Saturday, 21 April 2018

Paul Hewson shooting star

i'm in the sunshine


A mate of mine produces a monthly songwriter newsletter which goes out to a hundred or so mainly Sydney-based members. The roster's probably listing less than a hundred members now, and I keep meaning to ask him how many he's currently got on the roster and who's on it but since he's always so busy I'm reticent to ask.

Anyway, he likes receiving articles to assist him with the newsletter. Sometimes I provide something for him and those articles find a place on this blog site - for instance, the recent Paul Weller Opera House concert review. And more recently I've written something about New Zealand songwriter and Dragon member, Paul Hewson. He's a recent discovery for me and so I was quite pleased to come up with something from a songwriting perspective, ignoring as much as possible the legend and the hearsay.

Before writing I read Glen Moffatt's excellent serialised online essays about Paul Hewson, along with other articles and watching YouTube videos with Dragon members discussing their time in the band in the 1970s. I herewith acknowledge these sources.

The songs themselves are my best source. I think by now I've managed to listen to every Paul Hewson song appearing on Dragon albums, B-sides or singles in the case of 'Konkaroo' or 'Ramona', along with 'Get up and dance' which is featured on the live album Dragon in the 70s, and can be listened to on YouTube. Almost all of Paul Hewson's studio recorded songs from when he joined the band in 1975 through to 1978 - Dragon's 'classic' period - have been included in a compilation double-CD called Essential Dragon (2006), part of the 'Essentials' series. The songs on this compilation have been digitally remastered and selected by Dragon's producer from those early days, Richard Dawkins, the man who according to Glen Moffat cited Paul Hewson as a "compositional genius". The only Hewson song that's missing is 'Civilization' from O Zambezi (1978) which is a pity because it’s a damn fine song and fantastic Dragon track. The point is that all of Hewson's songs with Dragon are available to be sourced in some format or other.

Paul Hewson reminds me a lot of the late, great Jaco Pastorius, the electric bass equivalent of Jimi Hendrix. Both spent years working hard on their craft before giving in to drugs and alcohol when coming into the public eye, so that the worm of addiction was making its way into their lives and careers at the first bloom of success. They both sired children and had families from a relatively young age. They had big egos with a propensity to taunt and antagonise. One was afflicted with bipolar disorder and the other with arthritis and scoliosis. They flourished at or around the beginning of their careers and spent the last few years of their short lives dealing with the consequences of their addictions. And both died in tragic although unsurprising circumstances in their early to mid-thirties: Jaco at 35 and Hewson at 32.

One doubts that Dragon would have maintained their enduring appeal as a great Antipodeon rock band had Paul Hewson decided against crossing the Tasman sea to join the band in Sydney in the winter of 1975. Every Paul Hewson song I’ve heard is a gem. And it’s not just the songs – Paul Hewson is probably the best white rock piano player I’ve heard.  Admittedly I don’t like too many white rock/pop piano players; there’s a fine line between taste and expression - and shallowness and fruitiness - in rock or pop piano. But Hewson’s playing is expressive and accomplished with none of that shallowness or bland fruitiness. I’d always loved Don Walker from Cold Chisel’s playing, but now that I’ve studied the songs of Dragon I actually prefer Hewson’s playing: tasteful, expressive, warm, lively and “conversational”. His phrasing is akin to dialogue and, like his songwriting, there is a dramatic flair, it “speaks” to the listener. The same could be said in a way for Don Walker, but Walker’s playing is more inward in approach, often cerebral or “mathematical”, whereby Paul Hewson’s playing is an unfettered and welcoming mix of rock, rock’n’roll and blues, with a faint classical element. Come to think of it, keyboardist Eddie Rayner from Split Enz was quite the man too.

My good friend Brigette met Paul Hewson sometime in 1983. Brigette was married to a music guy back then and came into contact with Dragon at a barbecue somewhere around Sydney Harbour. I remember Brigette telling me that Marc Hunter came up to her and told her, quite convincingly, “You have the most beautiful eyes of anyone I’ve ever seen”. Only recently in a general chat about Paul Hewson did she tell me that she met the keyboard player at that same event. She said they got on well, sparking off one another, describing him as amiable, but “schizoid”, a damaged, drug kind of guy. She told me:

“He [Hewson] got onto a chartered boat with the rest of the band. As he was boarding he turned back to me, waving and calling out “See you in the next life Brigette, see you in the next life!”, and he was dead three weeks later!”

