This is the fifth instalment of a series of posts covering my a residency at Sauerbier House in Port Noarlunga which commenced in October 2018. As part of my preparation and ongoing research I am following the course of the Onkaparinga/Ngangkiparri river from its source to the sea.
This post will be a little shorter than the previous ones which have documented my stops along the course of the Onkaparinga/Ngangkiparri River. The last post (covering trips to Mount Bold Reservoir and Clarendon) was written over three weeks ago and in the interim between then and now I’ve commenced my residency at Sauerbier House in Port Noarlunga. Understandably, time (and energy) have gotten away from me. We still managed to get out to our next designated stop at Onkaparinga Gorge on Sunday, but the time/energy reserves simply can’t produce something as in-depth and literate as the previous posts. I’m just a bit too consumed by the work at hand whilst in residence.
Nevertheless, I’m still committed to completing this journey to the best of my ability and to continue making observations and documenting the process.
I was again joined by my partner Lauren for this trip and the weather was ideal for a long-ish walk through the Onkaparinga National Park. To get to the gorge on foot within a reasonable timeframe, the best access points are via Gates 11 and 12 up Penny Hill Road (via Hackham). Being the weekend we expected a decent amount of visitors, but the more remote access points were certainly going to be less busy than the main gate and the lower lookouts.
We made our way down to the gorge via one of the Sundew Tracks which passed over a plateau of sparse vegetation before coming to a lookout that provided a wonderful vantage point of the gorge and river below. The contrast between the landscape of remnant vegetation and the surrounding pastoral land was striking. Our previous stop in Clarendon was probably only about five kilometres from this point (due east-ish).
A view looking east from the Sundew Look out.
From here, we continued onto the gorge and river as the track narrowed considerably. The vegetation became much denser as the path zig-zagged down progressively steeper gradients. Eventually we arrived at the river’s edge.
This part of the gorge was a stunning landscape. On our way down we had occasionally heard the river flowing, but from a distance (and a given vantage) it appeared completely motionless. Up close, we could perceive a steady current coursing through the river, evidenced by visible fronts on the surface of the water. At its edges, the sun streamed through a honey-tinged transparance that revealed a silty floor, rocks and felled branches covered in slime and moss. Little insects could occasionally be seen skirting the surface. Large boulders and sloping rocks provided nice vantage points, whilst paths wound through grasses led to little coves and other secluded areas. A swinging rope had been suspended from a branch of a large eucalypt. A platform to swing from it out over the river came in the form of one of the enormous boulders. I took my shoes off and gave it a go, making two complete swings before misjudging my return on the third trip and bashing my toe into a rock. Lauren proceeded to audibly roll her eyes. I do this kind of thing a lot. Thankfully I didn’t injure myself too much and the grotesquely cracked nail on my big toe looked a lot worse than it actually felt.
Since I knew that this trip on-foot would a bit more intensive than the previous ones, I couldn’t bear the thought of carrying a tripod and mic rig up-and-down about two kilometres of a steep path. Even though Lauren was with me, it seemed like a bit more of an imposition to ask her to carry extra gear when the priority was lightness. So, I kept gear a little more practical this time around: my new Aquarian hydrophones, the Sound Devices Mix Pre 3 recorder and my handheld LS-100 recorder.
This was only the second time I’d used my new hydrophones and the results were absolutely brilliant. There’s a considerably stronger low-to-mid frequency response with these which really brings so much more presence to the recording. This aspect had been sorely lacking from my previous hydrophone pair, and although I could subsequently boost these lower frequency bands in post-production, having all of the audio’s constituent parts revealed in-situ makes the process of monitoring and observing environments so much more enjoyable!
With the hydrophones dropped in the river, the currents which we’d seen were certainly audible – a consistent throb of motion, joined by rivulets of sibilant activity. Surrounding this, water skimmers panned across the hydrophones stereo profile, whilst other creatures prowled the water and floor of the river, occasionally making contact with the mics.
I made a couple of open-air recordings with the hand-held recorder, positioned with a little tripod. I’ve only listened back to these recordings once (time has been a bit limited this week), but the serenity of this location is certainly evident – the ambience of the river flowing, varieties of finches and wrens sounding out and the chatter of insects.
Although we passed other visitors coming and going on the Sundew Track as we made our way down to the gorge, it seemed remarkable that we managed to have the riverside location to ourselves for a bit over an hour; almost completely uninterrupted.
An excellent trip – certainly the highlight on these roadtrips.
From here, I’ll be picking up the final stage of the journey by covering Old Noarlunga and then walking along the river to Sauerbier House in Port Noarlunga, followed by a short walk to the estuary.
This is the fourth instalment of a series of posts covering my preparation (and eventual work) for a residency at Sauerbier House in Port Noarlunga commencing in October 2018. As part of my preparation and research I am following the course of the Onkaparinga/Ngangkiparri river from its source to the sea.
Bad weather/good weather/injuries
Given that the weather in the broader Adelaide-region was absolutely abysmal on Saturday, I decided to be sensible and defer this road trip to Monday. This promised much better weather conditions and would also allow me to take it easy and do what one should do on a Saturday morning: ideally nothing at all. Another factor which moved the road trip to Monday was due to a bicycle accident I had a couple of days prior, resulting in a series of bruises on my right side and a graze on my elbow which – by Friday night – had turned into a gross and concerning infection. So, although Saturday didn’t involve observing and recording locations, it did involve trying to hastily see a doctor who could provide some much needed antibiotics.
By the time Monday came around, the infection had been banished and I was refreshed enough to hit the road once again; continuing to follow the course of the Onkaparinga River from its source to the sea.
My partner Lauren joined me this time around and given the ridiculously beautiful weather, it was a great opportunity for us to get out of the city for a few hours and do the things that couples do in the Adelaide Hills: fill the car with recording equipment; carry around recording equipment; untangle recording equipment; and waste precious time explaining to strangers what it is that you’re doing with said recording equipment.
My previous road trip had ended south of Mylor at the Valley Of Delights, as the river crashed over a weir, rounded sandstone cliffs and continued its passage through the remote (and practically inaccessible) regions of May Valley and Black Rock. Examining Google Maps, the river narrows considerably through this region before meeting a huge body of water. This body of water would be the first designated stop on Monday’s road trip.
Mount Bold Reservoir
Mount Bold Reservoir is located a few kilometres east of Clarendon in the lower Adelaide Hills. The reservoir was constructed from 1932-1938, is the largest in South Australia (approx. 3.1 sq km) and supplies the bulk of Adelaide’s water supply. The only point of public access (that I know of) is the lookout adjacent to the dam wall at the southwestern fringe of the reservoir.
Pulling into the car park, it was the valley surrounding the dam wall that first caught my attention. It’s a stunning landscape; and the scale of it (in terms of height, distance and space in between) left me slightly awestruck. Speaking of scale, the dam wall is certainly imposing. Engineering feats like this always make me marvel at the degree of human ingenuity involved in taming and withholding the forces of nature – for better or worse. At the base of the wall, a continuous roar filled the air as a continuous jet of water was discharged from the wall’s valve chamber.
We had hoped to make our way down to a rope bridge that was suspended over the water, which would have made for a great recording. Unfortunately, it was closed off for maintenance so I was left to survey the area from above. I set up my stereo rig at the southern end of the dam wall (via a walkway) and clamped a contact mic to the guard rail to capture gusts of wind that were blowing across it. These gusts of wind certainly put the windjammers on the stereo rig to the test. The wind was strong enough for me to ensure that all of my gear was secure and not partial to blowing into watery oblivion below.
The challenges of a stereo field
Since upgrading my field recording set up from a handheld recorder to the adjustable stereo rig, I’ve realised that I’ve got a lot more to learn about recording environments. Because I’d used stereo handheld recorders for most of my field recording practice (Edirol HR09 [2010-2013], Olympus LS-100 [2013-2017] I’d obviously grown accustomed to the non-flexibility of the stereo arrangement of these devices – which have the microphones set in fixed positions. Much like a musical instrument, I’d gradually taught myself how to best manoeuvre it, whilst accepting it limitations of both the device (and myself.) By upgrading to the rig I had greater flexibility: I could now fully adjust the stereo field. However, once I’d gotten over the initial thrill of this, I gradually realised that this presented some new challenges. Now that I was able to broaden or tighten the stereo field, I found myself listening to environments in a completely different way than before, and realised that in order to faithfully capture environments, I would have to pay closer attention to everything.
