A new collective narcissism

Posted in Australian politics, Politics, Pop psychology on October 8, 2010 by echo1969

This week, I’m thrilled to be dissecting a phenomenon known as ‘collective’ or ‘malignant group narcissism’. Let me put your mind at rest. It’s not a direct criticism of you personally, dear reader, nor is it even a uniquely Australian trait, neither is it even exclusive to the so-called western world. In fact, it is a feature of many societies around the globe.
So what is collective narcissism?
Some socialist thinkers might argue that by any other name, it would implicitly be framed as ‘capitalism’ but I realise that it is disingenuous to even bandy that word about because by implication and because of human nature, capitalism is as much a part of our day-to-day life as death and taxes. Which is not to say that I think it’s ideal. It’s not. Bear with me.
Collective narcissism was first observed in royalty and the ‘wealthy classes’ and came to prominence as an identifiable syndrome in the late twentieth century. In their book, Personality Disorders in Modern Life, authors Theodore Millon and Roger Davis pinpoint it as a signpost toward “a society that stresses individualism and self-gratification at the expense of community”. The pair then go on, not only to give rise to a new theoretical ‘arrogance’, but also as far as to name that society as “the United States”.
If there is any such uniting trend, it is only that such a pathology exists all over the world and Americans are no more or less prone to it than Kenyan farmers, Dutch potters or Irish builders. In other words, it’s completely useless to try and categorise it as a solely European idea, even for someone like me who is fascinated by social psychology and therefore interested in labels, generalisations and easy categorisation.
It’s an intriguing substrate of collective behaviour, though some would argue that there’s nothing ‘sub’ about it; that in fact it is a primary driver of human interaction. Under such conditions, it’s not completely surprising to note that this group ‘mentality’ also perceives a threat from ‘out-groups’ (a vague fringe collective, golem, those who don’t ‘belong’, boat people even) and tends to favour the use of military force and is also associated with right-wing politics and patriotism. So while it’s not exactly inaccurate to imagine that it’s an “American” problem, it applies equally to Australia, or the United Kingdom, or France.
Even so, it is still an ambivalent way of looking at the world, particularly if the group esteem is relatively low in a public sense. After all, Australians pride themselves on having a certain sense of place in the modern world. We’re proud of our way of life, our emphasis on the ‘fair go’ and ‘mateship’ – as hideous as that word is in what it has come to represent. More importantly, the narcissistic group impulse is also notable for its lack of humour; it is both irony-deficient and sarcasm-proof.
The rise of Disinformation is obviously imperative to the growth of such an ‘unconscious movement’ such as the relatively recent rise of the Tea Party political ‘group’ in the United States – it’s probably too soon to call it a political party, though it soon will be – as it is perhaps the most interesting emergence of ‘collective narcissism’ and will put the very idea to the test. This grassroots ignorance movement has been given greater momentum by conservative media groups and some so-called ‘disgruntled ex-Republicans’ who have embarked on a campaign to actively mislead its followers, over non-issues like President Obama’s birth certificate, or his supposed ‘socialism’ (clearly they’ve confused a commitment to the socialisation of health care with Marxist theory). These liars – there can be no other word for them – are misleading people in order to sway their vote. They’re not presenting facts as a good reason to vote for them, they’re using outright lies and fear tactics, sweetened by their supposed ‘rebel’ and break-away status from the two major US political parties.
What is the common thread here? It is not a lack of education that drives group esteem to somewhat exaggerated paranoia about some unknown ‘other’; it is instead a cultural willingness to accept what politicians, leaders and thinkers say as being trustworthy.
Anyone with even half a brain would know that this willingness, though not an absolute indicator of lack of intelligence, shows an alarming trend toward intellectual laziness, given the way American and Australian politicians have used falsehoods during election campaigns in the last fifteen years.
The first symptom of collective narcissism is also a boon to politicians and spin doctors. It is ‘active’ passivity, a deliberate wish to suspend individual judgement and analysis of complex debate – such as distinguishing between ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘refugees’ – in favour of “allowing” our elected leaders to control access to information that could be used in informed debate. Let’s face it – informed debate does not suit Australian politics; it’s too all-encompassing and sound to reason for ourselves by researching a matter that is either too boring or complicated to even be given reasonable consideration by politicians. So why should Joe Public bother getting their facts straight when our political representatives can’t even be bothered to research an issue properly and come up with a coherent policy when flat-out lies and cant will do the electorate nicely?
It’s because we don’t want to interrupt the relatively calm arc of our lives. People shrug off the onerous task of thinking for themselves because we expect our elected representatives to do our thinking on political matters for ‘us’ in the same way that we expect our mechanics to maintain our cars – because that’s what we pay them for, right? That’s the collective way.
To which the answer is, no. We do not ‘pay’ politicians to think for us, we merely ‘elect’ them to act on our behalf (don’t get me started on the fact that it is usually the undemocratic decision of a few power-broking members of a political party that pre-selects candidates for state and federal politics from a shallow pool of apparatchiks). They are like lawyers and solicitors; they are ‘advocates’, they stand in our place, but like a lawyer, a politician theoretically cannot present a case unless they have a brief from a client, i.e. the electorate. We don’t give our politicians clear information about what we want them to do, because we’re too busy getting on with living. This is a generalisation of course, but bear with me.
Throw narcissism into the equation and nothing is really so surprising, apart from the sheer numbers of otherwise intelligent individuals who when participating in this mass identification together become impressively lazy thinkers.

