Equilibrium Journal: #1 – making connections

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Between Port Augusta and Quorn, South Australia

Far from home

Out of the general miserableness of my first year of university, an oft forgotten memory – which has curiously recalled itself recently – was my sensitivity to sound and the anxiety that accompanied it. For the first few months of my university life I would lie for hours in the dark with my eyes fixed to the ceiling; convinced that the ambient hum of the city was keeping me awake, whilst clenching my teeth and feeling as though I was perpetually on the verge of a heart attack. Upon reflection now, the sound aspect was one minor part of a much larger issue pertinent to the precarious state of my mental health. Being homesick, out of place and feeling incredibly lonely were the big contributors, but I’m in no doubt that a sensitivity to sound played a role in making my life abjectly miserable for most of that year.

I’ve lived in the city for the following twenty years, yet I still struggle with this sensitivity to sound which can often disrupt the delicate weave that holds together my mental wellbeing. Notable instances  include: an inability to focus on conversations in busy or loud spaces, jumpiness at sudden sounds and an extreme hatred of leaf blowers. A bit ironic for someone who deeply loves the din of noise music.

In spite of spending years preoccupied with sound, I’ve never really researched or thought at length about sensitivity to sound and its potential impacts on mental wellbeing. This is something I’m keen to explore in the future. Just as the aforementioned memory of my first year at university was reviving itself late last year, Country Arts SA’s Arts & Health Creative Producer, Alison Howard contacted me and was keen to discuss a new project.

Equilibrium

So now I’m currently engaged with Country Arts SA as part of a creative team for an exciting three-year project called, Equilibrium. I’ve included a description of the project scope below, courtesy of Country Arts SA:

Equilibrium aims to raise awareness of sound as a contributing factor to our health and wellbeing and pose solutions, transforming environments in health and community.

Current research examining the causes and impact of sound on our health demonstrates that unwanted noise, whether high intensity or low frequency can affect our emotional state and impact on our physiological and psychological health and wellbeing.

Sounds we choose to listen to, in particular music, can make us feel calm, joyful or elated. However, sound that is unwanted, uncontrollable, or unpredictable can have the opposite effect. Recent debate around wind turbine noise has highlighted this health issue that affects not only those living in city environments where we expect to hear noise from traffic, neighbours, planes etc, but those in regional and rural areas.

Equilibrium will delve into the psychology of sound, specifically in relation to mental health and wellbeing. Through a collaborative, exploratory process, contemporary artists Vic McEwan, Jesse Budel, John Simpson and Tristan Louth-Robins will investigate alternative sonic landscapes in mental health units and public spaces with communities across regional SA. [1]

[1] https://www.countryarts.org.au/events/equilibrium/

In early March, the creative team (myself, Vic, John and Jesse, along with CA’s Arts & Health Creative Producer, Alison Howard) hit the road and came together for a week, visiting Integrated Mental Health Inpatient Units (IMHIU) in Whyalla and Berri to gain a firsthand insight into how these facilities operate, whilst establishing a rapport with staff and in-patients*.

* The latter, which I’ll refer to as ‘consumers’ from hereon, as per the appropriate descriptor in this context. 

As a creative team, we each come from diverse and unit backgrounds. Myself and Jesse’s respective practices are chiefly concerned – at this juncture – with aspects of landscape and sound ecology; Vic has an extensive background as an interdisciplinary artist, heading the CAD Factory whilst frequently collaborating within the health industry; and John is world renowned foley artist, whose work has been featured in big films such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Happy Feet and King Kong. The project’s creative producer, Alison has had a prolific career as a creative producer and theatre director. I first met Alison back in 2013 when I contributed a score and sound design for the production of Van Badham’s play, Muff (which Alison was directing.)

In terms of scope, this is one of the most intensive and challenging projects I’ve committed myself to. Since it’s occurring over three years, our creative team will establish connections within our designated sites and develop work in-situ every 3-6 months. Following this first stage, I’ll be based in Berri (Riverland), with John in Whyalla (Lower Flinders Ranges) and Jesse in Mount Gambier (South East). Vic will be accompanying each of us in our respective sites as a creative collaborator. In addition to this long game approach, there is of course the matter of working within mental health units. I must admit that leading up to this project, I’ve been apprehensive about the mental health aspect since it represents confronting territory to bring my practice into. As an individual I’m enormously passionate about mental health, but as I hadn’t visit an in-patient facility before I knew that this would draw upon another lot of energy (both creative and emotional) to realise the objectives of the project at given stages. 

