≈ Comments Off on Stretching My Legs: a Dog, the Dead, and a Mad-Looking Librarian
Yesterday, I went for a 6km walk. Instead of visiting the usual bush lookouts, I kept to the streets. My destination: the war memorial next to the community centre at the head of Galley Road. It’s a nice, quiet spot. The monument squats in the corner of a tennis-court-size lawn, one point in a triangle in which each of the other two corners is marked by a park bench, both in need of paint.
The car park was dominated by a large red truck, an Australian Red Cross mobile blood transfusion centre, left there for a few days so that the locals can do their bit. Donors came and went. They included a youngish Asian couple with an old collie. The man ducked into the truck while the dog, slipped from its lead, sniffed around. The woman called him a few times but, deaf or indifferent, he ignored her.
“He likes to take his time,” she said.
“Showing his independence,” I replied. She smiled, barely.
When she put him back on the lead, I reflected that, in human terms, he was probably about my age. For a moment I wondered how it would feel to be totally dependent on her.
Communing with the dead isn’t really my thing, but they are unobtrusive and therefore congenial company. Some of the names were familiar—Windybank, for example; and strange: one surname was “Sustenance”. I sat there for nearly an hour. What would I say if someone I knew saw me? “What are you doing here?” they would probably ask, to which I would reply: “Dwelling on the past is melancholy; I prefer to contemplate my future.” Not everyone appreciates droll gallows humour.
The centre houses a branch library. I called in to browse. As I was leaving, I noticed a young female librarian who hadn’t been at the front desk when I arrived. She stood with her back to me, absorbed in her work. She had long blonde hair and her black top and jeans showed a pleasing figure.
As I walked past her, I turned to thank her with what I like to think is my charming-and-totally-unleering old-man smile. It must have faded quickly. The lower half of her face was obscured by a blue surgical mask. Above it, her eyes were wide and bright, probably because she was smiling back at me and acknowledging my old-fashioned courtesy. The eyes were lovely but, deprived of their proper facial context, looked slightly deranged.
On the way back, before turning into Cockatoo Road, I paused to peer into the bush. Close up, it’s a confusion of fine green brush strokes (she-oaks, etc) and bold brown lines (tree trunks—thin and, below their canopies, mostly branchless). A bit like Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.
Along Cockatoo Road, two of my female neighbours—one walking her dog, the other returning from the shops—were deep in conversation. Continuing the old-fashioned courtesy theme, I raised my hat as I approached and intoned “Ladies”, just as one of them said “…and then I had diarrhoea.” Spoiled the effect somewhat, I thought.
≈ Comments Off on The Queen, the Prime Minister and the Rise of Woke
As the world remembers Queen Elizabeth II and ponders the symbolism of her life and the monarchy, a fact likely to go largely unnoticed is that the month of her passing coincides with the thirty-fifth anniversary of a very different, but also highly symbolic, event in British history.
It was in September 1987 that then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in an interview with Woman’s Own magazine, uttered the immortal—and, for many, notorious—words: “There is no such thing as society”.
The contrast between the monarch who selflessly served her country, her faith and the traditions she inherited, and the neoconservative politician who saw life and the world in terms of market forces could not be starker.
It helps to illuminate the economic, social and cultural changes that have taken place in the last three and a half decades, and goes some way toward explaining many of the crises that we face—crises that can be traced back, with relatively little difficulty, to Thatcher’s ill-chosen words.
Naïve and Idealistic
To be fair, Thatcher was not advocating a devil-take-the-hindmost philosophy. She was elaborating a view of life that rejected the notion of society as a theoretical construct in favour of a vision of men and women as flesh-and-blood individuals seeing to their own needs first, then the needs of others.
It was a world in which no individual had an a priori claim on social welfare. She did not dispute that the unfortunate may need help, but she insisted that such provision should be made within a framework of rights and obligations that fell equally upon all individuals, rich and poor.
Her ideas are often dismissed as social Darwinism; they might equally be seen as naïve and idealistic, because they are so impractical. Essentially, they delegate social welfare, charity and altruism to market forces—dynamics that are impersonal in aggregate and self-interested at the individual level.
The destructive import of her words, however, is not confined to the narrow concerns of social welfare. It extends well into the macroeconomic sphere, and even into geopolitics.
Economic Expediency vs. Social Cohesion
Few who lived through Britain’s strikebound Winter of Discontent from November 1978 to February 1979 would deny that it paved the way for Thatcher to become Prime Minister the following May. There is little doubt that her economic policies, though stringent, were necessary.
But they came at an enormous social cost. Cuts in public spending led to record unemployment (11.9% in April 1984), while privatisation and attacks on the trade-union movement helped to dismantle important sources of cohesion in working-class life.