I reminded Brigette that she was with her ex-husband at the time and they separated in 1983 so it wasn’t possible for Hewson to die three weeks later, and on closer inspection she realised this all happened not long before she separated from her ex-husband, and so would’ve been 1983.

Brigette’s told me some great stories about the 1980s – she’s a fine raconteur – as I was too young to immerse myself in the decade until around the end of it.

I was six, seven, eight when Dragon were at their dastardly best in those most licentious and OzRock years of 1976, 1977 and 1978. It was a time of anything goes, and one of the great bands had to do it – so it was Dragon. I wasn’t old enough (‘ahem’) to pick up on what was going on but I suspect that experimenting with heroin may have felt like the ‘right’ thing to do during the late seventies, part of the spirit of the times, matching copious supply. I was stuck at a boring little Catholic school not far from the Bondi Lifesavers and other legendary rock venues, most of which have since disappeared. In a way I’m glad I slept through it all.


And so, below is what I wrote for my mate’s little newsletter.

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Everything happens for a reason. Or does it? I certainly didn’t think so when at the height of summer I was struck down with a nasty chest virus whilst on holiday. I was sprawled out on the bed in a cabin surrounded by lush bush with a river down below the nearby escarpment, the summery sounds of cicadas and birds, and I couldn’t enjoy any of it. I came back to the big city feeling depressed and a little ripped off and I wished for the remainder of the year to fly quickly so that I could go back and enjoy that little piece of summer paradise again, without the sickness.


But this piece of misfortune led to a surprising musical discovery, just as I believed I’d never again be interested in discovering any new music, least of all any of the OzRock variety.



So this is what happened: we got back into the city on the Friday evening. I remained unwell over the weekend, and by Monday was still too feeble to do my weekly kilometre swim at the local club pool as is my routine. Instead I lay on the couch, turned on the television to ABC 2, and watched one of those Countdown retrospective compilation episodes, this one themed to 1978. The last item on this episode featured Dragon performing ‘Are you old enough’, by which point I would ordinarily have been out the door and on my way to the swimming pool. I knew the song, along with the other major Dragon hit of the seventies, ‘April sun in Cuba’, and perhaps for my illness I found myself glued to the television, listening to this perfect pop song with a concentrated intensity and enjoyment. I especially zeroed in on Paul Hewson the keyboard player whenever the camera focussed on him. He had longish dark hair with blonde streaks on either side covering his ears and wore a yellow jacket or shirt. Miming his part over the studio grand piano he looked careworn and unwell. All that I’d known about Paul Hewson up till that point was his name and that he died of some sort of overdose in 1985. I also heard he had the reputation of having been a great songwriter. Suddenly, I wanted to find out more about Paul Hewson, and so began my investigation into the music of Dragon and the discovery of a great collection of songs that had somehow escaped my attention for all these years.

Not much appears to have been written about Paul Hewson, but in 2014 writer Glen Moffatt published an excellent serialised online essay about Paul Hewson in the Audio Culture NZ website. Glen covers Paul’s upbringing through to his time as a jobbing muso in Auckland, his heady ride with Dragon, and finally his return to New Zealand and subsequent passing. Moffatt has also written other essays about Dragon, all of which can be read online.

Paul Hewson appears to be a man of vastly disparate character traits, with a noticeable wedge between his quirky intellect and hedonistic streak. He was an accomplished pianist and known guitarist, a keyboard playing songwriter, and a serious chess player with an openness to philosophical and self-help ideologies such as “primal scream”. He was also a 70s rock star who looked and dressed the part: slightly androgynous yet bullishly masculine with an addictive personality and a streak of reckless abandon. Maybe his hedonism was a reaction to having grown up with Mormonism, but who would know?

Apart from the two or three hits that Dragon had in the 70s I didn’t really know any of their other songs. And so, slowly recovering from that rotten virus, I looked their songs up on YouTube. The album Sunshine (1977) appeared and the first track I listened to was the title track ‘Sunshine’. The album had been uploaded onto YouTube from the original vinyl – you could hear the scratching of the vinyl for those two seconds before the song commenced – and suddenly, in glorious original pre-remaster, came this wondrous burst of harmony and melody. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The song struck me immediately as a Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder prototype with a discernible “Aussie sun” feel to it, amidst the lush ‘opiate’ influence in those soporific chorus harmonies. And I had strange sense of de-ja vu in believing that I’d heard the song a few days before when I’d arrived back from holiday. I was in the bath sick and mentally discombobulated, believing that the tepid water could revivify me from my ailments. The early evening high summer sun was shooting through the bathroom window at its sharp westerly angle. I felt horrible and I felt like that song. Energies past present or future converge, a quantum moment.

