The Sidemen: Turning Music History into a Timeless Moment

One way to think about Byron Bay is as a sort of bohemian Cote d’Azur: many of the rich who retire or build holiday homes here made their money in the more louche areas of capitalism, such as media or entertainment, and its style and atmosphere come from the young and partly transient population of surfers, neo-hippies, buskers, artisan pop-up stallholders and tattooed baristas.

The vibe is laidback, rhythmic, sensuous (all those colours, sounds, smells and flavours) and sensual (tanned young bodies and…but enough of that).

Like its Mediterranean counterpart, it has natural beauty to spare: the town prostrates itself behind an elegant sweep of sand that curls at one end into the easternmost point of Australia, Cape Byron, before losing all sense of itself in the almost fluorescently blue ocean.

Byron at dawn

Good morning, Australia (Source: west1.com.au)

You don’t have to be rich to live comfortably here, and it doesn’t matter how old you are, because it’s a place for the young at heart. And if you’re not, you soon will be. After all, the sun makes its first mainland-Australia landfall here every day. Who can contemplate that fact without feeling, somewhere in their bones, a stirring of youthful optimism?

It’s home to a lot of artists and musicians, including most of The Sidemen, which helps to explain why they launched here. But don’t let their residency beguile you into thinking they personify the town’s insouciant hipness. When I say they “launched”, I mean “went off like a rocket”.

Picture the scene: Byron Theatre, a charming weatherboard structure in the middle of town, on a balmy Saturday evening in May. The 246-seat auditorium is sold out and the audience—mainly boomers like myself with a smattering of Generations X and Y and the occasional iconic Byron yummy mummy in designer hippy gear—is good humoured and, between sips of wine or beer, talkative as it waits for the show to begin.

We’re here to see five musicians who have spent their careers backing some of the biggest names in rock or pop since the 1960s but who, until tonight, have never appeared as an act in their own right.

Jeff Burstin and Rick Fenn (guitars), Bruce Haymes (keyboards), Greg Lyon (bass) and Grant Gerathy (drums) have worked variously with the Black Sorrows, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, 10cc, Nick Mason and Dave Gilmour (both of Pink Floyd), Renee Geyer, Paul Kelly, Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), Crossfire, Georgie Fame, the John Butler Trio and…that will do for now.

Sidemen-poster-738x1024

Roll up! (As in, come and see the show…)

The project is the brainchild of Steve Banks (Banksie), a gifted singer, songwriter and guitarist (and, full disclosure, old mate) who, only a few years ago, escaped from the world of business in Sydney and relocated to Byron to pursue his long-held and much-deferred musical dreams.

His aim (which, it turns out, is part of a wider agenda) is to give these massively credentialled and seasoned musicians the opportunity to play live together and entertain the audience with stories about their times on the road. It’s an irresistible formula.

It also raises some interesting questions. The show is formally billed as “Steve Banks and The Sidemen”. How will Banksie balance his role as vocalist and front man with his avowed intention of putting The Sidemen “front and centre”, given that they are functioning, to all intents and purposes, as his sidemen?

And what is the audience hoping to gain? A trip down memory lane? A chance to revisit the soundtrack of their lives? Relive the glory of their youth? Experience once again the glamour of the stars they once worshipped? Enjoy a bit of celebrity gossip?

Paradoxes and ambiguities, I think. But not for long: the evening will end by resolving itself in, for me, a moment of unexpected clarity.

THE SOUNDTRACK OF OUR LIVES

As far as this audience member is concerned, the answers to all the above questions are in the affirmative. I’m a tailender of the boomer generation: the music and the acts that The Sidemen brought to life and nurtured for all those years—still nurture—helped shape my sense of myself and my view of the world. I’m pretty sure all my peers in the auditorium feel the same way.

Let’s take a few random examples. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. I grew up in the UK but never saw them live. They were, however, a frequent, vibrant presence on our grainy black and white TV, with Fame on Hammond organ backed by a very tight r’n’b/jazz/ska combo (bands like that were always “combos”, they were never “bands”).

He had only three top 10 hits, but they all went to number one. My favourite was ‘Yeh Yeh’; the one I remember best, ‘The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’, was a tie-in with the 1967 movie starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. With the latter, Fame became the epicentre of a cultural moment: the film launched a style revolution, with Dunaway’s elegant gangster-gal costumes single-handedly killing off the mini skirt in favour of the midi (much to the disappointment of my 13-year-old self).

Bonnie and Clyde

Gangster gal (Source: Warner Bros)

Pink Floyd. This is a band you never speak of in just the past tense: they were, are and forever will be. One of the reasons they will endure, in my view, is that, while they charted the outer reaches of psychedelia, their far-outness was perhaps one of the most reassuring things about them; what was really unnerving about Floyd was their connectedness to reality.

We all know the sad story of sweet Syd Barrett. He defined Floyd’s originality as a combination of eccentric English pop sensibility (‘See Emily Play’) and space-age or science-fiction themes and imagery (‘Astronomy Domine’). It was after Syd had left the band and become institutionalised that a dark psychosis entered the music, culminating in the monumental and classic Dark Side of the Moon. But the strength of the album, I would argue, lies in the fact that its edginess is grounded in the stark contemporary realities of the Nixon years, Watergate and the Vietnam War.

