This is the third 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.
Spring is here, Winter begone
On the first day of Spring I hauled back up the Princess Highway to continue following the Onkaparinga River from its source to the sea. The previous weekend trip to Springhead offered an early hint of glorious Spring weather and this Saturday’s trip held a similar promise, aside from some rather ominous looking black clouds hovering over the hills.
If spending a lot of time travelling around the Fleurieu Peninsula has taught me anything about the unreliability of the weather, it is to prepare for encounters with wind and rain. If I’m not well equipped I can become miserable very quickly. With this in mind, I brought a light rain jacket with me and a sturdy pair of hiking boots, the latter being impervious to virtually any substance on the planet. They’ve tramped through mud, snow, sand, rivers, swamps, seawater, horseshit and could probably handle a bit of fire too.
Along with my trusty handheld recorder (Olympus LS-100) which accompanied me last weekend, I’d also brought along a more professional recording setup of a Sound Devices recorder along with a matched pair of Line Audio CM3 microphones, accompanied by lots of wind protection. Aside from greater fidelity, the rig is especially handy when it comes to positioning the microphones in agile stereo formations that might best capture an environment.
Taminga Road (avoiding Hahndorf)
Following the previous weekend’s trip which ended with a frustrating stopover at the Verdun bridge, I had to work out where to head next. From Verdun, the river narrows and winds to the east, reaching the outskirts of Hahndorf. On a close examination of Google Maps I saw that the river turned south of the township and widened considerably, passing beneath Mount Barker road and the Princess Highway. For some reason I’d imagined that the river passed through Hahndorf (confusing it with another creek) and I couldn’t be more relieved when I realised that it avoided the town altogether. Hahndorf is pretty busy on weekends when it’s clotted with visitors. Further amplifying this negative observation, a strong anti-social disposition had permeated the previous week and the last thing I wanted was to be was in the proximity of, well…people. Especially when I was trying to locate and spend time with a river. Thankfully, relative solitude resulted. The Onkaparinga ran in wonky parallel with Taminga Road – a dirt road leading to several farming properties to the south of the Princess Highway. At a sharp bend, the road led beneath two bridges and a steep slope ran down to the banks of the river. I parked the car a short distance away, swapped my suede shoes for the indestructible boots, gathered up my gear and sought out a location beneath the bridge.
Actually, that should be bridges. Two bridges constitute each side of the highway and were separated by a gap of about twenty metres. Between the bridges, the river below encountered clusters of rock, vegetation and felled trees and made a gentle roar. Above this, I could hear the traffic streaming overhead on both sides, the vehicles running over uneven surfaces and eliciting percussive thuds.
There was a beautifully incongruous feel to this place. If it weren’t for the audible presence of civilisation, this clash of natural beauty and imposing infrastructure made you feel a bit like you were wandering around ‘the zone’ in Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Ideally, I would have liked to have set up my rig between the bridges to capture the river centrally and the sound of traffic evenly on both sides. Unfortunately, as I tramped through thorny weeds and blackberry to set up my tripod a light rain began to fall over the area. When the rain refused to let up I compromised and drifted over to the shelter of the southern bridge.
I was troubled by the first couple of recordings. It could have been my microphone positioning (a wide stereo profile at 45 degrees from each other) but I believe there was some peculiar acoustic activity going on. This was a unique acoustic space. The sibilant churning of the river propagated up the banks and reflected subtly off the concrete pylons and underside of the road. With the roar and percussive thrumming of traffic adding to the mix, I gathered that there was some odd phase cancellation going on which made the sound of the river appear to ‘drop out’ slightly – like a weak radio static.
After making a couple of recordings, I edged a little further down the slope and attempted to make another recording which I thought might emphasise more of the river and less of the road. However, by this point no amount of improvisation with the tripod would prevent my rig (and myself) from tumbling into the river below. I took out my handheld recorder and carefully slid down on my arse towards the bank of the river.
The rain had now ceased and the sun illuminated everything in an awfully photogenic light. No filter indeed:
Following a slightly frustrating experience recording the river last weekend, it was wonderful to get up close to the activity of the water; capturing its dynamics as it sluiced, gurgled and churned around rocks and through vegetation.