So with that bit of background covered, from here I’ll provide a summary of what we got up to during our inaugural stage this past week.

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Between Port Augusta and Quorn.

Passage north to Quorn

Jesse and I picked up our hire car in Adelaide on Tuesday morning and drove four hours north to rendezvous with Vic, Alison and John in the small town of Quorn in the southern Flinders Ranges. It seems a little inexplicable that I’d never travelled this far north before, let alone visited the Flinders Ranges. Quorn is about 350 km north of Adelaide, which seems like a major undertaking for a driver or passenger like myself, who is more accustomed to the semi-regular trips I’ve made from Adelaide to the Fleurieu Peninsula over the years, scarcely breaking the triple digit mark on the odometer at any given time. The last time I’d come within touching distance of the Ranges and approached the desert frontier was about three years prior when I had visited Wirrabara; and another couple of years prior to that when my mum lived in Peterborough. Jesse and I shared the driving responsibilities on this occasion: Jesse handling the escape from the city and pushing through the endless sprawl of northern suburbs before we swapped over at Port Wakefield. As we approached Port Pirie the vegetation flanking the highway became increasingly spartan and appeared squashed by the oppressive conditions, whilst the colours drifted into mottled ochre and ashen colours. It was really dry out here. This summer past has been South Australia’s driest on record, with average temperatures scarcely dropping below 30 degrees, whilst whatever meagre rainfall that arrived had been instantaneously evaporated by the overheated ground. The first stretch of the ranges appeared around the wider districts of Port Pirie – an imposing stretch of terrain that looks at once uninhabitable, whilst appearing as though it might spontaneously combust at a given moment. We were getting closer to Quorn. A turn off the highway through the suburb of Stirling North led to a gradual climb into the ranges. Following a plateau of parched agricultural land, we climbed a little higher and the remarkable sight of thousands of porcupine bushes dotting the rolling hills. By this point, I quietly cursed the fact I was in charge of keeping the car on the road as Jesse took a series of photos on his phone. I would have done the same if I had been the passenger. As the driver – since I was utterly taken by the beautiful landscape – I struggled to keep the car on the road for the rest of the journey to Quorn as we made a passage through the Ranges’ gullies and scrub..

We arrived in Quorn a little after 1pm and were to meet the rest of the creative team at The Great Northern Lodge. On the itinerary, the name alone suggested allusions to the sprawling log-cabin-as-hotel that FBI Agent, Dale Cooper took up residence in the town of Twin Peaks. Quorn’s Great Northern – which contains the eatery Emily’s Cafe – was by contrast, a beautiful historic single story building with a long colour-striped verandah. Beneath the shade of the verandah, the warm afternoon sun stretched across the wide street and surrounding buildings as an avenue of trees hissed nearby. Walking past a bench that had been voraciously subsumed by a vine, Jesse and I entered Emily’s Cafe and were greeted by Quorn local and foley artist, John Simpson. Alison and Vic would arrive a little later.

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Emily’s Cafe – where it’s simultaneously a historic nexus of the early 20th Century and 1992 (judging by those chairs).

Seeking quiet in Quorn

I hardly ever find myself in spaces where the environment is subjectively and categorically quiet. Although my hometown of Normanville and the wider Fleurieu Peninsula is relatively quieter than my current home of Adelaide, I’ve found that journeys up north (which are rare in my case) afford an opportunity to experience spaces, which – at times – are completely removed from anthropogenic clamour.