There’s more to Floyd than this, I know, but we’re talking about how music shapes lives and memories. I was introduced to Dark Side by a friend from school (let’s call him Malcolm) who had dropped out after Year 10 and fallen under the spell of dope, acid and an all-consuming existential rage. We no longer had much in common personally, but we rediscovered each other through that album. I discovered a lot about myself, too, and I was grateful for the fact that, while the realism at the album’s core would take me close to the edge, the sheer artistry of it would lift me up and set me down somewhere safely again.

Gustave Dore - Satan falling

Coming down after listening to “Dark Side”

It didn’t work out that way for Malcolm. The last I heard about him (and this was only 10 years ago), he had become the town’s tragic freak, standing on street corners, cross-dressed and stoned, yelling at passers-by. He lived alone in sheltered accommodation. One night the police turned up, took him away, and that’s the last any of our mutual acquaintances saw of him.

If Floyd defined the downside of my adolescence, 10cc was very much part of the upside. Apart from the Beatles and Beach Boys, few bands, in my opinion, have so consistently raised pop to the level of art (and I don’t mean pop-art). ‘Rubber Bullets’, ‘The Dean, His Daughter and Me’ and ‘Wall Street Shuffle’ were part of the soundtrack to my later school years, while ‘I’m Not in Love’ came out while I was at university. It was hard to know where pop would go after that; perhaps it’s one of the reasons punk rock became necessary—after all, the song has become deeply embedded in the sonic wallpaper of every shopping mall in the Western world. Everything about it is perfect—not least the multi-vocal backing track which, along with the overall Spector-ish ambience, takes me back to The Mindbenders’ 1965 hit, ‘Groovy Kind of Love’. Eric Stewart sang vocals on both records. I hadn’t realised it until now, but that guy bookends my life from puberty to early adulthood.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” says a familiar voice over the PA, “pray silence while The Sidemen take the stage and reserve your applause for when I come out to join them.”

The audience laughs. So that’s how he’s squaring the “Sidemen front and centre” circle. Classic Banksie.

LICKS AND YARNS

First number, and they set the tone perfectly with a mid-tempo disco beat that turns out to be the 1981 Darryl Hall and John Oates hit, ‘I Can’t Go for That’. All we know at this point is that The Sidemen will be playing songs they used to play, wrote or wished they’d written. Presumably this number, penned by Hall and Oates, falls into the last category. Which kind of makes sense as It’s stylish and accessible—a bit like The Sidemen themselves.

Right to left, we have Jeff, head to toe in black, former lead guitarist with the Black Sorrows and Jo Jo Zep, playing a custom-made Noyce, also black, through what can only be described as a rather phenomenal-looking-and-sounding Fender amp in a matching black cabinet offset at the front by the tastefully subdued glitter of a silvery grill cloth.

(This amp, as will become apparent, is crucial to the whole enterprise.)

Greg, his head crowned with a magnesium halo of curls, is easily the most exotic-looking, but substance more than matches style as he rolls out a bass line that’s solid and vibrant, like a hardwood timber floor.

Grant on drums is in his early forties, which makes him the baby of the group but, judging by his relaxed composure, he could be the most experienced of them all.

Rick, tall and English, coaxes perfection out of a Roger Giffin Strat copy with a gentlemanly charm that makes the whole thing look so damned easy.

And Bruce, far left, sitting ramrod straight at a Nord keyboard, adds colour, texture, depth and rhythmic nuance with a poise that totally belies his self-effacing personal manner.

Sidemen on stage 1

Let it rock (Source: LisaGPhotography)

Behind Jeff, a bonus for the evening—backing singers Vanessa and Martine; and, front and centre, singing his heart out and grinning like a kid in a toy shop, Banksie.

Jeff is the first to receive the This Is Your Life treatment. Born in Mt Waverley, Victoria, to a musical family, he played in several bands before international success with Jo Jo Zep. Later, as part of the Black Sorrows, he co-produced several platinum-selling records with Joe Camilleri.

“Name one of the highlights of your time with the Sorrows,” says Banksie.

“Playing on the steps of the Sydney Opera House.”

Greg pipes up from the back: “I was there!”

Jeff turns: “Were you?”

These guys have so much history to share, they’re still discovering each other’s, on stage, in real time.

Cue two Sorrows numbers, ‘Hold on To Me’, with its killer opening line (“We were dead on arrival…”), and ‘Harley and Rose’.

Next up: Grant. Born and grew up in Sydney (Maroubra/Matraville) and moved to Byron because “the surf’s better”. A nun taught him piano as a kid: “it was horrible”. As a drummer he’s worked with Labi Siffre and Jackie Orszaczky among others and toured the world with John Butler, playing major venues like Madison Square Garden.

This leads into Siffre’s ‘I Got the Blues’—which I initially mistook (similar intro) for Butler’s ‘Zebra’.