To boil it down, collective narcissism is nothing more than a delusional belief held by the many as to their superiority.

When we participate in this game, we lose perspective and compassion, and become indifferent and hostile to ‘outsiders’ and people we perceive as a threat to our existence. How does this happen? Easy – just let yourself be coddled by Labor or Liberal politicians, or at least someone with an ideology that has been set in place by a relatively inflexible party structure.
Don’t forget: many MPs can’t be bothered thinking for you (not that they should have to), they’d rather just take your lack of interest in the whole process as a proxy vote for them to fire cheap shots around parliament during question time than stand up for an issue, which takes time and is widely perceived as obstructive to the process. At least, most of them choose not to come out in support of ‘unpopular’ issues. There are plenty of principled people in politics, they’re just having their souls sucked out of them slowly.
The other important factor to remember is that just because a lot of people feel strongly about a hot button issue, like immigration or climate change, does not make their viewpoints and opinions right. The dog whistlers who are currently running the country are simply wetting their fingers and trying to judge the prevailing wind, at the cost of actual leadership and policymaking. There is no task quite as Sisyphean as trying to please the majority, especially when the majority have been so actively misled to begin with. Like what? How’s this? “Let’s not have a policy, let’s have a Citizen’s Assembly!” Or to be less kind, “Let’s not take a position on immigration, let’s just pander to the opinions of people who haven’t even bothered to look at the statistics or make a judgement that’s NOT based on the fear-mongering of the two major parties!”
It’s not a pretty picture. Collective narcissism: Not everyone is guilty of it, but we all love someone who is.

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Roadworn and weary

Posted in Uncategorized on October 6, 2010 by echo1969

‘Seems like everywhere I go the sky is falling/ and the concierges all greet you with a frown/ when I come to town/ I aint gonna lie to you/ every town is all the same/you say, how does it feel to be traveling?/ how’s it feel to live your life on the train and the aeroplane?”
‘Paul’s Song’ – M Ward

In the sick-inducing maelstrom of international travel, trains, buses, trams, ferries, rental cars and the odd ‘thumb out’ mode of getting’ around, there is one constant paradox about touring: the joyous boredom of it all. It’s all so effortlessly glamorous in theory but unless you’re at the more exalted end of the ‘biz’, you’re really just commuting with a guitar and a hundred CDs in your suitcase. Like the business traveller or the Graham Greene-esque double agent, it’s more about regularity and banality than it is some moveable feast/party that takes in picaresque madness at every whistle-stop. Because, you know, I aint the Rolling Stones, maaaan.

Lest it sound like I’m whingeing, I assure you, my learned friends, I am not. It’s a great way to see the world. For example, England has the cheapest bus trips it’s possible to take and it’s easy to find a bus from Manchester to London for around ten pounds one way. The food is uniformly ordinary on the infinite variety of trains, which are much more expensive to travel on, and my usual lunch was a stale sarnie, a packet of Walker’s Cheese and Onion crisps, a cup of tea and a slice of fruit cake. It made me oddly happy, that meal.

I remember travelling south from Edinburgh en route to Manchester one day with a carriage full of football fans in full make-up, faces emblazoned with their teams dark blue and white strip, and everyone of them, man, woman and child, wearing jeans, trainers and jerseys. One weary junkie/ skinhead couple, unaffected by the colour sensation around them, lobbed on to the train, ruffling feathers as they somewhat impolitely suggested that one table of burly football fans “fook off and gi’e uz the table. We’ve gorra bairn.” And indeed, their small chubby lad was in need of a spot to sit down with his colouring book and bottle of Irn Bru. The footy fans duly fooked off to another carriage.

The mum, her knotted, scabbed hands moving faster than those of any ace mandolin player I’ve yet seen, started constructing sandwiches of bread, ham, cheese and for some unknown reason – Hot English Mustard. You know the sort; the one that actually rakes your sinuses when you’re standing ten feet away from an unopened jar. The sort your mum put on your tongue that memorable day you discovered the F word at kindy and came home repeating it loudly and often.