Following a near-miss via a slippery rock, I took this as sign to move on. I clambered back up the slope and continued south along River Road towards Mylor.
The Mother’s River
I had two sites to visit near Mylor – Goyder’s Reserve and the mysteriously named Valley Of Delights. Also on my agenda was a visit to the town’s general store to purchase a copy of The Mother’s River by Tom Dyster. I’d previously borrowed a copy of this book from the library and it was Dyster’s informative book that revealed the source of the Onkaparinga River in Springhead. Dyster’s manuscript for The Mother’s River was written during the 1980s and 1990s, following Dyster’s travels along the river course. Following Dyster’s passing in 2011, the manuscript was compiled into a book and published posthumously by the Mylor History Group in 2016.
Goyder’s Reserve & The Valley Of Delights
I drove south of Mylor and pulled into a cramped parking area overlooking Goyder’s Reserve – a large open space on the banks of the Onkaparinga River. Enormous eucalypt trunks lay across the area with equally enormous eucalypts towering above. During the warmer months I imagined that this was a popular picnic area for families to visit. The parents could crack a bottle in the shade whilst their kids could go nuts clambering over the felled trunks and finding bugs everywhere. Cockatoos and kookaburras made a wonderful racket as I gathered up my gear and tramped over to the river’s edge.
The river looked and sounded wonderful here as its strong current approached from a couple of bends and encountered a stretch of sandy banks. I had arranged the microphones in a wide stereo formation to emphasise the motion of the river as other birds (wattle birds, finches, honeyeaters) joined in the aforementioned avian racket.
Now it was time to head to the Valley Of Delights. This was featured in the first chapter of Dyster’s book, and given that it fell out of sequence with the source-to-sea structure of the book I gathered that this must have meant it was a special place.
Heading further south along Silver Lake Road I passed the Mylor Baptist Camp and arrived at the end of the road with more signs of Christian indoctrination, albeit somewhat oblique:
To locate the Valley Of Delights I had to continue on foot for another few hundred metres down the communal driveway of a couple of properties. One appeared to be cultivating a monumental amount of cacti out of their garage. As I located the path down to the valley an angle grinder fired up and I was reminded (for the first time on this trip) of suburban existence. If a leaf blower had started up I would be right back in my suburb of Parkside, or actually anywhere vaguely urban.
Thankfully, the grinding abated by the time I reached the valley. A roar of water came from a weir to the north, whilst I was taken aback by the impressive sight of a sandstone cliff, mottled with lichen that rose over the river.
Here’s a close-up of the cliff:
I spent about an hour-and-a-half in the valley taking a load of photos/video and making recordings along the western side of the river bank; from the weir to the north, along a calm passage at the river bend, then at the southernmost edge of the bank where a roiling cascade could be heard in the distance. Looking across the valley, I saw indications of recent flood inundation with vegetation bent over and clumps of natural detritus tangled in skeletal bushes, which I mistook for enormous spider nests.
I could have spent another hour in this space, but time was getting away from me (I was on a tight non-art schedule) and I had to head back to the city. There’s some excellent recordings from this visit and I’m looking forward to going back to them at some point.
I couple of months ago, I was invited by the editor of the Yankalilla Regional News to contribute an article on the Fleurieu Sound Map. Given that I’m originally from the region, it’s especially nice to ‘bring it back home’ and be presented with an invitation to engage with the local community through their monthly news publication.
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.
Is this the final instalment of my 2017 trilogy of exestential despair? I’d like to hope so. It’s not so much a case of the energy and time required to write stuff like this that concerns me, but rather the scale of anguish and torment that feeds the material. The last 12 months have by far been one of the more stressful and ridiculous passages of my life and with the financial year clocking over into the second half of the year, I’m set on making the rest of this weird year more enjoyable for myself and those around me. I feel okay right now.