With flexibility comes great responsibility.
I believe that through this process, I’ve become far more aware of just how weirdly sound can behave in particular environments and how much care I must take with regard to the recording process. I’m not simply pointing, recording and capturing sound anymore; I have to work with it, manoeuvre with it sympathetically, whilst monitoring and listening more attentively. In my previous post, I’d observed the peculiar phasing effect that was apparent whilst recording beneath the Princess Highway bridges. I’d attributed this to a combination of factors: my position in relation to the underside of the bridge and the river; the positioning of the mics; and what I was hearing via the rig against what I heard with my naked ears.
A dam wall situated in a narrow valley is a unique acoustic space and its slippery characteristics were certainly emphasised by the way the roar of the water below could be perceived, depending on the position of your body/head in relation to the source of the sound and the erratic behaviour of the wind. In a given position, only a low resonance could be perceived; in another, the roar enveloped my body; then, the wind would pick up and it would appear as if frequency bands of the sound were breaking apart and swirling around. With complex and volatile acoustic properties like this, a humble stereo set-up doesn’t stand any chance of faithfully capturing what’s occurring. For this situation, something like a binaural dummy head or one of Rode’s new innovative ambisonic microphone arrays would have been more appropriate.
Obviously, a stereo field (fixed or versatile) will not replicate what we apprehend with our ears; and at best, can only render a faithful impression of an environment.
What did the recordings with the stereo rig sound like? Messy. As I was monitoring the recordings on the dam wall I realised I would need a good couple of hours (and possibly consultation from expert peers) to figure out how to record this location satisfactorily. At the very least, I did have an impression of the roaring water to the south, the relative tranquillity of still waters on the other side of the wall, and a hell of a lot of wind in between.
Whilst we couldn’t visit the site where the Onkaparinga River flowed into the reservoir (near Black Rock) we could certainly see where it left the reservoir: just a bit beyond the roaring jetstream below, forming the semblance of a crooked river and continuing its passage through the valley.
As we made our way to Clarendon we encountered the river flowing beneath a shallow bridge leading out of the wider reservoir district. I set up the recorder to capture the river’s flow and surrounding birdlife, whilst Lauren took pictures of a dozing possum in a nearby eucalypt.
Upon arriving in Clarendon, we were less than enthused to find that the bakery was closed. Following a good pummeling by the wind and energies spent wandering around the reservoir area, a pasty and doughnut seemed like the world’s best kind of sustenance. Instead, we put our grumbling stomachs aside (not literally) and wandered down to where the river passed through a large reserve.
Ah, Clarendon. This is a beautiful little town that was established in the early days of European settlement. The last time we had been here was on my birthday earlier in the year. We feasted on pasties and doughnuts, inspected the local buildings, and then drove onto Kangarillia to down a couple of beers. One of the things that I like most about this town is the steep hills and valleys that surround it. Without trying to sounding too whimsical, it definitely has an enchanted feel to it; like a small Ye Olde Village with faeries and sprites hiding just out of sight. Of course, I’m certain it’s got a dark underbelly radiating some seriously bad vibes. Everywhere does.
As I made a recording just above the banks of the river, I spotted a burnt out car slumped near a fat concrete pipe which led to an imposing wall laced with razor wire. Indeed: venture off the main road in a given town and the enchantment of a place ends there.
This observation was however a minor schism within the overall loveliness of the place. Further downstream, a school group on excursion were exploring the river with nets and notebooks, mucking about and trying to scare the shit out of each other. Despite my initial concerns, this actually made for a good (albeit, slightly obnoxious) recording. The whimsy of children can only sustain so much patience though, so Lauren and I made our way around the reserve to a secluded spot surrounded by reeds with steep cliffs looming above.
In this spot, I set up the recorder, put my headphones on, blissed out slightly and gazed up at the cliffs dappled with ivy, bushes and little nooks. On top of the cliffs, thin clouds passed slowly though the clear blue sky as craggy old olive trees rustled in the breeze. Birds sounded out around us and frogs at either end of the creek started up in tentative bursts. Eventually the kids finished up their excursion and approached on the periphery. Through my headphones their approach sounded terrifying! Then I realised I’d had my headphone volume up way too high in relation to the actual (real world) volume level. Such was the lovely ambience of the riverside, that I’d gradually cranked up the volume to further immerse myself in it.
Beware the seductive quality of microphones and headphones in the real world. The ontological slippages can occasionally be a little unsettling.
Next time: The final approach – Onkaparinga National Park.
Read the previous instalment #1 covering Wilco’s Summerteethhere
Read the previous instalment #2 covering Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mindhere
Roy Buchanan’s 1972 instrumental rendition of Don Gibson’s country ballad, “Sweet Dreams” arrives at the close of Martin Scorsese’s film The Departed. Digham has dispatched Sullivan in his hotel room with a single gunshot to the head; a spatter of brains and he collapses to the ground. Buchanan’s guitar materialises with a couple of solitary tones, expertly faded in with swells of the guitar’s volume pot. Sulivan’s prostrate body lies on the floor bleeding as the camera slowly pans up to reveal a view of the city from the hotel room balcony. The guitar is then joined by the smash of drums, bass and swirling organ as the screen fades to black and the credit roll. From thereon, the familiar tropes of Buchanan’s remarkable guitar technique are laid out: delicate warm tone contrasted by a biting attack; economic phrasing met with a rapid flurry of notes; the aforementioned volume swells – sounding akin to a violin or crying voice. “Sweet Dreams” is oft regarded as Buchanan’s signature track, and I imagine for a mainstream audience, this was the first time that Buchanan’s “Sweet Dreams” was heard on a wide scale. Prior to its inclusion on the films soundtrack, it was more likely regarded within the tight circles of guitar fanatics, niche radio playlists and various compilations. Roy Buchanan wasn’t (and still isn’t) a name that immediately or even remotely springs to mind when one weighs up seminal guitarists of the 20th Century, whose approach and dexterity with the instrument went on to inspire a thousand imitators. Where names like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and David Gilmour frequently clog up Best Guitarist Ever lists, names like Buchanan’s barely register a blip or mention. Buchanan remains an otherwise cult figure, an obscure presence – enormously talented and influential, yet not a name that immediately comes up when one thinks of guitar legends, especially those whose primary axe of choice was the Fender Telecaster.
The Departed had not yet been released when I first came across Buchanan. My first encounter with his music occurred in early 1998 on the eve of my last year of high school. I had a cassette given to me by an older friend of mine – on one side was his live album, Livestock (1975); on the other was AStreet Called Straight (1976).
A Street Called Straight represented a new beginning and a lifeline of sorts for Buchanan, whose career by 1975 was beginning to stall. The album was a calculated leap of faith (on the part of Buchanan’s new record label, Atlantic) and – as evidenced by the album’s title – a literal reading of the artist’s (and probably his incumbent labels) desire to get his shit together. Although Buchanan was a reliable draw on the live circuit, after a few studio albums he had failed to capitalise on the slightly ridiculous tag of ‘the greatest unknown guitarist in the world’ that had followed him around for half a decade. This tag had come as the result of his belated ‘discovery’ aged 30-ish at the beginning of the 1970’s, which resulted in a one-hour television special, highlighting the talents of this pathologically shy, balding and slightly overweight guy who could play virtually anything. If it weren’t for the turtleneck sweater and groovy pin-striped flares, one could be mistaken that he’d recently walked off a shrimp trawler that had been at sea for years.
Buchanan had been an active musician since the late 1950s, cutting his teeth and making bread from endless touring and session work. Although the documentary can now be watched on YouTube, one can only speculate what audiences made of this guy back in 1971. It did however make enough of an impression to garner Buchanan a record deal with Polydor and a decent advance and publicity to accompany each release – Roy Buchanan (1971), Second Album (1972), That’s What I’m Here For (1973), In The Beginning (1974) and Livestock (1975). Whilst his reticent appearance would have no doubt hampered his commercial success during this period, it was further undermined by his limited ability as a vocalist and over-reliance on guest singers (often ill-fitting choices for the material on hand. *) Speaking of the material, whilst Buchanan’s instrumentals and guitar work were the main attraction, his studio albums were frequently padded out with generic blues standards.
* Which I imagine was largely at the behest of the producer and not so much a decision Buchanan would have made himself.
