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Mr Smith goes to Bougainville

Fred_Smith_in_Bougainville

It was after one of Emma Driver’s gigs, failing to scarper fast enough – or at all, really – that I got to hear this tall guy in a loud shirt announce himself as Fred Smith. I had no choice but to lean over to Emma and her partner and say, “I wonder how Patti’s going!” because though now sadly deceased, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith was, in addition to being the former guitarist of the MC5, also the husband of Patti Smith.

Fred Smith began with possibly too much cute patter, but it was clearly an attempt to capture the attention of a potentially indifferent audience. For the most part, it worked: Fred had good comic timing and a way with words, so it really wasn’t that much of a surprise to discover, much later, that he had in fact been a national finalist in the 1997 Raw Comedy competition. However, it wasn’t merely the between-song banter that won us over. His songs were also clever and witty.

Fred opened with ‘Imogen Parker’, a song in the traditional r ’n’ b mode (where ‘r ’n’ b’ stands for ‘rhythm and blues’, as it used to, rather than ‘romantic and black’, as it seems to today). It utilised a slight variation of the basic ‘hambone’ beat as made popular by Bo Diddley (hence its other name, ‘the Bo Diddley beat’) and as featured in the Buddy Holly song ‘Not Fade Away’ (recorded by the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith and Holly himself) – that ‘jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jingjing’ strum pattern:


I wanna tell you how it’s gonna be
(jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jing jing)
You’re gonna give your love to me
I’m gonna love you night and day
(jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jing jing)
Love is love and not fade away

‘Imogen Parker’ was a political song that dealt with the state of the Australian political landscape at the time of its writing. Its best verse is about Pauline Hansen:

Well I had a friend called Pauline Hansen –
Big, warm hart like Charlie Manson.
Y’know most redheads I’d take a chance on,
But she just made me wanna keep my pants on.

Fred Smith C 2004

A verse on the former Leader of the Australian Labor Party, the Right Honourable Kym Beazley, saw ‘Beazley’ rhyming with the election that ‘he was gonna win easily’.

In addition to the rollicking songs full of humour and politics, it turned out that Smith was capable of the most touching heartfelt ballads. He prefaced one of them with a story about the Claymore antipersonnel mine, which he described as “a box the size of a shoebox with an arrow and the words ‘point towards the enemy’ on top”. According to Fred, “it is considered prudent to do so since the weapon consists of a quantity of TNT and 500 ballbearings which project forward in a wide radius upon detonation by a hand-held remote control”. Fred had served as a peace monitor in Bougainville and the Solomons, and had likened the experience of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) in Bougainville to that of the American and Australian armies in Vietnam. A favourite trick of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), when coming upon a PNGDF camp, was to turn the Claymores that the PNGDF had set up as protection around to face the other way, and then make enough noise to cause them to be detonated. Ever seeking to see both sides of the dispute, the song Smith subsequently sang was written from the point of view of the wife of a PNGDF soldier.

Another stand-out song was ‘Mr Circle’. Sung entirely in pidgin, it told of the ‘spiralling cycles of hatred’ that tit-for-tat actions lead to. Smith used to sing the song to school children in Bougainville.

By this stage I decided that I had to interview Fred Smith. I could already ‘hear’ how it would be structured: begin with a couple of choice verses of ‘Imogen Parker’, include a bit of his experiences in Bougainville and the Solomons, play a version of ‘Mr Circle’ and have Fred explain the lyrics in English, as he did between each vocal line when he sang it live. He had advertisted the availability of a couple of his CDs while on stage, so I figured I’d buy the ones that had the songs I wanted on them.

Accosting Fred after his set, I proceeded to ask him how Patti was (well, come on, how could I resist) before telling him that I wanted to interview him. He offered to give me copies of his CDs, but I insisted that, as long as he gave me a receipt with which I could claim the expenses, I had to pay – independent artists need to make enough money to remain independent, and artists. One album, Bagarap Empires, consisted of songs inspired and written during his time as a peace monitor in Bougainville and the Solomons. Another, Into My Room, was a collaboration between Smith, Liz Frencham of JigZag and Kevin Nicol of Noiseworks. Fred gave me such a good discount that when he offered me an additional CD, I had to buy it as well. It was a copy of his first album, Soapbox, from 1998. When I saw it, the penny dropped: I already had a copy.

An old and dear friend of mine who works for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had been posted in Port Moresby for a time, and on one of his trips home, had handed me a copy of Soapbox, explaining that Fred Smith was not only someone he had encountered while working in Papua New Guinea, but an independent musician and a good bloke. I, of course, made the ‘did you ask him how Patti was going?’ reference and pretty much ignored the disc after giving it a cursory listen. Despite being hip and knowledgeable, I have a basic distrust of cultural phenomena I haven’t discovered on my own terms. It has been a source of frustration for my friend, who also tried to switch me on to Patti Smith before I was ready to embrace her music. I had his copy of Radio Ethiopia for about a year without paying much attention to it. I came to my senses eventually.

Like all converts, I am now an annoying zealot whose task, along with proselytising, is to piss off all of the quietly faithful who have known the truth from the beginning. Fred Smith is an awesome, under-appreciated talent. One critic has gone so far as to dub him ‘Australia’s answer to Billy Bragg’. He has four CDs to his credit, the most recent, a mini-album entitled Party Pieces, sadly deleted. It contains the song ‘Imogen Parker’, and for that reason alone should be re-pressed. Visit Fred Smith’s website – to check out his tourdates as well as to e-mail him and demand that he sell you, in addition to his three still-available albums, a burnt copy of Party Pieces. Unless he does come to his senses and makes Party Pieces available once again. The new pressing should, in addition to the original, include an updated version of ‘Imogen Parker’ featuring new verses dealing with the likes of Abbott & Costello as well as Latham.

This interview was broadcast Saturday 20 March. Read it or download and listen to this MP3 version.


Music: ‘Imogen Parker’ – Fred Smith


I had a friend called Natasha Despoja
I met her in the parliamentary foyer.
She’s as hard as a Sydney lawyer
That’s Natasha Despoja for ya!
She was the leader of the Democrats
But the Democrats just fight like cats…

I had a friend called Kymberly Beazley.
I remember when he was gonna win easily.
And then there came along the NV Tampa.
And now Kim's not such a happy camper.
Simon Crean, I don't know,
Mate I felt a little sad to see Kym go…

Fred Smith C 2004


Demetrius Romeo: Does the political folk song still have a role in contemporary society, and, if so, what is it?

FRED SMITH: That’s a good question, whether you can change people’s minds with a political song. I don’t know if you can, but I know that young people are susceptible to political songs, and so I think it’s worth doing. You have to say what you feel, don’t you. I don’t think that the mainstream press is doing enough by way of offering alternative ideas and I think there’s a lot to be criticised and a lot to worry about. So I do sing the odd political song.

Demetrius Romeo: After the release of your first album, Soapbox, in 1998, you went to Bougainville and the Solomon Islands as a ‘peace monitor’. What exactly is it that you do for a living?

FRED SMITH: I’ve got a bit of part-time work with the public service in Canberra. As some people might be aware, over the last five years there’s been a peace monitoring group in Bougainville, mainly Australian army but also a handful of public servants, and I went over as one of them. But I took my guitar.

Demetrius Romeo: How did that line of work affect the music that you were making?

FRED SMITH: Well, a big part of my job was to get out into the villages and communicate with people about what was going on in the peace process and how things were changing and how things were moving, and to basically put some encouraging messages forward. It just so happened that I can play guitar and enjoy writing songs; it’s something I do pathologically. So I wrote a whole lot of songs in pidgin that really served that purpose and we ended up having a sort of traveling road show where we’d all pile into a four-wheel drive and get out and set up in a village square or a church or a school yard or an airstrip. I’d play a few songs and talk about peace process issues and developments, and some of the soldiers would do backing vocals.

Music: ‘Bagarap Empires’ – Fred Smith


East Indonesia, Iryan Jaya,
Papua New Guinea, Solomons too:
Beautiful islands, beautiful people
Uncertain future to look forward to.

While the rest of us –

Are we surprised that
Things turn to shit?
That our notions of nationhood
Don't seem to fit?
Will the bagarup empires all rust
In the tropical sun?

Fred Smith C 2004


Demetrius Romeo: There’s an album that came out of your time in Bougainville and the Solomons called Bagarap Empires. What does the title mean?

FRED SMITH: A lot of the stories are from Bougainville and the Solomons and the word ‘bagarap’ in pidgin means ‘when things get buggered up’, which is very much what is and was happening at the time in that part of the world. The whole archipelago is very fragile, as you’re aware. Everything went badly in Bougainville for a few years – after the mine closed down, the civil war there, there was a real disintegration. The Solomons were going in very catastrophic directions up until about six or seven months ago. So, yeah, that’s what it’s about: things getting ‘buggered up’.