Which brings us to the reason why someone like John’s out here with a sound studio. He might be a local, but he hasn’t been out here all his life. After cutting his teeth in the film industry in Sydney for years, his family relocated to a property near Quorn about a decade ago. It’s all about the quiet out here that permits the quietest and loudest of creative gestures – be it capturing atomised gesture of a single pin literally being dropped or the firing off of huge firearms. Following our creative team meeting at Emily’s cafe, later in the afternoon we travelled a few kilometres and had a tour of John’s studio; which, from the perceived vantage of the studio itself, seems as far away from the rest of the world that one can possibly get. Upon leaving the tiny town of Quorn and travelling the relatively short distance of five kilometres to John’s studio, it felt akin to crossing a boundary into another paradigm. In a couple of cars we followed John ute, careful to evade the big jagged rocks on either side of the dirt road and the odd only that would materialise in our direct path – threatening to gouge open the underside of our hire car.

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At John Simpson’s studio site. Five kilometres out of Quorn.

John’s studio looks like a big nondescript shed from the outside, powered by some generators behind a stack of hay bales. I presumed the bales shielded them from the wind. The wind is basically the only thing you hear out here, and upon entering the shed it shears and whistles through a large space that functions as a storage area. From here, there’s a couple of purpose built rooms which comprise of a cosy control room and larger studio space. The sound of the wind recedes as the door is closed. However, trace elements of the world outside are still evident. I see a fine particulate layer of dirt across the mixing station and monitors. I feel a bit better about the standard of cleanliness of my own studio space at home.

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With John in the studio control room.
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The studio itself.

From here, we step into the studio space itself where the foley action happens. Closing this door, the world recedes further and it’s quieter to the point of a Cagean anechoic chamber experience; albeit with some Harry Partch thrown into the mix. John had earlier told us not to get our expectations up about the studio, dryly describing the space as something between a junkyard and garage sale. He wasn’t far wrong, but it also uncannily  resembles a couple of share houses I’d lived in or crashed at during my student days. It was wonderful though. There’s no pretension to John and his work; his work ethic is dead serious and honest. Besides, anyone intending to set up shop out here would have their pristine operation quickly eroded by the oppressive conditions (mostly the dirt.)  We make our way back outside, hop in our cars and head back to Quorn. Later in the afternoon, the light is perfect and I take some photos of an old petrol station and the rail yards. 

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Whyalla

The following morning we all drive over to Whyalla, over a hundred kilometres south west from Quorn. Aside from some strikingly jagged ranges to the south and vivid red sands, the landscape is fairly unremarkable. We’re here in Whyalla to visit the hospital’s IMHIU. I think Jesse and I were a little apprehensive on the drive over, since our conversation comprised of (mostly me) fitfully opining on aesthetics and philosophy. Never a good sign. Not only does this week’s trip represent the furthest north I’ve been in my home state, but now also the furthest west – my first landing on the enormous and mysterious Eyre Peninsula! The hospital sits atop a hill in the town, overlooking the ocean, and following a series of turns and climbs my usually reliable sense of direction is completely shot. Thankfully, Jesse’s driving.

The hospital comprises of late 70s architecture (which I adore – more on this later) met with some 21st Century cosmetic interventions. A large brutalist column thrusts itself into the sky near the car park and looks a bit like a late-Soviet era clock tower that one imagines would not even bother to display the time and just drone ominously on the hour. Vic and I gaze at it for awhile and agree it’s probably used for pumping noxious gases into the air instead.

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The imagined Soviet clocktower at Whyalla Hospital.

Over coffee at the cafeteria we check in with each other before heading into the ward. We’d previously discussed managing our wellbeing back in Quorn the previous day, and now at the hospital it’s feeling genuinely felt. I make a quick dash to the bathroom, if only to collect myself in private before entering the ward. We wind through various corridors and arrive at the hospital Mental Health Unit. We’re warmly greeted by one of the case workers, Mick who provides us with a tour of the small six-bed facility. We meet some of the staff in the cramped kitchen space and front desk, seeing a couple of consumers who make uncertain eye contact with us. One of these, a man, in his sixties is assisted by a walking frame and he makes his way around the ward in a frenetic manner. He honestly looks closer to eighty with deep lines etched across his face – reflecting immense trauma and pain. He kindly gives us a tour of his room – a bed, door to an en suite bathroom and flat screen tv fixed behind a perspex barrier. Natural light fills the space and there’s a couple of artwork prints on the walls: highly detailed photos of flowers, trees and blue sky. Whilst we’re in his room, the man talks to us a little about his stay before becoming distressed and gets the attention of the case worker Mick, explaining to him that he hears constant gunshots. Vic explains to the man that what he’s hearing is probably a door slamming at regular intervals. In fact, it’s the double doors at the entrance to the ward, which are frequently opening and closing during our visit. We take him down to the doors and demonstrate the sound they make when they close. As a result of this, his distress and confusion is allayed slightly and he makes way back to his room. On our way down the hall, the door slams again and he turns his head anxiously.

