Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Changing man: a Weller biography

"...they are different to you and me, the songwriters. Normal rules do not apply. Theirs is another kind of existence, one that moves to a different drum beat. Their moods fluctuate, swiftly. One minute an angel, the next the meanest person alive. They feel themselves special. They are at the centre of the universe, and all because they write three-minute pop songs. Their arrogance is staggering, their humility a sham. They see and feel in different ways."
- Paolo Hewitt, 2006.

I've just finished reading a biography about Paul Weller, The Changing Man (2006), written by his former friend and biographer, Paolo Hewitt. Paolo Hewitt is a London-based music writer who originated from Woking where he and Paul Weller had met as teenagers. Weller was Hewitt's best friend from 1980 up until 2006, where Hewitt admits to the termination of their long-standing friendship. For Weller fans, Hewitt would be best known for his lucidly-written biography of Weller's first band, The Jam, called the Beat Concerto, published in 1983.

I feel that The Changing Man is the best book written about Weller, and it is an outstanding template for music biography in general. Hewitt has created 68 chapters in this book, each of these being a song title on which Hewitt ties the song in with an aspect of Weller's own personal life of which Hewitt knew intimately. This tends to sway the reader's awareness away from the sycophantic to the practical, in that you start to see Weller as a mere human being rather than a rock-god, a modfather, and a complex one at that too with his ever changing moods and personality traits. Whilst Hewitt is at pains to not "judge" Weller, he nonetheless has no qualms in expressing his disappointments at the flawed sides of Weller's character. Weller, he says, has an angel sitting on one shoulder and a gargoyle on the other. He says, "...Paul has a very good heart beating inside him. He showed a great generosity of spirit when the mood took him. Yet he could also be mean, aggressive, bullying, incredibly selfish, highly intolerant, and very thoughtless." Hewitt himself had been the target of Weller's bluntness and invective, and seemingly on many occasions. Particularly when it was centred around the darling drink, the lash, alcohol, of which Weller is incredibly fond. According to Hewitt, Weller had challanged him to a fight on three separate occasions ("...let's go outside, sort it out"). In 2006 came the final argument that saw the pair estranged, prompting Hewitt to write this book.

Hewitt understands music and he seems to understand Paul's music best of all. The book, as an elucidation of Paul's songwriting and personality, is a great read for those who love Paul Weller and his music. You come to understand that much of his vivid and complex personality is derived from his upbringing in the tough working-class and moneyless surrounds of Woking, Surrey, to his very protective and loving parents, and to the force and drive of his immense artistry and talent. Hewitt not only expounds on the larger elements of Paul's life, but the small details as well that show him to be very human and real, and ultimately, just another fella. Hewitt, after all, as a close friend of Paul's, had seen him through thick and thin, in public and in private.

It seems ironic to me that Weller has recently struck up a friendship with ex-Jam bassist (and current 'From the Jam' bassist) Bruce Foxton. With the passing of Foxton's wife, Pat, and Weller's father and former manager, John, both in 2009, a reconciliation of sorts seemed to have taken place. Foxton attended John Weller's funeral and perhaps the spark of reconciliation was reignited at that point. The irony comes from the fact that the words "Bruce Foxton" would have been four-letter words to Weller during the post-Jam 80s, four letter words beginning with F and with C, as was the phrase "The Jam". It was Paolo Hewitt after all, who in his book Beat Concerto from 1983, painted his friend Weller as some exemplary shining light who could do no wrong whereas as you could sniff a subtle air of distaste centred towards Bruce and Rick. Those would have been hard days for Foxton and Buckler. And now, 26 years later, Foxton and Weller are back on speaking terms and Hewitt's the shafted one. This despite Weller's disdain for Foxton's "cabaret" band 'From the Jam'. As Foxton says, they don't discuss or comment on Foxton's band, and certainly not on anything that sniffs of "reformation".

For all of his insight into Paul Weller and songwriters in general, I feel that Hewitt misses a point somewhere. What Hewitt doesn't or didn't fully comprehend is that driven songwriters, or musicians for that matter, unconsciously seek the same in friendship, and perhaps in love too. Hewitt after all is a music-writer, not a musician. He writes like someone who understands music very well, and that he certainly does. But I'm sure that unconsciously at least, and over a long period of time, Weller would have lost his patience with Paolo. It's a bit like, I'm the fuckin' player, I'm the songwriter, what the fuck would you know! It's a primal thing. Driven musicians possess it. It reminds me of Neil Finn telling his bass player in 1996 that he has a heightened sense of his own talents, that whole thing of I'm better than you. Weller's hard musical ego, over time, probably grinded down his close friendship with a man who wrote about something he loved, but wasn't that which he loved. That's my opinion.

It ties in with his reuniting friendship with Bruce Foxton. It was Paul and Bruce, along with Rick Buckler, who drove the band from fledglings to becoming the biggest band in Britain. It was they who were under the wing of Paul's father and manager John, all for one, one for all. It was they who performed those countless gigs from 1977-1982. It was Bruce who stepped in to help Paul when the Australian Rugby team were in the process of pulversing Weller at an after-gig drink hole in Leeds in 1977. (Interestingly, Paolo confesses to Weller telling him "Say what you like about him, he did that for me", revealing some level of disdain Hewitt must have harboured for Foxton).