Fred_entertains_children


Demetrius Romeo: There’s a lovely song on the album called ‘Mr Circle’ that is sung entirely in pidgin. Can you tell me a bit about the song and what the words mean and how it came about?

FRED SMITH: ‘Mr Circle’: yeah, well, as I said, I was getting out into the villages and to schools and singing songs to kids about what was happening in the peace process and I wanted to get a message across about the cycle of violence – how one thing can lead to another. So I’d get up in front of the kids and I’d look the kid in the front in the eye and say,


Okay piccaninny. Sapos yu gat wanpela man bilong viles bilong yu.

Okay, suppose there’s a guy in your village.

Na dispela man i gat bel hat wantaim wanpela man bilong narapela viles.

This bloke, he’s got the shits with a bloke in another village.

Olsem em i go na paitim man bilong arapela viles.

So he goes and hits the man in the other village.

Bai yu lukim long wanem samting i kamap nau: planti man bilong arapela viles i go na paitim man bilong arapela viles bilong yu.

See what comes up now: blokes from the other village come and hit the man from your village.

Olsem yu inap lukim wei we dispela samting i go roun.

So it all goes around.
Then I’d sing this song, ‘Mr Circle’.

Music: ‘Mr Circle’ – Fred Smith, speaking translations after each line


Sun go down, sun go down
Sun go down, sun go down
Mr Circle sing sing taim long sun i go down
Mr Circle sings as the sun goes down.
Olgeta, Wanpela, mi na yu
Everybody, one person: me and you
Papa Deo kolim wantaim bigpela kundu
Papa Deo calls with his big bass drum.

‘Papa Deo’: yeah, pidgin is made up of mainly English, but a bit of German and also Latin. So ‘Papa Deo’ is ‘God’.

Woa wokim bagarap, Woa wokim bagarap
War buggers things up, war buggers things up.
Lukim olsem dispela woa i wokim bagarap
See how the war buggers things up.
Olgeta crai crai, Olgeta crai crai
Everybody cries. Everybody cries.
Olgeta crai crai taim long woa i wokim bagarap
Everyone cries when war buggers things up.

Fred Smith C 2004


Demetrius Romeo: What has been inspiring your music since you’ve returned from Bougainville and the Solomons?

FRED SMITH: Well, I suppose a lot of the writing that I was doing there was relating the stories and things and impressions that I had while I was there. Since then I’ve been writing more personal material and in fact I’ve written a whole lot of songs that work well for a girl’s voice, and I’ve been working with a woman called Liz Frencham, and we did an album called Into My Room, which is more personal, less political, less historical material.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith


Wherever does it end? Wherever did it start?
The mountains and the valleys of the country of my heart –
First the pain and flat terrain and then the undulation;
It's time to send a message to the captain of the station.
Saying ‘Into my room, the sun must shine…’

Fred Smith C 2004


Demetrius Romeo: You’re also working with the percussionist from Noiseworks on that album. How did that relationship between the three of you come about?

FRED SMITH: Basically, I’d written all these songs for a woman to sing and I went looking for the right girl and started working with a girl in Canberra who subsequently fell pregnant ‘Subsequently’, not ‘consequently’. ‘Subsequently’ fell pregnant, and got married. And so I went looking further afield and found Liz Frencham who plays double bass really beautifully and sings with an honesty that affects people, so that’s how that started: I basically buttonholed her.

The drummer, Kevin, was actually managing me at the time, funnily enough, and I was doing this album and I needed a percussionist. He mentioned that he had played in a small Sydney pub band for a while and we said, ‘all right, let’s give it a go’, and we rehearsed, and we did. But as you’re aware from the Noiseworks days, he cracks the drums pretty hard, so we had to give him a bit of warm milk before we went into the studio and rub his head a bit.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith


I will do what I do, you do what you have to.
If we found common ground or accidental laughter,
Such give-and-take may help to break the ice of isolation
It's what we do with loneliness that helps the situation.
Into my room the sun may shine…

Fred Smith C 2004


Demetrius Romeo: Is there a large difference writing about more personal things as opposed to writing about political things?

FRED SMITH: Well, I never set out to write political songs. I tend to write pretty instinctively about whatever’s on my radar screen. There’s an author called Margaret Attwood who said, ‘concentrate on the writing and let the social relevance take care of itself’, and that’s very much my approach: I set out to tell stories and if people come to conclusions about my politics from that, well then so be it. Writing about political things has a bit of a responsibility to get it right and for it to be balanced, because political writing, whether it be in music, prose or in the press, only endures if it is balanced. With writing political stuff, I feel a real responsibility to make it balanced, otherwise it smells.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith


Into my room the sun may shine.
Into my room… the sun may shine.

Fred Smith C 2004


Getting My Head Around The Necks

I first became aware of the Necks when I was working as a shop assistant in a ‘classical and jazz’ music shop. The assistant manager was actually foolhardy enough to try and put a Necks CD on in the shop and was thwarted, moments into it, by the shop owner. See, although, as a music consumer, you may think music shops exist to expose new music to music-lovers, they in fact exist to shift units of product. So you don’t actually play new, exciting, challenging, thought-provoking stuff. The only new stuff you play is either what is already popular, or what sounds as safe and accessible as something already popular. The Necks – like, say, Stravinsky – never stood a chance in our shop. Not that the Necks should be considered the jazz equivalent of Stravinsky or anything like that; what the Necks have in common with Stravinsky is an essential non-beingness: you’d never play Stravinsky in the store because it’s not Mozart. Little old ladies, middle aged businessmen who ought to know better and kids who just ought to know something would complain. And you’d never play the Necks because they aren’t the safe, pre-‘70s fusion’ Miles Davis.

So, obviously, I had no idea what I was in for when I was coerced – by my friend Miranda – to go and see the Necks at the Bondi Pavilion one Saturday night. I didn’t know that the set would consist of two hour-long utterly improvised (apparently) pieces separated by a fifteen-minute interval. I didn’t know people would be lying down on the floor in front of the stage. I didn’t know it was okay to start to nod off somewhere in the middle. But by the end of it, I knew I wanted to interview the band, who were about to spend a month doing gigs all around Australia, culminating with a show at the Sydney jazz club known as the Basement.

Tracking the Necks down to request an interview was easy enough – an e-mail address for the band, along with one for each individual member may be found on the band’s website. Getting a reply to the e-mail is a bit harder. No response for days, and just when you’re about to give up hope, two of them will reply within an hour of each other.

A Necks gig is a majestic, magical thing – but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For some, the ‘at least I’ve seen what an improvised jazz show is like’ mindset prevails – justifying it as not a wasted night out because not having the most pleasant of entertainment experiences still provides the opportunity for personal growth. This is probably a valid position – but it also validates a heap of activities that only the truly psychotic or perverse engage in, and I'm not so keen to experience some of those activities just so that I can say that I’ve been there and done that. There’s a valid philosophical argument that justifies the art you have to think a bit about or know a bit more about to enjoy, and although I can’t recite it for you, I know from personal experience that it holds true. Discordant cacophonies and utter disorder – if that’s how you hear it – can be constructed to be beautiful and ordered, even when it’s being made up on the spot, but occasionally you need some theoretical underpinning to appreciate the fact. Like Stravinsky, the Necks produce a rather gorgeous, awe-inspiring noise whose beauty is somehow greater because it isn’t easily recognised by the masses. Besides that, if you are able to lose yourself in a Necks performance, you do find yourself drifting off into what some people describe as “hypnagogia” – “that stage just before sleep when you have brief, surreal flashes of scenes”. After that Bondi Pavilion gig, I heard punters referring to “meditative states”. For me, I was finding myself relaxed and happy in a way that usually costs a lot and leads to munchies, paranoia, a heightened risk of schizophrenia and a two-day hangover. I felt great after the Necks gig.

If this is the first you’ve heard of the Necks, you are not alone. Most of my friends aren’t familiar with them. When I told my friend Damien that I was going to see the Necks at the Basement, he wanted to know if “they’re the support for the Heads!”

Funny bastard.

I can’t even be bothered working out when this interview with bassist Lloyd Swanton was broadcast; it is included here not only because I’m addicted to my blog and it’s been a while since I updated it, but also because everyone should hear the Necks at some stage. They’re incredible musicians.


Demetrius Romeo: Now Lloyd, the term ‘jazz’ can mean many different things to many different people. How would you label the sort of music you make with the Necks?