This scenario presented itself as a vivid introduction to the sonic environment of a health facility and the detrimental (and at times, debilitating) effect that excessive levels of sound can have on a consumer’s wellbeing and ultimate recovery. Back in Quorn when Vic was giving us a background on his research working in the health sector, he noted that the World Health Organisation stipulates that the acceptable sound level for Intensive Care Units (ICU) should not exceed more than 35 dB with a maximum of 40dB overnight. This is the equivalent to a library space or very quiet urban ambient sound. It has been found through the WHO’s findings that all of the hospitals surveyed in this research exceeded the acceptable sound levels, exceeding 45 dB with overnight averages of 51dB around 4am. At times across several hospitals, peaks of up to 85db were recorded – which is akin to hearing a passing freight train at 15 metres. [1]

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4056361/

Granted an Integrated Mental Health facility is not an ICU, but it’s still incredibly loud in here. Aside from the slamming door, there’s the sound of the photocopier, periodic beeps, tapping of keyboards, shunting of trolleys and the clatter of dishes; all of which are further amplified by the crude acoustics of the ward space. John admits to the rest of the group that he wouldn’t last longer than five minutes in this space due to the continual cacophony of sound. Considering the heightened sensitivities that come with mental illness, it’s easy to appreciate how such a space could compromise a consumers recovery, or conversely exacerbate it further. 

We discuss this issue with Mick in a private meeting room, going over the challenges of managing sound levels in a busy health facility (with a regular turnover of admissions) and how our project interventions could provide improvements to the welfare of consumers, staff and the facility as whole. It’s patently evident that it’s not simply a case of a facility investing in and installing more sound insulation alone, but rather that by promoting an awareness of sound – in its production, transmission and the way it’s perceived – is going to be a large part of our research, as well as the practical and creative interventions.

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Leaving Whyalla.

Burra and Berri

Following a quick lunch, we bid farewell to John and Jesse. John’s due back in Quorn and Jesse’s driving solo back to Adelaide. From here, it’s the trio of myself, Alison and Vic who continue onto Berri in the Riverland. Our journey consists of two parts: the long passage out of the Whyalla, Port Augusta and Pirie districts to an afternoon picnic invitation in Burra, then crossing the Eastern demarcation of Goyder’s Line onto Berri. Since we’re travelling in the Country Arts SA car, only Alison can drive; and whilst I feel sorry for Alison, I make the most of the back seat and slip into fitful conversation, scribbling in my notebook appreciating the shifting landscapes.

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Driving through the upper Clare Valley, on route to Burra.

As I’d mentioned earlier, I very rarely drive long distances. As we passed through Crystal Brook on route to Burra, following hundreds of kilometres as a driver and passenger over the past two days, my impressions of time and distance were becoming one long slippery, liminal drift. A constant of my city-based life is a series of short hops between regular locales: from home to work; to the supermarket; a morning run; a walk to the pub; going to a friend’s place. I’m reminded of the relentless cycle of daily activities that forms the narrative of Michael Haneke’s film, The Seventh Continent where a jaded middle class family repeat themselves. A process of repetition that escalates to the point of absurdity and eventually – death. Unmoored from the familiar nodes of my daily routine, any semblance of tempo dissolves and perceived nodes are drawn out. My perception and felt experience leaves the grip of a Kraftwerk pulse and becomes subsumed in an Eliane Radigue drone work. As clouds mark the dry bald hills in slow moving shadows and variances of light. I feel calmer and more serene than I’ve felt in a while.

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With the Burra Gallery staff.