It always appeared that Foxton and Weller had little in common. Hewitt and Weller, according to Hewitt, had most things in common. Foxton, after all, seemed a lot "simpler" than the more driven and far-more artistically and sartorially inclined Weller. Yet Foxton and Weller have one thing in common that Hewitt does not have, and that's a desire to play and perform, to make music. In Weller's life, this is a religion, and it's where primal understanding lies. It is the first consideration. Foxton is a doer, of something that Weller loves, whereas Hewitt is not.

I was glad to read that Foxton and Weller are on speaking terms again. It makes me feel that anything's possible. And Hewitt should be pleased for his book. It's a great read, well-written and elucidating, and with a right blend between musical appraisal and personal insight into Britain's most loved songwriter today. And while there's a balance between the positive and negative aspects of Weller's personality, ultimately you sense the good shining through the man. That's credit to Weller's music, and to Hewitt's excellent writing. As Hewitt says, "...when the mood takes PW, which it does a lot, he can shine like no other."

And Neil Finn has reunited with Nick Seymour too, that's ace!! :)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Jakarta rainstorm


"just like that
my whole world
changed in a flash just like that
my life so different now
so different now..."

These are the lyrics by a mate Gav for his song 'Just like that'. In July he asked me to come along to the studio to lay some cable (erm, bass tracks) and this song was one of those. The truth of these words hit me like cobra-spit. And now, as I sometimes get up and do the acoustic thing with the boys, the words maintain their relevance in my day-to-day life.

Last week the mood at work was akin to a gray rainstorm about to burst like a steamship on Jakarta. And sometime during the middle of that week my manager announced her resignation. This detonated like a bomb throughout the school as it was definitely the last thing that anybody had expected. But there's so much polarisation and politics in that place as it stands currently, that much has given over the past year. And my manager tendering her resignation is one of the pieces that's toppled over in the game of work, and this is one big domino.

All of a sudden I'm called to meetings, I'm having to postulate ideas quick-smart, training up a new person. Just when you least expect it, life hits. And I know in myself that I'm needed, I'm where I have to be, for the organisation, for the staff, for the blessed students.

It's bizarre in a way because over the past few weeks I've seriously considered chucking in the library and going back to study. I would consider a Bachelor of Music degree in Contemporary Performance specialising in bass. My nephew - who's a professional jazz guitarist and who teaches at the college I'm interested in - tells me it's a good course but not worth the money, like, 21K per annum. And come to think of it, do I really wish to spend my days with twenty-somethings obsessed with their chops, with their gear, and the rest of that muso clap-trap, playing "industry-standard" music?? As much as I love playing I know there's more to life than that. Besides, I can't bear the thought of competing with slappers. Y'know, the guys who do the slap symphony thing on bass. I don't know why but I can't stand slap bass, especially when it comes from white guys wearing caps. I just like to play one note, and then another note. And then another. I like to read the bass part of a Beethoven symphony and get that happening on electric bass. I simply like to get up and play without all the baggage, without all the fuss.

I won't be studying. I'll be working at a place that needs me. And when you look at it, it is a good workplace opportunity for me, which is satisfying. But something else is bugging me, and that's my obsession with music and how it relates to my practical circumstances. I have to face the fact, that despite getting paid occasionally (mainly for covers gigs), I'm a friggin' amateur. Kudos & uplifting compliments do not obscure this fact. I feel that I'm a great "soul" musician, meaning that music stems from my formless being, and this is why I can play different instruments and blend into different styles of music, moreso than most of my peers. A bit like Brian Jones except I sing and write too. This is lovely and I am very grateful and I appreciate my talent because it gives me so much purpose and joy (too bad very few others feel the same way - we all navel-gaze in this business, it can't be helped), but I sense my that fervent, consuming ambitions - to be a good player, to do lots of gigs, to keep improving - are at odds with the fact that I'm charting the middle-age territory and really should focus on settling down. But I can't. I'm obsessed with playing, gigging, music. I'm looking forward to playing the gigs I've got this week, in three different ensembles. This is my whole life, man, and more than for most of my peers, that is, 'most', but not all.

I think I'm beginning to smell the odorous cracks of bitterness poring through me, despite my better judgment. I don't wish this to happen. I remember when I got into Eva Cassidy in 2004 and started to learn and play her music in a duo. I believed in Eva's gift then, to be thankful for our lives, to appreciate each other, the beauty of sound, the beauty of nature, the beauty of life. Somehow this feeling that Eva has billowed on me has dissipated to some degree, particularly when it comes to making music.

I want to play long sets. I wish to get paid again. I wish to play with other people. I certainly don't want fame or any of that terrible stuff, I wouldn't be able to handle it anyway. But I want respect and recognition of all of the work I've put into this. A damned lifetime of work. Of learning many instruments, learning songs, writing them, performing them. With myself and others. I've put this first, naturally enough given my love for it. But can I continue to make this my first priority throughout my life?? And if not, can I tame this obsessive beast within me? I'm becoming more driven musically than ever before. Some years ago I would have been content to live in a leafy country cottage in the verdant highlands. Now I'm not so sure.

