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.
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What’s Happening #7: Ode to geography, SID and 64 kilobytes

 

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c. 1987 with my brother, Sean.

So far these semi-regular instalments have featured commentary and rumination on activities, projects and my general state of mind. Whilst all of the posts so far have been grounded in the present day, I’ve been surprised how retrospective they have become in some instances – drifting back as much as ten years or so. This isn’t necessarily how I planned it, but it’s been an interesting process to go through and oddly therapeutic at times. It’s also interesting given that I haven’t written on such a regular basis about a bunch of different things ever. At times it feels like I’m writing disparate sections of a future memoir. A common theme that I’ve identified across the six posts – which all deal with my creative practice – is seeking a contentment with what I’ve done so far whilst looking for some kind of pathway to lead me out of this protracted period of creative uncertainty and doubt. Therefore, in this instalment I’m not going to dwell on something I’ve done in the last ten years and instead interrogate a couple of things that interested me as a child. Increasingly I find I’m tracing lineage back to the early periods of my life and reflecting on just how critically things like geography, silence and space, technology and music informed many of my interests over the years.

This time around we’re going to pull anchor, catch the wind and slip back into the mists of the 20th Century. 1987 to be exact.

Cottage lyfe

I was six years old at the time. We were living in my hometown of Normanville in a cottage at one end of Field Street. Our living room was made up of a pot belly stove and furnished with a couple of huge patterned velour armchairs. A similarly vintage lampshade hung from the ceiling, covered with a brown tapestry with long string tassels hanging down. Guitars hung on the walls. The carpet that covered the room is etched into my memory – an uneasy rhythm of lurid red, blue and green splodges floating on a black background. Our television was a small colour screen encased in a off-white plastic shell with various dials and knobs. I recall watching news footage of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster around this time, as well as episodes of The Goodies, Dangermouse and Doctor Who. To further reinforce this nostalgic onslaught, a Commodore 64 personal computer took pride of place next to the television.

Computer Age

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Touted as being the ‘best selling computer in history’ the Commodore 64 was ever present in my childhood. Back in these days you could route such a computer into your television, so often I’d be seated a few inches from the screen steering clumps of pixels across the screen with a joystick. This could be my memory playing up, but I distinctly recall a couple of episodes of  light sunburn from prolonged exposure to the screen.

When I wasn’t scorching my retina or getting flustered by a game designer’s tendency to not thoroughly debug a program (causing regular crashes), I was really into Cyclopedias, flags and maps. My parents had been purchasing a set of small volumes which came out every week; they were hard-bound with silver covers and a big circular image featuring anything from a camel, a test tube or a guy working on an oil rig. My favourite part of the volumes was the entries on countries, particularly European countries which I was fascinated by. Each of the entries in these volumes would feature a written description of the country, its flag and a map detailing cities, roads, rivers and symbols representing prominent industries (oil, manufacturing, agriculture, etc.) Think of this as the 1987 equivalent of Wikipedia. I also had a large world map with flags framing the border. I took pride of place on a desk in the front room of our house where I would often draw pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

LOAD “*”, 8, 1

Around this time, my mum bought me a new game on cassette which – in spite of the reservations she had with me spending so much time at the C64 – she thought would be vaguely educational. The artwork on the cassette case featured a cartoon of a mole leaping into a bi-plane whilst being chased by a couple of police officers.

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By 1987, the Commodore 64 was still a leader in the low-end market, though the limitations of its 64 KB of RAM and 16-colour graphics palette restricted what was possible in a steadily expanding computer and videogames market, with the newly released Commodore Amiga already beginning to exceed the capability of the C64. In many respects, 1987-88 represents the bell curve of popularity and innovation for the C64, with many of the games from this period (The Last NinjaCalifornia Games, The Giana Sisters) pushing the limitations of the C64 as far they would go in terms of handling content, gameplay, memory, graphics and sound. It’s remarkable just how well something like The Last Ninja (1987) holds up in this respect – a beautifully crafted game.

By virtue of attempting to keep up with the innovations led by Amiga, Nintendo and Sega, the bottom steadily fell out for the C64 as the limitations of the computer could not match the sophisticated gameplay and graphics of its peers and the computer gradually drifted towards niche-dom before being withdrawn completely in the early 1990’s.

Released in 1987, Auf Weirdersehen Monty consisted of a flick-screen platform-style gameplay with its visual design carried across from the hugely successful Monty On The Run (1985) and Jet Set Willy (1984). Each of the screenshots would represent a section of European country, sometimes incorporating landmarks unique to the country into the screen’s architecture. The visuals were also really trippy too. I’m fairly sure that blinking eyeball in the screenshot below is a nod to the Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel.

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Ah, Spain! Don’t take that bottle of wine – it’s dodgy stuff.