LLOYD SWANTON: That’s a very difficult question because I feel like I can modestly say that what we’re doing is very different to what anyone else is doing anywhere. There have been terms like ‘improvised trance jazz’ and I'm reasonably comfortable with that.

Demetrius Romeo: ‘Minimalism’ is a word that appears occasionally as well. Are you less comfortable with that word?

LLOYD SWANTON: I think there are elements of ‘minimalism’ in what we do, but I think that sometimes, when things get particularly frenzied, we’d have to be described as ‘maximalist’, to say the least. It can get very, very physical and ‘orgiastic’ on stage.

Demetrius Romeo: Ninety-five percent of actors don’t actually make money from acting. How does it compare for jazz musicians?

LLOYD SWANTON: I think there are a few more opportunities in the music scene to make money out of music, even if it’s not doing your own beloved project. A lot of musicians I know make their living out of teaching, or out of freelance music, doing their own projects when they want to, or when they get the chance. I guess I'm really fortunate that I get to prioritise my beloved group the Necks, and everything else I do is just money for beer and pudding.

Demetrius Romeo: You actually play in a number of other bands as well. How do they interact, and what is your approach when you're playing with each one?

LLOYD SWANTON: The way I see it, you have a whole spectrum of work posibilities from your very personal projects at one extreme through to other people’s very personal projects that you're involved in, all the way to the other extreme which is just ‘take the money and run’, doing weddings, parties, bar mitzvahs and the like, where people call up and you say, ‘where’s it on at, how much do I get paid and when do you want me there?’ So it’s a constant juggling process because the scene just isn’t quite big enough for us to totally focus on our personal projects, so it’s a constant give-and-take.

Demetrius Romeo: What’s your role in the different bands that you play with?

LLOYD SWANTON: In the Necks I’m a co-leader; the three of us are equal leaders. In the Catholics, I’m the leader of a seven-piece ensemble. In every other band I’m in, I’m a side-man.

Demetrius Romeo: Does your approach differ markedly depending on which combo your playing in at the time?

LLOYD SWANTON: Stylistically, often the bands are often very, very different, so as a professional musician, I'm always trying to provide what is most appropriate within those stylistic bounds and yet still try to come up with something creative and stimulating.

Demetrius Romeo: Now you’ve described your work in the Necks as being improvised trance jazz. When you play live, is it a hundred percent utterly imrovised, or are there bits of what, if you’ll forgive me, I’d describe as ‘musician’s shtick’, that you can bring into play whenever a phrase or a circumstance warrants it.

LLOYD SWANTON: Well, after sixteen years of playing together, obviously we’re going to fall into a few familiar routines. It’s unspoken; we’ve certainly never said, ‘let’s do this every time!’ and obviously the band, even though it’s free improvisation, has its stylistic parametres. I think the fact that our pieces are so slow-moving and repetitive is a framework that we always work within. Having said that, all three of us have a pretty high standard of performance and I can speak for myself and say that I wouldn’t want to get up on stage and fall into some familiar routine and worry that Chris and Tony are going, ‘oh dear, Lloyd’s doing that again!’ We try to keep each other stimulated, we try to provide fresh ideas. The other good thing about the band is that it’s essentially a brain-storming session on stage, so there are occasions when you do feel quite uninspired, but there's a fair probability that at least one or both of the other musicians will have an idea, so we're rarely lost for words.

Demetrius Romeo: When I was watching you live, because the music begins slowly and is a bit repetitive, I found it easy to drift off and get into that state where, when you're just starting to fall asleep, you have funny visions. Now, I never actually fell asleep, because nobody elbowed me in the gut to stop snoring, so you’re safe there, but when I came out of the gig I heard other punters saying that they were getting into a meditative state as well, and I did see a few people down the front reclining, lying down on the floor. Do you have people who fall asleep in your gigs? Does it matter to you? What is the reaction that you normally get from your average punter?

LLOYD SWANTON: We certainly have people falling asleep at our gigs; I’m one, particularly if I’m jet-lagged and we have a heavy schedule overseas and in Australia. We're not at all offended if someone falls asleep. We are trying to conjure that trance-like state just before you do nod off. I believe it’s known as the ‘alpha state’, where the normal barricades between the different parts of your brain start getting broken down, and so you make all sorts of connections wouldn’t be made if you were alert. That’s actually a very rewarding and rich state to be in, so if people can hover there, that’s fantastic. I know as a performer with the Necks that my mind goes off into all sorts of bizarre directions. It really does trigger something. I don’t know how it works, but that's one of the things - not the only thing, but certainly one of the things - we aim to conjure up when we're performing.

Demetrius Romeo: Lloyd, thank you very much.

LLOYD SWANTON: It’s my pleasure, thank you.


Tara Moss: Facing the Fear

I’m gonna use the wedding of model and author Tara Moss, which took place March 20 2004, as an excuse to post an interview I did with her some years ago.

When I was ‘the sole dedicated comedy journalist in Australia’ – a description coined and used by comedians rather than one I devised and applied to myself – I was frequently called upon to promote Theatresports. In case you don’t know, Theatresports is essentially a series of games designed to keep actors’ improvisation muscles supple, and, ideally, should be a means to an end. However, for most Theatresports practitioners, it is an end unto itself, a kind of cult practiced by zealous fundamentalists. Every few months there is a new season with a few variations to make it different enough from the last season so as (they imagine) to be interesting to the innocent by-stander. However, by far the most exciting night for the not-so-devout is the annual ‘Celebrity Theatresports’ match, often involving genuinely famous-ish people who have never played Theatresport before, as well as people who used to play long before they were famous (and, more often than not, who can’t quite understand how they could have gotten roped into it again).

Having been asked to write a story to promote the Celebrity Theatresports match taking place May 12 2001, I cast my eye over the press release and made a simple demand: I’d write yet another story on Theatresports only on the condition that I choose the ‘celebrity’ to base the story around, and that it be Tara Moss.

I figured that I get to occupy the same rarefied atmosphere as curvaceous blonde models so infrequently that actually getting to talk to one was ample reward – particularly when writing for the sheer love it, rather than for money. (The article was for one of those free and thus exploitative ‘street’ publications that don’t pay contributors.) The publicist of this particular Theatresports event promised to check with Moss as to her availability. And within no time at all, Tara sent me an e-mail.

At the time I had a full-time publications job that, in addition to whatever other perks it offered, subsidised the writing I used to do for said free and exploitative ‘street’ publications. Thus, things like doing interviews, handing them in on time and so on were usually postponed so as to prevent them encroaching upon the day job. However, Tara Moss's e-mail informed me that she’d only be available for half an hour in two hours’ time because she had to spend the rest of her week finishing the final draft of her next novel. Clearly, there was no further discussion to enter into except “thank you; I’ll be the Allen Guinsburg-alike with the big beard and glasses”.

“Who is Allen Guinsburg?” Tara wanted to know in her next e-mail, seconds later. I so hope I wasn’t arrogant and condescending when I replied something like “Jewish beat poet who wrote Howl.” Yet, in hindsight, I can’t imagine that I behaved any different to the way Sam Seaborn behaves in that Season Two episode of The West Wing – the one in which the gorgeous blonde Republican, Ainsley Hayes, whom everyone has already dismissed on the strength of her looks and her job, proceeds to kick Sam’s butt all over the place on national television. In other words, typical ‘pride before the fall’ behaviour. “Oh, you mean Alan Ginsberg,” Tara’s next e-mail informed me. Despite the fact that Tara Moss is originally of Canadian extraction (and nowadays a naturalised Aussie!) whenever I remember that e-mail, I hear it in Ainsley Hayes’s ‘Valley Girl’ accent. I continue to remind myself, quite aptly, never, ever to judge a book by its cover.

In the couple of hours I had before the interview, I checked out Tara Moss’s homepage. A good thing, too. In addition to a photo gallery, it offered as samples of her work a couple of short stories – Psycho Magnet and Know Your ABCs – which meant that, in addition to going in somewhat less than utterly arrogant, I could go in somewhat less than utterly ignorant. Despite – or rather, irrespective of – being exceptionally beautiful, Tara Moss is a great writer. I’m happy to say I learnt some valuable lessons about myself, my prejudices and my fears, through the process of meeting and interviewing her. For the sake of balance, and because this article tends to draw accusations of ‘going in soft’, I will only add, three years later, as Tara Moss prepares to launch her books in various non English-speaking countries around the world, that she isn’t as talented a Theatresports player as she is a writer, model, MC, ambassador etc. And yet she approached it, as she does all her activities, with great gusto.

This story first appeared in Revolver in May 2001.


