not this Andy Gill geezer. He’s turned me down in the mix, the bastard.”

Further insight into the decade’s most mystifying rock tragedy, sadly, will not be forthcoming today. But the two men closest to the artist in his last act of creation are satisfied that his debut solo LP is a fitting final testament.

“Some of the songs were in different states but the key was that the vocals were in place. It wasn’t like some hatchet job,” says Saber. “They were cohesive, good strong songs and if Michael showed up somewhere on an island now and heard these songs he would totally recognise them. It’s not like some of those Hendrix records where they took outtakes and tried to scrape shit out of a barrel.”

“He was a completely natural genius; a totally instinctive, intuitive, great musician and a great songwriter,” says Gill. “When we were working on this record I knew we were making very, very powerful stuff. I just wanted that to come to fruition and to be out there for people to understand. To listen, and to understand.”

An edited version of this story originally appeared in Rolling Stone Australia in December 1999

The 100 Greatest Albums I Can’t Remember #2

Stardate: February, 2008. Hard to believe the hellhole we’d thoughtlessly dug for our grandchildren before this little baby set us back on course. Thanks, Lenny.

It Is Time For A Love Revolution

Lenny Kravitz

(EMI)

The Kravitz solution is so simple you wonder why some daft potheads didn’t think of it in the ’60s. “It’s time to get radical,” he says, “and combat the evil in this world with love.” You think he’s all talk? Dude, he rhymes “love revolution” with “new constitution” here, so you can imagine the panic in the Whitehouse.

He sees through the Iraq thing, too. Back In Vietnam draws a parallel as watertight and considered as his assertion that he “don’t need no politicians” cause he got Love, Love, Love. Says he don’t need no TV, or movie stars, or private planes, or air-con, or any of the other things that make him so obscenely comfortable either.

Spectacular dumbness aside, Kravitz’s weapons of mass seduction are as sound as ever: ultra-dry riff-rockers and pounding piano soul ballads; Stonesy funk in Dancin’ Til Dawn and primal anguish in A Long And Sad Goodbye, which switches John Lennon’s “Mother!” for “Papa!” If he’d stop being such an earnest Ernie, Kravitz might own up to what his records make abundantly clear: it’s only rock’n’roll and he likes it.

Michael Dwyer

 

The 100 Greatest Albums I Can’t Remember #1

The first in a series of CLASSIC ALBUM REVIEWS from the archives, united in posterity by a complete and disturbing lack of recollection on my part. That’s right. Never heard of it. And yet … this little bad boy was published in August, 2005.


Moneybrother

To Die Alone

(Burning Heart/ Shock)

Most karaoke bystanders have witnessed the unnerving spectacle of a seriously under-equipped vocalist coughing up solid gold through sheer force of will. It’s a kind of alchemy that can make you want to laugh, cry and hide in the toilets at the same time.

Reformed punk Anders Wendin, aka Moneybrother, is that kind of performer. Imagine Joe Strummer going for broke at Eurovision and you’ve got the gist of the overwrought Swede’s second, curiously arresting Euro-pop blockbuster.

He’s all sweat-soaked disco fever from the opening cut, They’re Building Walls Around Us, and though the violins settle down a little, his overreaching larynx continues to melt down in direct proportion to the heartbreak that follows.

It’s hard to believe a song called I’m Not Ready For It, Jo can exist, let alone have you in tears when the orchestra belts in. Blow Him Back Into My Arms is another melodramatic gem. He finally meets his match in What’s the Use of Trying, a production reminiscent of Scott Walker bravely ignoring throat surgeons’ orders.

References to other kitsch/ classy Swedish songwriters such as Abba, Roxette and Max Martin (Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Celine Dion, Bon Jovi, etc) are relevant here, but while Moneybrother is gargling at the same fountain, what he’s spitting out is something else.

Michael Dwyer

EQing the Bigsound buzz


Last week I was fortunate enough to experience the 13th annual Bigsound music biz conference in Brisbane.

Whassat? “It’s a big f—ing wankfest full of f—ing wankers wanking on, darling,” one of my old-school publicist pals forewarned. But having not been invited to wank at the previous 12, I eagerly accepted.

My gig was a “keynote interview” with the Church, a band I’d pretty much adored for 33 years. That turned out to be 33 years longer than most of the “buzz” bands at Bigsound had been buzzing.

I went to see some of them across the three days, based on buzz or random circumstance or personal taste. I missed tons more — even though some were abuzz as buggery — mostly because I had this keynote situation to negotiate with a degree of clarity that wasn’t going to gel with the whole buzzing ’round bars thing.

Some of these acts were great and some were lame and I wish them all well. But the best band I saw — very near the end of the 140-act sprawl through the gridlocked mall-scape somewhat stoically called Fortitude Valley — was the Church.