A Street Called Straight represented a clear break from the previous template. It’s an intentionally polished product. Buchanan sings (quite well) on a majority of the tracks, whilst the bulk of the record is made up from original material. Accompanied by a surfeit of incredible guitar work and strong production values, one would expect it to have garnered above-average sales upon its release. It didn’t however, and aside from the obligatory sales accompanying anything with Buchanan’s name on it, it made next to no impression and gradually slipped out of print.
* * *
By the start of 1998, my musical tastes and interests had become fairly erratic. On a given week I’d be obsessively listening to The Byrds or The Flying Burrito Brothers; the next week Elvis Costello and Ry Cooder; the following week Pavement and Sonic Youth. A bit later on, I discovered Jethro Tull, and I feel I’m still apologizing to some of my family and high school friends for what I subjected them to.
At the time, I’d been playing guitar for about a year-and-a-half and – in spite of my eclectic tastes – I was largely stuck in the pentatonic paradigm of blues and generic idiom of the Three Chords That Make Folk Music. Nobody in high school was remotely interested in blues guitar or folk music, so my only peer and enabler in this area was a family friend and the same person who gave me the cassette containing the Roy Buchanan albums. Alex Abbott is still one of the tallest people I’ve ever met (6’6”) and it was my impromptu jam sessions with him after school that pushed my guitar technique from generic to slightly-less-generic. We’d struck off a friendship about a year prior when I effused to him about John Mayall and we started playing blues songs together: me on guitar and Alex on vocal, guitar and banjo. Since a banjo was involved, throughout 1998 I was gradually exposed to elements of bluegrass and country and started to free up my playing a bit to accommodate these styles (to the best of my limited ability.)
When I wasn’t jamming at Alex’s, I’d hone things by my lonesome at my dad’s house when he wasn’t there*. Among the many acoustic instruments hanging on the living room wall, there was an amplifier and a Fender Telecaster stowed away. On this Telecaster I attempted to recreate the technique and palette of tones that made Roy Buchanan’s playing of his Telecaster so arresting. One of the most distinctive things about a Telecaster is the sharp and biting sound of its neck-pickup position. If the technique is accurate and the amplifier is loud enough, this biting tone is enough to make a heart hurt, eyes water or teeth come loose. This effect is further enhanced if one can pull of the trick of playing ‘pinch harmonics’ – a technique involving harmonics that makes a note sound higher and sharper. It’s got a distinctively piercing effect, and this is one particular thing that Roy Buchanan does remarkably well. Whilst I could get a grip on the fading of notes with the volume pots and bend a few bitey tones, I could not manage much else of his technique.
* The role of this house is mentioned in detail in the previous essay covering Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind.
The opening track of A Street Called Straight, “Running Out” is full of Buchanan Technique. Over a funky blues groove, his guitar wails, squawks and (at one point) sounds like a machine gun*. The second track – a shamelessly early-disco cash-in – “Keep What You Got” gets even funkier, with Buchanan’s playing starting to levitate off the ground. On first hearing these openers I was mightily impressed, but not entirely sure why. I asked myself: how was this any different to the playing of someone like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck? This is, after all fairly standard bluesy-rock guitar playing, especially within the mid-1970s zeitgeist of endless guitar solos. Buchanan’s approach was different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Things began to crystalise by the next track. “Man On The Floor” is an odd one. Written by Buchanan and breaking away from the funky stomp of the first two tracks, its lyrics evoke Christian devotion and sacrifice are delivered over a swampy blues groove. The opening of this track is full of wails, stuttering chops and a storm of notes. It sounds like the guitar is having a panic attack or seizure. Things escalate further in the solo, where it sounds like the guitar is starting to come apart under the strain of the frenzied playing. Beneath this maelstrom, the playing from the rest of the band remains expert, tight and holds everything together. The playing on “Man On The Floor” is incredible and at the time it spooked me a little (and it still does.) Whilst “Running Out” and “Keep What You Got” could be dismissed as guitar-histrionics-for-the-sake-of-it, there was something about Buchanan’s guitar playing on this track that transcended the clichés and belied Buchanan’s otherwise quiet and unassuming exterior. Further research was necessary. With primitive Internet restricted to school, I fortunately had a paperback on hand entitled, Guide To Blues On CD and – to my surprise – it contained a generous entry devoted to Buchanan.
* Running the tips of the fingernails of the left hand over the strings whilst chopping a rapid rhythm with the right hand creates this effect. Buchanan further enhances this effect by moving the left hand position up and down the neck of the guitar, thus articulating the harmonics of the strings.
* * *
On stage, Buchanan would be positioned slightly stage left, next to his keyboardist. His guitar positioned high to his chest, feet planted, head down with scarcely any expression on his face. This stage manner prompted a bandmate to ask him how he could play such visceral and emotive guitar whilst appearing so calm on the outside, he replied:
“Well, I’m screaming on the inside.”
For most of his career, Buchanan was an alcoholic and would infrequently dabble with illicit substances. For the most part though, the bottle was his main vice. Such is the lonely life on the road: one venue blurs into the next, travelling by night, staying in anonymous hotels, another backstage rider, another dismal bar, a pervading sense of loneliness, estrangement and longing for home. Whilst performing, Buchanan would often have a couple of glasses of beer placed within reach. In spite of his otherwise reserved appearance, sometimes he would offer a brief moment of deadpan entertainment for the audience, demonstrating the feat of playing his guitar with one hand whilst downing a beer in one go with the other.
Though he would reform on a couple of occasions in the 1980s, the bottle would ultimately lead to his tragic death in a jail cell in 1988. Although the coroner determined his death was the result of suicide by hanging, visible bruises on his face suggested the possibility of foul play. Over the years, bandmates would recall Buchanan’s tendency for volatile mood swings – appearing upbeat and cheerful one moment, then utterly despondent and abusive the next.
* * *
Along with his tendency for liquid excess and deep troughs of depression, Buchanan was also a lapsed fundamentalist Christian, so in this respect – and given the track’s obvious religious underpinnings – his guitar work on “Man On The Floor” conveys the mood of an existential crisis, ala Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”. Speaking of Hendrix, one of the few covers on A Street Called Straight is Buchanan’s version of Hendrix’s “If Six Was Nine”.
Buchanan’s interpretation of Hendrix’s groovy ode to non-conformity is hardly sunshine: a slow blues groove pulsating grimly with bass and clavinet, droll vocals and soulful guitar playing. During the outro, the rapid-fire guitar solo becomes detached from the rest of the track and segues into the free-form instrumental, “Guitar Cadenza”. This track is basically an excuse for Buchanan to go all weird with tape delay, reverb and feedback.
* * *
Inspired by the ridiculousness of this track I was creating my own scrappy “Guitar Cadenza” with the electric guitar, amp and a Boss DD2 digital delay pedal. Messing around with the digital delay was the first time I’d employed a piece of music technology to repeat, modulate, warp and feedback a signal and this would spur an interest in experimental music, which would properly take hold a couple of years later. With the effects pedal I could make the guitar repeat itself infinitely, smear everything into sonic ambiguity and make it howl with feedback. It was terribly exciting.
* * *
Although Buchanan was an electric guitarist by trade, he could also play an acoustic guitar extremely well and it’s a genuine shame that this ability isn’t featured more exclusively across his discography. A Street Called Straight is the only record that he made which features his acoustic guitar work (rolling folk-style fingerpicking, bluesy twangs) on several tracks – “Good God Have Mercy”, “Okay”, “Caruso” and “I Still Think About Ida Mae”.
With my acoustic guitar in tow, I can recall jamming with Alex and enthusiastically trying to get a grip on the choppy ascending and descending chords on “Okay” or keep a consistent strumming pattern going, like the one I heard on “Good God Have Mercy”.
* * *
On most of Buchanan’s albums released in the 1970’s there’s at least one track which encapsulates probably his greatest strength as a guitarist – measured soulful playing contrasted with raw eruptions. A spectrum of emotion, expressed with the wood and wires of the guitar. That’s What I’m Here For has “Roy’s Bluz”, In The Beginning has “Wayfaring Stranger” and A Street Called Straight has “The Messiah Will Come Again”.
Buchanan had previously recorded “The Messiah Will Come Again” for his first album, and whilst the original version was compelling enough, I can only assume that the mission statement of reaching a broader audience required a reprise of this fan favourite. The track opens with fluid runs of bluesy licks before it is overtaken by a sustained, warbling peal of organ. Buchanan doesn’t sing on this track, but rather intones as if he’s delivering a sermon telling of Christ’s eventual return. The monologue ends and Buchanan’s guitar tears loose – piercing the air, screaming, wailing and sounding like a helicopter spiraling to the ground.