Before I could question the wisdom of giving a small, golden-haired lad a full-tilt mustard sandwich, it had been cut kitty-corner and handed to the wee’un. His little hands grabbed it boldly and he began shovelling it in. “Was there mustard on that?” asked his father. “Oh, jaysus,” said the boy’s mum. “I shouldnae have…” Soon, many eyes were on the little chap. He looked up and around, seemingly coping with it all. “Ah, yer all right, sunshine,” said his dad encouragingly. The little boy seemed to register this with some calmness, when all of a sudden, his bright blue eyes squirted water and he managed a strangled yelp before hosing down his parents, me and everyone in a ten-foot radius with an impressively copious chunder.

I had it in my hair (this was some years ago, when I still had some hair), my jacket – I even found some in the box of merchandise I carried everywhere. That was just one train trip.

To make the touring experience complete, I have devised a formula that creates the exact imbalance one feels while carrying a guitar and heavy backpack through Paddington Station on a Tuesday at rush-hour. Take one musician, gender irrelevant. Subtract: green vegetables, five hours of sleep, a few pound coins from the pocket and a sense of well-being. Now, stir. Add an average of three to four different couches, spare rooms, living room floors and, occasionally(!) hotels a week. Also, your clothes now stink (of puke) and you discover that sleeping on an English train is nigh impossible. Thus, you are now able to be inducted into that wonderful company of touring musos. Are you having fun yet? You bet your sweet patootie you are!

Touring is about the best fun that it’s possible to have while carrying vertebrae-cracking luggage. It’s like doing a BAS statement while playing Wii. Fun on one hand, a loss-leading venture on the other.

Of course, none of this has even factored in the thrill that fills one’s soul as one takes to the stage after a long day spent negotiating the steep, cobbled streets of Edinburgh looking for a pub that happens to have burned down in the previous twenty-four hours. Or perhaps you’ve found yourself performing in a gay bar with all the ambience (and chlorine odour) of a public swimming pool.

In 2002, I had an album come out and after many midnight phone calls to England, I wangled myself an honest-to-God tour of England with Jay Farrar of all people. For those of you who know of Uncle Tupelo, and the acrimonious split that led to the formation of Wilco and Son Volt respectively, you’ll know Jay as the ebullient chap that’s not Jeff Tweedy. All respect to Jay, who is frankly a lovely bloke but quite reserved.

All it took to get him to crack a smile was when we were walking down an Edinburgh street towards a bar that served a fine selection of single malts and we passed a church called St George and St Paul’s Cathedral. I made a comment that the names of St John and St Ringo had been removed after that whole ‘bigger than Jesus’ fiasco and suddenly Jay was one very chatty fellow, well, compared to his earlier reserved self.

We bonded over several scotches – not too many, as Jay and Mark were off to do several shows in Ireland the next day – and then Jay asked me if I’d mind taking his saz to the next English show for him. A saz is an Turkish instrument with three strings. One of Jay’s many Edinburgh fans had hooked him up with an electric saz, complete with volume control and a hard case and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita – As It Is. Well, as it was, the hardcover copy of the Holy Scriptures had to be left on the train for someone else to carry, but the saz came back to London with me for a two-day stopover. I had no luck with the damn thing and I hope Jay’s done better out of it than I did, in terms of getting a tune out of it.

I toured England three times, end to end, playing tiny shows in clubs from Manchester to Brighton to Swansea to Swindon to Reading to Brixton to Bristol to Glasgow. John O’Groats to Land’s End. All over the shop. You get the idea. I was picking up shows everywhere I went, and as I toured (along with my ten pound sim card and a borrowed phone) the shows kept coming in. I was asked if I’d like to perform at the Gram Parsons tribute concert at the Union Chapel in Islington, where I got to sing with Sophia Marshall and meet people like Anita Pallenberg and Polly Parsons, Gram’s daughter. I got to jam with Sid Griffin of the Long Ryders, also a fellow GP biographer. Jim Lauderdale was there, relaxed and off-beat while Evan Dando was wearing what appeared to be one of Anita’s cast-off cardigans. He was very, very… drunk. A highlight was singing the evening’s encore ‘Wild Horses’ at the microphone with Anita herself. She was slurping on a Chupa-Chup, having just quit smoking. Quite a moment.

More on this topic when I can find time…

How soon is now?