Facing the Fear

“I’m not afraid to make an ass of myself,” declares the rather gorgeous Tara Moss. “I’ve already moved beyond that idea of wanting to be perfect in front of people. It means nothing to me.”

The erstwhile model turned author, public speaker, light entertainment personality, MC, journalist and, most recently, celebrity Theatresports player, would have a hard time appearing as anything other than perfect before most people. That is perhaps why, when she first dared span the cross-cultural divide from catwalk to – well, virtually every other facet of the media – there was the danger of her being lumped in the same category as every soapie star who thinks it is high time to release a CD. What makes them think that they can just go ahead and do it? (See below for the answer.)

“Nobody believed I could write,” Tara admits. “They had no reason to because no-one had ever read my work.” That changed after Tara won first prize in the 1998 ‘Scarlet Stiletto Young Writer’s Competition’ with the story Psycho Magnet. Having loved “doing this thing called writing,” Tara explains that she was excited that “suddenly somebody else was acknowledging I might be good at it.” At the time, Moss was already three-quarters of the way through a novel. “I was writing it in my spare time, for me,” she says, “and no-one knew about it.” Before long five publishing houses were engaged in the bidding war that led to the 1999 publication of Fetish. It became a best seller. “This is dream-world stuff,” Tara confesses. “It just blew me out of the water.”

No surprises really, though. Prior to her modeling career, Tara was a prolific schoolgirl author. In addition to ‘novelettes’ written at age ten, Tara used to amuse classmates with horror stories inspired by Stephen King novels. Apparently, her friends looked forward to reading of their own “grizzly demise”. “They would suggest things,” Moss fondly recalls: “‘Run me over with the demonic car…’” This “childhood morbidity” still informs Moss’s writing; both Fetish and its soon-to-be-published sequel Split are serial killer whodunits that, as it happens, revolve around a supermodel psycho magnet. “It’s in our nature to want to get freaked out, to want to get scared by something,” Tara reasons. “I like to provide that through a novel.”

Moss did a staggering amount of research for Fetish: visiting the FBI Academy, reading case studies, interviewing police officers, and even befriending the world’s foremost forensic psychologist. “There are endless stories about what goes on,” she says. “Some of it is very disturbing, but some of it makes for compelling stories. I try to filter that into what I’m doing, both as a cautionary tale, and as an entertaining read.”

Moss also writes articles, having earned a Diploma in Journalism and joined various Writers’ Associations. “I find life fascinating,” she says, “and as a journalist you can go out and research life and write about it.” Tara’s other great love is public speaking, the “direct opposite” to writing. Working to a live audience, she says, is much more exhilarating than working to a moving camera. That she initially found the audience terrifying is precisely the reason why Tara pursued that vocation. “I wanted to conquer the fear,” she says.

Conquering fear is a constant theme in Moss’s work and she traces it back to her childhood. One of the books Tara loved as a child is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. “The important part about that book,” she explains, “is that the child befriended the monsters and then it was okay. First they were growling and scary, and the next thing you know he’s riding them around and having a great time.” Tara’s books are about “befriending darkness” and controlling it. “By putting it in my book, I control the ending. I give it a logic and I bring resolution.” For Tara it is important to “embrace the fear: Embrace it and learn to love it because then you become truly free.”

It is an interesting paradox that a person who has spent much of her life under bright lights and intense scrutiny should seek out darkness and fear in order to conquer it and hence be free. That she does so by writing stories and novels that, thus far, have featured main characters sharing her physical attributes and interests is an observation over which some other armchair (forensic) psychologist may ruminate. More important now is Moss’s involvement with Theatresports, for which she has undergone training both here and in Canada (place of origin of both Tara Moss and Theatresports). Thus far Tara has only performed in front of fellow students. However, her love of live audiences and her need to conquer fear has her primed for stage debut.

Having spent ten years being perceived “one-dimensionally on a page,” always having to be perfect to the point where any perceived blemish must be airbrushed out, Theatresports offers Tara the perfect antidote. “You’re out there, you’re naked, you’ve got nothing to go on,” she explains. “You’re just going ‘mold me, shape me, let’s have fun, tell me what we’re doing and I’ll get going.’ It’s fun and it’s freeing.” Although she takes life seriously, Tara’s approaches herself with a different attitude. “You’re just one little person on this planet for some brief little time, so just go out and enjoy it and have some fun.”

Postscript: The answer to ‘What makes them think that they can just go ahead and do it (release CDs, become authors, etc)?’ is irrelevant. A better question is ‘What makes you think you can’t?’ It’s easy. If you don’t believe me see for yourself when the likes of Tara Moss, Rove McManus, Peter Berner, Steve Bastoni, Adam Spencer, Wil Anderson and Julia Zemiro, to name but several, partake in Celebrity Theatresports at the Enmore Theatre, Saturday 12th May.


Perhaps 35,000 Slim Dusty Fans Don't Even Exist!

“A questionable accounting system in the Australian music industry has resulted in performers being awarded gold and platinum albums and singles before they have sold the required number of CDs to the public,” reported the Sunday Telegraph’s entertainment writer, Peter Holmes, on Sunday 14 March. Apparently, record labels tabulate sales by the amount of stock that leaves the warehouse, rather than what is bought over the counter and taken home by punters. This isn't like Beatles singles, at the height of Beatlemania, being awarded gold status prior to release because sufficient punters had ordered copies. Rather, since new releases are often sold into music shops on a sale-or-return basis (ie, they can be sent back if they don’t sell) it could well be the case that artists are awarded gold (for sales of 35,000 copies) or platinum (for sale of 70,000 copies) prior to selling that amount - or without ever having sold that amount.

One of the examples Holmes gives us if of the independent act the John Butler Trio, an act, Holmes tells us, that had just released their third album, Sunrise Over Sea. 50,000 copies were ordered by retailers across the nation. As Sebastian Chase (who works for MGM - the independent distributor handling the album) explains, on the first day of release, only about 25,000 copies would sell. Yet the album is already declared gold before it has actually gone sale. Except, of course, now that the album's been mentioned in a national paper, perhaps it will have earnt its gold status after all.

This reminds me of one of my favourite tales of rock ’n’ roll excess, about the Casablanca label in the 70s, as documented in Frederic Dannen's excellent expose on the dodgy practices of the music industry, Hitmen. Casablanca was an independent label set up by Neil Bogart, and its claim to fame was milking the disco trend and launching the recording career of Kiss. However, despite some hype-driven success which led to the multinational music corporation PolyGram buying into it, and losing out bigtime when Casablanca ran itself into the ground through incredible excess. Casablanca's first release was a compilation of comedy snippets from Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Despite the presence of Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce, the Smothers Brothers and Groucho Marx, the album was quite ordinary. Yet Bogart talked it up so big that distributors shipped massive quantities. And then the album stiffed, and all the copies were sent back. Forever more, Casablanca was known as the label that “shipped gold and returned platinum”.

Part of the reason why labels are keen to attribute sales before they have actually been made is because one way to get sales is to have them. Just as busy-looking shops and restaurants stay busy, albums that look as though they are selling a lot have a much better chance of continuing to sell a lot. Part of the reason is because when a song charts, it receives more airplay – even though more airplay is one of the reasons why a record charts. Thus, make it look like a lot of people are buying it, and, quite often, a lot of people end up buying it.

This doesn’t always work: there is another Casablanca story, about Bogart appearing on a late-night chat show with Cher, who was recording for the label at the time, in order to present her with a gold record for her single ‘Take Me Home’. In the United States, an album has to sell 500,000 copies to attain gold status; a single has to sell a million copies! ‘Take Me Home’ had sold maybe 700,000 copies. The following day, PolyGram received a frantic call from Bogart’s lackeys, insisting that they press and ship another 300,000 copies of the single, so as not to make Bogart a liar. As there had been no new orders for the additional 300,000 copies, PolyGram had to wear a hefty loss.

In the case of Slim Dusty’s postumous Columbia Lane achieving gold status after a week of release, we can breath easy. It debuted at number 5 in the charts at the same time, and as the charts are compiled from actual over-the-counter sales, there probably are 35,000 Aussie households giving Slim a spin!


Departure: Carla Werner's Arrival

"She sounds like a female Jeff Buckley when she sings" was the line from an American review that was the most obvious one to latch onto when approaching the work of Carla Werner, even though, let's face it, beyond his ever-toussleable hair and eminently chuckable chin, Jeff Buckley sounded like a female Jeff Buckley when he sang! When she speaks, Carla Werner is ever the Kiwi; although she moved to Australia at age 19, the ensuing decade has had little effect on her accent. Yet, irrespective of how she feels or what her legal standing may be, now that she has got an international profile in showbiz, she's an Aussie - just like Russell Crowe, Split Enz and the Datsuns.