And yet, my paid job beckons me. Here I support and encourage my clients who are all involved in the performing arts. I love that. What you give is what you get, after all. ;)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

cusp

I am a walking conundrum of opposing vanities
like a swirling funnel in a happy clown
my mind age is decreasing and pinning towards zero
i walk the king street of newtown on sunday nights
a heavy musical instrument latched to my back like the sunday cross
i take photos
i drink black beer
i'm happy in company
why weren't my twenties as much fun?
i was mercurial then
now i'm smooth
and a good enough player
so i enjoy myself
like a twenty year old should
so this is what's suggested
that 'life begins at 40'
i'm 39
i feel i'm at the top of the spoke
practically i'm probably over the half way mark
sliding down toward the inevitable passing
i take all the evidence in hand
my youthful proclivities
and obsessions
i obsess on the sound of maple
american, rock, eastern, or queensland
i obsess over the sound of basses
i obsess over the counterpoint of bach
i obsess over whether i love neil finn or not
and for what
to plug in and play for twenty minutes twice a week?
i take the other hand
manly responsibilities
fatherhood that isn't happening
my heart weeps for what has been
the wolf at the table
and what hasn't
the lamb in the cradle
and yet
i gaze onto the city
with polluted eyes
and i read about the planet
and know we're at the cusp of it all
my heart is yearning for your wellness
whether you're here
or there
somewhere in the middle of america
i don't forget the pain of others
i carry it like a homing pigeon
i act like a vain little peacock
strutting my photos all over the f-book
that can't be helped
it's an obsession
but that does not mean
my heart is mean
or impure
or more imperatively
that i do not care deeply

i'm a man
a boyish man
see how I look
like a day over 20
and spring about like the horned kid
i take responsibility as it comes
as it lands on my life plate
and i life raft on to the decline of years
all too short for one lifetime
sometimes i feel that i want to love more
to give more
but yet i know in all certainty
i'm doing my best
in doing i'm giving
and i'm not unhappy with that
that is good enough
for now
for now is all we have

stay well
i love you

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Neil Finn: a man I love, a man I hate

I believe the inexplicable has happened. Something that I’d never believed could swing and shift in the space of this one lifetime. That is, I’m beginning to like Neil Finn. I mean, really like him, and with little reservation this time. You see, I’ve always had this love/hate relationship going with Neil Finn. He is a man whose work I could occasionally love, and oftentimes hate. By “hate”, I’m talking about much of the Crowded House-era work, and more specifically, the first self-titled Crowded House album and Woodface. There’s been always something antsy, projective, and bombastic about Neil Finn – particularly in his lyrics and delivery – that ticks me off time and time again. And yet I find I borrow the Crowded House first album off a friend, listen to it, and find with wonderment that I actually quite like it now. Years ago it would have been the Frisbee I would have thrown the furthest.

It strikes me that the eponymously-titled debut album has dated quite well in the space of 23 years. And the album is really a whole lot better than what I’ve ever given it credit for. Astonishingly I find that the bits of the album that used to annoy the heck out of me - and there were loads of those bits - don’t seem to bother me now. Maybe that’s spiritual enlightenment. Maybe that’s what happens when you approach forty. You start to tolerate Neil Finn, and actually like him.

Neil Finn in Split Enz was always the young Amadeus. Precocious and gifted, he mastered with natural ease the art of songwriting at a very young age. ‘One step ahead’ from 1979 is one of Neil’s earliest songs, and it stands today as one of his very best. In it is revealed a true lyric talent matched with an equally striking musical originality. Moreover, you feel the flavour of New Zealand in this great piece. It was a taste of things to come. I got you’ is an indisputable pop classic. Message to my girl’ is a symphonic masterpiece wrapped into the parcel of a three-minute pop song. Yet despite the young man’s undoubtable flair, Neil was somehow held in check by the mighty umbrella of Split Enz, for younger Finn was merely one slice of the Enz pie. When he metamorphosed into Crowded House after the demise of the Enz, it appeared something strange was happening to Neil Finn. He became larger than life. He was screechy, projective, and to my ears, a little painful to listen to despite the wonderful wave of catchy pop songs that flowed from that first album.

We all enjoyed the debut single ‘Mean to me’ in high school, with our bunch learning how to play guitar over Neil’s classic-pop chord progression. Over time I’ve come to detest ‘Mean to me’ up until recently where, after many years in the wilderness, I’ve mildly reconnected to the song’s vitality and unquestionable craftsmanship. Neil’s projective urgency on that debut record was for me, always akin to scratching your nails on the chalkboard. ‘World where you live’ is a brilliant pop song to be sure, though it’s a song I could never take seriously, predominately for one particular line; at the end of the first verse when Neil spits out “…c’mon now there must be something missing”, with all the swagger of a young Elvis Presley. I love early Elvis, but I can’t handle Neil sounding like Elvis. It makes me want to barf and the effusive bravado of the line ruins the remainder of the song for me. And yet, that middle eight is so inventive and brilliant that I’ve copied it for the middle eight in one of my songs, ‘Ride’. Well, I didn’t so much copy it, moreso I was influenced by that ominous suspended chord at the end of the middle eight that leads back into the solo, for powerful effect. I cannot say then, that I’m never influenced by Neil.


