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January 2008
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March 2008

Taking Note

I came across an old notebook – about A6 in size, with a solid cover in a truly sickeningly bright shade of yellow. Only the first twenty or so pages are written on. It appears to be a kind of work book-cum-diary and, in addition to a school timetable, contains truly execrable poetry that can best be described as the kind of song lyrics written by a pretentious, geeky teenager. To wit:

Why do you hold back
And then stand upon my toes?
Against the fence, your [sic] too intense
To try and grasp my prose

The fact is, they are indeed the kind of song lyrics written by a pretentious, geeky teenager. I was that pretentious, geeky teenager, and they are my song lyrics, dating back from – for me, half a lifetime ago – January 1989. (The song went on to be called ‘A Bluer Shade of Deep’, the title at once inspired by both George Harrison’s ‘Deep Blue’ – originally the flipside of the ‘Bangla Desh’ single and now located at the tail end of the newly remastered Living in the Material World CD – and ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ by Procol Harum. It was going to be part of a heavy concept album, to be entitled either From the Sublime to the Ridiculous – And Back Again! or, possibly, I Am My Own Phallic Symbol. It was brimful of self-righteous arrogance.)

More significant than the shit lyrics, written more than half a lifetime ago for me now, are the diary entries. This one is particularly meaningful:

Startzapping

On Monday 30th (of January) – the tail-end of the school holidays – my mates Noz and Damien have come over to watch a U2 video. I’ve played them something called ‘Telling…’, which I recall was a song, now lost, called ‘Telling It Like It Is’. (It was a thinly veiled personal attack on someone who I thought was behaving insincerely. Such things, as a geeky teenager, are worth turning into songs.) The ‘getting there Willy-baby’ reference is most likely some 3-unit English work, to be completed over the holidays, that was left to the absolute last moment – we were studying [Willy-baby] Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night and The Tempest

But more important than this, it seems the following day, January 31, 1989, is the auspicious day on which I appear to have “acquired” my first two Frank Zappa albums: Joe’s Garage Act 1 and Studio Tan. I actually remember buying them, at my favourite halfback book and record store, in Dee Why, on Howard Avenue. I guess there were no Beatles-related albums of interest that day. And I got right into it, clearly, having knocked off a quick sketch of Frankie himself, in ink. I can’t help marvelling at how my shit writing – the product of a St Kieran’s primary school education (pretty much everyone in my year from there still has crap handwriting) hasn’t changed at all in nearly twenty years.

I can’t believe I didn’t write about what my first two Zappa albums were like.

However, over the next couple of pages I note the acquisition of further albums – as if that was the most important thing I was doing at the time, that required preserving for posterity.

Even though his contract with EMI had expired and his albums were, once again, pretty much deleted,  you could still find the odd Frank Zappa album, brand new, on a shelf – old stock that had failed to sell. So I soon had a copy of Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention - European Version from a David Jones store. You used to be able to depend on the music sections of department stores for old gems that had spent quality time gathering dust in a store room. Sale time was particularly good to pick up deleted items at bargain prices – I once picked up a copy of the shaped picture disc single of the Rolling Stones’s ‘Brown Sugar’, with ‘Bitch’ on the flip side, for three dollars.

Mall Music, the shop I worked in over the summer holidays, had a copy of London Symphony Orchestra Volume II. It was on Zappa’s own Barking Pumpkin label, imported and distributed by an independent company called Avant Gard.

Somewhere in between or soon after those albums, I know I returned to that halfback book and record place to discover Overnite Sensation and Just Another Band From L.A. I remember running into my buddy Fiona Hastings that day. She was on her way to a funeral for the mother of a friend, at St Kevin’s Church at Dee Why.

I distinctly remember that Frank Zappa album number seven for me was the predominantly live Roxy & Elsewhere – it’s not annotated in the little yellow notebook but I recall finding it in the two-dollar rack at the Dee Why Loan Office, on my way to a meeting of the Warringah Shire Youth Council. Since it was a double album, it cost me $4. Another time, in that same pawnshop, on that same rack, I found a copy of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangla Desh, in its box, with the yummy full colour booklet. Three records. $6. The box had seen better days, but was still none too shabby. Records and booklet were still immaculate. But that’s another story.

From Roxy & Elsewhere, all the way up to last year’s Wazoo, (80-odd albums in all) it all gets a little fuzzy. Bought them all, but stopped writing it down each time.

But all that’s by-the-by.

The thing I love most in this note book is a stupid little drawing entitled Black Führer: an African American has a parted fringe and toothbrush moustache, a la Adolph Hitler. The parted afro was inspired by my own unruly hair, always a bitch to comb into anything but a duck’s ass, and to some extent, by Gene Wilder as he appears in Young Frankenstein.

Blackfuhrer

Thoughtless racism or inspired, absurdist satire? I'll let you be the judge – although I think it’s probably a little bit of both.


Noble Cliches

This interview with Ross Noble took place one sleepy Sunday during the 2001 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, for Revolver, in anticipation for his subsequent Sydney run. So, this being an old interview, ignore the show details at the bottom.