Early in his writing career, Woody Allen used the description "she had a body that resembled Louis Armstrong's voice". The thing about Carla Werner is that she has a body that resembles her voice. As stunningly beautiful as she is on her CD cover and related artwork, she's even more gorgeous in the flesh. But then she opens her mouth and sings and - if you can get beyond letting it wash over you numb and dumbstruck - you begin to realise that she can sound like Jeff Buckley. She has the vibrato, the range, and the ability to leap from this note all the way down here to that one all the way up there, effortlessy, and back again. She also can sound like Joni Mitchell, and has been likened to "a young Joan Baez", but admits to Buckley’s influence most readily, without wishing to get caught up within it.

Werner’s only shortcoming at this early stage of her career is an understandable lack of experience. Thus, she has few anecdotes and little interview experience, so her answers to questions have a tendency to waffle. She also seems to be keen to defend a position that hasn’t even been established, let alone called into question, which makes her seem to take herself too seriously. In time, she will have developed an interview persona that communicates who she is as readily as her songs do; my lack of experience meant that, whereas I should have edited her more closely, and played more of her songs, I left everything intact.

The first time I went to see Carla Werner perform, I was introduced to her by some Sony people between sets. She seemed pleasant enough to me, but greeted the woman next to me with a great deal more gusto (a hearty smile, a peck on the cheek, an ensuing conversation). Carla recognised her as the then-struggling writer who had profiled Werner for a free ‘street’ publication some years earlier. (It is to this journalist, a woman called Janine, to whom I owe the insight of Carla’s early collaboration with Paul Oakenfold.) When it came time for me to do my interview some weeks later, I was early and happened to run into Carla in the foyer. Usually the artiste is safely ensconsed in an office before the journalist is announced and brought in. Carla Werner had no reason to recognise me after a brief introduction amongst many such brief introductions between sets at an industry showcase performance weeks earlier, and yet did, and started chatting long before we got the tape rolling and were ‘on the record’. Thus, if it sounds as if I'm going in soft, it's only because there’s no reason to go in hard. Listen to Carla Werner's album Departure for yourself if you get a chance. It’s beautiful.

The interview was broadcast March 13 2004.


Music: ‘Heaven’ - Carla Werner

Demetrius Romeo: Carla, you've been away for the last few years. In that time you've recorded an album and debuted in another country. It almost feels as if you had to leave Australia to make a start to your musical career. Why is this the case?

CARLA WERNER: I didn’t set out to say, ‘right, I can’t make it here, so I’m going to go overseas and make it over there’. It was a step-by-step circumstance that happened in my musical life. I wanted to record an album independently because the labels here didn’t really know what to do with me – in all fairness, I was still in the middle of developing my songwriting style – so I just chose a producer who I wanted to do some work with, and it was John Holbrook, who had done Natalie Merchant's Tigerlily album. We sent some stuff to him and he replied. He said, ‘yep, sure, get on a plane and get over here and let’s do some work’.

Demetrius Romeo: It's interesting that you mention Natalie Merchant, formerly of 10,000 Maniacs; a lot of people have compared you to lots of different singers, and the main ones seem to be Jeff Buckley, also to ‘a young Joan Baez’, and I also hear shades of Joni Mitchell on your album. Which of these seem to make sense to you?

CARLA WERNER: I think, definitely not Joan Baez, because I’ve never really been a huge fan of hers, although I appreciate what she has done for music, as I appreciate all the artists you’ve just mentioned. Joni Mitchell is not someone I listen to on a major scale - I think that her work is amazing and I have two of her albums, Ladies of the Canyon and Clouds and they are really amazing records, to me, incredible songwriting and melody. And of course, the late and great Jeff Buckley, who I saw live at the Metro when he came out to Australia and absolutely blew everyone in this world away. I think, equally, those three artists have brought something new and engaging to music as a whole. I probably would say that I have been more influenced by Jeff Buckley’s work, out of all three of them. But, in saying that, I have a myriad of influences. He’s just one of them.

Demetrius Romeo: What is it that you’re bringing to music that’s different to all of that?

CARLA WERNER: Mmmm. I don’t know if you can really answer that. I just feel like, if anything, I just want to keep creating. I want to do something original, something that’s different to what’s going on in the music world, that people can escape into. I don’t know; one hopes that the music they’re creating is definitely their own individual take on things. And just ‘originality’, I guess. And an escapism for people; a world to escape into and then slip back out of whenever they want to.

Demetrius Romeo: I suppose calling an album Departure does speak a lot of ‘escapism’. How does that feature in your music?

CARLA WERNER: There is definitely a theme of ‘departure’ in the songs – from being in one place of growth and moving through life and life’s experiences, to reach another place of growth and understanding. And also, there's almost a dream-like quality to some of the songs. I am a self-confessed dreamer, I do sit around and I can get lost in my own imaginings and a lot of the work that came out on Departure, especially lyrical content, is testament to that. I am a bit of a dreamer and I do tend to go off into other worlds sometimes. I suppose that’s also just paying homage to the influences I’ve had in my life, such as Kate Bush and Pink Floyd, very much artists who wrote in ‘soundscape’-type ways. It’s a very big influence on my work, I think.

Music: ‘Southern Sun’ - Paul Oakenfold featuring Carla Werner

Demetrius Romeo: A couple of years ago you featured as a vocalist on a Paul Oakenfold album. A lot of female artists, before they become known in their own right, feature on someone else’s track. Sophie Ellis-Bextor did it, Dido did it. Why is this a path to development for a singer-songwriter?

CARLA WERNER: For that song in particular, I didn’t set out to utilise it as being a key thing for me to do in order to boost my career. Absolutely, there are people that know I'm a vocalist through that track, who normally wouldn't listen to the music I create – the danceheads and the ravers. But that was a situation that came about all on its own, and wasn't one that I had any preconception about or that I needed to do. Again, it was just an opportunity that presented itself to me and I found it an interesting task to sink my teeth into, to write something different outside of Carla Werner music. It came about to be that he [Paul Oakenfold] really liked the song and the melody that I’d placed on the music. He used it on the album, which was a really great experience because it then took me off to Top of the Pops in the UK and it then introduced me to Robert Plant, who is a member of one of the best rock ’n’ roll band that has ever existed, in my opinion. And one of my biggest influences, as well.

Demetrius Romeo: The people you have namechecked, like Pink Floyd, Kate Bush and Led Zeppelin, are all distinctive for taking music to the next place. I’m wondering where ‘the next place’ is for Carla Werner, after this album.

CARLA WERNER: Well that's a funny thing because I've been continually writing throughout this whole process. Even when I was stopping and starting inbetween, and doing sessions for Departure and trying to finish that album off, I was continually writing. And the music that was presenting itself – I have a bunch of songs ready to go for the next record and they are a bit more electric-oriented, something I can really sink my teeth into. I just hope that as a song writer I can continually evolve and continually keep writing interesting music. Honest music.

Music: ‘Departure’ - Carla Werner


Interview with Kate Fagan

News of a bunch of Fagans performance dates gives me an excellent excuse to post the interview I did with musician and poet Kate Fagan earlier this year. The Fagans are about the most famous Australian folk family. They began as a duo consisting of Bob and Margaret, but expanded to a trio pretty much as soon as daughter Kate could carry a tune. Son James brought them to a quartet. James's partner Nancy Kerr, with whom James performs regularly in the UK as Kerr & Fagan - regularly enough for the pair to be voted Best Folk Duo in the 2003 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards - brings the combo to a quintet. However, the erstwhile activities of the various family members means that being able to see the complete line-up is a treat that doesn't present itself often enough.

I don't remember the exact date of broadcast of this interview, but it was the Saturday before a Sunday evening fundraiser for Indonesian women factory workers, held at Newtown's Sandringham Hotel (the 'Sando') at which Kate was headlining. The support acts consisted of my buddy Emma Driver, as well as another woman guitar balladeer called Bridie O'Brien, whose work I liked enough to buy the EP she had on sale. I already owned a copy of Emma's disc, and of Kate's book of poetry, so when I found myself in possession of the winning raffle ticket that entitled the holder to both discs and the book, I chose to step up and request that the raffle be drawn again. This may have looked like altruism, but it was shameless self-promotion: there was now a whole room of people who knew exactly who I was. ("Oh look, it's Dom, that shameless self-promoter.") Which was good - I didn't have time to stick around and network - I'd been invited by Peter Koppes of The Church to check out his daughters' band at the Annandale Hotel. Consisting of three twenty-something girlies in skimpy tops and miniskirts with guitars strapped onto them, plus a tank-topped heavy metal boy behind the drums, Peter Koppes' daughters' band was known as 'Menage a Trois' and they played a loud, fuzzy, gloriously noisy brand of guitar-based pop, and, particularly following the political/folk gig I'd just been at, were fun and sexy if not for all the right reasons, then certainly for some of the wrong ones.