“Thatcherism”, of course, was not confined to the UK. It was a local manifestation of a Western trend inspired by classical liberal economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and supported by Thatcher’s political contemporary and ally, US President Ronald Reagan.
At a macro level, the trend resulted in financial deregulation, the increased mobility of capital, and globalization, in which manufacturing jobs migrated from Western nations to the low-cost workforces of developing countries, further undermining social cohesion in the West.
Many lines of historical cause and effect can be drawn between the economic expediency pursued by Thatcher and her peers and the social and cultural deprivation that we experience today. They all culminate with the rise of populism and Donald Trump becoming US President in 2016.
And with the rise of woke.
Self-Identity vs. Social Identity
Social theorists commonly distinguish between an individual’s social identity and self-identity. The former is a sense of self and belonging that derives from being part of a group; the latter is the sense of personal identity that one perceives as being intrinsic to oneself, independent of social influences.
Thatcher’s elevation of economic concerns above social ones, the effect of her policies in helping to erode social cohesion, and her emphasis on the primacy of individual initiative and enterprise, have created a milieu in which self-identity has taken precedence over social identity.
A consequence evident in her own time was the emergence of the yuppie, or young upward professional. The epitome of self-interest and social mobility (or rootlessness), the yuppie was a forerunner of today’s privileged meritocrats and technocrats, often referred to as “the élites”.
Meanwhile the less privileged—the outliers and minorities of society—have invested their sense of self-identity in aspects of themselves that put them (or are perceived to put them) at odds with the mainstream: race, sexuality, gender and so on. Hence the rise of identity politics and woke.
Woke is widely seen as the province of the left, but it has its roots in Thatcherism, as both result and reaction. Within the left, it works against the centrist tradition created by Tony Blair and New Labour in response to Thatcher (who once described Blair and New Labour as her “greatest achievement”).
And the fact that Western companies and cultural institutions are eagerly embracing woke values in the form of diversity and inclusion, corporate citizenship and responsible investment should surprise no-one. Woke is, after all, a product of the market forces that drive them.
There are two lessons to be drawn from this, both highlighted by the Queen’s passing.
A Time for Reflection, Risk and Opportunity
The first is that the conservatives who mourn her passing as the loss of a strand of continuity in an uncertain world should reflect—and reflect deeply—on the extent to which neoconservative values and policies have helped to create that uncertainty.
And while they’re about it, they should consider how to rebalance today’s prevailing right-wing economic orthodoxy with the more traditional social and cultural values that conservatism is meant to represent.
The second lesson is that the new King represents an opportunity and a risk. The risk is that his well-meaning but unworldly progressivism may tilt the monarchy further from social identity to the tendency for self-identity which has already captured too many members of the royal family.
But he may also provide an opportunity to re-align the progressive values he represents with the traditional values so well exemplified by the late Queen, to the benefit not just of the monarchy but society as a whole. One can only hope.
≈ Comments Off on Lizard, somewhat bemused, replies to The Stranger…
Stranger – you’ve completely lost me. You interpret the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection as telling us that we have to think creatively – “That is, look for the truth outside history, or the external pattern of events”. And then you immediately say, “This, to me, seems to be consistent with the Alienation Theory of History, in which we are invited to look back over time to arrive at an understanding…” etc. These are completely contradictory statements. How can one possibly follow the other?
≈ Comments Off on Handel’s Messiah, a bird and the anti-climax of the Resurrection
On Sunday (28.3.21) went to see an amateur (local church) choir perform Messiah. Let’s just say the music shone through. When I was a child, it left me cold: all those twiddly bits. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to enjoy baroque music, if not fully to understand or appreciate it. Even so, it took an effort of historical imagination, while listening to the choir, to reconcile (to my satisfaction, at least) the exuberance of the music to the weight of the subject matter.
I am, as usual, speculating from a position of ignorance, but it seems plausible to me that most 18th century listeners would not have noticed any incongruity. Handel and Jennens were men of faith writing in an age of faith: their composition was not an exploration of the human condition but a celebration of it, as redeemed through Christ. There’s no psychological dimension to the music, no exploration of human existential anxiety, because, in terms of the composer’s and librettist’s own cultural assumptions, such issues had already been resolved. This leaves the music free to explore its own possibilities, its autonomy lending no direct support to the weight or meaning of the words—which, in any case, are carried by a power of their own.
And yet there is a sense in which the words and music do complement each other, if you can accept the (fanciful, or perhaps baroque?) idea that the music’s autonomy symbolizes the freedom that Christ’s sacrifice bought for humanity. It’s an idea that begs to be synthesized by an image: I think of a bird flying into a temple, darting hither and thither in the incense-infused half-light, singing freely over the sombre ritual below.