Greg Lyon was originally from Melbourne (where Jeff and Bruce are still based). He started gigging in his teens with someone called Little Johnny Farnham and became a regular in the Aussie Blue Flames, the local combo which backed Georgie Fame on his Australian tours. After a spell in the States he relocated to Byron, combining music with a 20-year career in academia, during which he helped create Australia’s first contemporary music degree course at Southern Cross University.

They play ‘Yeh Yeh’ which makes my night. It’s at this point that I notice that the audience, just like me, are seriously enjoying themselves.

And then it’s Greg’s turn to do an intro.

“Not so long ago, Rick mentioned to me that, with Mike Oldfield, he’d co-written a song for Hall and Oates, ‘Family Man’, which enabled him to buy a house in Byron Bay.”  A mercenary glint lights up his eyes. “So naturally I said to him, ‘Let’s write a song together’. This is it.”

It’s called ‘Do I What I Say, Not What I Do’. Greg apologises for the “indulgence” and says that it’s still a work in progress. No apology necessary, of course; the song rocks along very nicely.

Rick’s next. Born and bred in Oxford, England, his big break came in 1976 when the drummer of 10cc recommended him to the rest of the band. He joined to promote the Deceptive Bends album and has been with them ever since. Along the way he recorded an album with Nick Mason from which a single, ‘Lie for a Lie’, sung by Dave Gilmour with Maggie Reilly on backing vocal, was a hit in the US. And, with Pete Howarth of The Hollies, he wrote a rock opera, ‘Robin Prince of Sherwood’, which toured the UK and had a good run in the West End.

The band launches into ‘Lie for a Lie’ followed by ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, Grant nailing down reggae snare fills in a way that makes any distinction between technique and feel totally meaningless.

Suddenly it’s the interval. How did that happen?

A HARSH REALITY

The first I knew for certain that the gig was taking place was when Banksie rang me.

“Listen, mate, I got a favour to ask. Equipment hire is pretty expensive and I’m trying to keep costs down so that there’s as much money as possible for the band. Could I possibly borrow your amp for Jeff to use? We’ll need it for a couple of weeks, to cover rehearsals as well as the gig.”

Let me get this straight, I thought. Jeff Burstin, ex Jo Jo Zep and the Sorrows and ARIA Hall of Famer, would like to borrow my lil’ old Fender Hot Rod amp which, because I’m still a 10-hours-a-day desk-bound working stiff, I hardly ever get to use?

Two possible replies sprang to mind: “Is the Pope…?” and “Does a bear…?”.

pope and bear

Is he? Does it? (Source: eyeofthetiber.com)

Eventually I settled for, “Yeah, sure, no worries”, and hoped it sounded nonchalant.

Yes, I admit, for a moment there I was reduced to a state of childish excitement. My amp? On stage with these guys? But I make no apologies.

We all have our passions—music, sport, politics or whatever—and our heroes in those fields. Mine from an early age were guitar music, guitarists and their guitars: Eddie Cochran and his Gretsch, Bert Weedon and his Guild, Hank Marvin and his Burns, Lennon and his Rickenbacker.

Most of us don’t have the talent to indulge our passions personally, at least not at an elite level, and therefore do so vicariously, through our heroes. So, on the odd occasion when our personal lives and the idealised world of our heroes intersect, it’s OK in my book to be, as I was, a little star-struck.

But the sense of referred glamour didn’t last long, because Banksie’s request reflected a harsh reality: the economics of making and performing music in the 21st century.

Musicians have always been the last to get paid, but it’s even harder for them today. The internet, social media and streaming services have destroyed the business model of record sales, regular gigging and tours that underpinned the music industry’s growth in the 1960s and 1970s.

Online technology has made music more ubiquitous than ever, especially through personal listening devices, so that individuals these days are increasingly accessing music privately and relying less than their parents did on mass media and live venues.

scream on headphones

The alienating effect of personal listening devices… (Source: everydayisspecial.blogspot.com)

And advances in electronic music equipment have made it easier for solo performers, DJs or small groups to flood venues with big digital soundscapes at a fraction of the cost that promoters would have to pay to hire a more traditional band of three, four or more musicians.

It’s got to the point that many live venues don’t charge the punters for the music. The idea is that the band brings in the crowds to increase the trade at the bar, then gets paid out of the “additional” takings. The proportion they receive is usually no more than a few hundred bucks in total.

I’ve even heard that some venues expect the musicians to underwrite the bar take: so, if the expected “additional” $2,000 or whatever doesn’t materialise on the night, the musicians are expected to compensate the venue. You couldn’t make it up.

My guess is that, for most of their working lives, The Sidemen would have followed the traditional template of gigging, session work, song writing and teaching, enabling them to enjoy satisfying careers and decent, though probably not particularly flashy, lifestyles.

Now, they face the same challenges as everybody else.

“When you think of all the talent and experience and years of musical history that these guys represent, there’s got to be a way of rewarding them more appropriately, in a way that gives value to the public too,” said Banksie toward the end of the call. “The question is, what is it?”

He was speaking now, not as the stars-in-his-eyes front man planning a major gig, but as a successful, retired businessman warming to a new challenge: how to introduce a measure of equitability in an industry where, more than ever, producers and creators are being denied a fair share of their rewards by distributors and consumers.