It’s a profoundly moving song and – along with “Sweet Dreams” – is one of the finest encapsulations of Buchanan’s uniqueness as an artist.
* * *
Considering the underlying struggles and drama of Buchanan’s life and career, the cover artwork of A Street Called Straight reveals a moment of apparent calm. The sepia-toned photo shows Buchanan sitting on a floor playing his guitar, while one of his sons sits rather morosely in his lap. Buchanan stares out at us from behind his son’s head with a mixture of tenderness and unease. In spite of the obvious messaging of getting straight and conveying a wholesomeness, it’s a slightly awkward and disconcerting staging. A Street Called Straight represented a new beginning, and although its music is – by Buchanan’s standards – bold and adventurous, on the cover the artist appears to look slightly compromised and a little uncertain of where he’s found himself and where he’s going.
If the cover of a Roy Buchanan album is an indication of where the artist’s prospects are at a given point, then the artwork of his subsequent album, 1977’s Loading Zone makes this painfully apparent: sitting in a half-empty bar with a clogged ashtray, a mug of piss-weak beer and Buchanan leaning across the table with a weary expression on his face as if to ask:
“Where did it all go wrong?”
* * *
Roy Buchanan’s albums from the 1970s are quite difficult to find these days. Most of the Polydor and Atlantic albums were never reissued on vinyl once they had slipped out of print. My friend Alex had vinyl copies of A Street Called Straight, Livestock and In The Beginning and throughout 1998 I would borrow these repeatedly when I’d worn out my cassette copies in order to make more copies. Over the years found some of Buchanan’s album when I’ve spied them in the second-hand racks of record stores. Although his work has been infrequently issued on CD, most of these releases are abysmally mastered or are out of print altogether. Elsewhere (and if you can get past the sub-par sound quality of the digital mastering) streaming platforms only offer what’s available, which isn’t much.
I can recall finally finding a copy of A Street Called Straight last year. It was buried in a rack of ‘Blues’ and upon seeing it (for a reasonable price) I audibly whooped and promptly handed over the cash. Having not heard this album for nearly twenty years, dropping the needle was like opening up a nostalgic portal to what was a great year – full of eclectic music discoveries, marvelling at Roy Buchanan, wrangling a Telecaster, twiddling the knobs of an effects pedal and – perhaps, most importantly – those long afternoon jams with my old mate Alex.
Read the previous instalment covering Wilco’s Summerteeth here: link
It’s the middle of 1999: during that same bleak winter that I first encountered Wilco’s Summerteeth. I’m driving a rust riddled Holden Camira through the winding roads of Wattle Flat at night. There’s a thick fog that the Camira’s high beams are feebly attempting to seek a path through. I normally take care driving along this particular stretch of road, but on a night like this where visibility is significantly compromised I’m being extra attentive and maintaining a speed that will lessen the likelihood of catastrophe. I’m dropping a friend off at a party in Myponga and to compensate for the lack of conversation I’ve turned the car stereo up a fraction. The car is now making its way into the hills with a lethargic climb and tentative series of turns around several bends. Eventually we come to a slightly less bendy plateau and the fog is even worse up here. On one side of the road is a steep coverage of bracken; whilst on the other are the scrawny limbs of gum trees and a 100-odd metre drop into a valley.
The C-90 cassette in the stereo has been nothing but tape hiss for the past minute and has just auto flipped to the start of Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind. As the opener “Love Sick” comes into relief my friend interjects:
“This music is perfect for this kind of driving.”
I nod approvingly and keep my eyes fixed to the road.
* * *
When my parents separated in 1994, my mum, brother and I moved out of our house on Field Street in Normanville. We moved around the corner to another house and this is where I lived until I moved up to the city to study at university. The house we’d left behind was a small cottage that had various extensions tacked onto it over the years. My dad would eventually sell it in early 2001. Since my dad worked and stayed in the city during the week, the cottage was unattended for the most part. During the first couple of years of high school, when the systematic bullying became too much for me to bear, I would skip out on school, bypass my regular walking route and retreat to the cottage, spending most of my time watching tv or listening to records.
During this period of my life I felt like I had one-and-a-half homes: the one with my mum and brother, the other, an echo of the past that I could occasionally slip back into. Looking back now, I think that a large amount of my introspective personality and predilection for my own company galvanized itself during this time. If I wasn’t going on long walks by myself, I was retreating into the company of uninhabited domestic space, music and mid-90s daytime television. Given that this was on school time, I couldn’t make a regular habit of my long walks and hermitage, since the school would routinely alert my mum if my absences had become too frequent. When I was able to indulge these marabout tendencies, I became genuinely interested in music – flipping through a stack of vinyl records or rifling through various CDs and cassettes. Among the living room’s gaudy carpet and 80’s furniture were about half a dozen stringed instruments hanging from the walls. I couldn’t play guitar at the time, but their presence – in-situ with an extensive catalogue of music – gave this room a scrappy, piecemeal reverence. This was a special, private zone for discovering and listening to music.
Lend me your ears (and patience)
When my dad came down on weekends he’d often drop by our place (his relationship with my mum was fairly platonic) or I would drop by the cottage to see if he’d brought any music down from the city that I might be interested in. A couple of years later once I’d started learning guitar I think he’d properly cottoned on to my interest in music, so sometimes I’d be summoned to the house for the sole intention of hearing something he’d picked up. As many friends and family will attest, one of the strongest personality traits that I’ve inherited from my dad (along with the social anxiety and penchant for solitude) is an obsessive tendency to effuse at length about music. Even when he was in the city, his enthusiasm to share a discovery would often come down a phone line. I can recall a time around this period when he’d phoned me from the city so that I could hear a guitar solo on a Buddy Miller album that he was ridiculously enthusiastic about.
It was late September in 1997 and Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind had just come out. Dad was down for the weekend and the phone rang: I had to come around and hear this thing.
* * *
Dead Man, Dead Man
Prior to Time Out Of Mind coming out, I’d been listening to Dylan for probably a bit over a year and already had copies of The Freewheelin’, Highway 61 and Desire copied to cassettes. Desire was a particular favourite of mine, with its scrappy bohemian vibe and lyrical allusions to the Egyptian goddess Isis, Mozambique, and a volcanic atoll exploding and sinking into the sea. In 1996 I went through a considerable chunk of his back catalogue when I was convalesced for a few weeks following a horrendous bicycle accident which left me unable to do much other than lie down, eat custard and listen to music.
Prior to dad’s phone call, I’d read a couple of things in the paper about how this new album by Dylan was apparently a big deal. According to various reports he’d narrowly evaded death following a weird infection near his heart, and in the aftermath had penned a stack of new material musing on mortality. The backstory – if taken in its entirety – was largely conflated and followed the telltale logic of Dylanophiles. If trainspotting has its anorak-clad sociopaths, and World of Warcraft its legion of basement dwelling virgins, then Dylanophilia comes in the form of the most irritating person(s) you can imagine occupying a record store. In essence it’s a more obnoxious version of Deadheads. Has there ever been a time (either as a fellow patron or customer at the behest of a staff member) when you became so enraged by their demented lust for obscure minutia (coupled with a passive-aggressive zeal) that you felt like bringing the roof down on them and taking yourself with it? If only, just to escape and bring an end to the most tedious conversation you’ve had in your life.
The Dylanophile will affix a mythos to practically anything Dylan has done, whether it was the apparent reason(s) why he deliberately played out of key, smoked a particular brand of smokes or was spotted picking his laundry up several blocks from where he lived at the time. Before you start feeling sorry for Dylan, bear in mind that the man himself has fuelled the entirety of his career on bullshitting and playing everyone for chumps, especially his maniacally loyal followers who are more than willing to pick through the crumbs of meaninglessness and concoct something meaningful out of them.
There was also a buzz surrounding the release of Time Out Of Mind since one of Dylan’s sons, Jakob Dylan was fronting an alternative rock band called The Wallflowers. On the cusp of the Internet ubiquity, the musical landscape of the 1990s was a subcultural milieu waiting to be capitalized on and exploited shamelessly by huge corporations. This was the last hurrah for big record companies before the Internet came along and fucked everything up for them. Mountains of cash were made on the back of grunge, British British-ness, 1970s Americana revisionism and the previously niche genres of house and techno. Wedged into this mix awkwardly was alternative rock, which bands like R.E.M., The Smiths and The Pixies had pioneered in the 80s. In the miserable space where grunge was snuffing itself out, middle class youngsters with good looks and expensive guitars took over. That’s pretty much you need to know about The Wallflowers. They weren’t that bad, but they weren’t that good either. Where contemporaries like Pavement or The Breeders were a bit too rough for the ears of the masses, the inoffensive charms and modest angst of Dylan Jr. were a welcome substitute; henceforth, 1996’s Bringing Down The Horse would join their CD collection with the latest albums by The Coors, The Dave Matthews Band and probably Jeff Buckley’s Grace.