Three weeks ago I was hunched over the toilet bowl in my office bathroom throwing up my lunch as discretely as possible. Following this, I splashed water on my face, walked back to my desk, slumped in my chair and stared vacantly at a spreadsheet. It was stuffy and too warm in the open plan and the weak afternoon sun angled itself unwelcomely across my desk making the situation even more intolerable. There was nobody (and rarely is anyone) in the open plan aside from a box containing a plastic Christmas tree, stacks of folders and vacant desks covered with a light film of dust and grime. Unfortunately, inanimate objects aren’t going to casually read your body language and make suggestions. So, I got up from my chair, gathered up some spare change, left the office and bought a bag of nuts from a vending machine a short walk away. I got back to my desk, felt panic arise again and desperately tried call my gut’s bluff. The inanimate objects remained unmoved. This was a thoroughly miserable time.
Prior to my body needing to hurl out of irrational panic, for the past month I’d been knotted up with all manner of anxiety, frustration, stress and depression. Along with the other things going on my life (buying a house, playing gigs, etc.) since last September I’d been holding down a finance role at work – a reasonably daunting prospect given that I’d only had cursory experience dealing with financial things in my previous, more project-related role. Initially I’d gone into the role with gusto and motivation to get across the tasks, responsibilities and processes as efficiently as possible and do the best job I could within a 12-month term. Fairly quickly things started going awry and I struggled to keep things on a level footing. There were a few reasons for this – firstly I had to relocate to the city; not a biggie, but the pressures associated with a new environment and building rapport with a bunch of new people took awhile to adjust to. Secondly, I had to get acquainted with a new team, who were geographically scattered across the country and compounded what began as a discrete feeling of isolation eventually sliding into deep lulls of lonliness and an inability (and occassionally reluctance) to communicate or ask for help.
It’s important to note that when I started the role I was holed up in a private office in one of the more dismal areas of the building. Intially I was excited about the prospect of having my own space and relished to opportunity to scribble stuff on whiteboards and spread paperwork out everywhere, not to mention the luxury of cranking some tunes with the door closed. But of course the benefits associated with a private space aren’t going to amount to much when there’s a distinct lack of natural light, a non-ergonomic desk layout, horrid peppermint-coloured decor and a crowd of voices in your head chanting: what the fuck are you doing here? Thank goodness the end-of-year break was approaching with three weeks to get my head together and recalibrate things! Things would better in 2017 I whispered repeatedly to myself.
If only the three weeks off had been a little more relaxing. Don’t get me wrong, two weeks in Thailand with family was mostly lovely, but if you’re like me eventually you end up loathing the seemingly constant doing-things-by-committee approach with a group of people and spending most of the last four days of the vacation glowering in your room drinking beer, writing sad songs and listening to Morrisey. The husk of your former self who declared on the first couple of days, “this is the greatest time of my life” is now seated on a lurching ferry filled with horrible tourists and you’re desperately longing to find a quiet pocket of the universe to be left the fuck alone. The final week of my break was spent at home and was relatively quiet and relaxed, but I wished I’d spent less time drinking and becoming obsessed with Myer-Briggs personality tests (often dangerously at the same time) – its results uniformly pointing out that the worst possible career options were aligned with a) finance; and/or b) selling cars. Supplanting the notion into my head that one of these vocations was a horrible fit a few days shy of returning to work struck me as both timely and a bit foolish.
Whilst the intervening six months haven’t amounted to complete disaster and there have been rays of sunshine here and there, I’ve arrived at this point where I could swear there are about a dozen dead versions of myself dumped somewhere that had fizzled out at given points only to be replaced by a slightly more broken and inferior version of myself. A bit like successive models of smartphones with cheaper components, incompatible cables and a propensity to freeze or shut down at inconvenient moments. I’m certain several of my work colleagues are now convinced I’m on track for a monumental mid-life crisis and will spend the rest of my days shacked up in a monastary. As Howlin’ Wolf once put it, “I’m goin’ down slowwwwwww”. If Hubert Sumlin was there in the corner of my office playing searing lead guitar whilst the Wolfman wailed away, that would have been the perfect sonic accompaniment to the spectacle of me at my desk on a given day: nervously jumping at the sound of the office phone ringing, clutching my head in my hands, moaning quietly, and – yes – throwing up in the toilet. The blues come in many contextual shades.