“I don’t know,” he said, answering his own question, “but I’m working on it.”

SHARING A PERFECT WAVE

I confess I’ve never seen the 2001 Australian hit movie, Lantana. Noirish, introspective stories about tangled relationships in suburban Sydney are not my thing. As far as I can tell, though, the title and creeping-plant imagery are well suited to the theme. I just tried reading the plot summary on Wikipedia; it was like ingesting broken glass.

Cue Bruce. He was part of the team, including Paul Kelly, that created the film’s soundtrack. The second set begins with the Lantana trailer, minus sound, playing on the backdrop and Bruce improvising over it. A dark and empty road lights up like foil in the headlights of a car; couples couple or glare moodily at each other; one woman talks tearfully to another; two men snarl at each other; Geoffrey Rush stares down at the Hawkesbury River, as into a metaphysical void; a woman’s body is thrown from the car….

Bruce’s music creeps from the shadows and curls itself around the images like the caress of a lover which, at any second, could snap into a stranglehold.

He’s from Bright, a charming old gold mining town in Victoria. Before being discovered by Richard Clapton’s bass player, he’d never played to an audience of more than about five people. Now his track record includes working with Kelly, Russell Morris, Renee Geyer, Colin Hay, The Waifs, Archie Roach and many more. He’s worked on the music for 15 films and won an ARIA for Lantana.

“You were there when Kelly wrote ‘How to Make Gravy’, weren’t you?” asks Banksie. “What happened?”

“Well, he walked into the room, playing a guitar, and said, ‘What do you think? It’s got a few chords from another song so I’m not really sure….’ And I said, ‘Nah, it’s really good. Work on it.’”

From little things, big things grow.

Guest vocalist Mark Jelfs channels Kelly with a near-perfect rendering of ‘Gravy’, and the show changes gear. The interviews are done, and the songs are no longer in support of anecdote or historical perspective. From this point on, The Sidemen are playing whatever the hell they want to.

The classics—so many of them my personal favourites—come thick and fast: ‘Rag Mama Rag’, ‘Drive My Car’, ‘Come Together’, ‘Heading in the Right Direction’ (the Renee Geyer classic with Vanessa delivering a beautifully judged lead vocal), ‘Shape I’m In’, ‘Oh Well’ and ‘Family Man’.

People are dancing, filling the space in front of the stage; the rest of us are either standing or rocking in our seats, clapping time. I turn to my Better Half: “Hey, that’s my amp up there!!”

Sidemen dancers

One timeless moment (Source: LisaGPhotography)

“Yes, dear, lovely,” she says, and pats my knee before losing herself in the moment again.

We’re all reliving the best musical times of our lives, but there’s something else going on here, too. It’s particularly noticeable on ‘Come Together’ and an unrehearsed ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ which forms part of the encore (Rick walks over to Banksie: “Is this in E?” Banksie laughs and nods.)

Is it the sound quality? It’s been good all night, but now it seems to lift a notch. Or maybe the songs are taking on a new, fresh life of their own. We know them inside out, but they sound clear and pristine, as though we’re hearing them for the first time.

The Sidemen are not just purveying musical history, they’re creating their own timeless moment—and we’re part of it.

That’s not just my opinion. It’s clear from the mood of the rest of the audience as we spill out onto the street that it’s been a pretty special evening. So often when you get carried along by a crowd you feel as though you’re spiralling downward into something; not this time. The sense of energy and release is palpable, as though we’re all surfing the same perfect wave.

That’s when my moment of clarity hits: the real story of The Sidemen is not about the stars they supported back in the day, but about the talent, skills, hard work, creative energy and unassuming professionalism they’ve brought, and continue to bring, to every job they’ve done.

And it’s about the enduring musical legacy and tradition they’ve created in the process. Stars come and go, but it’s the side men and women of this world who keep the show on the road.

Sidemen taking applause

Job done (Source: LisaGPhotography)

At the pub the next day we catch up with Banksie, his family and friends, and most of The Sidemen. The mood is tired but happy. Bruce has had to go back to Melbourne for a gig. Before he went, he said something to Banksie which, we agree, will resonate with us for a long time.

“In 40 years of playing live, that’s the first time I’ve ever spoken on stage.”

 

Gloves Off: Simon Hits Back at Lizard’s “Socially Useful Aliens” Idea

Hi, Lizard – sorry, mate, this just won’t do. I’m referring to your “goats and aliens” piece in which you flag the notion that alienated people “might have a positive function as the existential scapegoats of society”. I think this notion is self-contradictory and that your argument makes a logical—or, rather, illogical—leap when you switch from a subjective perspective to that of a hypothetical “disinterested observer”. You gloss over fundamental ambiguities, such as whether alienation is a psychological or philosophical condition, and you end up proposing a synthetic answer to an empirical question (which is rather suspect, if it’s meant to be the result of disinterested observation).

I’ll reference your points and make observations about each one.

  1. “What has occurred to me…is that people like usalienated peoplemight have a positive function as the existential scapegoats of society.