Sunshine’ could be Paul Hewson’s best song. He wrote it for his bandmate the late Dragon drummer Neil Storey who overdosed in September 1976. ‘Sunshine’ with its gorgeous melodies and harmonies is passionate and exultant, ripe with feeling and longing and a sense of wonder at the afterlife.

Dragon’s producer, Richard Dawkins, is quoted by Moffatt as saying that Hewson was a “compositional genius”.  Indeed, the early songs that Hewson brought to the band and which appeared on both the Sunshine album and B-sides demonstrate a masterful understanding of form and structure, such as the intricate ‘Help Danny across the water’ and ‘Same old blues’. In interviews ‘Get that jive’ is dismissed by surviving members of Dragon as something of a lightweight, but in truth it’s a three-minute piece of 70s do-wop pop perfection. Hewson had the gift for stirring chord progressions, in this instance the diminished chord leading into chorus with “…oh she’s gonna break your heart…” is quite brilliant. You can hear the magic Hewson touch in the band’s breakthrough single of 1976, ‘This time’, which is credited to all band members but with Hewson’s name first and Neil Storey’s second; Storey passed away two weeks after the single was released and was replaced by fellow New Zealander Kerry Jacobson. This “classic” Dragon line-up of Hunter-Taylor-Hewson-Hunter-Jacobsen lasted right through to the beginning of 1979, and then again from 1982 to 1984.

A song like ‘Same old blues’ is indicative of the OzRock sound of the time, with its 70s-style major 7th cadences and cruisy blues-pop sound, a bit like Little River Band’s ‘Reminiscing’. The difference lies in that element of talent or genius that possessed Paul Hewson. All of Hewson’s recorded work with Dragon has that tight sense of form, melody and harmony, observational and crafty lyrics, along with a distinct dramatic element, verve, a spark of timelessness, so that the songs continue to sound fresh and new some forty years after they were recorded.

Dragon were a great band too. They formed in New Zealand in the early seventies and recorded two prog-rock albums before moving to Australia in 1975. Paul Hewson was introduced to and met the band on the night before the band relocated, and made the decision to move over to Australia to join the band a few months later in July 1975, leaving a heavily pregnant wife and son in New Zealand. The young family reunited with Paul in Australia after the birth of their daughter, but the marriage didn’t last.

It would have been difficult to hold a young family together in the midst of a maelstrom of success-hungry young rockers with rock star habits. Hewson was already fond of the drink, and unfortunately Dragon’s coming to licentious mid-70’s Sydney coincided with other New Zealanders keen to branch out of the isles and onto the Antipodean (and beyond) mainland. Dragon’s then manager knew and had “dealt” with fellow-Kiwi Greg Ollard who’d just moved to Australia. As a rookie in what was to become the Mr Asia Drug Syndicate, Ollard ingratiated himself to the young rockers by offering them free smack. Three Dragon members didn’t resist, and so had to face the dreadful impacts of addiction that led, in varying degrees, to their untimely deaths. Neil Storey was the first to go. Paul Hewson and Marc Hunter lived on, for a while.

Up until I discovered and listened closely to Dragon I believed that the only truly excellent OzRock to come out of the mid-to-late seventies was Cold Chisel. But Dragon too were an excellent band and listening to a song like ‘The dreaded Moroczy bind’ with its fluid, linear rock you realise what great musicians they actually were. Cold Chisel had similar songs like ‘Teenage love affair’ which they recorded as a demo prior to their debut album, and together these songs demostrate how expansive rock can be when you have a rocking keyboard player mixing it with the guitar, bass and drums.

It’s probably a little-known fact that Dragon’s jam-along pub-rock-classic cover-band’s-dream smash hit ‘April sun in Cuba’ had its genesis with Hewson’s obsession with chess. The initial inspiration for the song came from a quote taken from one of Paul’s chess books whereby in 1921 a major tournament contender complained that the heat of the April sun in Cuba was affecting his performance. Written mostly by Hewson with some of Marc Hunter’s lyrics in the verses, Dragon produced their best-loved hit that reached #2 in the charts behind McCartney’s irremovable ‘Mull of Kintyre’ at #1.