Nowadays we take story arcs for granted in videogames, but in 1987 I guess this was fairly unique. The action in Auf Weirdersehen Monty picks up from where Monty On The Run left off. Monty’s story began back in 1984 with Wanted: Monty Mole where following his intervention in the British Miner’s Strike (yes, really) he’s hunted by authorities and by the time of the following year’s Monty On The Run we’re guiding him through buildings and sewers, eventually culminating in a dangerous high-speed car ride to reach a boat in time. At the opening of Auf Weirdersehen Monty he’s beached himself at the Rock Of Gibraltar and we’ve got to help him cash up across Europe and avoid death so that he can buy a Greek island and live the rest of his life in sunny exile. Not bad for Thatcher-hating communist mole. The political overtones don’t end there. This was 1987 after all, so Germany is split down the middle – the glitzy West on one side and the otherside resembling the backend of a toilet. Very subtle. The game is memorable in so many other ways – by taking a bottle you become drunk and walk the wrong way, Monty breakdances in Luxembourg, there’s a chairlift to catch in Switzerland, you can repeatedly murder your evil doppelganger in a biplane and there’s a parade of surreal shit that makes no sense whatsoever from Italy to Greece (via Czechoslovakia). As was par for the course with a majority of sophisticated C64 games, Auf Weirdersehen Monty is ridiculously difficult. In certain parts of the game (especially in Italy and Greece) a lazy twitch of the joystick will lead to repeated death and it’s GAME OVER, BRO. Then you have to start all over again. Adding to this is the precarious requirement of taking various items back and forth across the continent in exchange for money – again and again. Saving progress is not an option. I have vivid memories of hurling the joystick across the room in frustration, breaking down into a pool of tears and being consoled by mum because I couldn’t deliver a football to Sweden.

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All of the screenshots in Auf Weirdersehen Monty making up *most* of mainland Europe. A shame Portugal and Finland missed out.

I have no idea how many hours I spent playing this game. I could never finish it and in spite of engaging the help of friends to develop various strategies and carefully sketching out the screenshots to form a big guide map, it never came to much and more often than not we repeatedly checked out on our way to Greece with a trail of bloated dead moles in our wake.

SID Love

It wasn’t just the futile and brutally Kafka-esque gameplay combined with a love of geography that kept me so engaged with this game. The soundtrack composed by the legendary Rob Hubbard (not the Scientologist) who, utilising all three-channels of the SID soundcard produced an absolute belter of a soundtrack that perfectly accompanied all the highs and lows of Monty’s traipses across Europe. Electronic drums clomped along beneath woozy synth textures with wailing bursts of (emulated) shred guitar.  I’ve already mentioned just how innovative some of the C64 programming was around this period and this carefully composed soundtrack is just extraordinary in terms of its structure and sophistication.

Thirty years on

Out of the mists and back into the present. Nostalgia can be a foolishly naive enterprise sometimes; I’ve lost count of the recent things I’ve revisited lately (mostly films) only to walk away disappointed and – in some instances – appalled. Some things just shouldn’t be revisited later in life and should instead be left to dwell within the little universe they were first encountered and experienced. Memory tints, exaggerates and smoothens the edges and everything from here looks idyllic and appealing. Our past viewed through a vaseline smeared lens. Leave it there.

Rarely though, there are exceptions to this rule and Auf Weirdersehen Monty is a case in point. This is a game in recent years that I’ve revisited (via a C64 emulator) and become lost within all over again, whilst recalling my early fascination with geography, Europe and electronic music. Despite faithful attempts I couldn’t finish the game and instead applied a cheat mode (Jesus Mode!) to evade death, cash up, successfully deliver the football and land Monty on his island thirty years on from my first attempts. Sometimes you’ve just got to give a guy a break.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Happening #6: Fleurieu Drift

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Handheld mic, hat and beer at Normanville Surf Life Saving Club – April 2017

Over the past couple of weekends L and I have made our way down the coast to check out a few events happening as part of the annual Festival Fleurieu program. On the first weekend we checked out longtime family friend, Ruth Eisner’s open studio at her wonderful property, Mulberry Farm; then this weekend we checked out a couple of exhibitions and attended a concert by Margie Russell at the Yankallila Agricultural Hall supper rooms. Both trips have been enjoyable and revitalising since it’s been great to get down my hometown digs and catch up with some folks I haven’t seen in a while. This weekend also provided a good opportunity to make some more field recordings for my Fleurieu Sound Map project which is now in its seventh year.

Fleurieu Sound Map beginnings

From 2011-2012 the Fleurieu Sound Map gathered momentum with a flurry of activity as I darted all over the region with a handheld recorder in tow. This was an exciting time as I found myself revisiting familiar places and redicovering them with a fresh aesthetic appreciation. At the time I had an Edirol HR handheld recorder for my captures, and whilst it was up to task most of the time, its flimsy windshield and noisy preamp prevented me from capturing certain environments faithfully – where winds sheared over the microphone’s diaphragm, or conversely where environments were so quiet that the noise floor of the device would be the most prominent feature in the recording.