The whole point of being alienated is that you’re on the margins of society or completely outside it. You have no relationship with society and no function within it, other than to submit to its demands—which, being alienated, you can’t in all conscience do.

  1. The idea came to me during a weekend spent struggling with some familiar demons…. So, let’s take a step back and look at this from a broader perspectivenot my subjective point of view alone, but that of a disinterested observer assessing society in the round.

This seems very convenient. How can you simply switch perspective like that? There is an emotional cost to being alienated, and it usually involves being anxious, isolated, angry and depressed. These are chronic ailments, not a temporary excursion such as a “weekend struggling with some familiar demons”.

leloir_-_jacob_wrestling_with_the_angel

Weekends at The Lizard’s

This is a structural shift in your argument from the psychological to the philosophical, which you fail to acknowledge. More importantly, there is a much wider question as to whether alienation is a psychological or philosophical condition, or both, but you ignore it. I don’t necessarily expect you to answer the question (has anyone, yet?) but you could at least point to it and note the ambiguity it creates.

  1. Let’s assume that this observer subscribes to your Alienation Theory of History and sees our society and its existential discontents as the consequence, ultimately, of the human crisis that occurred when the hunter-gatherer lifestyle gradually gave way to settled, urban life.… In real time, with the toing and froing between these opposite poles possibly resembling a sort of Hegelian dialectic, this society might even appear to be (from the outside) a self-compensating system.

This is another structural shift, in which you evoke an external construct (the Alienation Theory of History) arbitrarily, adding a synthetic dimension to what you have otherwise presented as an empirical proposition. You’re now discussing alienation, or purporting to do so, while drawing on knowledge acquired through relationships. Hardly a purist’s position, and one that is surely fundamentally self-contradictory!

I’ll quote the rest of your piece from this point in full.

  1. I find this idea rather interesting. What if our agonising and writing about the human condition is not just the private malady we’ve always considered it to be, but also the way in which society makes up for its materialistic excesses, even if this arrangement isn’t officially recognised and those who are perpetrating the excesses don’t give a fig about us.   [ Perhaps, like the scapegoats of the Old Testament, our role is to atone for the sins of others? We suffer to make up for the fact that they don’t.  [There are dangers implicit in this idea, of course: we should be wary of developing a Messiah complex. But it’s positive in the sense that it gives us some social context and provides a link between us and those who, in their preoccupation with material concerns, are oblivious to us and the wider meaning of their lives.

The contradiction is blatant here: you’ve squared the circle, inserted a round peg into a square hole; you’ve imagined the alienated as having a place in society. Worse than that, you’ve assigned them a subservient role. Have you considered the political implications of this? Very often it’s the outsiders who initiate change and progress; what you’re proposing here is an essentially conservative model in which the alienated, whether they’re being critical of the status quo or collaborative with it, are basically serving it. Your conversation has morphed miraculously from being about the individual and the human condition to being about institutions, and the relationship between them. You’re no longer talking about alienation, for Christ’s sake—you’re talking about Church and State!!!

I mean, SERIOUSLY???

Love,

Simon.

Pic: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Alexandre Louis Leloir (1865)

Of goats and aliens: the Lizard replies to the Stranger

Dear Stranger – your seven types of alienation seem reasonable. I haven’t been able to think of any others; will let you know when I do. What has occurred to me recently, however, is that people like us—alienated people—might have a positive function as the existential scapegoats of society.

scapegoat-james-tissot

Agnus Dei: the Scapegoat, by James Tissot

The idea came to me during a weekend spent struggling with some familiar demons. I was bemoaning the fact that my religious and sheltered childhood had hard-wired me to believe, as a default position, that the spiritual is more real than (and superior to) the material. This is the core assumption of most poets, lunatics, romantics and religious fanatics. I never had the financial resources, social support network or mental deficiency that would allow me to indulge such fancies, of course; I had to make my own way in the world and take it on in all its gross materialism.

But my upbringing disqualified me from any meaningful worldly success—the kind that results in complete, or at least sufficient, financial independence. That was the cause of my anger and depression. I felt, as I often do, that my parents had entered me in the School egg-and-spoon race and then, just before the starting gun, decided to amputate one of my legs. There are many, many people worse off than me, of course, but this is the way in which, and the extent to which, I feel frustrated with my lot.

And I am not alone. There are so many of us. We are almost a discrete social class, but most of the time we are barely visible. When we are noticed, we are usually dismissed as fringe-dwellers.

So, let’s take a step back and look at this from a broader perspective—not my subjective point of view alone, but that of a disinterested observer assessing society in the round.

Let’s assume that this observer subscribes to your Alienation Theory of History and sees our society and its existential discontents as the consequence, ultimately, of the human crisis that occurred when the hunter-gatherer lifestyle gradually gave way to settled, urban life. Society now, with the materialistically adept in charge and the spiritually adept forever on the back foot, might look like the logical outcome of such an historical evolution. In real time, with the toing and froing between these opposite poles possibly resembling a sort of Hegelian dialectic, this society might even appear to be (from the outside) a self-compensating system.