Now where getting somewhere’ is the one song from the first album that I respected a little more than the others. I liked the song’s Austro-pop feel and its pervasively inspired mood. It’s a brilliantly performed and recorded song too, and unlike most of the remainder of the album, the writing doesn’t come across too overbearingly, all the elements sit rightly in place. ‘Now where getting somewhere’ is the only song on Crowded House that’s recorded without Nick and Paul. Instead, some hefty session cats came in to play on the track, doing a wonderful job in the process and giving the track its definable vintage shuffle.

Don’t dream it’s over’ is akin to running an obstacle course, meaning, you have to be highly focussed and alert to avoid being tripped over by some of those shaky lines in the song. Most of the lyrics to ‘Don’t dream it’s over’ are graceful and eloquent in keeping with the wondrous music, but I find my equilibrium is shaken by lines such as “…trying to catch the deluge in a paper cup…”, or, “…my possessions are causing me suspicion but there’s no proof…”, or, the creamy-croon of “…get to know the feeling of liberation and release…” that is spewed forth Elvis-like mid-70s Las Vegas style. There seemed to be many pages dedicated in the Crowded House biography to Mitchell Froom’s lush and creamy organ solo, how it cuts in at the half bar etc, am I’m left wondering if the song is really worth the accolade. ‘Don’t dream it’s over’ is a wonderful song, a modern classic, a standard, though I’ve often found it to be a little too pedestrian for my taste. However, I’ve more recently discovered a performance of Neil playing ‘Don’t Dream it’s over’, posted on YouTube, at the Sydney Opera House in 2008 and it amazed me how together and orchestrated the song sounded with Neil performing it on his own with his acoustic guitar. He even managed to perform the organ solo on the guitar with the chords played simultaneously. Without a doubt Neil Finn is an astounding musician. And I do have to concede that it is a great song.

I never liked the remainder of the album. I always thought ‘Love you till the day I die’ was just hideous, what with Neil spluttering into the microphone all of his marital guilt complexes, “…forgive me if I…tell a lie!!” (Geez just put a plug in it mate, or I’ll just rush for the earplugs myself). But, Neil Finn being Neil, he cannot actually write a bad song. The chorus of ‘Love you till the day I die’ moves into an interesting Enz-y style passage. And the middle eight is just sublimely stellar, one of the best middle eights he’s ever composed. That’s the thing about Neil, you think you have him pinned and he comes out a winner, without fail.

I’ve always dismissed the rest of that album as just rubbish. I was wrong. It’s quite good. I always felt ‘Hole in the River’ to be an exercise in pseudo-pathos but that assertion denies the song’s fine melody and underlying poise. On the whole, amazingly for me, the album dates very well. It’s a mid-eighties album to be sure and yet it sounds quite contemporary. You could say that it’s the closest Crowded House album there is to being a solo album, such that the album is sparked almost solely by Neil’s drive and dedication. Crowded House is the sound of man desperate for success and, with this album, you’d have to agree he’s fairly deserving of it.

Temple of Low Men is to me a major improvement on the first record, and for two reasons. Firstly, the chemistry of the band comes right through to the fore on this record. The album pulses with the uniquely warm, deft touch of Nick’s bass-playing, creating a sound that can only be defined as the “soul of Crowded House”. Paul Hester is as brilliant as ever. Most importantly, the three members, with the help of producer Mitchell Froom’s incidental fruity organ passages, just sound magic together. Yet with the further addition of Tim Finn for Woodface and Mark Hart for Together Alone, the chemistry created by the three original members tended to be washed over a little on these later albums. In a way Temple of Low Men is the Crowdies’ most consistent album.

Neil’s songwriting took up in leaps on bounds on Temple of Low Men. All of a sudden Neil is writing under the umbrella of a definable mood; there is something negative and stormy in the air and Neil’s writing, under its influence, is consistently excellent throughout the album. He’s not writing, like he is on the first album, for the sake of coming out with hits, or to mirror his own sense of musical bravado. ‘I feel possessed’, ‘Love this life’, ‘Under the lowlands’, and many other songs, including ‘Into Temptation’, are all superb. Temple of Low Men remains one of my very favourite albums of the late-eighties and is the source of fine youthful memories for me.