We arrive in Burra in the late afternoon and are warmly greeted by the volunteer staff at the Burra Regional Art Gallery. Burra’s a beautiful little town, full of beautiful historic buildings and more of that golden afternoon light I experienced in Quorn. At the gallery, we’re treated to some delicious snacks and coffee whilst being given a tour. Upstairs, there’s a store of work from the wonderful South Australian artist, Barbara Hanrahan, whose colourful paintings and ink prints of flowers and cats make me think of my partner, Lauren. 

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Barbara Hanrahan: Girl with Cat (1972)

In spite of the hospitality, our visit to the gallery is brief since the Goyder Highway to Burra is notoriously treacherous at dusk with kangaroos, wombats and feral species coming out en masse. The gallery staff suggest we could stay in Burra for the night (we’d spontaneously been invited to a barbecue!) and their loveliness is hard to resist, but we decide to continue onto Berri. 

I can’t say I’ve ever been in a car where all of its occupants attention is intensely fixated on the road and its perimeter. It feels as though we’re travelling through a demilitarised zone fearing imminent ambush. Conversation still flows, but it’s frequently broken by interjections of: “roo!”, “goat!” and “oh!”. Along one particular passage there’s a notable increase of tyre skids criss-crossing the road, followed by the ominous sight of a recently abandoned car that’s plunged into a bank of saltbush.

We eventually leave the worst of the road behind as we approach the Riverland. Vic’s obliged to eat his banana quickly, since the threat of fruit fly and heavy fines for bringing fruit into the region loom large. As we reach Berri, the dusky light has almost entirely ebbed away, as a few streetlights and the inviting glow of our hotel (and some food) beckons.

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Morning in Berri.

Berri (Day 1): Brutalist segue, first visit to the IMHIU and Barmera

Our hotel overlooks the River Murray, which is gloriously wide and teeming with bird life. A barge makes a slow passage along the banks, lopping scraggly branches from eucalypts with an enormous crane-chainsaw apparatus. At a cafe on the riverbank, Alison, Vic and I discuss the next couple of days that await us. Although our focus will be on the Berri IMHIU during the day, we’ve got two social engagements bookending the day – one in the morning at Renmark, the other at Barmara. 

We head to the Chaffey Theatre in Renmark to meet a couple of Country Arts SA staff who are based in the Riverland. Sharlene and Rebecca greet us in the foyer as I spontaneously espouse my love of late Brutalist architecture and take particular delight in the sight of lurid red carpet mounted to the walls backstage. The best is yet to come as we continue backstage and I can barely contain my fascination at doors painted with the red, mustard and cream stripes, clashing with bright green chairs and flower printed curtains. Granted, the Chaffey Theatre was built in 1984 – just as this architectural movement was dying out – but many hallmarks within this theatre are like a time machine transporting me back to my childhood. When I was young and made trips from the country to the suburbs and the city, similar spaces to these – with their slabs of concrete, sharply defined geometric shapes, mezzanine levels and lurid colour clashes – were fascinating to me. In aesthetic terms, these buildings almost universally look oppressive, and as if they’re constantly frowning or judging you. They’re also pretty impractical and withstand any attempt to modernise them cosmetically, add extensions or provide disability access. If I didn’t love them in such a perverse way and was in the shoes of a city planner I’d probably want them razed to the ground as well.

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In spite of this prolonged segue, it didn’t draw away from the reason why we were there and meeting Sharlene and Rebecca from Country Arts SA. We found a quiet room backstage and Alison provided an overview of the project and what Vic and myself might get up to in the region over the next couple of years. Following our meeting, we leave Vic to take a phone call. Because I tweeted our visit to John’s studio in Quorn (tagging Equilibrium and Country Arts SA), the ABC’s Riverland and Whyalla radio outlets have taken great interest in the project and are eager to hear more. On the one hand, it’s great there’s interest in the project but as Alison wasn’t ready to publicise much at this stage, this means they’re both forced to hurriedly compile notes for the interviews. I apologise for this at several points throughout the day.

We’re due at the Berri IMHIU next and have been instructed to bring cakes. This isn’t exactly an olive branch or peace offering, but it strikes me as something of a local custom. It does sound particular suited to a country town, especially when vanilla slices and laminations are involved. On the way to Berri the other day, Alison had explained that each IMHIU is unique and ‘breaking the ice’ and establishing rapport with staff isn’t always easy. After all, we’re artists coming into an intensive, highly regulated environment, so it’s understandable to be treated with a degree of suspicion.