Beyond the recorder itself, I started building my own hydrophones as a way of capturing sonic activity in bodies of water. I went through a number of hydrophone variations incorporating piezo transducers enclosed within pill boxes, film canisters, shoe polish cans and on one occasion, a condom. What I realised – each time I heard the DIY hydrophone fill with water – was that I probably wasn’t up to the task of making hydrophones that are reliably water tight and that I should get around to buying some, which I did later on. Still, a couple of my inventions worked for a while and captured some nice sonic activity in water and beneath sandy substrates.

“Nancy” the hydrophone in 2012.

One of the reasons why 2011-12 was such a fertile period for skipping all over the region and making hundreds of records was because I was engaged in an art project with the WIRED Lab and Country Arts SA which would culminate in the latter half of 2012 with the National Regional Arts Festival, Kumawuki in Goolwa. Our work, Southern Encounter was a group multimedia work and my headphone installation, Echocline featured field recordings from around the region.

With this project behind me by the end of 2012, in the following years I managed to keep exploring the region and expanding the sound map, largely thanks to routinely visiting the sculpture I constructed south of Lady Bay and compiling an album of Fleurieu-centric field recordings for my 3Leaves edition, The Path Described (2013).

Five Year Itch.

Prior to heading back down south for the Festival events this month, I realised it had been over a year since I’d last updated the sound map. The last update in February 2016 included a dearth of material from a weekend in Carickalinga the previous year and a single recording made in Yankalilla during January 2016. In spite of finding time to get down to the region I was finding it to be a struggle to find new locations to capture, let alone finding reason or motivation to capture particular locations.

It didn’t help that some of the locations I found (when I had a recording device with me) just weren’t very interesting at all:

Why bother recording this location? Why am I here? Nothing’s happening at all! OK, I haven’t documented this particular location, but let’s be honest there’s nothing going on here and I believe that nothing is going to happen. I’m wasting my time here.

This was happening a lot. I’d arrive at a location with the best intentions and nothing would happen at all, or – to an equally frustrating extent – a potentially good recording where a chosen element unique to the location was clearly emphasised would be compromised by a human (I presume) cranking up a chainsaw, angle-grinder or techno album somewhere nearby. I was caught between two extremes on an axis of a) nothing or b) too-much-information – the former is a waste of everyone’s time, the latter is a blemished document.  I was becoming fed up with the whole process and the limitations of what I could achieve with my equipment on hand. I was still restricted to a handheld recorder since I didn’t have the motivation to invest in more high scale equipment due to my growing discontent with my sound practice at the time (see What’s Happening #1: Therapy for more on this.)

So I purposefully took a break from updating the sound map. When L and I went down to visit the Nude sculpture in August 2016 it was the first time I hadn’t taken my recorder with me, instead opting for my camera to document the state of the largely destroyed sculpture.

Solastalgiac

Diverging from the sound map, over the years I’ve watched the Fleurieu region change in visible increments, noticing prominent swathes of vegetation reclaiming the hills and gullies whilst conversely land is cleared and houses pop up in towns and on their outskirts. The tension between nature and human activity is particularly felt on the Fleurieu. It occasionally causes a measure of anxiety in me.

I remember the first time I felt an unease towards changes in the surrounding landscape. In the early 1990’s a large parcel of agricultural land was sold off near Lady Bay and a large scale housing development covered the hillside and a golf course was carved out of the ground. The Links Lady Bay took a long time to get going and for its first decade it looked like a geniune folly with only a few houses constructed and the golf course stalled at nine holes and situated in what looked like a cow paddock (which is what it was previously). Now, over 25 years later it has the semblance of something like what the original scale model looked like when myself and the locals saw it proudly displayed under perspex outside Normanville’s shopping centre. Elsewhere, other pockets of land have been sold away and a combination of residential and holiday houses spread over plains near the town.

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It’s a delicate topic of discussion for a town like Normanville. After all, a significant chunk of the region’s economy and employment has relied on tourism and development since the 1970s. The resort at Wirrina Cove was one of the first developments of this kind in the area. I completely appreciate this reality and that this sort of progress in regional towns around Australia is a vital component to keeping communities intact.  The Links development and its golf course are hugely beneficial to the area and it employs plenty of people including some I knew in high school. The compromise is, of course trading off bits of the landscape (and potentially the environment) for progress. Within the scope of my experience, this can be summed as a solastalgia of sorts and has comprised a large part of my ongoing relationship with the region when I was living there and when ever I’ve returned.