Keep whatever mental image you've made somewhere handy for easy reference: a chat with ern or der of the Menage a Trois will appear here some time. For now, here's Kate Fagan. And, in case you've forgotten where we began before I took you meandering through these various freely associated reminiscinces, the Fagans' performance dates are listed below the interview.


Demetrius Romeo: Although the Fagans have been together for thirty years, we only have three CDs from them. Are the Fagans primarily a performing unit rather than a recording unit?

KATE FAGAN: In a sense, performing with your family goes with the territory of this kind of music, what would now be seen as 'roots-based acoustic music'. It's not unusual for people to perform with their families, and the idea of that being directed towards performing out in public is not really what it's about. You start with your family, you're playing around the table, it's just going on as something that's happening in the background. And performing with your family has got all those... you can imagine the overtones in terms of how it is for your kids to be jumping up on stage beside you. There are plenty of bands in Australia who do the same thing, particularly in country music and things like that. Think of Anne Kirkpatrick and Slim Dusty - not that they would be related explicitly to our music. So yeah, there's a tendency to be working less as an 'on-the-road' band and more as getting together and doing one-off gigs and playing when we can. But we do do a lot of our communicating on stage. We won't see each other for a while and we'll jump up on stage, and suddenly you're having the conversations you haven't had for three or four months.

Demetrius Romeo: Has it ever been detrimental? Has there ever been a full-on 'revenger's tragedy' opera taking place?

KATE FAGAN: I don't think so. But I can remember getting on stage mid-conversation when something probably should have been resolved beforehand, and just letting it smooth its way out during the set.

Demetrius Romeo: On the first Fagan's album, Common Treasury, you've got a 'trad. arranging' credit, whereas by the third album Turning Fine, you're writing songs. I imagine you've actually been writing songs for a lot longer than that, though...

KATE FAGAN: Sure.

Demetrius Romeo: Can you remember the first time you wrote a song?

KATE FAGAN: Probably the first song that stuck around was... I would have been... I used to arrange a lot of poems to music. I always had both relationships going at once - my love of poetry and my love of music. So I used to set a lot of other people's poems to music.

Demetrius Romeo: As a published poet, some of the reviews I've read have described you as a lyrical poet; at the same time, your lyrics are poetic. When you set out writing, do you know from the onset whether you're writing a song or a poem?

KATE FAGAN: That is something I defintely know, whether you're in one genre or 'creative zone', or the other. But I never know where either of them is going to end up. I just know when they're starting and when they're finishing, both for poems and for songs. I think one difference would be that a poem for me often begins out of a space of thinking a couple of lyrical phrases that I hear in relation to the world, and the equivalent to that [in music] for me would be a riff on the guitar - I get a riff in my head and a couple of words that match that riff and we're off.

Demetrius Romeo: Can you give me an example of your poetry?

KATE FAGAN: Okay. It's from a book called The Long Moment. This is a poem called 'The Waste of Tongues', and there are seventeen parts to it. It's a long, serial work. I tend to work in series that are sort of 'improvisations' of thinking and word, in a sense, not unlike musical improvisations. This one has, I suppose, a social and political impetus to it. I'll just read one piece of it.


For a fortnight you speak to me
from the furthest lake, each encounter
along its glazed perimeter. Nothing is dusty
because everything is dust. Experience
in transposition, a memory sets firm without
indifference, a phone on the hill blinks
in and out as we hang from a satellite.
At the hotel bar you wonder who pays
for a silver and rose underworld, as though
when he said spectacular, he meant it.

Demetrius Romeo: I always have a gut reaction after a poem, to ruin it by going, 'so what does it all mean?' Do you find that the way you communicate with your audience is different with poetry, than with music?

KATE FAGAN: Definitely.

Demetrius Romeo: How does it differ?

KATE FAGAN: I think music sets off a really different series of reactions in people, often very physical, even though I have had that at poetry readings as well - people being very moved by something that is appropriate to them or relates to their particular life experience or something they were feeling. A friend of mine said to me once, "I didn't know I thought that, and then I heard you read that and I realised I'd been thinking that all along," which was probably the highest compliment.

Demetrius Romeo: What project do you see yourself pursuing next? Are we currently in poetry mode or music mode?

KATE FAGAN: A little bit of both. What I'd really like to do now is get my solo album off the ground because I've written all the material for it and I've been working a lot over the last decade with the Fagans. I'm currently doing all the 'pre-' work for my album right now. Most of it's written. So that's the next big thing on the horizon for me.

Song: 'Joan of Arc' - The Fagans

The Fagans: March-April gigs confirmed

Saturday 13th-Sunday 14th March
Blue Mountains Festival, Katoomba
The Fagans appearing @ 11am (main stage) and 7pm (Guinness stage) on Saturday,
and 5pm (Clarendon Hotel) Sunday
Kate appearing @ 3pm (Clarendon Hotel) on Saturday

Saturday 20th March, 8.30pm:
The Fagans @ Brunswick Music Festival, Melbourne
East Brunswick Club Hotel
Bookings: (03) 9388 1460 Booking Number 23 (Festival bookings)
Internet bookings: www.brunswickmusicfestival.com.au

Wednesday 24th March:
10.00pm: The Fagans live on Late Night Live, Radio National

** Saturday 27th March, 8.00pm sharp **
The Fagans @ The Harp Hotel
900 Princes Highway, Tempe, 9559 6300, $15/$12
Opening set by Kate

Thursday 8 April - Monday 12 April (Easter):
National Folk Festival
Many gigs in many combinations!

Wednesday April 21, 8pm, Town Hall or Seymour Centre (venue tbc):
The Fagans @ benefit for East Timor and the Kirsty Sword Gusmao Foundation.


35,000 Slim Dusty Fans Can't be Wrong

From an EMI press release:


EMI Music Australia are proud to announce that Slim Dusty’s new album ‘Columbia Lane - The Last Sessions’ has achieved Gold sales [ie, sold 35,000 copies] less than two weeks after its release.

‘Columbia Lane - The Last Sessions’, which debuted at #5 on the National ARIA Album Chart on Monday (the highest album debut for this week), sits comfortably in the Top 5 above albums from the Black Eyed Peas, Jack Johnson, Jet & George. It also debuted at #1 in the ARIA National Country Album Chart.

The 1st single from the album, ‘Answer to Billy’ is also the #1 Country Airplay Single in the country.

“Slim and EMI were a great team, and they still are,” Slim’s wife Joy McKean said. “Slim's last recordings are among his best and a fitting finale to an inspiring and remarkable career that never ceased to amaze me."

Slim as we all know, was no stranger to Pop Chart success throughout his long career, but it is coincidental that Slims last solo studio album release, ‘Looking Forward Looking Back’ also debuted at #5 in the National ARIA Album Chart in July 2000. ‘Looking Forward Looking Back’ then went on to sell over 180K and spending over two months in the Top 10 of the National ARIA Album Chart.

It should also be noted that Slim received his first Gold Award in 1957 for his international hit ‘Pub With No Beer’, and it became the first official Gold award presented in Australia.

Slim Dusty. The Legend Continues…

Well I certainly played my part in perpetuating the legend!

And speaking of legends, I must express gratitude as the recipient of a ticket for an upcoming Waifs gig. Read what I have to say about the Waifs, or what they have to say about themselves.


Joy McKean on Slim Dusty's Columbia Lane

When Slim Dusty set about recording his last album, he did so knowing the end was near. Despite terminal illness, he managed to lay down seven very fine vocal and guitar tracks before passing away. Slim’s widow Joy McKean saw the seven tracks to completion and release as Columbia Lane, album number 107 at the end of Slim’s sixty-year career.

Although not an ardent lover of country music, I come to it via the musicians I’m into: Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett’s country turn as ‘The Coward Brothers’, for the single ‘The People’s Limousine’, and Costello’s countrified King of America album, which Burnett produced; Bob Dylan’s excursion into country and the Rolling Stones’ excursions into dirty blues versions of the same. Nowadays, there is a respect given to country music via its rock ’n’ roll end, nebulously labelled ‘alt.country’. (“We keep hearing the words ‘alt.country’,” the Waifs’ Donna Simpson told me when I interviewed her. She had no idea what to make of the epithet with which her band had been tarred. “What is ‘alt’, ‘dot’, ‘country’? ‘Alternative country’? ‘Not quite country’? ‘Not quite folk’? I don’t know. It’s just acoustic music – a bit of country, a bit of blues, just whatever we’re inspired by.”)