Hewson’s songs brought to Dragon’s repertoire a varied mix of musical styles. Even on his relatively straight-out rockers like ‘Konkaroo’ or ‘Any fool can tell you’ those sharp melodies and memorable chord changes ring through. ‘New Machine’ sounds like an outtake from the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, funky and alive. On the Running Free (1977) album, Hewson delivered a couple of reflective and passionate songs which revealed a new vulnerability, even loneliness. ‘Shooting stars’ was a gospel-tinged torch ballad with soft verses contrasting with the fuller choruses, and flavoured with Hewson’s own unique chordal touch, that subtle ‘Kiwi’ flavour. Magnificent in scope, ‘Since you changed your mind’ is Beach Boys-like in its sound and delivery; the intro and “ohh ohh” sections have that Brian Wilson touch, with the remainder of the song - Hewson’s raw, confessional lyrics and Marc Hunter’s impassioned, almost hoarse vocal – being more comparable with the style of Brian’s brother, Dennis Wilson.

The O Zambezi album of 1978 featured Dragon’s first and only number one hit, ‘Are you old enough’. The song showcases Dragon and Paul Hewson the songwriter at their synergistic peak. It’s a sophisticated AOR track which captures the sound of 1978: amidst the sumptuous arrangements, melodies and stadium sing-along chorus is a composition borne out of pure talent and craftsmanship, and as such is deserved of a number one chart spot. The song also captures the faint trace of a plaintive “New Zealand” sound in those chord progressions, similar in feel to Neil Finn’s ‘One step ahead’ of the same period.

A top thirty hit soon followed, the soul-tapping and more American-sounding ‘I’m still in love with you’. Closely resembling the sound and style of Billy Joel, ‘I’m still in love with you’ was by any standards deserved of international acclaim. But Marc Hunter and Paul Hewson weren’t looking too well in the Countdown episode they appeared in to promote the single. Hunter was gaunt and wore dark glasses, while Hewson was pinned: his eyes were shadowed over and his whites were glazed ice-blue. The lyrics to ‘Midnight Groovies’, also appearing on O Zambezi, were portentous in the light of Paul Hewson’s untimely death in January 1985: “…we’re going out to kill the night, midnight groovies…”. Perhaps he summed himself up best in ‘Shooting stars’ when he writes “…I’m on a fast train, looks like I’m never gonna change…”.

All members of Dragon contributed some excellent and important songs, most notably guitarist Robert Taylor who wrote both on his own and with the other members. His style covered catchy glam-style rock with the 1976 single ‘Wait until tomorrow’ to more funk/blues numbers such as the iconic ‘Blacktown Boogie’, and ‘O Zambezi’. Songs such as ‘Blacktown Boogie’ and ‘On the Beachhead’ from Sunshine evoked the flavour and feel of Australian suburbia in the seventies. Taylor even wrote a charting single ‘Magic’ for the band for their comeback album Body and the Beat (1984) before he departed the band later in that year. Marc and Todd Hunter also wrote, and the impact of their songwriting particularly Todd’s, would reveal itself more noticeably in the 1980s.

Marc Hunter was an amazing vocalist and front man. He had this unique ability to sing anything and make it sound like it was truly his own. As such he was the perfect conduit for Paul Hewson’s songs. Unfortunately, Marc Hunter and Hewson couldn’t maintain their hard living lifestyles for long without impacting on the band, and so by the end of 1978 the band fell apart on their first America tour which had held out so much promise for them. Apparently, Marc Hunter had been taking so much heroin and vomiting up that he lost his voice during the tour, finally being booed off stage in Texas.

Dragon continued on throughout 1979 and recorded the album Power Play featuring two new members: a replacement lead singer in Billy Rogers, and violinist Richard Lee. The album featured a variety of songwriters and styles, with Hewson’s own songs being heavily influenced by Richard Manuel and the Band; these maintained their typical Hewson liveliness and character, despite his own health issues and continuing substance dependencies.

Dragon split up at the end of 1979 and so Hewson spent some time out and playing with other bands. Most notable of these were the Pink Flamingos who were led by Dave McArtney from New Zealand band, Hello Sailor.  Hewson’s look transformed in the 80s too.  His bullish, androgynous 70s look gave way to the emaciated, scarecrow, ‘New Romantic’ look that for Hewson was a genuine manifestation of his own lifestyle.