I find this idea rather interesting. What if our agonising and writing about the human condition is not just the private malady we’ve always considered it to be, but also the way in which society makes up for its materialistic excesses, even if this arrangement isn’t officially recognised and those who are perpetrating the excesses don’t give a fig about us?

Perhaps, like the scapegoats of the Old Testament, our role is to atone for the sins of others? We suffer to make up for the fact that they don’t.

There are dangers implicit in this idea, of course: we should be wary of developing a Messiah complex. But it’s positive in the sense that it gives us some social context and provides a link between us and those who, in their preoccupation with material concerns, are oblivious to us and the wider meaning of their lives.

Best,

Lizard.

River Notes 1

hawkesbury-1

I’m facing downstream;

Upstream is for the Oedipal,

Those who are seeking answers to the mysteries of life:

Who am I? Why am I here? What’s it all about?

The answers are not at the source,

They are in the flow

And you must catch them as you drift;

And I have drifted far enough

To want to pause, to feel the current

Push against the tide, suspend my animation long enough

For me to think about

The answers I have learned,

Before the river pours me

One last time

Into the forgetful sea.

Seven Types of Alienation

Just putting this out there. Anyone agree with this list? I aimed at seven because it’s a satisfying number and has some literary precedence (“Seven Types of Ambiguity”, etc.). Are there more? What remedies would you propose?

  1. Social

An inability to identify with “mainstream” values and a sense of being disconnected from the broad mass of people. Possible cause: insufficient socialisation when young.

social-alienation

  1. Economic

Lack of creative or personal satisfaction in one’s working life; the oppression of needing to work for purely material reasons, absent of any moral value or purpose. Possible cause: lack of suitable employment opportunities, lack of capital (which would make self-employment an option), lack of appropriate education, training or skills.

economic-alienation

  1. Cultural

Culture: the values and modes of expression that are distinctive to a group of people. Cultural alienation may occur when two or more culturally distinctive groups of people inhabit the same location, but their values and modes of expression are not commonly shared and tend to divide rather than unite them. Causes: historical conquest (English language in Wales, for example), multiculturalism etc.

cultural-alienation-2

4. Personal

The sense of dislocation and alienation that can follow a change of consciousness triggered by an epiphany or some other event that changes one’s view or understanding of the world, usually in the direction of disillusionment. The self feels trapped and isolated in a reality which appears to be irremediably fragmented, and which offers no obvious escape. Possible cause: a traumatic, life-changing experience – for example, death of a loved one, parental divorce, end of a relationship, loss of faith etc.

personal-alienation_the-scream

  1. Interpersonal

Alienation that occurs between people – individuals and/or groups. Can be one-sided or mutual. Possible causes: breach of trust (real or perceived), atavistic anxiety (engineered by a populist politician turning one part of society against another, for example).

cultural-alienation

  1. Intellectual

Intellectual alienation: the “two cultures” syndrome and the notion of left-brain, right- brain dichotomy. Possible causes: originating (theoretically) in the primal Neolithic alienation and exacerbated by the increasingly specialised nature of work since the industrial revolution.   A contrast to the “Renaissance man” model.

intellectual-alienation-2

  1. Creative

The separation of a person from the source of his/her creativity. The sources of creativity can be many, varied and complex, including local environment, traditional ideas and community values, forms of creative stimulation (books, paintings etc.), the means of creative production, personal freedom, the opportunity to engage with the creative areas of one’s consciousness (i.e. time, peace and quiet to meditate, reflect, read etc.). Possible causes: relocation, exposure to new and challenging world views/values; any breach in the sense of continuity or cohesiveness in one’s life.

creative-alienation

Picture sources or credits: carejoy.com, Cornell Press, JTM Signs, Edvard Munch, Palgrave Macmillan, Picasso, Tommy Huynh

Cheers,

The Stranger.

A Mudgee Moment

Some moments come to you as a gift. On a visit to Mudgee at the weekend I found a café tucked away in a courtyard behind one of the main streets. As in most Australian country towns, the shops were closed on Saturday afternoon, so the café was quiet. A middle-aged woman sat alone, reading her Kindle, on one of a suite of faded armchairs arranged around a low table which effectively formed the centrepiece of the outdoor seating area. I took a side table next to the door of the café interior, close to a speaker that relayed a tasteful selection of modern country blues. The staff – all women – were friendly and I ordered a large flat white and a slice of fruit loaf. Sparrows pecked at the uneven cobbles and flew up to perch on the bare vines that hung overhead, watching for the next opportunity to snatch a crumb. I waited for them to pounce.

“Look at you, enjoying the peace and quiet,” said the waitress as she set down my coffee.

“It’s an oasis,” I said. “And I love the music.”