No, I don’t take the Bible literally, but I do try to relate to it in human terms. One consequence is that the Resurrection always strikes me as something of an anti-climax: Christ is never more fully alive in the Gospels than when he’s at the point of death. Yes, I understand the theological importance of the Resurrection and the idea that it gives us hope for eternal life. After Christ’s terrible suffering, however, it’s a gift I’m almost embarrassed to accept. More importantly, it eclipses what, for me, is Christ’s true gift: the possibility of resurrection in life. More than once the idea of an infinitely renewable relationship—God’s unconditional love, and our ability to receive it through repentance as a result of Christ’s sacrifice—has pulled me back from the edge.
≈ Comments Off on Epitaph for a generation: Nigel Philip Davies’ second album
Four years ago, when reviewing Nigel Philip Davies’ first album, Songs from a River, I tried to put my finger on what it meant, culturally (pretentious, I know, but I can’t help myself). More as a result of desperation than inspiration, I invented a genre for it, Old Wave music, and opined that it reflected “the reality of the ageing of the boomer generation: the generation that invented youth culture, now coming to terms with its own mortality”.
Having just listened to the Welsh singer/songwriter’s second album, Reflections, I’m allowing myself to feel that I wasn’t so wide of the mark after all.
Nigel Philip Davies: a moment in time
In fact, this collection of songs inclines me to double down on my original assertion. The more you listen to it, it feels less like an album and more like a moment in time: a generation (mine/ours) looking back on its era and putting its emotional affairs in order in preparation for what we know we’re all going to face in the not too distant future.
Not that this is album is all doom and gloom—far from it—and I stress that this interpretation is very much my own, no doubt coloured by our current reality of coronavirus lockdowns, social unrest and rising geopolitical tensions. I don’t know if Davies would agree with my take on the album, and I’m not even sure that he had an over-arching theme in mind when putting it together. But the songs, while covering a variety of styles and themes, have certain elements in common that point (in my mind, at least) to a sense of cohesion.
These elements are an historical perspective—both in a formal sense (one of the highlights is a song about the holocaust) and a personal one (the passage of time and its effect on relationships)—and a lightly-worn awareness on Davies’s part of where he and his songs fit into the traditions of post-war popular music. It’s this combination of the themes of ephemerality and cultural exceptionalism which makes me think of this album as a sort of living epitaph for one of history’s most privileged, wayward and creative generations.
All of which probably means nothing more than that I’m feeling my age. So, what about the songs?
SONGS THAT RESONATE
The opener, “I’ve Been to Berlin”, is one of two jazz-influenced numbers which are a throwback to a phase of Davies’ career that pre-dates his formation of (now dormant) folk-rock band Moongazer. The song celebrates Berlin’s glory as a bohemian metropolis but does so in a style reminiscent of the 1966 musical (and 1972 film) Cabaret, based on writer Christopher Isherwood’s pre-war experiences of the city. Whether or not the association is intentional, it does point up the fact that there’s a direct line of historical continuity between Berlin’s pre-war decadence and its post-modern edginess.
Liza Minelli in ‘Cabaret’
There’s a risk with this style of criticism (i.e. trying to see songs, albums etc. in a cultural/historical context) of reading too much into things. Having made that caveat, I’m now going to say that, for me, the song traces a perfect historical arc for both the baby-boomer generation and Berlin itself: the boomers, born out of the rubble of World War II, came of age in the late 1960s when Berlin, rebuilt on the ruins of Hitler’s bunker, began to experience a cultural renaissance (the contemporary-music component of which, for example, was led by Tangerine Dream, formed there in 1967). When a boomer writes a song about today’s Berlin, and does so in a way that evokes the city in the 1930s and 1940s, such inferences are hard to resist.
So the opening track, whether by accident or design, anchors the listener’s expectations in historical and cultural references that can resonate fairly strongly with the post-war generation.
“I Live Alone” reverts to Davies’ more familiar folk style with some nicely picked acoustic backed by ambient strings and piano, its melancholy standing in marked contrast to the man-of-the-world bravura of the first track. The theme is love and loss, but something else too: “I live alone with this heart of stone, since I laid down this traitor’s throne…for my sins I must atone.” There’s a sense of emotional and moral exhaustion, an old order giving way, self-doubt, guilt and an uneasy reckoning with destiny. Not the sort of song you want to listen to last thing before going to bed, unless you’re a very sound sleeper not given to pangs of conscience.
The title of the next track, “Good Times”, immediately brings to mind the 1967 song of the same name by The Animals and there are similarities, especially the idea of a pub sing-along chorus (the British beat band placed theirs in the middle of their song while Davies uses his as the outro). While The Animals’ number has a regretful tone (young man laments his life of sinning when he could have been winning etc.), Davies’ is a more positive exercise in nostalgia, the sense of lost youth redeemed, to some extent, by the power of memory to make far-away and long-ago friends seem present here and now. The song is carried along by electric piano but solos from a surging Hammond-style organ and distorted electric guitar—Davies plays everything—add a keen edge.