Inevitably, with a name like Dylan floating around and selling a shitload of records, the rock criticism clique started asking questions and wondered when Old Man Dylan might reemerge with something new.
If anyone had actually been paying attention, Old Man Dylan couldn’t have been accused of being idle. Following 1990’s Under The Red Sky he had released a couple of acoustic covers albums and been feted with a bizarre 30th Anniversary concert, all the while continuing the ‘alimony blues’ odyssey of The Never Ending Tour. So far, so busy. The problem was that the albums he made weren’t particularly good or appealing and worst still, his live performances from around this era were truly ghastly.
Search YouTube for ‘Bob Dylan live 1991/92’ and the atrocity is laid bare. A drunken wretch – vaguely resembling Bob Dylan – sloppily rocks back and forth from the microphone in an ill-fitting suit with a straw hat sitting uneasily atop unwashed clumps of greasy hair. He bleats incoherent lyrics like a wounded duck, whilst blasting spittle-inflected whines from a harmonica strapped around his neck. I had to squint a couple of times since I could have sworn he had been blowing into an Aztec Death Whistle. Not so. The guitar fares worst of all: not only is the semblance of conventional rhythm abandoned entirely, but it’s steadily going out of tune and thinning itself out as if it’s attempting to kill itself in the hands of its abusive owner.
I wonder how the audience felt as they were witnessing the spectacle of Bob Dylan mauling his repertoire on stage, night after night. Separate the average punters from the band of token apologists (looking at you, Dylanophiles), and you’d be left with a crowd about fifty bucks lighter per head and wondering if this guy would be dead in a week’s time.
The Ghost of Electricity Pt.1
Prior to the creation of Time Out of Mind, Dylan and its producer Daniel Lanois had a history. The last time they had worked together was back in 1989 when Lanois had recorded and produced Dylan’s apparent ‘return to form’, Oh Mercy. During the 1980s Lanois had made a name for himself as a record producer, whose knack for evoking mood and atmosphere – coupled with a preference for vintage gear and instruments – stood in stark opposition to the slick and synthetic sounds diffusing through the decade. Not since Phil Spector had a record producer utilized reverberation so liberally. In addition to this, a Spector-esque ‘Wall Of Sound’ principle largely applied, whereupon layers of instruments were built up until something sonically monolithic resulted. Big spacious sound. This approach had worked a treat for U2 on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. Elsewhere, Lanois and Brian Eno (with Brian’s brother, Roger) sonically propelled themselves into the depths of space on 1983’s gorgeous Apollo Soundtracks.
When Dylan arrived at Lanois’ studio in New Orleans in 1989 with a guitar and a dozen songs, they spent a few weeks trying to generate some chemistry with a handpicked crew of musicians and a room full of vintage equipment. The sessions themselves were frequently fractious – either Dylan was uninspired or Lanois was throwing tantrums in the control room and smashing guitars. In those rare moments when things clicked, excellent takes of the spooky “Man In The Long Black Coat” and elegiac “Ring Them Bells” resulted. Best of all was “Most Of The Time”. From a strictly lyrical point of view, anyone could have written this with his or her hands tied behind their back whilst being submerged underwater. Such are the banality of the lyrics:
Most of the time
She ain’t even in my mind
I wouldn’t know her if I saw her
She’s that far behind
Most of the time
I can’t even be sure
If she was ever with me
Or if I was ever with her
This is where Lanois’ expert direction comes into to play: to transform something otherwise mediocre into something truly special. On “Most Of The Time”, Dylan’s sounds like he’s just woken up, his voice is cracking and cloaked in echo as waves of feedbacking guitars swirl around loping, slippery basslines and clattering drums. It’s a truly amazing recording and a testament to what a decent producer with fresh ears could do for a floundering artist like Dylan.
Indeed, without Lanois at the helm, Oh Mercy could have been an entirely (in)different record. It’s quite telling that when Dylan did record again the following year with a different producer at the helm, the results (Under The Red Sky) left a lot to be desired, or at best, forgotten in their entirety. But in saying this – and with full sympathy to Under The Red Sky’s producer Don Was – I don’t really know how any producer could have worked with material like “Unbelievable”, “Cat’s In The Well”, “Handy Dandy” or “Wiggle Wiggle”:
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a rolling hoop
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a ton of lead
Wiggle, you can raise the dead
Wiggle till you’re high, wiggle till you’re higher
Wiggle till you vomit fire
Wiggle till it whispers, wiggle till it hums
Wiggle till it answers, wiggle till it comes
This was from the same guy who penned “Visions Of Johanna”, “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown” and “Changing Of The Guards”.
So, that was that. From this point on, history conveniently connects with the aforementioned live performances of 1991-92, and save for the odd redeeming performance, Dylan was just about washed up.
The Ghost of Electricity Pt.2 (or, “Make it sound like this.”)
One of Dylan’s instructions to Lanois when they were making Time Out Of Mind was for it to sound a like a country blues record from the 1930s or 40s. Spontaneity, authenticity and atmosphere would be key. Everyone who was on a given track had to be in room at the same time, acoustic instruments were preferred and an emphasis on the recording space itself was crucial. That’s not to suggest that electric instruments and treatments were banished, they’re everywhere on Time Out Of Mind. But along with their actual presence on the record, they seem to embody the realm of electricity itself. One of the things that makes early blues records so spooky is the presence of electricity in the recordings. That is, the crackle and hiss of the electromechanical apparatus that initially transcribed the performance and subsequently reproduced it are forever embedded in the recording. Though the recording may be acoustic in nature, it is manifest and made real (for the listener) through the eeriness of electricity.
This, I believe is why Time Out Of Mind is so spooky and atmospheric. There are no hisses and crackles, but the presence of electric instruments surrounding the acoustic instruments (along with predominantly blues-esque arrangements) gives the album an almost otherworldly feel – as if it had been made in the past, at some undefined period and was being projected into the present. Look at the cover of Time Out Mind: it’s a grainy black and white image of Dylan sitting with a guitar in (presumably) Lanois’ control room. It looks as though it had been shot underwater, or was a distant transmission from somewhere out of place. Out of time. Out of mind.
* * *
We’re back in the Camira on the way to Myponga: “Love Sick” begins with what sounds like a room full of instruments shuffling in their respective seats before they become comfortable. Successive jabs of organ establish the beat before the rest of the band kicks in. Dylan’s croaking voice appears, sounding as if it had been recorded through a tin can (maybe it was). My friend interjects saying how ideal this music is for our drive. I agree. The song ambles along with a dark energy as its lyrics allude to ‘streets that are dead’ and ‘silhouettes in the window’ before the 2-chord chorus arrives with its declamation:
I’m sick of love
That I’m in the thick of it
This kind of love
I’m so sick of it
“Dirt Road Blues” follows. We’re a bit closer to Myponga. A rambunctious blues shuffle, with any hint of actual rambunctiousness offset by the beleaguered state of the character whose setting off on a lonely trek down a dirt road until his eyes start to bleed or he’s buried alive under the rain and hail. He’s out looking for the sunny side of love, and unlike Blood On The Tracks’ “Shelter From The Storm”, there’s no signs of salvation or sanctuary. He’s just going to have to keep rambling on. Charley Patton represent.
The situation is somewhat the same (or even worse) by the time “Standing In The Door” comes along. Was it better to be walking that endless dirt road or beset by the worst kind of lonliness imaginable as you reach civilization and pass through bars and dancehalls where everyone’s having a hoot and getting laid. Church bells are ringing for someone and there’s no way out of this fix you’ve found yourself in. You’ve got the blues bad, man.
As the Camira and its occupants would attest, nighttime is the right time and some real nocturnal blues kick in next with “Million Miles”. Whatever sympathy we might have had for the character (assuming this is the same character) has since evaporated now he seems to give zero fucks that the romance fell apart and he’s doing his best to get as far away from it that he can. Ah, the several stages of grief, etc.
One last digression: Myponga.