The other day I had a conversation with my manager reflecting on the past nine months in the role. Like an incompatible couple self-mediating we both arrived at the consensus that finance probably wasn’t the best fit for me and resolved that I’d be going back to my old role in a month or so. I’d arrived at this conversation more relaxed than expected since I’d already been tipped off by a former colleague about a week prior that I was expected to return to my old role. I have no idea if there had been talk about me behind closed doors (frankly I couldn’t care less) but upon learning this news something miraculous occurred – all of the culminative tension I’d built up in my body began to unwind and my head felt as if it had been immersed in a cool body of water after spending half a year in the sun. So by the time I was talking with my manager I was totally prepared for a conversation that went along the lines of: “you’re not really that good at this are you?”; and “I think it would be best (for everyone) if I got out of here”.
Although I felt a bit numbed after the meeting, I still knew I was making the right decision. And if it means I’ll no longer be coming to work knotted with anxiety and gifting my meals to the alter of the toilet bowl on a regular basis, I’ll take it. This old role is a good fit for right now – a bit of familiarity with a few things that have changed here and there. I think it will be a very welcome stop gap in the short to medium term. Better still, I won’t be bringing my work home with me like a pair of stale underpants that constantly evade the washing machine. That reminds me, I need to do some washing.
The moral of this tale? Don’t do things you’re not good at if it makes you continually miserable.
So – and I say this with a degree of trepidation – I think I could be out of the knotty woods.
I’ve submitted a proposal to perform my work, Goyder’s Line (2014-2017) at this year’s Australasian Computer Music Conference which is taking place in Adelaide this year. I’ve reproduced the text of my proposal/abstract below. Although I’ve regularily commented on the inspiration and development of Goyder’s Line in the past on this blog, I feel as though this text perfectly sums up the essence of the work. With thanks to L for her thoughts and input.
The plains that I crossed in those days were not endlessly alike. Sometimes I looked over a great shallow valley with scattered trees and idle cattle and perhaps a meagre stream at its centre. Sometimes, at the end of a tract of utterly uncompromising country, the road rose towards what was unquestionably a hill before I saw ahead only another plain, level and bare and daunting. Gerald Murnane, The Plains (1982)
The plains surrounding the ghost town of Dawson are situated in the lower Flinders Ranges – a vast arena of ochre-coloured earth and sparse vegetation. The presence of distant hills that stretch around the plains appear to reinforce the utter stillness of this place. As if time and motion are suspended or are just inclined to unfold at their own pace. As one spends more time in this place, its unique properties are revealed. A subtle scent carried on a breeze that sends a rustle through dry leaves, the droning buzz of busy insects, the brief relief that lies in the shadows of clouds drifting slowly over the terrain and discrete rumbles that exist just on the audible periphery.
Sometime during 1865, a few kilometres south of where Dawson would be settled twenty-three years later, George Goyder was travelling across the region on horseback. Goyder, who was the South Australian colony’s Surveyor-General had been tasked with the duty of mapping the boundary between areas that received regular rainfall and those that were prone to drought. Based on Goyder’s Line of Rainfall and the subsequent report detailing his findings, farmers were discouraged from planting crops north of the line. In most instances, this advice was not heeded.
At the beginning of the 21st Century as much of Australia was enduring the Millennium Drought (1997-2009), Goyder’s Line became a point of reference for meteorologists, climate scientists and farming communities. During the drought it became evident that the line of rainfall as identified by Goyder in the late 19th Century – whilst being subsequently regarded as a highly accurate tool of analysis and agricultural planning for most of the following century – was requiring reassessment and pointed to a southward trend in light of protracted drought, shifting seasonal rainfall patterns and the impact of anthropogenic climate change.
Goyder’s original line of rainfall and a recent 21st Century revision inform the basis of this electro-acoustic work. The lines – their relative patterns and trajectories- represent the fundamental frequencies of two sawtooth waves, which are routed as inputs to a vocoder and extended effects modules. Although each of the frequencies remain distinct throughout the work, the resulting modulations reveal expansive sonorities and rich harmonic textures. At regular iterations the lines are purposefully suspended in parallel, allowing their harmonic relationship and modulations to unfold and develop.