Dylan is the next musical influence to get a nod, on “A Lifetime Ago (Or Maybe Two)” and “Better in the Morning”, both of which feature the master’s tinny, dissonant harmonica style and some of his vocal phrasing and lyrical feel. In “Lifetime” the hommage is secondary to the sense of Davies’ own life experience, captured vividly in the opening lines: “A lifetime ago or maybe two, the first time I set eyes on you,/pushing through the party crowd, head held high and oh so proud;/ I was laid out in a daze but through the haze I felt amazed by you.” This sets the scene nicely for a tale about socially mismatched love (“Lady and the tramp, they said—you so slim, me just underfed”) but the song ends in something of an anti-climax as the relationship’s (inevitable) failure is dealt with in a vague and almost offhand way.
The great man is more to the fore in “Better in the Morning”—a phrase, according to the album notes, often used by Davies’ mother when he was young to encourage him to take a more optimistic view of life. It didn’t work, judging by the ironic contrast between the title and the song’s dystopian social commentary: “The rich are getting richer as the huddled mass looks on/and dances in tiny circles to a politician’s song,/and every step is choreographed from the selection box of life,/while in a cold apartment another valued voter dies,/another hopeless, hapless martyr to the god of free enterprise.” The song has all the characteristic bite of Davies’ satirical pieces but, in the final analysis, it struggles to rise above the depressing realisation that, since Dylan brought the protest genre to perfection in the 1960s, things haven’t changed much; indeed, they’re probably worse.
“Always on Your Side” is a more personal form of self-expression, with Davies himself rather than his influences centre-stage. This is a moving song about lost love and well executed: the emotion in Davies’ voice is complemented by the intimate vocal ambience achieved by the mix, and the instruments—two acoustic guitars, bass, synth strings and piano—work together seamlessly. He’s a deft lyricist, too. The last line of the chorus, the first couple of times he sings it, is: “If you know how hard I tried to save you from the pain that comes when two worlds collide.” The final time he sings it, “collide” is replaced by “divide”. It packs a subtle, but effective, emotional punch.
At first listen, “Won’t You Be Mine,” is pure throw-away pop: the upbeat tone and annoyingly infectious hooks recall the bubble gum music targeted at pre-teens during the late 1960s (“Mony Mony” by Tommy James and The Shondells and “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies spring immediately to mind). Hell, the lyrics even include the phrase, “I wanna be your man”! It seems to be nothing more than a sugar-coated invitation to have sex, but there’s more going on beneath the surface. In fact, Davies turns the subgenre on its head, replacing the sense of optimistic young love with a poignant awareness of mortality: “Life passes by in the blink of an eye, look away and your dreams fall behind…Life is a game that we won’t play again”. The goofy synth solo completes the inversion. It’s as though Davies travels back in time, abducts the musically formative years of a generation, then brings them back to the present, condensed into four minutes and 20 seconds of satire, irony, and sobering reality.
“1941” is the holocaust song referred to earlier. This, say the album notes, was part of a 27-minute magnum opus Davies performed with another pre-Moongazer project, prog-rock band The Vacant Chair. It would be interesting to hear the full cut, as the monumental theme and stadium-rock cadence of the chorus seem well-suited to a large-scale production. But this stripped-down version works well. The lyrics are a little stiff and formal as if, like pall bearers, they are conscious of the weight they bear, but they stay this side of bathos. Much of their emotional power comes from the way that the meaning of the chorus—“I’m still standing”—changes over the course of the song. When the first verse refers to the loading of the trains and the “flame of hope” being extinguished, the chorus sounds like survivor guilt; when the last verse alludes to the flame being rekindled by the fight for freedom, the chorus becomes a forceful testament of witness and memory.
“True to Yourself” is another strong track which sounds as though it would go down well with a big, live audience, based on the emotional warmth of the piano and synth cello arrangement, the rising chord progression and the lyrics’ potential to inspire. It strays a bit close at times to the kind of motivational messaging that pops up in your Facebook feed every day, but it has a big heart in the right place. One can imagine Davies singing it to his kids (and grandkids, too!) and, in the context of this album, there’s an engaging pathos in the idea of an older generation singing to a younger one. It’s basically Davies doing what his mother did when she told him that it would be “Better in The Morning”. What goes around comes around.