Alt.country seems to originate with cool, sixties musicians realising that their country music equivalents were more talented, but not considered nearly as cool, mostly because they were on average ten years older, and it was kiddies and the serious men in suits marketing to the kiddies who were doing all the considering. Thus, the younger musician handed over some respect and borrowed some licks, riffs and sensibilities. The Lovin’ Spoonful paid tribute to such country musicians with their countrified spoof ‘Nashville Cats’, while the Byrds, under the influence of Gram Parsons, dedicated a whole album to them, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Dylan was recording with some of them on his acid rock album Blond on Blonde. Recently, fat, uncool, 70s Elvis Presley was posthumously exonerated, and with him, the country rock of his later years.

Why am I rabbitting on here? Because, if the only way you can bring yourself to give Slim Dusty a bit of time and respect is under the cover of an apparently ‘cool’ label such as ‘alt.country’, then be aware that Columbia Lane closes with a fantastic Don Walker song called ‘Get Along’. Otherwise, why not have a listen to a man who, in sixty years, recorded one hundred and seven albums – there's a lot there so something’s bound to appeal.

Oh yeah, this went to air on Saturday 6 March 2004.


Music: ‘Nature’s Gentleman’ - Slim Dusty

Demetrius Romeo: Joy, this album ‘Columbia Lane’ consists of some of the songs that Slim Dusty was working on before he passed away. How much work had to go into the seven songs contained herein to prepare them for release?

JOY MCKEAN: Not a lot vocally, but some of the instrumental parts had to be completed because Slim was concentrating on getting down the vocals and his guitar. They were the main things he had to concentrate on getting done.

Demetrius Romeo: How difficult is it working with Slim’s legacy after his passing?

JOY MCKEAN: It is difficult at times and yet, over the years, I’ve always worked with Slim on projects and albums and I am training myself to try and look at this as another one his projects that I have to go ahead and do my normal work on. I think that is the way I’m getting through it because, of course, it’s difficult when I think of him, and of him working on these songs.

Demetrius Romeo: Are there other projects that you would continue with after this? I understand that there was a live album planned at one stage.

JOY MCKEAN: There was a live album planned. There’s not a lot of material. He’s not going to ‘do a Jim Reeves’ with stacks and stacks of things coming out of the woodwork simply because Slim was a very prolific recording man. As you know, this was album 107. As soon as he'd get things ready, they were more-or-less released, you see. So there’s not a big backlog.

Music: ‘Long Distance Driving’ - Slim Dusty

Demetrius Romeo: The title Columbia Lane I understand refers to Slim’s home studio, which itself was named after the studio Slim used to record at when he was first signed to Regal Zonophone. Was there a lot of sentimentality and love for his career throughout?

JOY MCKEAN: Yes, you see, Columbia Lane was the lane everybody had to walk down to get to the recording studios and it meant a lot to Slim because when Slim began recording, Regal Zonophone was the only label at the only recording company in Australia. So to walk down Columbia Lane in the footsteps of people like Peter Dawson, Gladys Moncreif, all the radio big bods was a terrific thrill for Slim.
Are there other songs that just couldn’t be completed for release from this project?

Music: ‘Long Distance Driving’ - Slim Dusty

Demetrius Romeo: Listening to the songs, they’re all trucking songs. What was the project they were originally designed for?

JOY MCKEAN: Actually they were designed for a trucking album but you’ll see that ‘Nature’s Gentleman’ is very different. It was written by his mate James Blundell, and he’d had that one for a while and he wanted to get it on record, he really did. He hadn’t been able to fit it into a project in the previous year, but he was determined he was going to get that on record even though it wasn’t a trucking song. So he did that, and then of course, the Don Walker one which is so very different, but that is slightly trucking. And then of course ‘Blue Hills in the Distance’ is about being on the Gann, that new train. Rather, I should say it was a trip on the old one it was written about actually.

Music: ‘Blue Hills In The Distance’ - Slim Dusty

Demetrius Romeo: Despite being a prolific songwriter himself, I see Slim does sing a lot of other people’s songs. How would he go about chosing what songs he would record for his next album?

JOY MCKEAN: He always looked for something he could relate to, that he felt the people he knows so well could relate to, he looked for something that had a bit of grit to it, something ‘real’ to it. He had a gift being an ordinary Australian bloke. He had that gift of relating to what he could relate to, and because he was like so many other Australians, they could relate to it. That’s what he looked for all the time: really good, strong lyrics. And even if he only got lyrics, he could set them to music that would bring out the story and what the lyrics were trying to say.

Demetrius Romeo: Joy, for a lot of people, the name ‘Slim Dusty’ tends to conjure those more well known songs like ‘Pub With No Beer’ or ‘Duncan’, songs that we all know or know of. But having had such an extensive recording career, there’s such a depth of songs to draw from. Do you think that this is a time that more people will come to get to know Slim’s work, and what will they find if they do?

JOY MCKEAN: Well I think that a lot of people may decide to have a closer look. It’s like I’m hearing from overseas people saying, “I’ve only just found Slim Dusty in the last month or so”. If they do listen, they’ll find a very different horde of work than just ‘Pub With No Beer’ and ‘Duncan’. Slim was recording for a period of sixty years and he was drawing from real-life stories and experiences, so if you listen to a body of his work, Dom, you’ll hear all sorts of changes: changes in people’s outlook, in the Australian culture, the way we look at things and all the different things we’re interested in. If you listen to a selection of Slim’s work over that sixty years, you really will be amazed at the changes his music portrays.

Music: ‘Get Along’ - Slim Dusty

Demetrius Romeo: Joy McKean, thank you very much.

JOY MCKEAN: Thanks so much, Dom, it’s been really nice speaking with you.

Music: ‘Get Along’ - Slim Dusty


‘Sydney Now’ or ‘Get A Little Dirt On Your Feet, Girl’ – The Waifs Return Downunder

En route to Italy last year in order to settle my dead father’s estate, I detoured through Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. A particularly fun haunt for white collar drunkenness during daylight hours was the so-called ‘Famous’ Spiegeltent, in which fabulously talented musicians such as Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, Paul Capsis and The Waifs chose to play.

I tried to use my Festival Media Pass and what ABC NewsRadio bona fides I could manage in order to wrangle entry to the Waifs' gig plus maybe land an interview thereafter. The ‘friend-of-a-friend’ network paid off as far as the performance was concerned. As for the interview, however, I was told beforehand that Donna would be happy to submit to my questioning, but it would cost me a bacardi-and-coke. By the end of the show, her price had risen to a double. When I got backstage, she laughed and said she hadn’t really been serious, but accepted the drink. I’m glad. Through the course of the interview, where I traced biography in order to set up a question, I casually informed Donna that her dad had died some time after he’d taught her to play guitar, which is why she and her sister set off across Australia in a campervan. “That’s so funny,” Donna insisted, laughing. It turns out that Mr Simpson was in fact alive and well. “You’ve got to promise to keep that in the interview.” In hindsight, I realise that I was probably ascribing to Donna and Vikki’s lives the plot of a later episode of Sea Change. Scoff if you may, but there was a time when I consumed music and music journalism the same way I consumed television: ripped to the gills!

This piece would have gone to air about the time the Waifs returned to Australia last year – some time in September – by which time I was eating my own body weight in pasta three times a day in the South of Italy. Naturally, the interview was punctuated with excerpts from the song ‘London Still’.

The reason the piece is included here now is in order to bring attention to the Waifs’ tour of Australia from April 1-10, in the hope that I may thereby wrangle a ticket to their Sydney show (on at the Enmore Theatre, in case you're wondering). ‘Friend-of-a-friend’ network, don’t fail me now!

Oh, I guess I should mention that I took photographs of the gig with my then-brand new toy, a digital camera. These toys aren’t designed to operate under stage lights, hence the need to turn some of the lesser photos into ‘psychedelic mini-posters’. With the flash, there was just too much light. But enough disclaimers…


Music: ‘London Still’ – The Waifs

Demetrius Romeo: How did you and your sister come to music?

DONNA SIMPSON: We started just playing when we were fifteen or sixteen and just really loved playing around Albany – our home town in Western Australia – in tennis clubs and pubs. Pretty much the day Vikki finished school, I bought an old campervan and went and picked her up. It had psychedelic yellow fluff through the roof.

Demetrius Romeo: At some point you picked up a third member of the band.

DONNA SIMPSON: Yeah, we found Josh up in Broome playing bass in a rock ’n’ roll band. He kinda liked our sound so we auditioned him for five minutes and he joined.

Demetrius Romeo: Was it a big change to go from a duo to a trio?