Posted in Uncategorized on October 6, 2010 by echo1969

“You shut your mouth/ how can you say/ I go about things the wrong way/ I am human and I need to be loved/ just like everybody else does…” The Smiths

Some years ago, while trying to stake out my ‘share’ of what I felt I was entitled to – Love, incidentally – I thought it a good idea to ‘date’ via the internet. The web held the key, you see. Imagine, a social network connecting the lovelorn to a large number of likewise deluded individuals possessing the fine qualities others sought!
You can already see where this is going, right? The worst part was, just about every profile bragged one of those incessantly upbeat mottos, positivist maxims or life-coach crud nuggets that seemed to ricochet off the skull like so many happy hailstones. It was like being water boarded by damp new-age spin-doctors gushing stupidity at every turn.
Every third profile featured some dimwitted variation of that ridiculous credo that usually began as some variation on ‘Dance like no one’s watching…’.
It was as though in order to find your ‘soul mate’ (dear God, I would love beat the inventor of that term to death with his/her own ill-fitting shoes), you had not only to sum yourself up in a few paragraphs but also to suspend credulity. Irony was dispensed with altogether, unless you only wanted correspondence from someone who wished to compliment you on your ‘wit’ and abyss-like depths of character but failed to add any contact information into the bargain.
In short, displays of anger, glimmers of hopeful misanthropy and wit were unwelcome. You had better utter only the most banal phrases dredged up from the murky pages of some sub-Deepak Chopra/ Tony Robbins handbook to Life, or you could be confused with someone who liked either country music or metal, or worse, someone who didn’t litter their profile with ‘ROFL’, ‘LMAO’ or winking smiley face emoticons.
Internet Dating was, in my experience, fucking excruciating.
In the years between 1999 and 2008, I went on and off dating sites, in between relationships; relationships, I hasten to add, that had been secured by conventional introductions – through friends, a gig, work etc – with excitingly normal, even conventional women whom I loved in varying degrees.
You see, I am not some masochist who demands only the most perverse inflictions of sexual torture by some uncaring, leather-clad dominatrix. In fact, I am pleased to report that I have even had a relationship that extended beyond three years. For some of you, this will seem proof of the fact that I am flighty and commitment-phobic. For others, it will seem that I enjoy prolonging agony and thus proof of the afore-alluded masochism.
“So why would you keep returning to sites like eHarmony and RSVP, you idiot,” I can practically hear you ask.
Well, like most heterosexual males under the age of 90, I keep hearing about the medium’s success rate in pairing up people who had previously thought no one else might conceivably share their passion for genital piercing, infantilism or exotic fighting fish.
So with any shared passion comes a mutant feel-good syllogism that revolves around well-trodden metaphor to the profound (and erroneous) effect that ‘every pot has a lid’, ‘plenty more fish in the sea’, ‘there’s someone for everyone’ or something similarly inane.
Answer me this: if there IS someone for everyone, does that mean homeless alcoholics aren’t doing nearly enough to find their respective lid? I don’t think the criminally insane are holding up their end of the bargain either. And what about those who fail to meet anyone else’s requirements? What of the insecure? The perpetually lovelorn? What of those who die fearfully alone and, to add further ignominy, whose bodies lie undiscovered for months after their demise? Were they simply doing their utmost to avoid their share of the sea’s fish?
If you do believe it, good luck to you. It’s probably a horrible generalisation that those who believe such trite, fanciful rubbish are in fact the soulless ones. It is they who will never want for companionship and intimacy because their delightful hazel eyes, symmetrical faces, bubbly personalities and soft ringlets of hair serve to ensure that loneliness of a truly terminal magnitude will never be their lot. Never shall bitterness lead them along the path towards a frankly welcome death.
If you think this is too negative for your eyes to glance over, let alone for your shiny, taut mind to contemplate, then you are one of those blessed with the ability to divine unerringly that, even if currently single, Someone is out there Somewhere, just waiting for You to happen along.
Because, whether I personally like it or not, there are those who walk the earth secure in the knowledge that there is one, or possibly several souls to whom they may be wed in this lifetime, spiritually, metaphorically or literally. For them, this is not some abstract hope but assurance that borders on Destiny. They are indeed fortunate, and yes, you know who you are.
But what if you belong to that other select group of people who know that they are going to die alone? Many will refuse to ever admit it, and will cover your longings for information to the contrary with a never-ending stream of companions to warm your bed, rub your neck, bear your children or make dinner for you. But we are, by design, lone creatures. We don’t mate monogamously for life. There is nothing in our genetic code to suggest this terrible man-made idea even has any basis in reality. We choose to force ourselves into the orbit of another, with their assent of course, and sometimes may refuse to leave even when it’s clear that we’re no longer welcome, no matter how cruelly or callously each eventually behaves. It is our destiny to kick, pinch and torture one another in the name of ‘love’.
Why? Why are we so afraid of loneliness when it is in fact the source of our power, the very framework of our individuality?
Because the inevitable can be always be swayed a little to suit our own ends. That our concept of Eternity is such a certainty – even to the flinty atheist, who would accept that death is the only true eternity we face – that we can finally reduce it to a simple matter of having been born somehow incomplete as people. We’ve been sold this lie for long enough.
We must refuse the premise that life should tilt upon this ultimately temporary axis, that fleeting, banal Romantic ideal of ‘love’. Indulge in romance by all means. Seduce, tantalise, fantasise and be romantic as much as you want when you are in love. But to believe in the phantasmic idea of soulmates (who are no more real than angels or unicorns) or the frankly dismal idea of the ‘pot lid’ (the contrivance of dimwits and fantasists) is just an inversion of everyone’s very real desire for intimacy and companionship that owes nothing to real life except its ‘similarity’ to love, which is why we forever set out on expeditions to find it, in the same uninformed way that the ill-prepared once set off to find the North-West Passage, the fountain of youth or King Solomon’s mines.
Recognise that we’re all alone. Allow love into your life. There are no laws. Nothing I say is gospel. Me, I’m just learning to wear my heart in the right place, guarded behind my mind and my ribs rather than on my sleeve, where it stayed for too long, while I surfed the internet in search of love.Euro trees in early spring