Our rapport building is further hampered by the fact that we arrive about an hour late. We meet with the IMHIU Manager (whose name escapes me at the moment) and other staff. The cakes are awkwardly placed on a table in the communal space as we attempt to make amends for our tardiness, why we’re here and explain the scope of the project. We’re given a tour of the space. It’s similar to the IMHIU in Whyalla, only it’s noticeably quieter. During a tour of a vacated room, our conversation with the manager is lightening considerably as we seek to contextualise sound and relate it to the goals of the project. The Manager interrupts us suddenly as a murmur is heard from behind the closed door of a room on the other side of the hallway. She excuses herself as she makes her way into the room. The murmur becomes a distressed yelp as we glimpse someone flailing on the bed screaming, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” Given the relative quiet of this space for the first half hour of our visit, it’s a confronting visible and audible reminder of the reality of this environment. 

Later on, Alison, Vic and I meet one of the consumers in person – a woman called Helen who appears to be in her sixties and is dressed in a colourful dress with equally striking plastic flowers in her hair. She professes her love of art and explains to us that she’ll draw a picture for us when we come back the following day. She enthusiastically yells to the staff at reception that our presence today (and the project itself) is a miracle and there’s a special – possibly divine – reason we’re here. The conversation is open and lighthearted, but somewhat inevitably personal subjects (both Helen’s and ours) are broached and Helen’s demeanour becomes more fragile as she touches on traumatic aspects of her life.

We break for lunch and I suddenly feel exhausted as I sit in the backseat of the car. I let out a couple of deep sighs and feel like I’ve been punched in the kidneys. My head’s a mess of complicated emotions and quandaries. 

What are the boundaries here? The three of us are not trained to deal with clients in a health setting and for the first time I’m feeling decidedly iffy about the ethical issues that arise when you’re having a conversation with a vulnerable person in care. Alison, Vic and I are compassionate and empathetic people at heart. Is it down to simply trusting our instincts and internal codes to keep a given discussion in check and not potentially exploit someone’s vulnerability? Exploitation – as a deliberate motivation or the perception thereof – is all too common in the arts. Some artists are genuinely awful people and again, I can’t blame some staff at the IMHIU if they feel particularly concerned about our presence there. The three of us discuss this at length as we find a place for lunch.

Whilst we’re waiting for our lunch at a cafe in Berri, I make a call back home to my partner Lauren. I’m pacing back and forth outside the cafe talking about the day when I stifle a loud sob. I felt something like this was coming when we left the hospital, but it still comes as a shock. It’s a bit like feeling pretty drunk at a party and maintaining control, then spontaneously vomiting. Whilst the conversation with the consumer at Whyalla who heard gunshots compelled a degree of compassion and empathy, there was something about the conversation with Helen that troubled me deeply. Was it her earnestness? Her description of traumatic experiences? Her interest in my hometown of Normanville and the way her gaze maintained an uneasy fixedness? It was a case of someone being at once present, and yet removed by several degrees. The eeriness of this was unsettling. We discuss my reaction (along with other concerns) and decide it’s probably a good idea to take the rest of the afternoon off, prior to our engagement in Barmara later in the evening. 

I arrive back at my hotel room. I close the curtains, put on some music and lie in bed unmoving for the next hour. Later, I decide to take a walk and make a 45-minute field recording by the banks of the river. It’s beautiful here in the late afternoon and I lean back on a slope and I listen and watch the gentle continuities and repetitions unfold around me. 

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Feeling decidedly refreshed, we hop in the car and head out to Barmara – a small town whose claim to fame – aside from Lake Bonney – is their annual country music festival. As dusk settles over the town and streetlights come on, we glimpse the famous statue-cum-sculpture of an oversize acoustic guitar in the town centre. We’re in town to meet up with Alysha Hermann for a meet-and-greet at a space adjacent to the Bonney Theatre. 