DONNA SIMPSON: Not at all. It was really exciting to have a guy on the road touring with us. It was all about traveling back then; it wasn’t about the music. We wanted to travel around Australia. Everyone else was picking fruit and waitressing and we just thought, you know, ‘hell, we can sing, so we’ll get this guy as well…’ and we just kept going. It was really more about the traveling in those early days.

Demetrius Romeo: Was it perceived as ‘weird’ by friends and family for you to just go off into the night in a campervan and not be seen again?

DONNA SIMPSON: It was, because we’re from a pretty small town. I used to see cars from Victoria come through our town with a different number plate and I’d look at them and think, ‘gee, I really want to be doing that one day – have a different number plate. They’re so cool, they’re traveling…’ It was kind of scary; we’d never driven in traffic lights before, we’d never seen a McDonalds. I was twenty-two years old and I’d never done any of that. It was kind of scary and exhilarating. We didn’t stray too far from home in the beginning, just went four hundred kilometres away, and then just kept heading north. Everyone was freaking a bit. We were getting all sorts of gigs in biker bars, and then we went up all through the mining sites, up through the Kimberley region. Through the zinc minds and diamond minds in Argyle. It was incredible.

Music: ‘London Still’ – The Waifs

Demetrius Romeo: So much of your music speaks of travel. A lot of it has the railroad motif with the harmonica that is common to those forms of music, be they folk or blues or even country. How much does it inform your music?

DONNA SIMPSON: Mate, we’ve been on the road for eleven years; this is pretty much all we know. It’s been a long time. This is our life and this is what we do, and I don’t think any of us can write about anything that we’re not experiencing, we’re quite honest songwriters in that sense.

Demetrius Romeo: You have one of the few distinguishing attributes for a support band that has opened for Bob Dylan, in that you’re about to do it for a third time. He’s asked you onto a third tour. Tell me about it from your perspective.

DONNA SIMPSON: It’s surreal, in a way, to be totally honest. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, always have been, and being from the town that I’m from, country Western Australia – somewhere where you’d see people on TV and never ever think they’re real or listen to records without thinking that these people exist – and then to be touring with Bob, it’s such an honour. We just feel so blessed to have this tour. And then again, we’ve worked really, really hard. And I prayed so hard when I was fifteen years old to get this tour. I’m thirty-three now and it’s coming through!

Demetrius Romeo: Have you had the opportunity to jam with him yet?

DONNA SIMPSON: Yeah, we sang ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ with him in North Carolina. About a month ago Vikki and I got dragged onto the stage. He said, [assuming gruff, Dylanesque growl] ‘get the girls!’ So we came onto stage and tried to sing the ‘ooohs’ with a big grin on our faces. It’s hard to sing ‘oooh’ with a smile.

Demetrius Romeo: ‘Home’ is an interesting concept when you’re always on the road and you’re engaging with so many communities and you’re singing about all these places that you’re visiting and it’s imbuing itself into your music. Is Australia still ‘home’ for you?

DONNA SIMPSON: Absolutely. I love it. Even though we spend most of our time away and I’m actually based somewhere else now, Australia will always be home. Always. It’s in my blood. The smell, the plants. I know the land. I come over here [Scotland] and I get into the mountains and I wouldn’t know how to survive. But in Australia I know the snakes and the spiders and all the plants and the orchids and the bush. We grew up pretty much in the bush. To have dirt on your feet again is really nice.

Music: ‘London Still’ – The Waifs


Okay now. Check out the photos here. And check out the upcoming tour dates because if you are ever in the same part of the world as the Waifs, you really ought to see them!


A Really Horrible Dream

Taking the article ‘Hatchet Piece (101 Things I Hate)’ that appears in the book ‘Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters’ as read (which we should, because it was, by me, midway through an Arts degree when it was far more fun to read weird books on the lawn in front of the Main Quad at university than actually attend English, Psychology or Philosophy lectures), it turns out that I am not just one of the things John Waters hates, but in fact the one-hundred-and-first thing; the thing, he says, that he hates “more than anything in the world: a person who confides, ‘I had the weirdest dream last night…’” At the risk of angering the pontifex of perversity, I must tell you that this morning, shortly before I awoke, I had the most horrific dream I have had for some time.

When my dad died, I was plagued by dreams about him. Initially they were ultra-vivid visions: he’d be laying bright red bricks under a clear blue sky in the hot summer sun, and I’d be helping him. Upon waking up, I’d usually burst into tears – all those years of resenting having to play bricky’s labourer on weekends and school holidays when there was serious guitar playing, record shopping or flirting to be done, and now those days were the source of about the best memories my unconscious thought I had of the old man.

After the extra-sensory memory dreams came the stress dreams: often, the old man would have just discovered a terminal disease and we’d all panic and wonder how we’d cope if he didn’t pull through. I’d wake up relieved, knowing that it was just a dream, and then remember that he had been diagnosed with a terminal disease, that he hadn’t pulled through, and that this sort of dream was part of the coping mechanism. I had a lot of these dreams in Italy especially, having gone over with my mum to settle the old man’s estate. In the early hours I’d dream that he was lying in a death-like state, and panic would ensue until I realised I could hear him snoring. Then church bells would ring and all would be well. I’d wake up, still hearing the church bells pealing from both our village cathedral and the one nestled on the side of the mountain facing our village, and realise that it was actually my mum snoring in the next room.

Although the emotions appear to be inverted, ‘interpersonal relationship’ dreams seem to be of a similar kind to the ‘coping with the death of a loved one’ dreams. They begin as erotic dreams prior to and during the actual interpersonal relationship, but afterwards they’re just ‘all’s well in the relationship’ dreams that invariably come after you’ve been dumped. You awaken from a peaceful reverie to realise that, actually, all’s not well in your world. You suddenly realise that your stomach cavity is once again filled with lead, as it was when you woke up during the early hours of the previous morning. You wonder how on earth you’ll get through another day and fall asleep again that evening. And so it goes...

My freakiest stress dream usually finds me sitting the English paper of the Higher School Certificate (commonly known as “the HSC”, Australia’s ‘leaving certificate’ examination) again. I particularly recall having this recurring nightmare when facing extra difficult periods of employment, specificially at my last full-time job, as a Publications Co-ordinator at a school(!) Why the English paper? Possibly because it is the first examination in the HSC and so at the time was the most stressful; after getting through the first, the rest would have appeared less formidable. And yet, my less-frequently dreamt and scarier nightmare, in a similar vein, is of a mathematics exam. I don’t know why.

Actually, my freakiest stress dream involves a scenario worse still than being thrown headlong into the examination scenario once again. It hasn’t happened often, but occasionally I dream that I am on the stage, performing, but under-prepared. Originally, these dreams involved memories of actual performances I’d been in, and amazingly, I’d remember whole chunks of dialogue and song from school musicals. (“So, if it ain’t Prince Tiny and the ‘little league’!” – my first line, as Freddie the Fidler, in Tin Pan Alley, the St Augustine's College musical from 1987. I was in Year 10. It featured girls from the local Catholic girl’s school, Stella Maris College, amongst whose ranks was a young Kym Wilson. She was fifteen, gorgeous and very popular amongst us horny and repressed Catholic school boys, so although I don’t quite dream about her, I may have the occasional little ‘think’ about her before dropping off to sleep at night!)

Nowadays, these dreams still occasionally take place in the school auditorium. However, when they do not, school teachers’ faces accompany those of past employers throughout the audience. I am on stage alone. There is nothing prepared. I start to improvise. And it always goes well. Hats off to my Id! Why can’t real life be that good?

So anyway, this morning I awoke from a dream that was worse than any of the above examples. In fact, I reckon it worse than all of the above put together. Here’s my dream:

I return to the venue of a party – obviously a friend’s house in the dream, but one I don’t recognise from my normal waking life – to retrieve a bunch of CD singles I left at the party the night before. But I can’t find them. And I wonder why I possibly thought I could leave them to retrieve later. Amongst the missing items is the ultra-limited Costello/Nieve box set that was released nearly a decade ago now, as well as a pile of Radiohead CD singles, including the even older and rarer ‘Drill’ EP. Although I eventually find the Costello/Nieve box set (autographed, to boot! My copy ain’t autographed in real life) I cannot locate any of the Radiohead stuff, and I am most miffed about losing the ‘Drill’ EP. I'm really despondent, disheartened, angry.

Eventually, I drift into wakefulness and start to tell myself I never took Radiohead CD singles to anyone’s party. And then I realise I’ve never even seen a copy of the ‘Drill’ EP in real life, let alone owned one.

Do you think I should consider an alternative form of employment to working in a secondhand/collectibles music shop?