This is not a love song

Posted in Uncategorized on October 6, 2010 by echo1969

Few human emotions are left untouched by popular song. Love, obviously, provides the songwriter with an enormous colour spectrum: all any half-decent songwriter has to do is operate within the framework of a few well-chosen lyrics and a hummable melody to wrap them in.

It’s easy to write about love, whether in a song or an op-ed column, or a poem or novel. The emotion itself is after all concrete, even if it is not entirely quantifiable in the sense of ‘why’ or ‘how’ we feel as we do for another, which is how it lends itself to abstraction in a lyrical sense. That allows us to think, feel and write about love in many different ways. You know, we love, but why do we love? Why is it that there are some people we grow to love, some we ‘learn’ to love, and others to whom we owe love because we are related by blood? Despite the oddities that love brings to our attention, we are capable of loving all kinds of people in all kinds of ways.

Sexual love is perhaps the strangest of all, because we are capable of falling deeply in love with one individual in particular and suddenly, we can shut out the whole world when we’re with them. We can spend days in bed with that person, feeding off each other, to the point that we barely require food or water, and it gives us the luxury of turning off the mobile phone, never bothering to get on Facebook or checking email. That strain of love if nurtured properly, if given enough air, water and food, transmutes and becomes deeper, more psychological in nature and can be incredibly fulfilling.

But of course if some infection enters in, by a small tear in the skin of this relationship perhaps, those feelings of deep love decompose rapidly and become the blackening cells of hatred, ennui, carelessness, infidelity and indifference. The heart becomes gangrenous, poisonous. We swear off love the way we do cigarettes and cocaine.

I’m possibly the worst person to pontificate about love. I’m shit at it. I’m fickle. Hopeless. Careless and hard of heart sometimes. But I also fall into it heavily, physically, blindly, only to emerge from the other side of it – chronologically speaking, anywhere from six weeks to five years later – as hapless and bereft as Rip van Winkle, having lost good parts of a decade in love. Yet what I usually feel for the other person at the end of it is not anything like love. It’s anything but.

There are of course exceptions. My longest relationship ended quite badly at first, but then we kept getting back together and breaking up. This dragged on for almost two years and the hurts we dished out to each other were so spiteful, so ridiculous, that it beggared belief. It was an insult to both of us, to our intelligence, to our friendship and to our minds. Moreover, it was extremely damaging and I for one have never really gotten over her. Despite the way she treated me and to be fair, I must take into account the appalling scenarios I invented and enacted in the name of revenge upon her, we remain good friends to this day. We have outlived hatred and jealousy for four years of sexual separation from each other and our lives have gone on and thrived in spite of it.

So what was my great fear at the final ending of this relationship (which was not final at all, we merely stopped seeing each other regularly for about six weeks and suddenly it was over)? It was simple: I thought I would never get over her. As I pored over the few photographs of her I had managed to save (she made a point of taking them with her when she moved out), the flawed thought occurred to me: I don’t think I will ever love anyone quite as much as this person, and it will never happen again quite this way.

The thought depressed me at first. I wondered what shape love would take to grab me again and it’s almost painful to admit that it hasn’t. That’s what makes the search for ‘love’ so pathetic. Once we experience it in all its glory – whether a strong, loving friendship with someone of either gender or a full-tilt romance complete with sexual compatibility and real joy – we go after it again like a cat after a lizard, replicating if not the person then the intent or the scenarios that so enraptured us. And thus the reality of love is denied to us once more. We are human animals, pleased by the familiarities of seduction and consent, of the feeling of exploring another’s body and finding in ourselves those kind, pinching sensations of emergent love overtaking us, and eventually growing over us like a new skin.

So when we seek to replicate those old experiences with new people, rather than opening ourselves fully to new possibilities, we only re-frustrate ourselves. We break open the parts of us we should have allowed to properly heal; we expose dormant wounds and sensitivities. Patterns we know to be destructive emerge once more and so our foolish pathology is reset like the movement of a watch. That motion must be monitored, those feelings must be examined unless we want to condemn ourselves not to falling in love again but chasing a nostalgic pleasantry.