I didn’t get into Woodface too much. The individual songs are pleasing in themselves but as a collection they sound to me like pretty songs written merely for the sake of writing pretty songs, a nice-sounding hit-machine. I’m not a huge fan of the Finn brothers together; I find that Tim tends to cushion Neil’s antsyness so that the songs tend to become “fluffy”, rather than pointed. Yet no one can deny the beauty of ‘Fall at your feet’ or the charm of ‘Weather with you’. My favourite song on Woodface is the little heard ‘Whispers and Moans’. I find that the style of writing endemic in ‘Chocolate Cake’ and ‘There Goes God’ does not bring out the best in Neil. These songs, along with ‘Fame is’ and ‘As sure as I am’, strike me as being beneath Neil’s talent. For all of their charm, cleverness and humour, these are essentially silly, lame tracks. ‘She goes on’ is a “perfect” Neil Finn track but I find it a little too aristocratic for my taste. On the whole I find that Woodface leaves me feeling somewhat worn out and depleted, like having spent a lovely Sunday at Balmoral Beach, but having to deal with traffic congestion, and trawling around to find a parking space with too many wealthy people wafting about flaunting their teeth. You come away feeling icky and tired.

Together Alone is an astonishing departure from Woodface. On this album the primal, stark wonder of the recording’s location, Kare Kare, New Zealand, washes through into the album’s grooves, making it a quite impressionable and powerful work. It was astonishing to listen to the opening track, ‘Kare Kare’, to realise what a huge departure it was from anything that had gone before. I thought the CD I’d bought was given to me in error and I had another band. The second track, ‘In my command’, is amazing; it sits in that magic twilight zone between ‘Revolver’ and ‘Sergeant Pepper’. It would not have surprised me in the least if ‘In my Command’ had been written and recorded during the opening days of 1967. Again there are very noticeable elements of Neil’s pomposity in this song, particularly that spoken/shouted segment about being “…the victim of a holy visitation by the rites that I’ve been given!” But at that point, the song explodes into an incredible burst of melody and harmony that you just have to pardon the little leprechaun.

Pineapple Head’ is a most overtly melodic song about nothing in particular, and ‘Locked out’ is akin to a jackhammer drilling through your head whereby Neil’s antsy bombasticity is running on high voltage. ‘Distant sun’ is much better. Yet the one song on Together Alone that I love unconditionally, and remains the exception to all of my criticisms, is ‘Walking on the spot’, a short and sweet song full of flavour and originality where any subversive elements are held in check. The song has a lyrical grace and charm that fuses a New Zealand feel with a faintly Celtic flavour. Incredulously this song was demoed for the first album but rejected in place of the other tracks, which says to me that Finn was hankering after hits, not art.

One of the last songs the Crowdies recorded that I particularly like (barring their recent reformation) is ‘Everything is good for you’ of 1996. There’s an interesting sound to it, almost skeletal with some nice lead guitar riffs travailing over the steady bass and drum parts. The message to the song is the catch for me “…everything is good for you, if it doesn’t kill you, one man’s ending is another one’s beginning, everything is good for you…”. ‘You’re not the girl you think you are’ from that period is, I have to admit, perfection. It’s Neil Finn with a classic Beatles influence. If you imagine the Beatles coming from New Zealand ‘You’re not the girl you think you are’ is pretty much what they’d be sounding like.

It’s not only Neil’s songs that have the tendency to rub me up the wrong way, it’s also his personality. And when you think of it the two go hand in hand. It’s not that Neil has ever taken to the “rock-star” persona in any way. Neil is a happily-married man who has spent much of the Crowdie years raising his sons with his wife Sharon. He’s never had the rough’n’ready “bollocksy” presence of Paul Weller, and nor does he possess the sanctimonious self-proclaimed sense of genius as Steve Kilbey (Steve and Paul being two artists I remain unequivocally fond of). The problem is, for me, that Neil’s ego seems to come out in all the wrong ways. Paul Weller for instance, bounds on stage at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney in 2008 and apologises to the audience for “taking so long to come back”. Steve Kilbey is as humble and appreciative of his appreciators as he is self-aware of his talent. Neil Finn seems to have no humility whatsoever. He bounds onto the stage as if it’s his sacred right, so that all of his sing-alongs are, for me, frankly patronising affairs, orchestrated by a man who sees himself as some self-styled pied-piper of contemporary popular music, lauding it over his audience. I can’t stand it, to be honest. Finn doesn’t seem to give from his own being, instead his live performance takes the appearance of being a mere projection of his own ego, like he’s doing us all the favour of the universe when he performs for us one of his charmed songs, allowing the audience in return to sing along, leaving him to be the precious poodle on-stage who thinks he’s better than everyone else. I tend to find his presence unpleasantly authoritarian. What he lacks on stage is humility, vulnerability.

I’ve often been nasty about Neil Finn. I’ve called him “poodle”, “nugget-head”, “the self-styled pied-piper of contemporary popular music”, “the thinking north-shore girl’s sex-symbol”, “Amadeus”, “the impresario”. I’ve probably been a little jealous of him too. Not so much for his talent, but for his upbringing and indulged manner. He had supportive parents who never seemed to have kicked him up the backside when he was three years old, which to me accounts for the way he approaches his music with that kind of evangelical relentlessness.

