March 29, 2005

In But Not Of (A Personal Note)...

I was mostly in but not of the Sydney post-punk scene. I met or knew many of the people involved at the time, but you could probably mention my (real) name now to most of them and not get even a flicker of recognition from anyone but a tiny handful of people on the Green/Tactics axis. I have virtually no photos of my own from that time (it never occurred to me to have a camera at that stage of my life), and precious few physical mementos (and some of those I do have turn out to be mementos of things that may never have happened anyway, which is just delicious). And I left Sydney for London (and another life that didn't seem much connected to what had gone before) in the mid 1980's, removing even the small traces of me in other people's lives that existed then.

I was a self-conscious outsider, and (a bit like John Blades, whose affecting story is on Phil T's web site) very aware that I was an engineering student rather than a musician or artist. My relationship with that group of people and the assorted ideas and music that ran through Sydney, Newcastle, and Wollongong at the time was mostly personal rather than musical -- I was X's lover (for a while...), Y's friend, I lived with Z., etc. (those who knew me then can fill in the names here; most of these people are still alive and would probably rather forget). Unlike almost all the people in that scene, I wasn't primarily a musician or an artist -- I was an engineering student (and, later, an engineer) who'd earlier been strongly affected by the whole punk ethos, and many of whose friends happened to be in bands like Tactics, Particles, Popular Mechanics, Thought Criminals, etc. (or who did things like photography or radio that made them part of all that -- I, of course, didn't do any of that...). I certainly never looked the part -- I never wore black or took the slightest bit of interest in my own clothing or fashions, etc. -- and after an early brush with the posturing that went on in the name of Punk (or "Punk") in Sydney, I defiantly (and pointlessly) went out of my way to look and dress like exactly the sort of person who wouldn't be seen dead at (say) SideFX or a Saints gig (yes, yes, I played the game in my own plodding way...).

I never actively sought to be part of the scene -- I just stumbled into it, mostly as a result of seeing Tactics live at my local (the Royal in Abercrombie Street) on a Saturday afternoon, and realising that I'd known Angus when we were both kids in Canberra. Over the next few months I became personal friends with most of the band. I admired David's lyrics and intentions, and I (mostly) loved the music. Tactics always seemed serious (but not humourless or earnest) in ways that marked them out from a lot of the other bands of the era (including any of my own). Tactics often seemed to be on a mission -- a mission that sometimes definitely included self-destruction -- and that could be off-putting, but it worked for me.

I did play in a few bands -- I was even in one of the least successful (but more adventurous) short-lived incarnations of Tactics, and I'd definitely been in a few punk (or "punk") bands before this time -- but again, my life at that time was never primarily about music, even as I lived in the thick of it, and even though I slowly learned to play guitar and bass competently over the years. I didn't learn music as a kid; my parents weren't musical in any obvious way, and rarely listened to anything other than classical (if that); I've never been musically well-informed; and I've never learned to read a note of music in my life (something I regretted even then). But I never stopped hearing music, whether on 2JJ or Triple-J, or live, or in the sound of the trains next to Wilson Street, or inside my head as I rode to work or the University. And I never stopped going to gigs or talking music with friends, band members, etc.; and I never stopped playing music (initially just guitar and bass, later a little more adventurous).

I was often deeply ambivalent about a lot of the music and social aspects of the scene. I was British (but I kept it well hidden...) and painfully aware of just how much of a cargo cult bits of the earlier Sydney punk movement and other Australian cultural trends had been. The post-punk movement did feel different, more original, and more aware of some of the absurdities of trying to second- or third-guess music and social movements from across the world, but I still kept a slightly skeptical distance, something that was (I suspect) often perceived as being condescending.

So bear all this in mind with later articles in this Punk (and Later) thread -- I was an outsider, and these are inevitably unreliable memoirs, and this will probably be an idiosyncratic and unrepresentative (and way too wordy) take on things....

March 20, 2005

The Subtitles To Dreams

I stumble unwittingly into Ben Marcus's "The Age Of Wire And String", a true riot of deadpan surrealism and real subversion, baroque structures of anti-meaning, impenetrable invention gone berserk, a fantastic self-contained world of quotable phrases and reasonable-sounding instabilities of meaning. I can't put it down. It reminds me of the time in the late 1980's when I sat on a bench at Emeryville Marina looking out over the Bay and a large deranged old woman in a tattered dress sat down uninvited next to me and proceeded to give me a long, detailed, erudite, and enchanting description of the supposed geology and geography of the Bay, with long sweeps of her arm and barely a break in the commentary... except it was all (even with my limited knowledge) gibberish, a cargo cult of words and tossed meanings, all perfect structure and empty meaning. Structure run riot over meaning... meaning inherent in structure.

TAOWAS seems to be (amongst other things) a challenge to construct a whole world of meaning in your mind from a written world in which the little units of meaning don't refer to each other or the Real World in any sort of linear or constant way or mediated by conventional structure, where structure gives an illusory unity to otherwise entirely fractured meanings.... It reads like the subtitles to dreams. [2/2002].

March 12, 2005

Imaginitive Souls

"Undoubtedly, the reason we love cities is that they set the imagination free" (Charles Simic, reviewing a book on Joseph Cornell in an old NYRB).