“Why Don’t You (Close Your Eyes When We Kiss)” takes us back to the relationships theme and the sinking feeling that the one you love no longer loves you. The song lands easily on the ear with a light, wistful melody and simple, understated lyrics. The simplicity is deceptive, however, as the overall impression—helped by the sparse, chiming instrumentation of piano and acoustic guitars—is that the song is as delicate and fragile as the relationship it describes. There’s also an unexpected chord change between the verse and the chorus which, while musically pleasant, leaves you feeling slightly off balance and conveys perfectly the singer-protagonist’s own mood and perspective.
Davies’s jazz past resurfaces in “Smile”, a jaunty singalong driven by piano and a nicely tripping (in the light-fantastic sense) bass which might be guitar or synth but sounds just like double bass (you can almost see the armbands and silk waistcoat).
This is meant to be a pick-you-up-when-you’re-feeling-down number, like the song of the same name first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1954 (based on a tune written by Charlie Chaplin for his 1936 movie Modern Times) and covered by innumerable others since. Coles’ song (and the scenes in Chaplin’s film that the music sound-tracked) offered an antidote to the general vicissitudes of life; Davies’ song, however, is about growing old—“The tide of doubt is rising, you think you’ve had your day, all the tunes you used to love now no-one seems to play…”—and is another example of what I consider to be the album’s demise-of-the-baby-boomer theme. (The song also echoes, in wit and spirit, “Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian movie—a more ‘boomerish’ cultural reference than Cole.)
And so to the final track, “Going Home”, a folk song in the “Wild Rover” tradition but more melancholic and reflective. It’s the perfect sign-off for this album, looking back on a full but not entirely satisfactory life and turning towards a horizon where home is not some romantic illusion or escape (no “green, green grass” here) but something more final, symbolized by the “western skies”. It’s been a long road and, as so often happens, the journey has turned out to be the destination: “I have sought salvation in a thousand bars where all men look the same and everyone is a friend of mine, no one knows my name…/ All the things I looked for, I thought would set me free, they were there the whole time through, lost inside of me.”
The song ends quietly, quickly, with no fuss, leaving the silence to echo in the listener’s mind.
PROUD IN THE INDIE TRADITION
Like its predecessor, this album stands proud in the DIY indie-music tradition. Its modest production values give the sound a raw edge which add to the sense, reflected in each song, of a man responding as honestly as he can to the curve-balls that life throws at him (and, by extension, us). In many other comparable recording artists, these factors might be limitations, but that’s not the case with Davies, whose range of interests as a songwriter and skills as a musician combine to make this album much, much more than the sum of its parts.
≈ Comments Off on Fighting back against COVID-19: The Sidemen come out swinging
One of the few displays of kindness between public figures that we’ve seen during this shit-storm of a pandemic was Russell Crowe’s tweet to Victoria’s embattled premier, Dan Andrews: “If you find yourself going through hell, just keep going.” That seems to be the kind of spirit, and thinking, behind “Songs from Behind the Viral Curtain”, the debut EP by Steve Banks and The Sidemen.
As the title suggests, this is the band’s creative response to COVID-19 and the harsh reality of lockdown, which is more brutal for musicians (and other artists) than it is for many other segments of the population, for the simple reason that the necessarily free-flowing working lifestyles of creative people mean that they may not qualify for income support mechanisms like JobKeeper.
The Sidemen—five grizzled musicians whose careers date back to big-name acts of the 1960s—have come out swinging, in every sense. Combining Banks’ humorous lyrics and soulful vocals with a musical authority that brooks no argument, this is a punchy, confident and highly accomplished EP made more remarkable by the fact that the musos recorded remotely from each other, in lockdown,
But the music is not their only way of pushing back against our current affliction: a share of the EP’s proceeds goes to music industry charity Support Act which provides, among other programmes, support specifically for musicians affected by COVID-19. Coming from veteran rockers who’ve probably seen every high and low of a musician’s life, the donation has a certain poignancy.
The EP, however, is significant for other reasons. When Banks launched The Sidemen as a live act in May 2019 the focus, understandably, was on each member’s musical life history and the famous acts and songs with which they will be forever associated. What’s interesting about the latest project is that it sees The Sidemen working with original material for the first time.
This opens up intriguing possibilities for the band’s future development, hints of which may (or may not) be present in each of the EP’s five songs.
SLIPPING EFFORTLESSLY BETWEEN STYLES
One of the great things about musicians with long careers behind them is the ease with which they can draw on so many different musical styles and traditions. The first track, “CV Blues”, is (as the sleeve notes acknowledge) a nod to Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and draws a neat parallel between Minnie’s bohemian loucherie and the pariah status acquired by a certain Chinese bat.
But while Calloway’s song is, in part, a celebration of hedonistic nightlife, “CV Blues” (again, as noted on the sleeve) evokes a New Orleans funeral march with master-of-ceremonies Banks providing a gothic-horror-comic oration: “Take a bat with attitude—let’s not have this misconstrued: that bat, well, he done us wrong, this ain’t his redemption song.”