Dragon reconvened for a tour in 1982, ostensibly to pay off old debts, and to resurge their career as a band. Hewson and Marc Hunter continued their partying, with Hewson taking extra medication for pain attributed to scoliosis and arthritis. A new single called ‘Ramona’ came out. This was Hewson’s last single release for Dragon. And typical of Hewson’s greatness this remains one of Dragon’s best songs with a snaky, soulful melody, a seductive ‘Sade-like’ progression and exciting build-up into the instrumental choruses, sonically segueing the 70s into the 1980s. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a hit.

Dragon were now poised for their second chance at chart success. Bassist Todd Hunter had always been the crucial steadying influence in the band, and now it was his turn to take over more of the songwriting responsibilities. With Johanna Pigott as co-writer, they came up with one of the standout OzRock classics of the 1980s, ‘Rain’. The song exploded and Dragon were suddenly a hot ticket item again. This was the first major Dragon hit that was not a Paul Hewson song. ‘Rain’ is the sound of a new era, anthemic with a strong beat, driving bass, and powerful chorus. The fluid melodies and sparky aliveness that characterised Hewson’s songwriting appeared to be of a bygone era. Hewson himself looks quite bad in the promotional video for ‘Rain’, emaciated and a shadow of his former self – and as the chart success proved, he was no longer unexpendable. The accompanying album to ‘Rain’, Body and the Beat, was a major hit, peaking at #5 in the Australian music charts. Their successful nationwide tour culminated in Sydney’s Entertainment Centre.

The band adapted well to 80s sound and production. The band’s new producer, Alan Mansfield, joined Dragon on keyboards and second guitar. Kerry Jacobsen left the band and so did an increasingly unhappy Robert Taylor. In October 1984 Paul Hewson went back to New Zealand for a visit and, although not officially having left the band, he would never return to Australia. The Dragon that carried on throughout the 80s featured only Todd and Marc Hunter from their original line-up.

Back home in New Zealand, Hewson joined a touring All-Stars band (featuring Wilco Johnson on guitar) with no evidence to suggest he was willing to lay off the alcohol despite his severely weakened liver and having suffered seizures over the past few months. Hewson went back to being a jobbing piano player; no songs of his appeared on Body and the Beat (except for one group credit) and it was apparent that the years of prodigious substance abuse had impacted on his creativity. By the end of 1984 Hewson had a residency as pianist with the main band at Auckland’s premier nightspot, The Gluepot.

It was after a day’s rehearsal at the Gluepot on 9 January 1985 that Hewson made the decision to leave Dragon and remain in New Zealand. He made lots of phone calls including one to Dragon’s manager in Australia to inform him of the decision. A lot of alcohol was consumed that night, and Hewson cajoled one mate into driving him over to a house where he knew he could try something new. Heroin, apparently, in its purer form was non-existent in New Zealand at that time and the alternative concoction going around was an opiate derivative known as “homebake”, cooked with pharmaceutical remedies such as codeine and other caking agents. With his weakened body, the alcohol and the poison he’d just ingested, he appeared to die in his sleep in the car his mate had driven him in. When his mate woke up in the back seat it didn’t register immediately to him that Hewson’s cold frame in the front seat was likely a sign of end-state. When an ambulance was finally called, Paul Hewson was pronounced dead at around 8am in the morning.

One wonders what Hewson could have achieved had he stayed healthy all along. There’s no doubt that for the time Dragon was a perfect portal for his songwriting, yet there’s so much more that he could’ve achieved. His music is suggestive of someone with a talent for composing musicals, or writing songs for other artists along with any other bands he might’ve been involved with. Sadly, his was a short life and career. The man was flawed, as demonstrated in the treatment of his family and of his own body. But Paul Hewson stands without question as one of New Zealand’s most gifted songwriters, and probably the very best.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Paul Weller live at the Sydney Opera House