I find it hard to write about love in the sense of absolutes. Certain women in my life represent now unattainable heights – “I never had it so good as I did then,” I find myself saying, quite obviously in contradiction of the facts that led us to part ways.

But then, I have always loved too much. I am guilty of chasing people to find it. And I do not apologise for it, ever.

Querulous, my father

Posted in Social history, Uncategorized on September 3, 2010 by echo1969

I’m not a father, and probably never will be. At 41, it’s clear to all women of my acquaintance who are of child-bearing age that I’m a very risky proposition. I’m too chronically unemployable, too financially insecure and too completely immersed in the selfishness of my early middle age years to father children, though of course, many men have fathered children while in their 70s and 80s – Anthony Quinn and Ingmar Bergman being two examples.
I can honestly say I wish I was a father. I think I’d be a bloody good dad. But I’m also afraid that at my age, given my occupations (writer, musician, journalist), my quite poor health, and my bad habits that I literally wouldn’t be around for long. I doubt I’d make it much past my late 50s, condemning any child or children I had to a life where the majority of milestones would occur without me around – their first girlfriends, boyfriends, cars, uni, weddings, divorces, children of their own.
I’d be full of all the flaws of parenthood – excessive pride in their achievements, possibly prone to boring other people stupid with their marks at school (though, God knows, if they were anything like their old man, that’s unlikely) and of course, I’d push them towards music, while dispensing sage advice about the music industry and boring them with stories that began, “When I was touring with…”.
I know plenty of fathers of course. My own dear old dad, who was sometimes a workaholic and distant father, until a workplace accident nearly severed his leg and cured his propensity for working up to 18 hours a day. He became a much more involved parent after falling two storeys from the roof of a house he was working on. All three of my brothers are fathers now, while I look on, somewhat curious about the process, and yes, I admit, somewhat jealous of their new role.
Still, of all the fathers I know, few of them seem to take to the role naturally. Some are skeptical about their offspring, some unhappy with the relationship between them and the other parent in the equation, which naturally makes for an unsteady time of it. But all of them take it as it comes, the responsibilities – financial, material, spiritual – and the time needed to ensure that neither parent shoulders too much of the burden.
None of this really matters. Father’s Day is for me to celebrate by going down to see Dad and having a yarn and some lunch and a jam with him.
What did he teach me about fatherhood? Well, he was no disciplinarian, that’s for sure. He punished me physically – with his leather belt – on four separate occasions, all of which I remember very clearly because of the excessive provocation I had employed to get him to pay some attention. He was quite self-absorbed at times, and we seemed to him a distraction. Subsequently, he was often under the bonnet of the car or just tinkering in the garage, building something or fixing something. That’s not to imply he never did anything with us. We were welcome to join him in the garage and sweep up the wood shavings, or to explore the mystery of the Slant 6 engine with him, to discuss the Hemi motor, or to reminisce about the Humber Super Snipe he drove while courting my mother – the same car she sold to two young stock car racers for $20 one memorable afternoon, long after the Super Snipe with its two-inch rust holes in the floor had outlived its roadworthiness. (Dad was very pissed off about that).
My dad was a man of obsessions. The cars. The boat he bought, and the odd bad luck it brought with it, was a constant source of strain between he and my mother. He was also a pilot and felt that in order to be a responsible breadwinner, he had to stop pursuing that career in favour of building and later, a career in the public service.
I can honestly say that I’ve never been swimming with my dad (he’s quite phobic about water as he almost drowned several times as a child), or kicked a ball around or played backyard cricket with him (he’s not a sporting man), nor have I ever gotten on the stink with Dad (he’s not a drinking man, nor a smoker). However, I have played music with Dad – he was an aspiring country singer once upon a time – and on that level, we have bonded many times, as we have over certain writers and films. I’ve tried to draw him out on all kinds of topics, but he’s notorious in our family of bigmouths, chronic unburdeners and peripatetic problem sharers for being reticent, almost reclusive with his internal life. If he was a writer, he’d be Pynchon. Speaking of which, he read about half of Gravity’s Rainbow before handing it back to me and saying, “How can you read this rubbish?”. Of course, get him started on Conrad or DH Lawrence and he can’t praise them highly enough.
I know more about my father’s father – a hardworking engineer with no financial nous and a fondness for young – sometimes too young – women. My father has several half-brothers as a result of his father’s exploits. My grandfather was a heavy smoker and was forever unfaithful to his wife. My father is none of those things. In short, he rebelled against his father the way I did against him. My dad never smoked and warned me against the habit. I have been smoking for 25 years or more. I’ve never seen my father drunk. I drink a lot sometimes. So do my brothers.
Yet when I look at how our family functions, in times of strain or happiness, Dad is somewhere at the centre of it all, exasperated usually, smiling his down turned smile and still uncertain as to why I have never married or done anything of real worth – the books and albums are ultimately meaningless to him because they do not allow him to measure my ‘success’, or lack of, by his yardstick which is always financial success. My brothers measure up better because they own homes and cars and have children and jobs. I have none of these things – and have never really ‘wanted’ them that badly that I actually pursued them.
Of course I am of my father. I have the same tendency to melancholy and depression, the same disdain for taking my medication regularly and of course, we have the same heart disease and diabetes. It’s remarkable to think that my dad – who’s had four heart attacks in the last decade – is still living well into his mid-70s. Naturally, the fact that my dad has never smoked or drunk much alcohol is anathema to me, as I’ve added years of strain onto my internal organs with cigarettes and drugs and alcohol and stress. I won’t be at all surprised if my own heart literally exploded one day. I certainly don’t expect to outlive my father, that’s for sure.
But unlike him, I have not left my mark on the earth. I will not leave a wife, four sons, three daughters-in-law and four grandchildren mourning my passing.
Still, if that had been my goal in life, I’d like to think I could have done that too.
Happy father’s day, dad. I love you.