The horns, arranged by Paul Williamson (like co-producer and guitarist Jeff Burstin, formerly of The Black Sorrows), pick the song up and carry it, helped by some great piano fills from Bruce Haymes (also co-producer) and beautiful backing vocals from Martine Monro who, although technically a guest artist, puts her stamp on every track and forms an integral part of the EP’s overall sound.
And I can’t help feeling the song makes another nod to musical precedent in the way that most of the instruments fade at the end, leaving the horns to themselves for a few moments of glorious, alley-cat cacophony. Decades ago The Band did something similar in the middle of a song called—wait for it—“Chest Fever”. If the similarity is intentional, it’s clever; if it’s accidental, it’s spooky.
The Sidemen slip effortlessly into country mode with “12 Steps”, an upbeat number with tasteful, melodic fills from Burstin and Haymes, light-but-tight bass and drums (Greg Lyon and Grant Gerathy respectively) and seamless harmonies between Banks and Monro. The mood is deceptive, however, because, lyrically, this is the most affecting song on the EP.
It’s about addiction—or, rather, the sense of vertigo that troubles a former addict when he or she feels at risk of slipping back into old, bad habits: “I’ve been on the 12 steps to survival, I think I’m going in reverse: don’t want to let you down, don’t want to go back there, I can’t tell you which one is worse…”. And how many of us, in lockdown, haven’t felt tempted to drink and/or smoke more?
Part of the song’s power comes from a surprisingly effective narrative device. The song begins with the protagonist “walking sideways down the alley” feeling “I made a terrible mistake”, but then he wakes up “safe and sound beside you”. Far from being an anti-climax, the fact that he dreams his fears underlines, rather than diminishes, the intensity of the addict’s psychological struggle.
The remaining songs are less tied to the COVID-19 theme but no less effective or enjoyable for that. “Secrets on the Darker Side” is a warm piece of romantic nostalgia (teenage love, anyone?) in which all the musical elements—especially the guitars of Burstin and Rick Fenn, Haymes’ piano, and a tantalising vocal breakout by Monro—combine to leave you feeling youthful and optimistic again.
“Father/Son/HG” (as in Holy Ghost) has Banks in reflective, even philosophical, mood, ruminating about religion and the meaning of life. The last time I heard Banks get this deep and meaningful was on “Me, Innit”, a candidly introspective song on his solo album “Ordinary Man” (also produced by Burstin). Both songs ask deep questions about life, but only one of them really works.
The problem (as I see it) with “Father/Son/HG” is that it elaborates an opinion, rather than a state of mind. And no matter how much you might agree with the opinion (“What we need is a basic code to navigate this rocky road, not one guy—you might call him God—firing up his lightning rod”) it lacks the emotional persuasiveness of “Me, Innit”, which is based on a real internal psychodrama.
And so to the closing track, “Rooster in the Hen House,” an out-and-out rocker in which the horns are back and Burstin and Fenn give Keith Richards and Ron Wood a run for their money. A tale about sexual infidelity sung from the point of view of the gleefully unrepentant co-respondent, it just makes you want to play the EP again. And again.
WHERE TO NEXT?
If the songs do provide a pointer to The Sidemen’s future development, it’s that it could be in any direction they damned well pleased. There’s no doubting the credibility, capability and versatility of musicians like these; the only question is where these attributes will take them, once they (and we) are free to live our normal lives again.
God knows what these guys will do when they finally get into a studio together….
 Steve Banks, vocals; Bruce Haymes (The Paul Kelly Band, worked with Renee Geyer and Archie Roach); Jeff Burstin (The Black Sorrows, Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons); Greg Lyon(The Hip Operation, Georgie Fame, Crossfire, Doug Parkinson and many more); Grant Gerathy (former drummer from John Butler Trio, has worked with Pete Murray); Rick Fenn (guitarist from 10cc, worked with Jack Bruce from Cream, Mike Oldfield, Peter Green); special guest vocalist Martine Monroe (Bodacious Cowboys).
≈ Comments Off on The Clash of Minds Continues: Lizard Replies to Simon
Dear Simon – thanks for your robust reply way back when, in August 2018. I think you know why it’s taken me so long to come back to you: work, massive hailstorm in December 2018, then a year of hassling with the insurer to repair the damage, more work, then bush fires, work, floods, work, and now…coronavirus. Climate change and globalisation: the perfect storm. At least self-isolation is giving me some time to write. I hope you and yours are staying well.
You are quite right to refer to the alacrity with which I switched perspective from the subjective to the objective, the empirical to the synthetic, and to the fact that I paid no heed to the psychological-or-philosophical question. If I’m at fault, it’s not (I would argue) because I made a category mistake, but because I failed to acknowledge that I was switching from one mode to another, and to explain why I was doing so.