The theatre itself (constructed in 1938) is a wonderful art-deco structure, with its perfect symmetries and decorative motifs illuminated by an arrangement of spot lights. Whilst the art deco style – within an architectural context – is far more pleasing to the eye, and is nowhere as threatened by demolition as Brutalist buildings, every year notable art deco buildings are being razed to make way for anonymous residences. I recently remarked to friend that in fifty years time, perhaps the only architectural remnants of the 20th Century will be a meagre smattering of art deco and late colonial buildings. 

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The Bonney Theatre in Barmera.

The space adjacent to the theatre is a former council chambers, which for many years was  Riverland Youth Theatre’s hub of operations. Alison worked here for the first half of the 2000’s as RYT’s Director. The space – having laid dormant for several years – is now being renovated and reactivated by Alysha as a DIY space – called Part of Things – for creative practitioners in the region to develop work, facilitate workshops and exhibitions, network and collaborate. It’s an interesting space – consisting of a series of rooms which appear to be well suited to artist studios and exhibition spaces. Alysha’s set up a meeting space in one of the larger rooms with a couch, chairs and some snacks. Given the size of Barmera and the short notice, it’s a small group but preferable given the limited seating and lack of air conditioning on this muggy evening. We meet with a newly elected city councillor and his son (an enthusiastic guitarist who is obsessed with Led Zeppelin); a guy who hosts a Dungeon & Dragons podcast (which honestly sounds amazing); and Alysha’s husband, Nic.

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Everyone introduces themselves and talks about their background, interests and critical role of art and creativity in regional districts. On the prompting of Alysha, Vic tells a remarkable story from his work in an ICU and the work he developed with a 17-year-old, Elisha. It’s the second time I’d heard this story during the week and it’s no less profound and moving. The story beings with a series of bedside collaborations using material from Elisha’s art journals and projecting images from these on her bedsheets; which take on new interpretations and meanings. Later on, a recording of her heartbeat is made using a digital stethoscope and the recording is taken to, and broadcasted in an abandoned oil storage container – a space with the longest known reverberation time of Earth. In turn, Elisha’s heartbeat becomes the longest heartbeat in history. There’s a video documenting the creative process below.

The Longest Heartbeat from Cad Factory on Vimeo.

It’s been a long day. By the time I arrive back at the hotel, I quickly brush my teeth, collapse on the bed and slip into the heaviest sleep I’ve experienced in some time.

My dreams that night are bizarre and disturbing. I’m back in the Berri IMHIU burying myself in soil; I’m running down a road in the middle of nowhere; I’m driving a car through a never-ending expanse of salt bush. 

I wake up at 3am convinced there’s someone lying next to me. There’s an arm! I lift it and it drops with a thud. What the fuck?! A dull sensation radiates sluggishly up my left shoulder – it’s my arm! Such had been my heavy repose that I’ve been sleeping on my left arm for the last five hours and the circulation is only coming back now. I jump out of bed and begin the horrid process of reviving my arm – a storm of pins and needles. Thankfully, no amputation required.

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With Vic at Part of Things

Berri (Day 2) & Home

In the morning I have a long breakfast and several coffees at the same cafe and have an expansive conversation with Vic. Alison joins us later on and then we drive onto the Berri IMHIU for a follow-up session with staff and consumers.

We arrive and meet with a new admission to the IMHIU, Margaret. We sit together for about an hour and Margaret talks at length about her love of music and memories of her childhood living on a small island near Port Augusta. I mention to Margaret that it’s remarkable how detailed some of her sonic  memories are and how vividly they form an impression of the environment as well as a sense of place. We discuss this a little more and are later joined by Helen, whom we met the previous day. Helen shows a detailed drawing of pyramids and two camels conversing with each other. She also shows us a couple of photos taken early in the morning of a blurry light in the sky. As she did the previous day, Helen remarks again with enthusiasm our presence and the spiritual meanings behind this, and proceeds to make connections between her drawing of pyramids, the photos of lights in the sky and impending apocalypse. What leavens this scattered logic is her sincerity and genuine appreciation of our presence. Much like our conversations with Margaret, there’s a reminder for me of the value that simple connections can have for us – especially for those who are vulnerable, in care and in need of rehabilitation.

We bid our farewells at the IMHIU and hit the road back to Adelaide after lunch. It’s been an incredibly taxing four days. I’m feeling even more exhausted than the day before. I can’t wait to be back home, ‘switching off’ and doing nothing for the next couple of days.