I remain wary of his manner of speaking as well. He’s sharp and relentless and I imagine he’s exactly the type of person I’d wish to bolt away from whenever he’s in the room. He is no angel, though he’s no devil either, to be fair to him. But when you consider the negative aspects of his personality you can’t help but think of Neil Finn as nothing other than an overzealous arse. According to the bio on Crowded House, that at the time of the band’s demise, Neil told Nick Seymour in front of the band’s management that he thought of him as an “ok bass player”, that that was all he had going for him, and that he had a “heightened sense of his own talents”. Nick told the biographer that Neil “…could be very eloquent and extremely hurtful, it was completely unnecessary.” A kookier story involves a gig in Byron Bay when Neil punched his big brother in the face because the big brother decided not to play the keyboard solo in ‘World where you live’. Hmmm. ‘World where you live’ is not exactly the most imperative statement of modern times; it’s not ‘A town called Malice’ which is a song that needs the keyboard part more. You just can’t help but feel that Neil can be a precious, unforgiving twat. At least some of the time.

Some of those early Crowded House interviews bring forth the negative aspects of Neil Finn’s personality more readily. He was obviously an impatient man, hungry for success, who didn’t seem to respect his cohorts as much as he should have done, particularly Nick. He was the songwriter and he always had to have the say. He had the sharpest, quickest, and definitely the most tactless tongue in the band. I remember one time when Nick Seymour was clowning about in front of the camera, acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, when Neil turned over to him to dart, “Have you finished?” Ouch.

Neil had every right to respond to Mr. Finn at that final meeting in 1996. To be playing in a successful band with someone for a decade, and to share the centre stage with them too, to finally be told by the singer that you “have a heightened sense of your own talents” is grossly unfair. He could have easily lambasted to Neil that he himself has a heightened sense of his own talents. After all, Nick Seymour is a wonderful artist and illustrator, having designed the band’s costumes and their album covers. He is a lovely bass player with a touch that’s all his own, adding in no small way to the warmth of the sound of Crowded House. And he’s a nice, funny, intelligent & charismatic guy with a bubbly personality. Neil is simply a great singer/songwriter, a brilliant musician and singer, but a bit of an intense bastard. In the context of being in a band that works well it all evens out really. Neil has a lot to thank for Nick and for Paul Hester. Of course it works three ways, the rhythm section owe a hell of a lot to Neil Finn too.

I warmed to Neil Finn during the one time I saw him on the street. It was actually at a rehearsal studio in the industrial belt of Alexandria that I came across him. Neil, Tim, and Liam were all there. I walked past Tim Finn who held a facial expression of having a rockmelon stuck up his backside so that has turned me off him big time. He has always been neither here nor there for me, even though I do like Split Enz a lot and I respect and admire Tim’s work in that band. It was a different story with Neil. I walked past him talking to his son Liam. I only caught a snippet of the conversation with Neil giving technical advice to Liam about guitars. But it was the warmth conveyed by Neil to his son that really struck with me. I realised what a really nice guy Neil was, or could be. And what a cool dad he is too. It reminded me of Paul McCartney. Paul McCartney was a cool dad with Wings. Neil Finn’s a cool dad with Crowded House.

Neil released a couple of fine solo albums after Crowded House’s demise in 1996. I like them. They’re laid back, a little experimental, yet they shine with superlative craftsmanship and that wand of magic that is uniquely Neil’s. Try Whistling This and One Nil have come a long way from the overdriven pop tones of the first Crowded House album. And sadly, it had to take the tragic death of Paul Hester in 2005 for Neil to realise what a truly unique combination he had in the original trio of Crowded House. Since the passing of Hester, Neil and Nick, along with Mark Hart who joined the band in the early-90’s, reformed Crowded House and issued an album, which I’ve yet to listen to.

I’ve visited New Zealand once, in 1999. I remember traversing between the north and south islands on that big boat on the misty sea and having the soundtrack to Crowded House’s music pulsate with immediacy in my head. Songs such as ‘Fall at your feet’, ‘Whispers and moans’. I realised how much like New Zealand do the songs of Neil Finn truly sound like, and this was before I got into the Together Alone album which possesses a palpably New Zealand feel to it.

I respect Neil’s guitar playing, and his overall musicianship, which is absolutely first-class. They are reflections of a mightily clever and sharp mind and brain. Neil Finn is a magical weaver of music, of this there cannot be any doubt. But at the end of the day, I simply don’t like him as much as many other favourite songwriters of mine. I still prefer Steve Kilbey and Paul Weller to name but two. (Incidentally Neil Finn was born just a few days after Paul Weller in May 1958, albeit at opposite ends of the planet).

So there you have it. I have said at the beginning at this article that I’m beginning to like Neil Finn, very much, and after having written a few pages about him, I decide I don’t really like the guy that much after all. It goes in circles, this love/hate thing I have going with the man. Though to be fair to my little garden gnome, I shall leave him with the fine word, a line from ‘Nails in my feet’, from the Together Alone album:

a savage review, it left me gasping, but it warms my heart to see that you can do it too


www.myspace.com/rossmusician

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Velvet Road on MySpace

(The above sketch is mine, although ironically it's Gav and Pete who are the practicing sketchers and artists of the band. Top is Pete Thompson, left is Gav Fitzgerald, right is Ross B. Gav came and scribbled some hair on the sides of his head - I wish he hadn't done that, it's tainted my sketch!)