Darkness on the edge of Newtown

Posted in Music biography, Social history, Sydney songwriters on August 25, 2010 by echo1969

Love songs to the city’s mean streets are this songwriter’s stock in trade

Perry Keyes is the truest chronicler of hard knocks as has ever worked in 4/4 time – a hardboiled talent with songs as diamond hard as Lou Reed, a purveyor of songs as winded by life as Woody Guthrie, a man as working class as Bruce Springsteen.

Keyes writes of the Sydney beneath the surface, a primal convict city building upon itself like the layers of Ancient Rome. His songs put listeners in mind of a time when the Harbour City was abuzz with brothels, bent cops, bookies and ‘colourful racing identities’.

But Keyes is not a Sydney Poet in the way Paul Kelly is “Melbourne’s Bard” for neither pigeonhole has any basis in reality. Kelly’s most famous songs are actually Sydney-based and while Perry’s work rings out from Matraville, Waterloo, the Matthew Talbot Hostel in the ‘Loo and Redfern’s dark heart, the city merely propels his narratives.

Keyes’ father hailed from Glebe in the days before the ‘inner west’ was gentrified. He was a part-time SP bookie and full-time streetsweeper. “I’d be walking to school and see my dad sweeping dead pigeons out of the gutter,” Keyes recalls.

His mum worked at the WD&HO Wills cigarette factory in Kensington. As an infant, he contracted polio and spent his first five years in a hospital, before going to stay with his grandparents in Redfern. “We lived in Hugo Street, Redfern in what is now ‘the Block’ until Whitlam gave the streets to the Aboriginal Housing Company. Then we moved to Eveleigh Street and finally to Waterloo. It was out of the frying pan and into the devil’s scrotum.”

Music was always a constant to Perry and his discovery of the Clash coalesced a band in 1985. Keyes knew no other musicians apart from a drummer who frequented a Redfern pinball parlour run by a Greek in clothes two sizes too small who dealt heroin under the counter. “I had no insight into how musicians got their shit together – all I knew was where to go to see bands play. One day I went to this guy’s flat and his bedroom was full of stolen musical equipment. So I started this band – the Stolen Holdens – all of us playing on stolen instruments.”

Initially dubbed Leb Zetland because three of the four guys in the band were Lebanese, the band rehearsed in an old cake factory in Alexandria where a 17-year-old heroin dealer lived with his 16-year-old prostitute girlfriend. “He sold heroin, she was a pro, but they had a great life. During the day they’d be out working, off their faces. So we’d bash away in their lounge room and they’d come home in the afternoon and then we’d give them a lift up to the Cross, where the drummer’s girlfriend worked as a stripper. We didn’t judge people, y’know? Some ended up dead or in gaol, but it’s a time always infused with humour. We just wrote about what we knew.”

Leb Zetland may not have been serious but Keyes was. “I didn’t have anything else,” he says. “When you’re singing a song about a mum holding her dead son in his bedroom after he’s done himself in, I wanted the band to play the songs well.”

When the Stolen Holdens played the Sandringham in Newtown, their gritty take on life went against the rose tinted view of King Street other songwriters eulogised. To some they were a footnote because they never toured or released an album, but to others they were legends.

For most of the 90s, Keyes did a JD Salinger. There were almost no shows and his guitar only came out of its case at home. By the turn of the 21st century, he was working three shifts a week behind the wheel of a taxi.
But in 2002, Keyes ran into Bek-Jean Stewart and Grant Shanahan of Sydney band Eva Trout who were both fans of Perry’s work. The cabbie took little convincing. Soon, Stuart Coupe of local independent label Laughing Outlaw, who wasn’t previously aware of Keyes, heard about the sessions and cut him a deal.