Mudgee is a typical Australian country town of wide streets and low colonial buildings where church spiers are still the tallest structures you can see, until your eye wanders to the blond-green hills beyond them. The old rural and gold-mining economy of the surrounding area has been replaced by vineyards and olive groves, and wine bars and restaurants specialising in local produce alternate with older, less glamorous businesses such as pubs, Thai massage parlours and thrift shops. In the quieter enclaves, several retail premises stand empty.

mudgee-post-office

Old Telegraph Station and Post Office, Mudgee

On this afternoon, Saturday or not, the main street had a lively atmosphere, thanks mainly to the al fresco winers and diners. At one end of the street, close to where the Cudgegong river cuts through the town, a saddlery stood opposite a wine bar offering live music. The shop was open and I wandered in, drawn by the wholesome smell of leather.

cudgegong

Cudgegong River, Mudgee

“Where you from, mate?” Behind the counter an old lady sat hunched over a sewing machine, rapid-fire strafing a horse blanket with needle and thread.  Her red leathery skin made her hair seem whiter than it really was.

“Sydney.”

She nodded, as if to say, “Thought so.”

“I’m normally closed at this time, but I’ve got so much to do.”

At the other end of the street, and at what seemed to be the far end of the town’s cultural spectrum, I found the Mudgee Art House, run by a painter called Warwick Behr. He signs himself Warbehr. I bought a print of his painting of a black cockatoo—a mysterious and iconic Australian bird, reimagined as a splash of psychedelic colour.

warbehr-print-black-cockatoo-on-mustard_grande

Black Cockatoo on Mustard, by Warbehr

 

Intimate Strangers: Rody Finally Gets It

Dear Stranger – this is a very belated reply to your helpful discussion of, in your words, the “two…extremes” of the human condition, pagan egoism and civilised alienation. I think that’s a fair description of the polarity I felt after my Nimbin experience. The reason I’m writing now is that I’ve been motivated to do so by a recent incident which has helped me to put things in a deeper perspective.

As you know, I promoted the wedding anniversary song “Can’t Stand the Heat” on Facebook earlier this month, to coincide with Valentine’s Day. It did well, with more than 2,000 hits on Soundcloud and 1,500 likes, 54 comments and 284 shares on FB. For reasons I don’t quite understand, nearly all the responses were from South Africa, although I had also targeted Australia, New Zealand, the US and UK in the campaign. I can only assume there was some sort of bias in the FB algorithm; either that, or South Africans are a lot more romantic and sentimental than the rest of the English-speaking world. Personally, I incline toward the algorithm theory.

Now, here’s the thing: the (overwhelmingly positive) comments were mostly about the love that people felt for their long-term (and, in some cases, deceased) wives, husbands or partners (I was targeting a 30 to 65+ age demographic). It was a privilege to receive from absolute strangers open and emotional comments about an intimate matter of such importance to them. It reminded me of the familiar phrase and film title, “Intimate Strangers”, which neatly captures the tension between the intimacy of the comments I received and the fact that they were from people unknown to me. This polarity between intimacy and stranger-ness seemed to carry an echo of your ego-alien polarity.

intimate-strangers

And another echo: the one implicit in the words “Universal Stranger”—most of us are unknown to our fellow humans, but we all share a common or universal humanity.

This begins to look like what you call the middle way or the space between: a sense of half-connectedness with humanity in general, which is both forced upon us by the alienating effects of modern society and yet also made possible by the technology which is so much a part of that society. Conceptually, it looks like a paradox, but it lies behind what, for many of us, is a psychological truth: And then that voice said/You’ll always live/Between the Whirlpool and the Worm. (“Black Wave”)

Thanks for the insight. All I need to do now is figure out how to apply it in a practical way each day.

Cheers,

Rody.

 

New Australia Day: a Modest Proposal

Australia Day means different things to different people: for Anglo Australians, it marks the beginning of European settlement and the transformation of a pristine wilderness into a modern democratic nation state; for many indigenous Australians, it’s “Invasion Day”, the beginning of the end of their traditional way of life and the source of their present-day difficulties.

In my case it was the date in 1991 when, with my pregnant wife and young family, I left the UK to make our home here.

After a 24-hour flight and the adjustment of our watches, we arrived on January 28 to find that the area of Sydney where we were to spend our first few weeks had been devastated by a cyclone. Just two weeks later my wife went into premature labour. She was hospitalised. The baby – the longed-for sister for our two sons – was born two months later but survived only a few hours.

turramurra-cyclone-1991

Welcome to Australia. Source: The Daily Telegraph

Our personal history has much in common with that of other migrants and, indeed, the history of modern Australia: a fresh start, hope, crushing disappointment, resilience and survival. We have our third child: he’s a fine, strapping young man, just like his elder siblings. Not only that, but we have just welcomed our first grandchild (another boy!) into the world. Life doesn’t get much better.

So, when I think of Australia Day, I think of a lot of things, good and bad.

Consequently, it’s not hard for me to imagine that Australia Day is good for some people, less good for others. I’m not a fan of the black arm-band view of history and I love this country unreservedly, but I’m not blind to its faults. I have no first-hand experience of the kind of deprivation suffered by many indigenous Australians, but I’ve seen enough of it to know that it’s real and to understand why Australia Day is alienating for many of our first people.

So, let’s change the date; and let’s not.

nicholson-cartoon

Peter Nicholson, The Australian

I’m conciliatory rather than combative by nature, and the heated – and, all too often, overheated – debate about whether to change the date and what the new date should be doesn’t float my boat. So much of it is little more than grandstanding; no-one appears to be seriously committed to finding a solution. For what it’s worth, here’s my suggestion.