Let me rectify that now: I did so as a matter of creativity.
Perhaps…creativity is the key difference between a free mind and an imprisoned one
I make no apology for this. The Stranger, as you know, is fond of explaining, and defending, religion as a branch of human creativity. Creativity―and its most vital organ, imagination―can explain things that reason can’t and, crucially, it can help us solve problems or find answers when reason and logic appear to have run out of road. The core question is whether we, as individuals and as a society, are prepared to accord imagination the same status and respect that we give to reason. I am, of course, and I think society would function much better if it did so, too.
On that basis, I think it was perfectly legitimate for me to shift perspective to gain a rounded view of the question I was trying to discuss. You appear to object to the resulting synthesis―or, indeed, to any form of synthesis―as being somehow artificial. That’s fine in my book, where “artificial”, “synthetic” and “creative” are pretty much synonymous. It’s of a piece with Keats’ line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty…” (Eliot was surely being disingenuous when he claimed not to understand it).
The clincher, for me, is that I felt, when writing my piece, that I had gained some sort of insight. When I read your retort, all I could see was the complaint of someone bound by ideology to argue from a single, narrow perspective that seemed to deny all potential for growth or change. Perhaps, in the last analysis, creativity is the key difference between a free mind and an imprisoned one.
≈ Comments Off on 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.
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.
One of the characteristics of the Old Wave that sets it apart from the rest of contemporary music is the depth and breadth of life experience behind the songs. That is exemplified nowhere better than on Steve Banks’ album, Ordinary Man*.
It’s Banks’ first album, but it captures a lifetime of highs and lows he’s experienced as a businessman, family man and—by no means least—a phenomenally talented singer, songwriter, guitarist and live performer.
These three quite distinct themes find expression in a fusion of blues, rock and soul which feels and sounds completely natural rather than conceptually driven.
Partly this is because of the extent to which Banks has absorbed and integrated these styles in his highly personal approach to musical self-expression. In the album’s flawless execution, it’s also a reflection of the close working relationship between Banks and his producer Jeff Burstin, former lead guitarist with the Black Sorrows and Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons.
Burstin—as his current work with Melbourne-based The Hornets attests—is a blues man through and through, and it’s the blues sensibility that helps to give the album its overall unity. The blues is quite rightly respected here as the Old Testament of modern popular music, but a willingness to infuse it with a contemporary feel makes its influence timeless rather than dated, and comes close to giving the album a classic quality.
Double trouble: Burstin (L) and Banks live in Byron Bay
There are no duff tracks and all stand tall, some very much so. The first, “The Way That It Is”, is what used to be known as a breezy little opener. It kicks off with a nail-it-down-tight drum intro followed by a brass riff that adds a touch of big-band swing which not only manages to avoid overwhelming the punchy compactness of the song but also complements Banks’ smoky vocal perfectly. It’s a classic tale of man chases woman and gets caught in his own trap (“I was in need of inspiration/She took me from behind…”) and introduces the relationships theme in a positive light.
“Money”, is a soulful lament about materialism (“You talk about money like you’ve had some for a while/You talk about money like it’s going out of style”) which is complemented neatly by the next track, “Like Robbie Says”, a tribute to The Band’s former guitarist, now solo artist, Robbie Robertson. It’s a laid back country rock number which nicely captures The Band’s feel for Americana with a plea to free the spirit from the shackles of the social media age.
“Throw Me a Bone” combines great Stax brass with funky guitar to tell an all-too-familiar tale of a man trying to redeem himself in the eyes of a woman (“I’ve been walking, stalking the night/Trying to think of ways and means of making this right”) but it’s the next track, “Millie’s Song”, that really takes the relationships theme into Old Wave territory. It’s a beautiful tribute to Banks’ daughter, written for her 21st birthday, that could bring a tear to the eye of any proud parent. Not the least of its strengths is the killer line: “You had me at the ultrasound”.
The relationships theme takes a dark turn with “I Wonder How You Sleep”, payback for a business relationship sabotaged by betrayal—a pain made all the worse by the fact that the relationship had been based on close personal friendship (“The mistake I made was trusting you with my life and family/ I gave you all that I could give, you repaid me ruthlessly”). Expletives are two a penny on albums these days, but the one used here is heartfelt and almost chilling in its effect.
The title of “Me, Innit” betrays Banks’ Mancunian roots and the track is probably the most reflective on the album, looking back on a successful life but wondering how much of that success was the result of personal authenticity and how much the result of an ability to bluff others. It’s a brave song, laying open Banks’ insecurities for all to see.