Keyes’ sprawling two-album set Meter was compared to Springsteen’s epic The River, and out of nowhere, record industry bigwigs began enthusing about a songwriter who seemed more myth than man. Keyes’ songs, accumulated over decades, carry an unassailable weight of knowledge of all that is seamy and rundown in Sydney.

Whiteley’s alchemical romance

Posted in Australian Art, Brett Whiteley, Social history, The late 1960s, Uncategorized on August 25, 2010 by echo1969

The artist may be gone but his work lives on

When Brett Whiteley drew his last breath at age 52 in a Thirroul motel room in 1992, it was really only the physical end of a remarkable career. The less tangible elements of Whiteley persist to this day – proof that the departed artist refuses to die while his work endures.

Whiteley, born in Sexton, NSW in 1939 and raised in Longueville, drew incessantly from an early age and won his first drawing prize in 1946, aged seven. By his early teens, Brett could be found painting in the countryside between Bathurst – where he attended Scots College – and Sydney, his fascination with the curves of the world transmitted through muted browns, deep reds and of course, the intense blues which would become his signature.

His natural talent, gregariousness and curiosity led him easily through doors that other artists seemed not to notice, and in 1960, he was offered a travelling scholarship by the Italian government. This grant took Whiteley to Rome where he took an apartment near the Spanish Steps. He worked intensively and took brief trips to France and London, bringing along his portfolio. There he made many new friends and renewed old acquaintances with Australian painters resident in Chelsea and Ladbroke Grove. He was selected for a showing at McRoberts & Tunnard Gallery and during this time his relationship with fellow artist Wendy Julius, whom he had met at art school in Sydney, blossomed and intensified.

They returned to Italy and Brett haunted the Uffizi gallery, drawn to works by 14th and 15th century artists like della Francesco and Ducio. Brett and Wendy returned to Ladbroke Grove, where they set up housekeeping with Australian painter Michael Johnson.

At just 23, Whiteley’s star was in the ascendant. He was shown in the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Tate Gallery purchased Untitled Red. In 1962, Brett and Wendy married at the Chelsea Registry Office and spent five months travelling in Europe with Brett’s father Clem.

The year passed in a whirl as the Whiteleys and their entourage moved through France, Spain and Germany and on to the US, where Brett was entertained by Dutch abstract impressionist Willem de Kooning. After the trip, Clem returned to Australia. It was the last time Whiteley saw his father.
Brett himself became a father in 1964, the birth of his daughter Arkie propelled his ambition further. In 1965, Whiteley brought his family back to Sydney and held an exhibition at Clune Galleries in Potts Point with David Hockney.

While Brett remained in Sydney, his paintings went before him, appearing across the globe in Rotterdam, Washington DC and the Palais de Beaux Arts in Brussels.

Brett won the Harkness Fellowship and in 1967, he took up residence at the penultimate artist enclave, New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, where he associated with the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen and witnessed his hero Bob Dylan live in concert.

Things went downhill in New York, and when New York gallery Marlborough-Gerson refused to show the experimental work American Dream (which had consumed more than a year of his time), an angry Whiteley fled the US by boat to Suva, Fiji. He lived there for a time but left the country after being arrested and fined $50 for possession of an unspecified drug. Brett, Wendy and Arkie returned to Sydney to live at Lavender Bay and by the turn of the 1970s had associated himself with the Yellow House artist community in Potts Point and worked out of Gasworks Studio in Waverton.

In 1972, Brett began the 18-panel work that would become Alchemy. The piece, which traversed birth, life and death, was rapturously received when it was exhibited in 1973 at the Bonython Gallery in Paddington. He admitted to broadcaster Philip Adams at this time that he had “moved from alcohol to more serious mind altering chemicals.”

Professionally, his career was still going upwards. He won the Archibald Prize in 1975, but trumped himself when he scooped the trifecta – the Archibald, the Wynne and the Sulman – in 1978.

By the 1980s, Brett was often photographed wearing fingerless gloves, which hinted at the extent of his heroin habit, but was nonetheless content, having purchased a t-shirt printing shop in Raper St, Surry Hills and converted it to a home/studio. He and Wendy had separated and though they travelled together, she remained in England.

Brett made several attempts to quit heroin, the last time was for the most part successful. Less than a year after winning the Order of Australia, Whiteley drove to a regular haunt, an inexpensive motel in Thirroul on the South Coast and inadvertently took his own life on June 15, 1992. He was 53.
“I was intrigued and enormously drawn to extremism by people who had blown their lives or who had taken their lives outside the normal conventions of society,” Brett said. “One must work at the tissues between truth and paranoia.”

This article originally appeared in Time Out Sydney.