In the interests of acknowledging our history, both the good bits and the bad, and celebrating our achievements, let’s keep Australia Day on January 26. And let’s choose an entirely different day as “New Australia Day”.

That’s right – two Australia Days, if you like, each with a different but complementary purpose. While January 26 would still look at our past, and at our present in the context of that past, New Australia Day would challenge us to look to the future as one people. While January 26 would still celebrate what we have been and what we have become, New Australia Day should inspire us to embrace our potential to become something bigger and better – more egalitarian, more inclusive, more open-minded and open-hearted…more Australian, in the best sense.

Naturally, only one of these days would be a public holiday, and I think it should be New Australia Day. The change would be an acknowledgement that Australia has moved beyond (but not forgotten) its British and European roots and is maturing as a multi-cultural society which values its shared traditions, including those of indigenous people, and the opportunity they represent to create a richer and fairer future for everyone.

Mark Kenny recently argued in the Sydney Morning Herald for changing Australia Day to May 9. His reasons for choosing that date were good, but I think it would be a better New Australia Day.

C’mon Aussies, let’s end this pointless bickering and meet each other halfway with a double-barrelled national celebration which, while admittedly a compromise, is still symbolically meaningful: an acceptance of our past together on one day, followed at a later date by a new imaginative space in our national life in which we can come together and pool our strength, hopes and visions for the future.

The Space Between: The Stranger Replies to Rody’s Post-Nimbin Crisis

Hi, Rody – so you see yourself poised to make a choice between pagan spirituality and “civilised” (presumably secular?) values, and possibly some mixture of the two. Let’s think this through.

My approach, as you know, is to go back to basics and consult the Alienation Theory of History. The dichotomy you describe is analogous to that between the hunter-gatherer (pagan spirituality) and agrarian settler (civilised values). I won’t dwell on this point too much; I mention it mainly to create a broader sense of context.

Having done so, let me reference certain characteristics associated with each state, based on other people’s historical observations and my own personal experience. I shall single out one each: egoism in the case of pagan spirituality and alienation in the case of civilised values.

The spirituality of the pagan is spontaneous and creative. There is a subjective element: the pagan feels a personal affinity to the deity. If it’s mediated at all, it’s mediated by charismatic individuals (priests, druids etc.) rather than by highly developed and literate institutions. In such a culture, the personal and ecstatic mix freely. Solipsism is never more than a step away. (I’m simplifying and generalising, obviously, but don’t stop me now….)

“Civilised values” evolve over time but a constant theme is the individual’s relationship with the state. This is the core of The Epic of Gilgamesh: for Gilgamesh to become a good king, he had to experience love, loss, grief and acceptance of death. His building of the wall at the end of the story marks the transition, but his labours convey no sense of spiritual vitality: he is reconciled but alienated, too.

gilgamesh-wall

Build that wall, Gil (Source: www.baruch.cuny.edu)

The simple egoism of ordinary people is a given. It has its roots in prehistory but is visible everywhere in our consumer-driven, celebrity-led society. If you immerse yourself in your pagan spiritual impulse, you risk losing yourself to your ego, and giving yourself up to extreme subjectivity.

As for the alternative, I believe that some degree of alienation is the price we pay for being part of a civilised society. At the most basic level, it means being able to subordinate one’s own impulses to the greater good. At the extreme, of course, it could mean losing yourself entirely, and enabling the abstractions and mechanisms of the world to corrode and even dissolve your sense of self.

I’m inclined to think there’s a middle way: rather than choose one over the other, stake out some neutral space for yourself between them, where egoism on one side and alienation on the other become the boundaries within which you can be your own man.

You may not need much to be free and fulfilled in that small world: common sense, love, decency, self-respect and respect for others would be, I imagine, a good start. It’s a humble way to live, but (to my mind, at least) it has the attraction of being independent from those two invidious extremes of the human condition.

Does that help?

Stranger.

 

Pagan spirituality vs. civilised alienation: Rody’s post-Nimbin existential meltdown

Dear Stranger,

Further to my Nimbin roots festival review of September 28, I’ve been thinking about the experience from a deeply personal perspective. Like most people on this blog, I’m trying to figure out where I belong in the general scheme of things. In my case, this questioning arises from youthful experience of relocation and alienation, which resulted in my feeling “cut off” from my creative roots—the land and the people of my childhood. At Nimbin, I glimpsed the possibility of reconnecting to them.

nimbin-heads

Only reconnect (Source: Nimbin Roots Festival FB page)

Nimbin of course is on the opposite side of the planet to where I was born but, as I noted in the piece, there are similarities between the town (drug culture aside) and where I grew up: a relatively small community with a retail economy set in a rural environment. This and the vibe that was everywhere that weekend revived in me a sense of creative possibility I hadn’t felt since I began writing music and poetry in my teens.

The question is, how do I respond to this or build on it? Do I immerse myself in the pagan spirituality that the Nimbin hippie culture represents, or do I draw on it as material for a broader creative enterprise which also addresses more “civilised” or conventional values?

I feel as though I’m at a crossroads here.

Sincerely,

Rody.