“Gotta Get My Balls Back” is also highly personal. I have it on good authority that the song references a dark period in Banks’ life which involved, by Old Wave standards, some pretty serious substance abuse—a liking for herbal tea and gluten-free bread. I’m pleased to report that, after a stern talking-to by said Millie, our man is now back on the beer and chip butties. Driven along by Burstin’s aggressive 12-bar walking blues, it’s a great track for harmonica players to vamp along to.
The fun continues with “Fitzroy Rag”, one of several tracks co-written by Banks and Burstin, and a colourful homage to one of Melbourne’s more famous suburbs, not far from where the album was recorded.
Easily one of the album’s highlights is the title track, “Ordinary Man”, a deeply affecting elegy for a dearly loved brother. It’s one of those rare works of art where any attempt at criticism feels like an act of trespass, so I’ll restrict my comments to referencing The Band again and comparing the song to “It Makes No Difference”, written by Robbie Robertson and sung, heart-rendingly, by Rick Danko.
Both these songs, for my money, stand apart for emotional depth and delivery. The fact that more than 40 years separate them says a lot not only about the rare quality of Banks’ writing and singing, but also the extent to which he has absorbed and continues a great musical tradition.
The two final tracks—the bluesy “Give You My Mind” and the evocative sixties-style surf instrumental (complete with theremin) “Castaway”—round out the album to a very satisfying conclusion.
Available on iTunes and highly recommended.
*Full disclosure: Banks has a history of collaboration with Universal Stranger’s songwriter-in-residence, Rody. For more on the Old Wave, click here.
≈ Comments Off on Deconstructing Genesis: the Lizard’s Tale
Rody – you asked me to expand on my ideas about Genesis, as discussed during our well lubricated lunch with Ms Drysdale some weeks ago. As you will recall, they’re more about Adam and Eve and the Fall than any other part of the book. They’re not particularly well informed or thought through, so consider them not so much as opinions but more as speculations to which I would welcome your intelligent and critical response.
Firstly, let me make clear that I, like you, do not take the Bible literally or believe in the supernatural. I do regard the Bible, however, as important source literature, not only for understanding key aspects of Western history, but also for helpful insights into the human condition. Like all great literature, it’s a repository of profound psychological truths.
Insights into the human condition (Alltime 10s, YouTube)
My starting point in thinking about this subject is to remind myself of the historical perspective. As my favourite historian J. M. Roberts points out, humans have existed more than 20 times longer than the civilisations they have created (indeed, as the picture below reminds us, not all of today’s humans are “civilised”). That alone is a clue to understanding much about the human condition: civilisation occurs relatively recently in our development, and we’re still getting the hang of it. In this I subscribe to the Stranger’s Alienation Theory of History: that alienation has been a permanent structural feature of settled societies since they began, its origin traceable back to the Neolithic and the emergence of agrarianism alongside the established hunter-gatherer mode of existence—a major divergence in the human lifestyle, and a new and more polarising cause of social and cultural estrangement. (This is all theory, remember.)
Using this idea as a lens through which to read Genesis, the story can be interpreted as a symbolic account of this primeval disruption (with which, surely, our own highly disrupted age can find some sympathy). Adam and Eve are foragers in a pristine environment which, I’m tempted to think, might be a poetic evocation of the landscapes left by the retreating Ice Ages, as remembered in the oral traditions of stories handed down since prehistory (I tend to get a little carried away on points like this, so please be patient). There’s a (no doubt tenuous) school of thought that suggests one of the drivers of agrarian settlement was the discovery of the pleasures to be derived from ingesting fermented fruit, and the application of this discovery to religious rituals. The Genesis story links the Fall to a change of consciousness in Adam and Eve, which occurred after they ate the forbidden fruit; perhaps that change of consciousness is analogous to that which occurs after drinking too much alcohol! Again, this is fanciful speculation on my part, but I note that a recurring theme for Roberts is the extent to which human history – or at least the story of human development – is the story of our changing (or growing) consciousness. According to Genesis, a change in consciousness caused humanity’s downfall.
Changed consciousness (Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise)
On this reading, the Fall represents the loss of human connection with the natural environment because of the growth of settled communities and the challenge they represented to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in terms of territorial claims, religious beliefs and cultural values. It’s worth noting in this context that Genesis was written, according to Wikipedia, “either just before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC, and the Priestly final edition was made late in the Exilic period soon after”. For the Jews in exile, the tale might have been a way of rationalising and “owning” their alienation in a great foreign city. Like the 40 years in the wilderness, the experience was formative: some important identifying characteristics of Jewish culture, such as the observance of the Sabbath, were established during this period.
Adam and Eve left Eden and went to the land of Nod—a Hebrew word for “wandering” or “wander”. They became the eternal outsiders – the first Universal Strangers, perhaps?