Yes, I know. Clearly there were emotional investment factors at play here. All I can say objectively is that:

  1. They performed like a band with several decades of experience and
  2. They sounded like no other band I’ve ever heard before.

Obviously, the former advantage wasn’t an option for Flyying Colours or the Sinking Teeth or Holy Holy or Airling. The uniqueness principle? Well, it’s been a pretty crowded 33 years. I’m sure a lot of buzz bands have no idea exactly what shadows they’re accidentally labouring in. But labour they must, and emerge into their own light some of them will.

Meanwhile, what a wanking great hoopla those 139 brave contenders have to deal with in this digitised and piratised and omni-streaming modern business of show. As far as this griseous and ivory-closeted wanker could divine from the big f—ing wankfest as a whole, the 2014 buzz band’s best bet for transcending the shrill cacophony of our times goes a bit like this:

Write one (1) song good enough to make a (not terribly) critical mass of teenagers curious when it plays over the closing credits of a popular TV show so your manager can add the Shazam stats to your Facebook Likes and get some Soundcloud action that might catch the eye of a Splendour booker who’ll ask you to play your good song (and some other ones) to a few thousand Hottest 100 voters before your keyboard player rethinks what has been, after all, a pretty paltry and fleeting emotional investment and decides to go back to uni so the whole thing goes tits up before you get to unveil the album that nobody wants to buy at Soundwave.

The future was never written far past the next EP, of course, even when the Church were buzzing through their very first ramshackle gigs, rightly oblivious to griseous old farts’ derision about their second-hand paisley ways and accidental echoes of jangling Rickenbacker. And Steve Kilbey and Co. were doubtless hell bent on writing that one song good enough to make Molly Meldrum pick up the telephone and … hello, has it really been 25 albums?

The future from here though, looks sort of brutal. Seems like it’s not 25 albums long for any band. For the vast majority, it’s not five. For most, maybe it’s one or two. Which is to say two songs, downloaded to some endlessly recycling playlist … and that’s if you count an edit of a remix on an ad for a TV show that doesn’t quite trend on Twitter.

Given the perpetual dilution of emotional investment capital in these maddeningly buzzing times, I was oddly touched to read  one Gen Y critic with enough unconditional love in his heart to take a punt  on the Church’s modest five-song stand  amongst the trending Bigsound newbies. Sitting here like a classic LP in a teeming torrent of single-track downloads, I can only admire his appetite for adventure.

Bob Dylan in fantastic show shocker

The Palais Theatre, Melbourne
August 18, 2014


“It’s the words, Bob,” I said to him. “We can no longer hear the words.”

There was other stuff I wanted to tell him, too, after that diabolical Rod Laver Arena gig back in 2011. Stuff like “Bugger the hits, Bob. You’re better than that. Just play the new stuff. It’s fresh. It’s more you. And it’s gold.”

Then there was the perennial “Bob. Maaate. Do you REALLY need the money so bad that you’ll piss one of the greatest little bar bands on Earth up against the thudding silo walls of a godforsaken sports stadium every night?”

But the editor said I only had 280 words. And I needed 19 of them to describe “a ravaged voice that can barely raise itself from a monotonal lurch without shredding like nails down a blackboard.”

Bob, however, works in mysterious ways. Come last night, it turned out he’d heard all of my concerns, both printed in the daily newspaper and beamed telepathically to the troubleshooting cortex in the brow of his superbrain.

At least 15 years into what looked awfully like terminal decline into a sleepwalking stupor and/ or deliberate contrariness, Bob played the plushly appointed and acoustically tolerable Palais Theatre with a set-up and a setlist worthy of a 73-year-old master craftsman as near as dammit to the top of his game.

He did at least half of Tempest, his latest album of crackling bloodlust, old bastard rage and stately Old American swing, wiggle and grind. He did exactly three songs from his ’60s “heyday”, two from his ’70s “masterpiece”, Blood On the Tracks, and the rest from his post ’97 “renaissance”.

No less significantly, the only Shakespeare of any generation since Shakespeare seemed to have consulted a 1,000-year-old microphone oracle on the vexed subject of projecting verbiage of peerless gravity with flinty precision above and beyond the sound of a smokin’ little country-swing outfit hellbent on vouching safe its immaculate manifestation without compromising the sand-and-glue integrity of his very particular throat strings.

I counted four mikes in a neat, tight bunch circling his expertly spitting jowls. Fabulous old ribbon and grill contraptions they were, some like the ones referees pull from the ceiling in old boxing pictures; others like cops bark into during film noir chase scenes and possibly the very one Bing Crosby changed the world by whispering into.

One could spill a lot more than 280 words itemising the sheer eye-moistening thrills conjured by this simple, yet seemingly so elusive combination of environment, technology and Bob Dylan. But let’s face it, none of those words would come out as good as his. And Bob. Maaate. I heard ’em this time. Every. Lovely. One.