No. We love cities because they set the imagination off; they constrain — train — the imagination, they suggest, they anchor, they generate so many sparks of imagination. It's the vast prairies or steppes that set the imagination free — to the ruin (or discomfort) of so many "imaginative" souls...

March 09, 2005

Rather Ludicrous

From a recent New Yorker article ("Sign Off -- The Long and Complicated Career of Dan Rather", Ken Auletta):

"[US CBS network anchorman Dan Rather] certainly brings an attitude to the news. 'I have tried to speak truth to power,' he says, and adds a Ratherism: 'I do have my biases, such as, I'm hard to herd and impossible to stampede.'"

Later, in the same article, talking about CBS's swallowing the Bush Line on Iraqi WMDs hook, line, and sinker:

"'Look, when a President of the United States, any President, Republican or Democrat, says these are the facts, there is heavy prejudice, including my own, to give him the benefit of any doubt, and for that I do not apologize.'"

I rarely watch US broadcast network news. I doubt that I could pick Dan Rather (or most of the other manufactured "personalities" in the business) out in a police line up. I probably couldn't tell you for certain which of my local TV channels is ABC, which CBS, or which NBC. But even I know it's hard to beat this fatuous little sequence for unwitting revelation. Yes, US broadcast news really is this bad -- pompous, self-important, self-absorbed, impotent, irrelevant, and utterly unable to understand what it might actually mean to speak truth to power (never mind that in this country Dan Rather speaks for the Power that is CBS). And utterly unable to understand what it might actually mean to want to speak truth to power....

Spin truth for power, maybe.

March 08, 2005

The Talvin

The Talvin (after Talvin Singh): the unit used to measure your sudden irritation at the entrance of a very fast, fanatically-precise, and neurotically-complex artificial drum track — whose only use seems to be to draw attention to itself and its virtuosity — over a beautiful flowing melody or song that's already full of rhythmic invention and surprise.

See also: The Cobham.

March 05, 2005

Five Quid A Pop

When I think back on the physical conditions in the Woy Woy area when I was a kid there, they sound primitive even for the time: no piped town water (our family relied on a couple of thousand gallon tanks out the back catching rain water from the roof, which was better than some people -- there was always the water man who'd deliver 1,000 gallons of water in a truck for £5 when you got desperate during a drought), no sewage system (some people had septic tank systems; most, though, had the old outhouse pans that were emptied once or twice a week by the "sanny man" into the sanny truck late at night... the smell of the typical outhouse -- lime, shit, pine-o-clean -- still haunts me all these years later), a town where few people had cars, fewer still had phones (in a town of some 16,000 people, my parents' number was "Woy Woy 148" -- and they were latecomers; people would walk a mile just to use a friend's phone or a public phone), and where all phone exchanges were manual, where TV was black and white (four channels if you had a good aerial; no local channels), and where we played footie (tellingly, Rugby League) barefoot until the age of 12 because parents were too poor to buy a new pair of boots for the kids each year, and primary school classes typically had 40 or 50 kids in them; our school's playground was a large tarmac lot with a single dead tree in the middle of it; I remember when our school first got fluorescent lighting to replace the single bare bulbs hanging in each classroom. Most roads had no hard shoulders, let alone curbing and drains; quite a few roads were still unpaved. There were the remains of an old WW2 emergency airstrip next to what is now Trafalgar Avenue; this was slowly being built over, but for years it remained a long hardened red-dirt dust strip in the middle of Umina.

Most people lived in houses -- I don't think I ever knew anyone who lived in a flat (they were for people up from Sydney on holiday). Most houses were fibro and wood, or brick and tile if you were rich. Very few houses had any form of central heating; air-conditioning was unheard of, even in shops. The climate was humid, rarely very hot, never particularly cold. It rained 50 to 60 inches each year, often in wild storms (it once rained 10" in a single morning; this was impressive). Thunderstorms were fairly common. For all the rain, the soil was mostly sandy and dry. Flame trees and Jacarandas grew all over the place; Lantana choked things up everywhere (and I can still smell it).

March 01, 2005

Ground Zero

In the latest NYRB Martin Filler asks why the Ground Zero design is so bad. It's so bad because — like virtually all the designs I've seen — it seems to be turning into a monument to the living, a monument to a thrusting spirit of American self-regard, rather than a reminder, a memento mori, or a monument to the dead. The dead seem to have no place in the design as conceived, unlike (say) the Vietnam wall in DC, where the dead are invoked simply and are so alive because of it (it's a moving place, even for a hardened cynic like me). Ground Zero's not going to be a place for quiet contemplation, sad memories, or reflection — it's a place almost explicitly designed to block these out.

A few hours after the towers went down I remember thinking they should leave the place as an urban park with some of the tall twisted beams that were still standing then left up as a reminder; keep the site as an obvious absence. When I lived in London, few Blitz memorials were more affecting (and simple) than the bombed-out church near St Pauls deliberately left unrepaired — every time you walked past it you saw the damage, you thought about the reality of bombing, and you wondered about the victims. You engaged with the tragedy, you didn't obliterate it.

(I have my own memories of looking out up towards Midtown from the 87th floor office in the North Tower that I occasionally used when in New York in the mid-to-late 1990's).


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