Now if my memory serves, by the time “Million Miles” fades out I’ve bid my friend a good night, performed a u-turn in the Camira and I’m heading back from Myponga to Normanville.
Almost a year later, a family member would be driving this same car on the outskirts of Myponga before the engine made a horrible sound and the cabin filled with blue smoke. That was the end of the Camira – one of the worst cars ever manufactured. I had bought my Camira from a creepy guy who lived in a rotting clapboard bungalow in Carrickalinga. I was particularly nervous when he asked to accompany me on the test drive around the block. In the time I owned it over two years the CV joint snapped in half, the radiator blew (scolding my arm in the process), both side mirrors fell off (whilst driving) and eventually it died violently with two pistons fused inside the engine. Barring the theatrical episode of a snapped CV joint on Normanville’s main street, all the other things happened either in or on the outskirts of Myponga.
To an outsider, Myponga might seem to be an innocuously charming country town girth by pastoral land and huge reservoir. All well and good, but Myponga is in actual fact a weird place and in spite of the intervening years and a far less dramatic turn of mind, it still gives me the creeps. For me, Myponga is a place with genuine Twin Peak-sy vibes, with its dark undercurrents and unsolved mysteries. Are these all in my head? Probably. But permit me to posit one thing: why on Earth did they build a large-scale cheese factory in a town with a population of just under a hundred at the time? Who worked there? Was it actually a cheese factory? It was once home to a salvage yard, which my mum ran. Then they moved across the road into the former bank. I was once told that nobody could venture into the cheese factory’s basement level since the gas down there could kill you. I still – on rare occasions – think about the basement in the cheese factory.
Maybe we should get back on track.
Although I have a vivid memory of the drive to Myponga in 1999, I have absolutely no recollection of driving home that night. I don’t even know if I listened to the rest of Time Out Of Mind. But let’s imagine that I did, so by the time that I’m leaving the town limits “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” has started.
“Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” contains the first of several near-transcendent instances on Time Out Of Mind. As with Oh Mercy’s “Most Of Time”, “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” is another one of those Lanois Fairy Dust moments where everything seems to be in the right place and the right time. Much like the rest of the album, the performances are full of little serendipitous gestures that bring such character and dimension to the songs. Half the time they’re mistakes and fluffed notes, sometime they’re supremely executed with thoughtfulness and economy, and other times they’re just dead simple. In the case of the latter, take for example Dylan’s ‘harmonica solos’ which features during the instrumental passages of “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”. I’ve purposefully put that reference to the harmonica in inverted commas since I don’t know if you could call it a harmonica solo, in the same way that Mark Hollis’ performance “After The Flood” (from Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock) could possibly be called a clarinet solo. But much like Hollis’ stammering clarinet, Dylan’s clumps of distorted harmonica seem to work beautifully as it bellows over the gliding accompaniment of pedal steel guitar, bass and organ.
Skipping past the otherwise excellent stomping blues of “Til’ I Fell In Love With You”, another highlight is to be found in the doom ballad, “Not Dark Yet”. Whilst my heart and soul will always regard Dylan’s “Simple Twist Of Fate” (from Blood On The Tracks) as my favourite song of his, “Not Dark Yet” is right up there by virtue of its delivery and production. Nowhere else on Time Out Of Mind will you find a better example of this record’s otherworldly (yet eerily worldly) feel and underlying themes of long dark blues. The protagonist is completely broken down here. One of the reasons why I hold “Simple Twist Of Fate” in such high esteem is because it’s sung so well. Dylan cops a lot of flak for not being a terribly good singer – sometimes for very good reason – but when he can actually be bothered and he feels the stuff he’s singing, for my money he’s one of the best singers out there. I’ve long held the belief that in order to be a good singer, you don’t even have to sing in a conventionally acceptable way. As long as it’s coming through and its embodying whatever you’re singing about, that’s what counts. This is why I love singers like Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Marianne Faithful, Kurt Wagner, Emmy Lou Harris, Mark Linkous, Jason Molina; they wouldn’t stand a chance in talent competitions, but by crikey – they can sing.
Remember, we’re in the Camira on the way back to Normanville, so by this point we’re probably descending into Wattle Flat and “Cold Irons Bound” is cranking up. There might have still been fog by this point of the night, but if “Cold Irons Bound” had been playing, there couldn’t have been a better accompaniment as I drove the Camira – that rickety piece-of-shit – through the night. If only the roads had been flooded out. That would have been perfect, but also very, very dangerous.
“Cold Irons Bound” is full of danger. Our protagonist is on the run from the fuzz! The hillside’s made of mud, he looks up and sees nothing but clouds of blood. He’s fucked up bad and he’s going down. Electric guitars are howling everywhere and the drums are being thumped into the ninth layer of Hell. It would be only appropriate if the Camira had burst into flames by this point.
But then again, maybe “To Make You Feel My Love” might have made the Camira immolate itself. Not because “To Make You Feel My Love” is an amazing song, it’s not an amazing song; it’s arguably one of the worst things Dylan has ever written and recorded. If it had been so inclined, the Camira might have become so repulsed by the sheer banality and sickly platitude of “To Make You Feel My Love” that it might have thought that fire was too energy intensive and cut its losses by skidding off the road and wrapping itself around a gum tree. It’s not even a blues song. It’s just a lazy piano and vocal ballad that does nothing. Enough years have passed that I can zone out whenever this song comes around so that it doesn’t blight my otherwise favourable impression of the album.
Two songs round out the rest of Time Out Of Mind – “Can’t Wait” and “Highlands”. “Can’t Wait” is what I like to call ‘Lanois Blues’, since it’s got a swampy swagger to it which evokes carousing around on Beale Street or other similar New Orleans haunts. It’s also a bit sexy, which is one of the things that Dylan wasn’t particularly happy about when he was making the record with Lanois. According to Dylan in a rare interview, one of the reasons he hasn’t worked with Lanois since Time Out Of Time is because Lanois was pressing Dylan to make things sound more sexy. Banging his ear incessantly: sexy, sexy, sexy.
Anyone who’s ever seen footage of Lanois performing will understand where this drive for sexiness comes from. Strap a guitar on Lanois and watch him go: he grooves like 50 year-olds dancing to “Nutbush City Limits” whilst he jacks off the guitar with such a horny zeal that it would make Prince blush. I can understand why this approach might have grated with Dylan. Obviously the man isn’t very sexy and the few times he’s gone out of his way to be somehow sexy in a typically roundabout Dylan way – like his appearance in the awful 1987 film Hearts Of Fire – are best forgotten. Quickly. And this is one of the reasons why – in spite of great instrumental work across the track – vocally, “Can’t Wait” deviates from the overall feel of Time Out Of Mind. Dylan is trying to sound seductive and cooing in your ears. Whilst this is not anywhere as offensive as “To Make You Feel My Love”, “Can’t Wait” is still a bit iffy.
Thankfully, the closer “Highlands” redeems everything. Did I mention this goes for eighteen minutes? If I had been in the Camira by this point, I would have had already pulled into the drive by the third verse and made a cup of tea by verse nine and taken myself to bed as it began to fade out.
What is this song about? I have, and no-one else has the faintest idea. Again, much like the previous two songs, “Highlands” is a deviation from the majority of Time Out Of Mind. Whilst it’s much closer in feel to everything through to “Cold Iron’s Bound”, it still feels remote and detached. It’s as if the protagonist – who somehow miraculously evaded capture from the authorities in “Cold Irons Bound” – took a trans-dimensional path to somewhere entirely different, and by the time he lands in the ‘highlands’ he’s Bob Dylan and he’s simply doing what Bob Dylan does on a given day.
But – wait a second – now I’m sounding like a Dylanophile: the very thing I loathe. Maybe that’s what “Highlands” is by design – an exercise in piss-taking where mundane things are peppered along the way for the diehards to mull and obsess over. But is there really that much to pick apart in “Highlands”? After all, the character in the song is simply wandering about and not lending too much interpretation to his observations and interactions. He walks along a street, sees a mangy dog, goes into a café, wants some hard boiled eggs, has a conversation with a waitress…oh, and at one point he’s listening to Neil Young.
It’s as if Dylan is suggesting in this song: ‘Do ya really think I’m so special? Well, this is what I do on a day off.” The protagonist might be Dylan, it might not be; but in my mind it’s an entirely appropriate way to bring Time Out Of Mind to a close. Whatever mystique and allusion the previous songs had has now fallen away, leaving a guy going about his life. Just living. No pretense, no bullshit.