I regard this work as an ode to the South Australian interior, as defined by Goyder’s original line and its contemporary revision. The interior, at its boundary appears as a vast, seemingly boundless space – rich with the possibility of uncertainty, terror and fascination.
So far these semi-regular instalments have featured commentary and rumination on activities, projects and my general state of mind. Whilst all of the posts so far have been grounded in the present day, I’ve been surprised how retrospective they have become in some instances – drifting back as much as ten years or so. This isn’t necessarily how I planned it, but it’s been an interesting process to go through and oddly therapeutic at times. It’s also interesting given that I haven’t written on such a regular basis about a bunch of different things ever. At times it feels like I’m writing disparate sections of a future memoir. A common theme that I’ve identified across the six posts – which all deal with my creative practice – is seeking a contentment with what I’ve done so far whilst looking for some kind of pathway to lead me out of this protracted period of creative uncertainty and doubt. Therefore, in this instalment I’m not going to dwell on something I’ve done in the last ten years and instead interrogate a couple of things that interested me as a child. Increasingly I find I’m tracing lineage back to the early periods of my life and reflecting on just how critically things like geography, silence and space, technology and music informed many of my interests over the years.
This time around we’re going to pull anchor, catch the wind and slip back into the mists of the 20th Century. 1987 to be exact.
I was six years old at the time. We were living in my hometown of Normanville in a cottage at one end of Field Street. Our living room was made up of a pot belly stove and furnished with a couple of huge patterned velour armchairs. A similarly vintage lampshade hung from the ceiling, covered with a brown tapestry with long string tassels hanging down. Guitars hung on the walls. The carpet that covered the room is etched into my memory – an uneasy rhythm of lurid red, blue and green splodges floating on a black background. Our television was a small colour screen encased in a off-white plastic shell with various dials and knobs. I recall watching news footage of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster around this time, as well as episodes of The Goodies, Dangermouse and Doctor Who. To further reinforce this nostalgic onslaught, a Commodore 64 personal computer took pride of place next to the television.
Touted as being the ‘best selling computer in history’ the Commodore 64 was ever present in my childhood. Back in these days you could route such a computer into your television, so often I’d be seated a few inches from the screen steering clumps of pixels across the screen with a joystick. This could be my memory playing up, but I distinctly recall a couple of episodes of light sunburn from prolonged exposure to the screen.
When I wasn’t scorching my retina or getting flustered by a game designer’s tendency to not thoroughly debug a program (causing regular crashes), I was really into Cyclopedias, flags and maps. My parents had been purchasing a set of small volumes which came out every week; they were hard-bound with silver covers and a big circular image featuring anything from a camel, a test tube or a guy working on an oil rig. My favourite part of the volumes was the entries on countries, particularly European countries which I was fascinated by. Each of the entries in these volumes would feature a written description of the country, its flag and a map detailing cities, roads, rivers and symbols representing prominent industries (oil, manufacturing, agriculture, etc.) Think of this as the 1987 equivalent of Wikipedia. I also had a large world map with flags framing the border. I took pride of place on a desk in the front room of our house where I would often draw pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
LOAD “*”, 8, 1
Around this time, my mum bought me a new game on cassette which – in spite of the reservations she had with me spending so much time at the C64 – she thought would be vaguely educational. The artwork on the cassette case featured a cartoon of a mole leaping into a bi-plane whilst being chased by a couple of police officers.
By 1987, the Commodore 64 was still a leader in the low-end market, though the limitations of its 64 KB of RAM and 16-colour graphics palette restricted what was possible in a steadily expanding computer and videogames market, with the newly released Commodore Amiga already beginning to exceed the capability of the C64. In many respects, 1987-88 represents the bell curve of popularity and innovation for the C64, with many of the games from this period (The Last Ninja, California Games, The Giana Sisters) pushing the limitations of the C64 as far they would go in terms of handling content, gameplay, memory, graphics and sound. It’s remarkable just how well something like The Last Ninja (1987)holds up in this respect – a beautifully crafted game.
By virtue of attempting to keep up with the innovations led by Amiga, Nintendo and Sega, the bottom steadily fell out for the C64 as the limitations of the computer could not match the sophisticated gameplay and graphics of its peers and the computer gradually drifted towards niche-dom before being withdrawn completely in the early 1990’s.