You will notice recurring themes in these recurring Ross Noble interviews – attempts to encapsulate what exactly the comic genius does on stage. Or what it is I think he’s doing. Hence the title ‘Noble Cliches’ – the cliches are mine, about him. I forget what this one was called – probably the same as the last one:

The Noble Art of Comedy

A funny thing happened to English comic Ross Noble one day, trying to order a ‘vegie burger’ at a McDonald’s restaurant in Mildura. Ross claims that the woman behind the counter “just looked at me as though I’d asked for a polystyrene head,” before replying that all McDonald’s hamburgers featured vegetables amongst their ingredients. When Noble explained that, as a vegetarian, he didn’t want any meat, the woman offered him a chicken burger. “Chicken’s a sort of a meat, isn’t it?” the comic pointed out. Deciding to just get fries instead, and wanting to make a meal of it, Ross asked for both a small serving of fries and a large one. This must have thrown the woman, because she wanted to know why he didn’t “just have the medium fries” instead. “She couldn’t grasp any concept of space, time or what was animal, vegetable or mineral,” Ross says. “I was literally just standing there going, ‘What the fuck have I walked into?’”

If you have seen Noble on stage you may empathise with his McDonald’s misadventure. Ross Noble is a kind of comedic alchemist who seems to create something out of nothing as a way of life. He effectively grabs all manner of concepts of space, time, and what is animal, vegetable and mineral, and contorts them, taking them apart and rebuilding them in a different order. He improvises material around whatever prompts his audience gives him. However, Ross himself is loath to put it in those terms.

“If you were to come out and fire yourself from a cannon, land on top of a big ladder, do a big summersault, land on the floor and present a cheque to a crippled kid,” he reckons, “somebody would say, ‘What about that guy with the crippled kid?’” So Noble is at pains to point out that there is a bit more than merely “improvising around the audience” taking place. Although it isn’t necessarily obvious, the performances always contain developed or developing ‘material’ within them — or as Ross puts it, “stuff that I’ve done before”.

“With material,” Ross Noble explains, “I’ll try to expand it to see where it goes. I’ll have an idea and play around with it each night, try to take it in different directions and see what happens with that idea.” If he wants to, Ross can improvise a whole night’s show, or he can do an hour of “solid material”. The problem is that if he improvises everything, people complain that he “hasn’t got any jokes”, and if he only does material, his dedicated fans, having virtually seen it all before, bemoan the lack of improvisation. Furthermore, there are always critics who need to know just how much is improvised and how much is ‘material’. As a result, Noble is no longer interested in drawing the distinction between what is improvised and what is developing monologue. “I used to really try to pick it apart: ‘Is it this? Do I do that?’ In the end, it’s more a matter of, ‘If they’re laughing, what difference does it make?’ I just go out there to have a laugh, and hope I don’t get bottled off.”

Ross’s allusion of being ‘shot out of a cannon’ is a telling statement. Such imagery recurs in Noble’s casual metaphors, and stems from a childhood obsession with circuses. This obsession pretty much formed Ross Noble as a comic. When he first became a performer, it was one of the ‘street theatre’ variety that juggled and rode a unicycle. The way he structured the performance was to know how each stage of the show ended – that is to say, with which trick each section would culminate – allowing the rest of the performance to consist of free-form dialogue and gags leading eventually to that end. The tricks, which had no set order, built dramatically to the big finale. As a stand-up, Ross’s performances are the same, with ‘ideas’ in the place of ‘tricks’. “Stuff fits together in any order,” Noble explains. “You can link all the thoughts together.” However, he does admit that the constant interconnectivity of all things can sometimes be mentally overwhelming. When that happens, he says, it’s time to “sit down and watch ‘Burgo’s Catch Phrase’”.

Noble’s obsession with the circus continues on another level: his biggest hero is Evel Knievel, and Ross admits that his house is “one big homage” to the stuntman. Noble is also into all modern manifestations of the circus – “monster truck shows, guys on motorbikes jumping double decker buses,” as well as the guys who fire themselves out of cannons. Ross himself is into tamer versions of the same – though to no great proficiency – such as skateboarding, surfing and rollerblading. “I always buy whatever new thing comes out,” he admits, listing “boots with springs on them; one of those BMXs where you can spin the whole thing around on the front wheel…” but, he says, “I’m never at home so I never get the chance to play with them”.

I would go so far as to say that Noble’s work is the stand-up version of extreme sports, his humour bridging the gap between disparate topics as the comedic equivalent of the motorcyclist’s leap across double deckers. And Ross agrees. It is conceptually a “big extravaganza”, but, he says, “not in the sort of pretentious Cirque du Soleil ‘climb into the world of mystery’ type of thing”. Rather, Noble is of the opinion that his show is the best live experience that anyone will ever experience. And furthermore, he adds, “if they don’t come to see the show, they’ll die.”

There you have it. Avoid death and watch Ross Noble avoid the comedic equivalent of the same doing extreme comedy stunts at the Valhalla, Glebe Point Rd, 7pm from 24th April to 6th May.