Although it had been a recurrent thought and had informed the majority of our creative team discussions across the week, I’m wondering where this work might lead over the next couple of years – as Vic and I will come together at the end of the year to further our work in Berri and develop a working collaboration with the IMHIU staff and consumers, as well as the wider community. There’s so much to consider, but I’d found that – in spite of our collective exhaustion – possibilities and avenues of for exploration had indeed taken form – however scant – over the past couple of days.

Perhaps the most striking takeaway from the week is that I am now in no doubt whatsoever of the value that the arts and creative practice can bring – as an intervention – into spaces dedicated to the care and recovery of people. Not much was undertaken in a practical sense on this trip – aside from observations and ideas brokered in both Whyalla and Berri – but it was still incredibly enlightening to me. It reminded me of the intrinsic human value of people in care – how open they still are to aspects of the world, and how this is at odds with the common assumptions (or archetype) that they are completely shut off from the rest of the world – effectively institutionalised in the pejorative sense. 

On the first day of our trip Vic had given us all a copy of a book written by a collaborator, Clive Parkinson whom Vic had worked with during his Harmonic Oscillator project in the UK. I’d been reading Critical Care throughout the week and it was a valuable accompaniment, as it went some way to reconciling some of my predominant thoughts regarding the value of the arts in a health context. The book is an insightful document of the pair’s time working together in the Alder Hey ICU and the creative outcomes that resulted through Vic’s collaboration with people in care. Clive reflects on this nexus of creative intervention towards the end of the book:

the patient becomes a person, a girl becomes an artist, her bedroom a medium to explore possibilities and imagination, and she is liberated.

* * *

At the beginning of this essay I described a memory of my heightened sensitivity to sound and how this is still an ongoing struggle for me – in spite of living in a city for 20 years. Upon arriving back to my home in Parkside, the thrum of the city seemed all the more pronounced following four days of relative quietude.  My partner, Lauren was attending the WOMADelaide music festival for the whole long weekend and I was joining her on the Sunday night and Monday. I was home alone for the night and the following day. I dropped my bags to the floor and greeted our cat, Neko. I picked her up and sat on the couch as she purred. A momentary quiet settled on our home, then the sounds came back. Neighbours on either side of our unit were going about their usual activities – indistinct conversations, a bump to a shared wall, a car backing down the driveway. Further afield on the audible periphery, traffic coarsed along the main roads on the fringes of the city. I closed the our doors and windows, turned on the tv or listened to some music to create a necessary focal point for my exhausted state.

 

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Oblique Territories Journal – Part 3: semblance of a river

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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.

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Spaced stereo array beneath the Princess Highway

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.

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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:

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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.

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Going handheld at the river’s edge

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.

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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:

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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.

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Here’s a close-up of the cliff:

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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.

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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.

Next time: Mount Bold Reservoir and Clarendon.

 

 

 

 

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Fleurieu Sound Map featured in Yankalilla Regional News

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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.

With thanks to John Jelfs.

Ten Meaningful Records #3: A Street Called Straight by Roy Buchanan (released 1976/first heard 1998)

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Read the previous instalment #1 covering Wilco’s Summerteeth here

Read the previous instalment #2 covering Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind here

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 A Street 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.

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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?”

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* * *

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.

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Ten Meaningful Records: #2 Time Out Of Mind by Bob Dylan (released 1997/first heard 1997)

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Read the previous instalment covering Wilco’s Summerteeth here: link

Camira, Camira

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.

*        *        *

Cottage lyfe

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.

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Mini Dylan: Jakob Dylan. Largely inoffensive, easy on the eyes and ears.

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.

 

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If you gotta go, go now: Dylan in 1991.

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

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Daniel Lanois.

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”.

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Bob Dylan in 1990.

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.

 

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1997.

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.

Highlands

“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.

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1982 Holden Camira.

What’s Happening #8: Therapy Part III, or How I Learned To Love The Fact I’m Not Very Good At Certain Things And Stop Worrying

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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.

However.

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.

Notes on Goyder’s Line

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.

TLR, July 2017