The way I’ve written about Time Out Of Mind – for the most part – makes it sound like a concept album in a way. But I don’t think it’s that at all. It’s a mood record and – in spite of its odd diversions – it fits situations and environments so well. I’m still working through that particular idea, but as I was writing this, the word ‘ambient’ kept cropping up.
About a year ago, when I was holding down a miserable finance role that made me feel miserable, each morning before leaving for work I would put on a side of Time Out Of Mind as I ate my breakfast before leaving for work. By this point, I’d acquired a limited edition double-LP version of the record. It works remarkably well in this format, especially if you’re feeling low down and need something to accompany your bleak mood as you’re eating your breakfast. There’s no time for it’s 70-plus minute duration, so one side will have to satisfy.
I needed something like that at that particular point in time and it didn’t necessarily make my situation any better, but I doubt it made it any worse. It was just the perfect accompaniment for that particular time and place.
And in that respect, some eighteen years prior it fit that scenario of driving the Camira on an empty road at night, cloaked in fog. Neither my friend or I were feeling particularly down and out, but something about having Time Out Of Mind on the stereo clicked. If we only listened to this kind of music when we felt like shit we would have wiped ourselves a long time ago.
Music isn’t so simplistic in that respect. A lasting record covers all manner of situations and environments.
Noarlunga Centre – more commonly known as Colonnades – is a place that can only be etched in your memory if you’ve frequented it on a routine basis at some point in your life, or alternatively if something really horrible happened to you there. Thankfully, for me it’s a case of the former: I visited Noarlunga Centre a lot as a kid. If I hadn’t visited it before, it would just be another depressed suburban retail centre, dreamt up sometime in the mid-1970s and plonked in the middle of a paddock like a spacecraft touched by some of the more oppressive and crappy tendencies of late brutalist architecture. To further emphasise this observation, have a look at the aerial image of it a year after its first stage of construction in 1979.
From the air it looks like some kind of consumerist utopian idyll. What you can’t see is the depressed socio-economic fog which would creep over the surrounding working class neighbourhoods through the 1980s and result in Noarlunga Centre becoming a punchline for issues relating to the welfare purgatory, hopelessness and occasional outbreaks of public violence. There was a time in the early 90s when you could seriously risk your neck by venturing through the underpass or bus exchange as the natural light gave way to a sparse network of dim electric light. There were a couple of occasions I walked through the railway terminal concourse after dark, past the unattended ticket booths and darkened stairways. At moments like this your heart rate escalates significantly, you quicken your pace and (if you’re a guy) your testicles feel like they’re attempting to retreat back into your body.
Colonnades: Builds Character & Survival Instincts.
One of the weirder developments that popped up near the complex was a Tiki hut-style waterslide complex called Splashdown. It was only a matter of time before stories of full-scale fistfights and razor blades jammed into the waterslide contributed to the business eventually going under. Oh well, the beach was just down the road.
So, Noarlunga Centre was a bit of a shithole in this respect and its reputation certainly preceded it. By the late 1980s local, state and federal government had a pretty good opportunity to properly address aspects of poverty, welfare subsistence and drug abuse in depressed communities, and the powers that be more or less reached the conclusion that it would just be too damn expensive, take a bit of constructive thought and – g-d forbid – require a good dose of empathy. What communities received instead (along with stigmatisation, community service and jail time) was the Orwellian gift of wall-to-wall CCTV. Granted CCTV is virtually everywhere today, but one of the unique things about Noarlunga Centre is that a casual walk will lead you through The Varied History Of CCTV – from c.1986 to the present. I really wish I’d taken some photos of this on my recent visit because it’s pretty interesting to play Guess The Year Of Installation: on the one hand, a vintage beige camera from the 80s creaks away with its grizzled eye adjacent to the hot young Millenial encased in a sleek black dome.
Along with the CCTV, a transfusion of capital found its way to Noarlunga Centre in the late 90s and the owners began to slather paint and panels over the original decaying concrete edifice. This trend appears to have continued up to the present day, but trace elements remain in plain sight – hence the collection of photos before you.
For me, Noarlunga Centre is a largely unwelcome place charged with fairly mundane memories – much like the phenomenom of ‘dead malls’ across the USA. Of course, Noarlunga Centre isn’t yet dead, but it shares similarities with the heyday of mall culture during the 1970s and 80s, and its ultimate decline due to online shopping. I doubt it’s a place that anyone (as an outsider) really wants to visit, but it’s interesting that such a place for me – in spite of its inherent crappiness – still possesses its own uniquely compelling allure.
In spite of my best efforts, my studio is not much of a productive space. It’s strewn with all kinds of distractions: guitars, bells, books, trinkets, notebooks, magazines, scraps of paper, and a wi-fi connection. As I’m sure many could sympathise, it’s the latter distraction that causes the bulk of the problems, with an uninterrupted line to social media, useless information and bad news.
I’ve always been very easily distracted, which I’ve largely attributed over the years to mild dyslexia and a personality trait that’s engineered to hop from one thing to another within an alarmingly short span of time like my life’s depended on it. As a result, this creates all kinds of problems: in a creative sense, I’ve got fourteen half-baked projects on the go at once; in the domestic sense, I’ve got a home that’s perpetually half-cleaned with pockets of OCD-ish cleanliness and surrounding pockets of total disorder and (non-life threatening) filth.
This hasn’t always been the norm, but when I’m in the thick of this pattern of distraction (as I am currently) this wreaks havoc with my brain, leaving me scattered, unfocused, irritable, gloomy and disgusted with myself. Given my recent struggles over the past year with mental health I should really know better than to get myself into these situations.
One of the key insights with my psychologist was to identify when I’m spreading myself too thin and to find a way of breaking away from it by engaging in something less intensive. And here’s the ridiculous part of the conundrum: I don’t have to be working constantly at the moment; in fact, I could spend most of my time doing far less intensive things than – for example – writing six essays at once, working on an electro-acoustic composition, attempting to learn three guitar instrumentals, alternating between four books and writing new songs. All of these things happened today by the way. Mentally, this amounts to complete havoc and the metaphysical reality has manifested itself in the studio: cables everywhere, notebooks, bad posture, frowning for hours at a time and consuming way too much coffee.
But I haven’t lost it completely yet. Maybe the dopamine inhibitors of the medication are doing an exemplary job of holding my brain chemistry together, since I’m able to form reasonably consistent thoughts and string these sentences together. Still, my Brain Sea of fluids is choppy and the electrons overhead are sparking wildly. Following on from near-catastrophe as 2017 closed out, I resolved to get better, and I did; yet familiar patterns are reemerging and this past week it’s felt like I’m caught up in the feedback loop of varying peaks and troughs – which, last year – felt like it was going to kill me.
* * *
Sitting at my desk, I occasionally look to the left and briefly acknowledge the door ajar to the balcony which is letting a mild breeze in. It’s a lovely day outside and nothing is preventing me from going for a walk. I could go for a walk completely unencumbered. I could leave my wallet and phone here and simply do a loop of the neighborhood. Doing this, I’m certain that I would feel much better about things and I’m sure that my brain would agree, since it’s been flashing the DECOMPRESSION sign since about 10:30am today.
So that’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to wind up this writing, put the laptop to sleep, leave the guitars idle, put the notebooks to the side, silence the infinitude of Spotify, put some trousers, socks and shoes on and go for a walk.
Another series of steps hopefully going some way to (gently and idly) working through this complicated business of living.
My room in a sharehouse, mid-1999: This album had sickened me. I felt my stomach lurching slightly, whilst my head felt heavy and was swimming in a choppy expanse of confusion. A sense of irritation eventually overcame me and I hit to stop button, ejected the CD and tossed it petulantly across the room.
By the time I encountered Wilco’s third album in 1999 I knew their work reasonably well, but it would be fair to say I was still growing comfortable with them. Whilst they hadn’t yet completely overhauled their ‘alt. country’ tag they were still a restless unit, prone to bursts of raucousness and curious diversions. Where my listening tastes were concerned at the time, they certainly held a lower prestige compared to the likes of my enduring obsession with The Complete Works of Elvis Costello, which at the time was chewing up most of my meager spending money. Where Wilco was concerned, I still had my battered cassette copy of Being There and a CD of their collaboration with Billy Bragg (Mermaid Avenue); both of which I really liked.
How to fight loneliness / just smile all the time / shine your teeth ’till meaningless / and sharpen them with lies.