I've made up a new MySpace page for a band I used to play with, and still do, though in acoustic format. Velvet Road formed in 1999 through Songwriting Society members who shared a common love of blues rock. Well, I didn't love blues rock. But I was, and remain, a huge Cold Chisel fan, and I dredged up to those early gigs carrying my portable piano like a caveman drags the club. Gav Fitzgerald liked my stuff and I liked his, so we did the logical thing and had a jam. I found him a little awkward, and a little too keen to talk about himself a lot, but other than that he was strangely endearing and I liked him a lot, and musically we hit it off very well. We soon found Pete Day on bass, a mate of Gav's, and we scooted along as a 3-piece for a couple of months. Serendipity struck big time thereafter when Gav was introduced to Pete Thompson by a mutual friend at the Excelsior in Surry Hills. Gav was down to see one of his favourite bands and the drummer of the band introduced Gav to Pete. Pete Thompson remains one of mine and Gav's best friends.

Gav brought Hana Fiserova into the band because he liked her, and we spent 1999 drinking beer and having jams and having ourselves a fine old time with it. I met loads of new people that year. I was exploring blues/rock piano for the first time ever and loved it. We were doing small gigs, leading up to the Darling Harbour outdoor concert, in 1999. By 2000 we were playing proper pubs. In March Hana left to move back to the Czech Republic. In September Pete Day left us to go back home to Christchurch, New Zealand. We replaced Pete with Mark Wallace who kind of upset the chemistry of the band. He was technically a good player but his touch was cold. He could have been a much better player but he was a lazy arse; either that or he was too busy with his day job, being an electrician. By the tail-end of 2002 we booted him out. At that point, bereft of a bass player, I put up my hand, dusted my old fender-p, and took up the four-string duties, and it hadn't been for the first time either. We spent much of 2003 and 2004 rehearsing and gigging, with a lot of the rehearsals conducted at Peter's (then) place at lovely Coledale, so that rehearsal was a bit of a weekend holiday rather than rigmarole.

In 1999 we recorded an EP and by 2003 a full-length CD, Saturday Morning, was issued. Saturday Morning had taken us about 2-3 years to record so that by the time of its release we sounded nothing like that album. The album represents our sound around 2000, ie, far more folk-rock with lots of piano in the mix. Gavin was, and remains, the prolific songwriter. He is totally passionate about songwriting, and has always been, as long as I've known him.

By 2005 I was starting an Eva Cassidy-style duo with a singer and began to wind down the band, seeing as it wasn't going very far anyway. We were getting tired of organising gigs for little result. In February 2006 I pulled the plug on the band and wasn't to return to it for almost 2 years.

Gav went out and did a lot of solo gigs which served to enhance his acoustic guitar style and his singing. I was gigging a lot with Brigette and doing my own gigs. Yet, late in 2007, Gav asked us if we'd like to do the Darling Harbour gig in November. I complied, we did it, and it was marvelous!! The fun returned and with that a renewed interest in the band. We did a couple of shows at the Cat'n'Fiddle in Balmain at around the same time.

To this day we still play but primarily in acoustic format. I much prefer it that way. It's difficult to be in a working band on an independent basis, having to worry about bringing people to gigs, carrying heavy amps and worrying how your sound is on-stage. The way we do it now is that Pete carries his djembe to gigs, Gav his acoustic guitar, and I just carry my bass and DI box or a small amp. We find that it's just as powerful and focussed as the full-band set-up, but with minimal drawbacks.

I would still like to play in bands and am keen to join something as a bass player. I don't wish to join a rock band. I'm looking for a jazz-folk combo, something that has light drums or percussion, and is gigging regularly or semi-regularly. And every so often, I'll play with Velvet Road. We are still a viable act. What keeps us together is the chemistry, the organic nature of our act. Being in a band is problematic, it can be like a relationship. There are as many moods, fights and arguments as there are good times. But keeping the band light as an acoustic act seems to even out the negative aspects of playing in a band. There's nothing like carrying and transporting heavy gear to bring out the worst in people!

One legacy of Velvet Road is this: in 1999 we were the first "Velvet" band. Since then there have, literally, a dozen Velvet bands!! There's Velvet Revolver (as we all know), and more local variations such as Velvet Revolution, Velvet Sound, Velvet Set and so many others I can't remember now. But we were the first!!

Gav's songwriting is very good yet the strength of the band is in its live act, the songs seem to come through more powerfully live than recorded. People tend to like us because we're quirky, we evoke good "pub" times and a self-effacing sense of humour, we're good players, we're human, and we rock. Simple. ;) The three of us, all with different personalities, blend very well. We're all sensitive men in our own particular way, and the songs are expressions of that albeit in a more bumptious, bluesy, country-folk-pop-rock way.

So, in lieu of the fun times and the beers and the blues and the rock and the songs and the camaraderie, I've set up the site!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

the music Lesson...

I’ve almost come to the end of bassist Victor L. Wooten’s ‘The Music lesson’. Music, finally, is a a universal power and force, a feminine entity or spirit, that never leaves us, but we leave her.