Released in 1987, Auf Weirdersehen Monty consisted of a flick-screen platform-style gameplay with its visual design carried across from the hugely successful Monty On The Run (1985) and Jet Set Willy (1984). Each of the screenshots would represent a section of European country, sometimes incorporating landmarks unique to the country into the screen’s architecture. The visuals were also really trippy too. I’m fairly sure that blinking eyeball in the screenshot below is a nod to the Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel.
Nowadays we take story arcs for granted in videogames, but in 1987 I guess this was fairly unique. The action in Auf Weirdersehen Monty picks up from where Monty On The Run left off. Monty’s story began back in 1984 with Wanted: Monty Mole where following his intervention in the British Miner’s Strike (yes, really) he’s hunted by authorities and by the time of the following year’s Monty On The Run we’re guiding him through buildings and sewers, eventually culminating in a dangerous high-speed car ride to reach a boat in time. At the opening of Auf Weirdersehen Monty he’s beached himself at the Rock Of Gibraltar and we’ve got to help him cash up across Europe and avoid death so that he can buy a Greek island and live the rest of his life in sunny exile. Not bad for Thatcher-hating communist mole. The political overtones don’t end there. This was 1987 after all, so Germany is split down the middle – the glitzy West on one side and the otherside resembling the backend of a toilet. Very subtle. The game is memorable in so many other ways – by taking a bottle you become drunk and walk the wrong way, Monty breakdances in Luxembourg, there’s a chairlift to catch in Switzerland, you can repeatedly murder your evil doppelganger in a biplane and there’s a parade of surreal shit that makes no sense whatsoever from Italy to Greece (via Czechoslovakia). As was par for the course with a majority of sophisticated C64 games, Auf Weirdersehen Monty is ridiculously difficult. In certain parts of the game (especially in Italy and Greece) a lazy twitch of the joystick will lead to repeated death and it’s GAME OVER, BRO. Then you have to start all over again. Adding to this is the precarious requirement of taking various items back and forth across the continent in exchange for money – again and again. Saving progress is not an option. I have vivid memories of hurling the joystick across the room in frustration, breaking down into a pool of tears and being consoled by mum because I couldn’t deliver a football to Sweden.
I have no idea how many hours I spent playing this game. I could never finish it and in spite of engaging the help of friends to develop various strategies and carefully sketching out the screenshots to form a big guide map, it never came to much and more often than not we repeatedly checked out on our way to Greece with a trail of bloated dead moles in our wake.
It wasn’t just the futile and brutally Kafka-esque gameplay combined with a love of geography that kept me so engaged with this game. The soundtrack composed by the legendary Rob Hubbard (not the Scientologist) who, utilising all three-channels of the SID soundcard produced an absolute belter of a soundtrack that perfectly accompanied all the highs and lows of Monty’s traipses across Europe. Electronic drums clomped along beneath woozy synth textures with wailing bursts of (emulated) shred guitar. I’ve already mentioned just how innovative some of the C64 programming was around this period and this carefully composed soundtrack is just extraordinary in terms of its structure and sophistication.
Thirty years on
Out of the mists and back into the present. Nostalgia can be a foolishly naive enterprise sometimes; I’ve lost count of the recent things I’ve revisited lately (mostly films) only to walk away disappointed and – in some instances – appalled. Some things just shouldn’t be revisited later in life and should instead be left to dwell within the little universe they were first encountered and experienced. Memory tints, exaggerates and smoothens the edges and everything from here looks idyllic and appealing. Our past viewed through a vaseline smeared lens. Leave it there.
Rarely though, there are exceptions to this rule and Auf Weirdersehen Monty is a case in point. This is a game in recent years that I’ve revisited (via a C64 emulator) and become lost within all over again, whilst recalling my early fascination with geography, Europe and electronic music. Despite faithful attempts I couldn’t finish the game and instead applied a cheat mode (Jesus Mode!) to evade death, cash up, successfully deliver the football and land Monty on his island thirty years on from my first attempts. Sometimes you’ve just got to give a guy a break.