The term solastalgia was coined by Australian,  to describe the emotional impact on the inhabitents of a community who experience significant changes to their immediate and/or surrounding landscape. Albrecht’s case study that derived this term related to the impact felt by communities in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales where the large scale expansion of open cut mines had radically altered surrounding landscapes whilst impacting aspects of the environment – such as the air quality and wildlife. Aside from communities’ ongoing concern with open-cut mines, unconventional gas extraction and a certain coal port development threatening the Great Barrier Reef, a significant issue for communities is the sprawl of suburban developments which encrope into native vegetation or agricultural land.

In the case of sprawl, this is what one will see as you make your way  to the western coast of the Fleurieu. From Noarlunga through Seaford to Aldinga and Port Willunga, expanses of large houses pop up, creep and rub against pockets of farmland. So again we return to that onerous issue of progress and what we’re willing to compromise for it. From the vantage of what’s been happening in and around Normanville over the past 30 years, this is small fish compared to things like the current aberration that is Seaford’s Vista development which saw a huge chunk of farmland progressively covered with McMansions and an obligatory Aldi supermarket. Enough said – I won’t go there for risk of steering this post into rant territory; my cup of tea’s not strong enough to clearly articulate where that particular thread is heading. Another time, maybe.

Thankfully, nobody is mining for coal or extracting gas in or around Normanville, there aren’t plumes of coal dust filling the air and there are no spikes in lung infections or cancer in the community. All that is really happening is that more houses are being built to accomodate growing families whilst fufilling a demand for more holiday accomodation in the area.

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Normanville Heights, as seen from the Bungala River running through the local caravan park.

When I reflect on such a thing it seems like the term solastalgia was custom built for such a dramatically nostalgic individual myself – one who is so acutely affected, moved or piqued by the slightest of change to an environment. I believe this is one of the reasons why I started the Fleurieu Sound Map – where photographic media failed to adequately document (and in some way preserve) a place, the audio option would come in.

The here and the now

Given the struggles with my mental health this year, my lifelong tendency to get so hung up on the rampant scourge of humans and their prediliction or expand their turf across and into everything might not seem like such a good thing to ruminate on, especially when I’m making an effort to clear my head of particular anxieties. However, to my suprise (and relief) I found on my recent trips to Normanville that my concerns relating to this have diluted somewhat and that I’m comfortable accepting it as more of a drift of ‘stuff that happens’. I’m cool with it – as long as everyone looks after the native vegetation, sand dunes, animals and stops pumping vile shit into the Bungala River.

 

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The places we inhabit hold a deep significance for us. We feel connected to them through memories, objects, landscapes as well as the mysteriously intangible – the things we can’t quite put our finger, eye or ear to. Familiarity and change are part of this drift. There’s such a strong poetic to a hometown and through the Fleurieu Sound Map and its various field recordings I found myself slipping further into the mystery of the town I grew up and its surrounding areas. Since it continues to change and unfold, I don’t see any reason why the Fleurieu Sound Map should end – or ever end for that matter. I’ve just got to scope out some interesting locations and wait patiently for the angle grinders to abate. Unless of course the recording emphasises the angle grinders. It could happen.

So, with that in mind there will be some new additions to sound map shortly. It’s something a little different and it may potentially raise some new questions and possibilities for this project. But more on that when I get around to posting.

In the meantime, drift on.

The Path Described reviewed by Field Recording.de

http://fieldrecording.de/2017/02/12/field-recording-review-tristan-louth-robins-the-path-described/

The Path Described” creates moments of reminiscing, which are sometimes very cautious and then again astonishingly impressive.

A lovely suprise today to be informed that my 2013 release, The Path Described has recently been reviewed by the German online magazine, FieldRecording.de. If you check it out, you’ll need to run it through google translate or similar. With kind thanks to Sebastian-Thies Hinrichsen.

The past is a foreign country

Field Street, Normanville. At no.3 is the cottage that I spent most of my childhood and teenage years. On the corner of the street was a property which sat adjacent to no.3 – a small, relatively unassuming early 20th Century cottage with a couple of large spaces which used to have horses kept in them. This afternoon my mum sent me an image revealing that this property had recently been demolished. I was slightly stunned – it feels as though a significant personal landmark has been erased. Whilst the little cottage and its surrounds are nothing particularly striking, the more subtle elements of the property – its creamy pink colour, the rusty corregated fences and the peculiar white cross painted on the outside of a backyard shed – are images that have resonated with me since early childhood. I also have a particularly strong childhood  memory of routinely running my hand along a rusty, yet smooth thick wire which ran through its fence on Field Street. A lot of what I have associated with Normanville in recent years (aside from the cottage at no.3 and the town’s main street) strongly gravitates to this now demolished and razed property.

This significance is further illustrated by the fact that the two Garden Ruin albums – their material drawing heavily from memories and observations in and around Normanville – both feature this property on their album covers.

As you get older, living with the past becomes all the more beguiling.