I had picked up Summerteeth in mid-1999 at the tail end of a miserable, depressed winter. Wilco’s frontman Jeff Tweedy sounded especially miserable and depressed across Summerteeth’s 50-odd minutes. The album as a whole broke away from the previous albums’ country leanings and roof-raising rawk, instead opting for what sounded like a fucked-up version of The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle spliced with The Band’s second album. It’s an album that is at once sunny, yet persistently uneasy – it blooms and glides; then lurches and collapses. In a paisley nutshell, it’s sunny psychedelia tainted by paranoia and loneliness, howling out from the bowels of a K-Hole. Darkness courses through the entirety of this record and for every upbeat respite, there are gut and kidney punches landed everywhere else.
So with that in mind, let’s return to my room in a sharehouse a bit over eighteen years ago.
On a quiet night I loaded the CD into my boombox for the first time. The opener, “I Can’t Stand It” erupted from its tinny speakers with the chime of an electric 12-string guitar (immediately reminiscent of The Byrds) giving way to a swell of Mellotron, thumping drums and weary, nicotine-grizzled vocals.
No love’s as random as God’s love / I can’t stand it…I can’t stand it
As Tweedy’s refrain collapses into a hoarse scream, before I knew it I was immersed in one of the saddest songs I’d ever heard: “She’s A Jar”.
She’s a jar / with a heavy lid
My pop-quiz kid / a sleepy kisser / a pretty war
You know, she begs me not to miss her
Tweedy sounds even more resigned and forlorn on this song. Whereas on “I Can’t Stand It” he at least sounded like he was being propelled and pushed ahead by the momentum of the song, here he sounds like he’s been buried alive by it, half-speaking allusions of a lover as a jar (or is it ‘ajar’?), quiet front yards, water skies and bruised roads.
But what a gorgeously sad song! Lyrics aside, on musical terms alone this song is utterly sumptuous. A rickety sounding acoustic guitar floats uneasily atop a bed of entwined organ, Mellotron, loping bass and bleats from The Most Lonesome Harmonica In The World. It’s like the tangled undergrowth of the mind at its most charged, poetic and forlorn. A soundtrack for losing your mind whilst surrounded by beauty. Then there’s the rhythm that Ken Coomer lays down: a dour pulse alternating between snares and rim shots, yet totally immediate and forceful – urging the momentum of the song along. A trap kit scything through the cluttered web of the instrumentation and Tweedy’s surreal lyrics. That’s ‘surreal’ in the Bunuel-lian sense; i.e. whereby the imaginings of the unconsciousness ruptere and manifest themselves into reality by turns discrete, poetic, bewitching and disturbing.
“She’s A Jar” contains probably what is (to this day) my favourite set of lyrics – a staggeringly beautiful and confounding string of imagery; a stream of wild mercury that in my mind is matched only by the terror and beauty of Dylan’s mid-60’s streams on consciousness:
Are there really ones like these?
The ones I dream
Float like leaves
And freeze to spread skeleton wings
I passed through before I knew you
An unconscious reverie committed to song. It’s so gorgeously vivid and unsettling.
But before we become too lulled by the twisted beauty of everything in this song, the lights shut out suddenly in the final seconds of the track. It consists of a reprise of the song’s opening lines and a tweaked revision the final line. Where Tweedy had previously sung, “you know, she begs me not to miss her”, he swaps it with this:
She’s a jar / with a heavy lid
My pop-quiz kid / a sleepy kisser / a pretty war
You know, she begs me not to hit her
Tenderness replaced by a brutal and confronting confession.
It’s not an exaggeration to admit that I felt physically ill when that fucked up line landed. It ruined everything. Slightly distressed, I hit pause on my boombox, dug the lyrics sheet out from the CD’s jewel case and corroborated what I thought I’d just heard.
Reluctantly, I restarted the CD. The gurgling synths opening “A Shot In The Arm” made me queasy, not to mention the chorus’ refrain where Tweedy longs for “something in my blood, bloodier than blood”.
What on Earth had happened to Jeff Tweedy since Being There? How had the rest of the band not quit in disgust? (fact: they almost did) How was he still alive? Was he still alive?
Whilst I didn’t skip through the rest of the tracks, I was too rattled and sickened to acknowledge the rest of the album as it lurched along. Barring a couple of sunnier, hopeful moments, once “Via Chicago” rolled around it was all over for me:
I dreamed about killing you again last night
And it felt all right to me
Your cold hot blood ran away from me to the sea
As the zombied closer, “In A Future Age” petered out the CD was (r)ejected and put back in its case. A couple of weeks later I sold it back to the record store and bought another Elvis Costello reissue. A couple of years would go by before I heard the album again.
* * *
When I was eighteen I didn’t understand depression. I was living with it, but I had neither the ability to comprehend it, let alone articulate it. I would instead regard my perpetual melancholy and social anxiousness as just something that happened when you were at this part of your life. It was my belief that this permitted you to cry for no reason and be perpetually angry at or feel hard done by the world. I never really regarded it as depression because that term scared me and had all-too-dramatic connotations with padded cells, electric shock therapy, slashing wrists and throwing yourself off buildings. I couldn’t decouple these things from what actually happened in real life and I figured things had to get really bad before I ended up in one of those scenarios. ‘Depression’ was a tag that I didn’t want dangling from me and on show to the rest of the world. At this stage I hadn’t been diagnosed with depression or prescribed any medication, so in lieu of professional intervention I wallowed in undiagnosed and romanticised misery.
From this unfortunate position I should have been able to relate to where Jeff Tweedy was coming from across the emotional massacre of Summerteeth. This guy feels like shit; I feel like shit. It should have clicked. In previous years, my high school friends had been into all sorts of tormented and transgressive music that sounded and read on paper ten times worse than anything Tweedy could dream up. And it’s not like I wasn’t partial to such indulgences – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads looms large.
So what was the issue? As a songwriter, Jeff Tweedy’s always had a knack for earnestness and sincerity in his writing, regardless of whether it’s literal, a collision of surreal imagery or a deft combination of the two. Dylan and Neil Young have a similar impact – regardless of a given song’s clarity or impenetrability (“Visions Of Johanna” and “After The Goldrush” come to mind) they are delivered with such potency (and sonic pixie dust) that some kind of emotional wallop is inevitable regardless whether you understand exactly what the fuck they are on about.
Back in 1999, that emotional wallop was also inescapable when I listened to Summerteeth for the first time. I couldn’t however get past the effect it had on on my stomach before it could get anywhere near ruining my heart. The blood, guts and bruises alluded to in Summerteeth felt so much more grave, horrifying and real than Nick Cave’s trail of dead on Murder Ballads simply because Tweedy’s experiences felt genuinely real, whereas Cave’s come across as B-grade schlock cribbed from folk tales. Chalk and cheese; Tarkovsky and Tarantino.
I’m fairly certain that Tweedy has never murdered anyone (“Via Chicago”) or committed acts of domestic violence (“She’s A Jar”). Tweedy has however suffered from depression and substance abuse and this was channeled through Summerteeth when things were especially in the ditch for him. To Nick Cave’s credit, he too has produced fine work when life was at its most shit and it should come as no surprise that in the same year that Summerteeth blindsided meI encountered his 1997 album, The Boatman’s Call.
When you’re depressed, horrible things come into your head and if you’re creatively minded you have to splatter and frame them somewhere. If you’re a good songwriter (as Tweedy is) you might be able to transcend clichés and plumb the depths of the poetic. Rather than simply dismissing Tweedy as a murderous misogynist on the basis of those two songs, when Summerteeth eventually clicked for me a couple of years later I read these songs as painful, yet articulate expressions of alienation, misanthropy, loneliness, regret and shame. It’s an album suffused with this stuff – the rough contours of existence.
Emotional maturity and intelligence is critical when dealing with this kind of work. This is primarily the reason why Leonard Cohen’s still mistaken for a wrist-slashing sad sack, when in actual fact the melancholy and torment isn’t always a literal reading of the artist’s state, especially when it’s accompanied by daubs (or smears) of humour, self deprecation and – in some notable instances – outright piss-taking.
When I first heard Summerteeth I simply wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t old enough for it and the weight of the world, which was crushing me made it too difficult to bear and appreciate fully. That said, it’s still an album that’s been with me since I first heard it. It left an impression on me, so shocking and profound that my body literally rejected it (I think throwing the CD across the room counts here). But when it did eventually creep its way back into my life, it seemed miraculously compatible with everything going on with me at the time. Sure, I was still depressed but thank goodness I was a little smarter!