The spiritual principles in this book delve very closely into new-ageism, and I see nothing wrong with that. It appears to me that Music as is conveyed by Wooten’s book comes exceedingly close to the other, more generic, concepts of ‘God’, or ‘Life’, ie, the unlimited presence of stillness, love and peace. Reading this book makes me realise how close Music is to me, and more importantly my relationship with Her. Moreso, it shows up the grey areas, the areas of negativity that serve to push Her away from me. And believe me, I have a few of those blotches appearing ad Infiniti in my psyche. Music is so dear, so close to me, that the spirit of Her is equivalent to the spirit of ‘life’ or ‘being’ as it were. Therefore I feel I can gauge my strengths and negativities in my relationship with Music. Music brings out the best in me, and the worst in me, so that is always a good place to go hunting for my own cellar-locked gremlins.

I don’t have to look far. Just the other night I went down to the Vanguard to watch a group of singer-songwriters strut their stuff for 30 minutes each on that lovely velvet stage, and they were all excellent. The sound was awesome, too. One of the performers even offered free CDs to all patrons, so Sarah & I obliged on that, obtaining copies for ourselves at the front bar.

Sarah got Tim to sign her CD. So did I. I went first and Tim signed a heart for me, after having forgotten my name and having to ask for it. I felt a little non-plussed about the whole thing, like who is this guy? Perhaps even a little patronised. And yet I know that I felt a little humoured by the whole situation so that in a way, I was posturing. The shit really hit the fan when Sarah had her CD signed with Tim writing and telling her with gushing, quivering lips how honoured he was that someone so talented would like his music. I was fuming. I wanted to lash the guy to shreds with my tongue. It almost happened but luckily I let my words trail and nothing nasty was said. In hindsight I was thinking of all the things I could have said, like "ZaraMeow has chosen one person to collaborate with and one person only, and that someone is Me!", or, "Zara has absolute respect for my talent just as I do hers!" Silly, really. I wanted him to have seen me wipe the fucking floor of the Parade 4 nights previously to a packed house. I really wanted attention, or moreover, my imagined idea of respect. I was actually paying respect to my wretched emotionality, not life or love, or Music. Besides, Zara is brilliant and it's very pleasing to me that he respects her talent.

I calmed down later. Tim is very actually good and so is his songwriting and CD. He's really a decent guy. It's just something in me that makes me feel hostile towards men sometimes. Rarely, thankfully. Crazily I want guys to show me some respect - always in the music scene, rarely anywhere else - and if they don't show me that imagined respect I find I have it in for them. I emailed him the next day and pasted a review I did of him at a previous gig that had just been published in the latest monthly song-rag. I told him I wasn't pleased with his cool reception of me when I asked for a CD. He replied and told me he was so thankful for the review and that he's terrible with names and that the heart was a quirky demonstration of his sense of humour, and that he's so thankful for me taking the CD and he hopes I like it. I do Tim, I do.

I spread myself a bit too thinly. I try and be a singer-songwriter, and with that, a keyboards player and bass-player, and a song-coverer. And to top it off now I want to do a lot more narrative writing and improve that particular craft. It's all a bit too much to juggle really. Most of the good singer-songwriters in the scene are predominately "singer-songwriters" who play guitar and perhaps know a few covers as well. It makes me wonder why I bother with learning Bach preludes when I should be working on a craft that's made starkly public to others who are doing the same. People just do what they do and who am I to tell them otherwise? Part me wants my comrades to know that I play classical music and learn a lot about contemporary music through this medium, that I can play a large chunk of Eva Cassidy's repertoire, that I play fairly sophisticated bass. That I spent years playing rock/blues piano in bands. Why why why??? Music is such a passion to me and yet it's also a source of frustration too.

I have revealed the worst about myself, yes. And last night in a most driven state of mind I drove myself out to Newtown and crashed a gig and performed to a small audience towards the end of the night. I decided to smooth out the songs a little and pull back the rough edges when playing them. I also decided to stand, wear a hat, talk in between songs and look people in the eye during performing, ie, perform with a little more aplomb and self-assuredness. And golly it worked; I really enjoyed the set and I played and I performed with a lot more grace and natural confidence than ever before. I decided to feel the songs and enjoy their spirit as I played them, that is, I let Music in and flow through me. Yes I'm a competitive bugger and I want to be the best - and I want others to know it too. But I equally realise that to do that is not solely an act of will-power. More importantly, to be the "best" involves grace, calmness, and a giving-outness of me, of who I am, through my songs, my Music.

It's all fucking silly really, this ego stuff. If I could let that go - and I can drop that like a hat anytime (most of the time it's on the floor anyway) - I'd be spiritually enlightened by now. The ego-stuff is only a very small part of who I am, thankfully.

Tuesday night at the Vanguard was excellent. I enjoyed Music through receiving her through five different vessels throughout the course of the night. To receive, to give, receive. But most importantly, to Give.

Al-Anon

enjoying a bevvy Awakening to the ‘good’ in our lives and to the fulfilling sense of gratitude which follows often comes to us via ...