Paul Weller revisits Australia for his fourth tour down under and sells out the Sydney Opera House over three consecutive nights during the height of Sydney’s summer.  Fan-site photos show Weller basking in the hot sun and gazing out onto Sydney Harbour.  I went to Paul Weller’s second “middle” show on Sunday 29th Jan, and one of his first utterances as his band took the stage was “last night was a great fucking night, I hope we can match that”.  Summing up from the electricity and excitement generated by the band and audience he certainly did, and on the next night too if all accounts are to be believed.
Weller and his band of mod-looking musicians played a blinding set that lasted for well over two hours, drawing from songs from his fine latest release ‘A Kind Revolution’ along with a number of old Jam and Style Council songs and his well-known solo songs from his mid-nineties solo period, and beyond.  That’s forty years worth of consistently great songwriting.  Weller is without question a modern master of song.  His legacy would have remained intact had we heard nothing of him again after he disbanded The Jam in 1982 when he was just twenty-four years old.  The Jam made six albums from 1977 to 1982 along with a host of chart-topping singles, three of which – ‘Going Underground’, ‘Start’, ‘A Town called Malice’ – entered the British singles charts at number one.  At twenty-four and having split the Jam at the height of their popularity Weller was universally lauded in rock/pop music circles as a great songwriter and often touted, despite Weller’s disdain, as a “spokesman of a generation” or “working class hero”.
Had we heard nothing of Weller after the Style Council fizzled out in the late 1980s his legacy would have remained doubly intact.  As the Style Council segued from the Jam in early-1983, the new sound lost its customary Weller edge and urgency; in its place the Council were jazzier, cooler and smoother-sounding.  What didn’t change was the consistency of excellent songwriting.  There were many stirring soul-ly songs in the early Council such as ‘Solid Bond in Your Heart’ along with memorable love songs like ‘You’re the Best Thing’, but to Weller’s credit he never did forgo his incisive lyrical smarts.  The Style Council were actually more explicitly political than the Jam ever were, particularly on their excellent 1985 album ‘Our Favourite Shop’.  After peaking in 1985, Weller was increasingly drawn to domesticity and the releases thereafter were patchy, notably The ‘Cost of Loving’ of 1987, although 1988’s ‘Confessions of a pop group’ was a lot more intriguing and contains two of Weller’s finest songs, ‘Changing of the Guard’, a piano piece sung as a duet with his wife D.C.Lee, and the Motown influenced ‘Why I Went Missing’.  The Style Council made a house album in 1989 that never got released and Weller spent the final months of the decade retreated to his home.
After a year or so of confessed self-doubt and moodiness Weller began playing the club circuit again and working on a new album.  This eponymously titled CD was released in 1992.  Paul Weller’ moved on musically from the Style Council by bringing a rawer element into the mix, often influenced by the early-90s “psychedelic” sound as heard in bands such as Stone Roses.  More crucially, the songs were consistently good, and Paul Weller was back on track. 
It was the follow-up album to ‘Paul Weller’ that marked the beginning of the third coming of Weller.  Wildwood’ of 1993/4 was a sensation; suddenly, the recent influences of Neil Young and Nick Drake brought in a new rawness to Weller’s compositions and, on this album, a country or “pastoral” edge.  Combined with a new confidence and power Weller was shooting through the stars again and his audiences responded to the new songs and energy, blowing headliner Elvis Costello off the stage of Glastonbury in 1994.  Up and coming bands like Blur and Oasis audaciously cited Weller as a major influence.  Weller was now the certified “Modfather” and revered again by fans and musicians alike.
Weller climbed to another amazing peak in 1995 with ‘Wildwood’’s follow up, ‘Stanley Road’.  Stanley Road’ captured the zeitgeist of the time; Oasis and Blur could only come second best to an album of great confidence and songwriting class, going from the classic “Weller rock” of ‘The Changingman’ and ‘Whirlpool’ to the soul-tapping, Fender Rhodes driven sound of ‘Broken Stones’, and two of Weller’s finest and most enduring ballads, ‘You do something to me’, and the McCartney-esque ‘Wings of speed’ that closes the album, this being a mix of soul balladry and English hymn.
And Paul Weller continues to write and record excellent records to this day, forty-years on from The Jam’s debut album of 1977 ‘In the City’.  At various junctures Weller drafts in new musicians to give his albums a different flavour or energy.  One such album is ’22 Dreams’ from 2008.  Weller’s albums since then have been a touch more experimental but ‘A Kind Revolution’ brings us back to what Weller arguably does best, great songwriting based on his primary influences of 60’s-based Brit-pop and soul.
Paul Weller in concert is always a guaranteed great gig.  I’ve seen him four times now, twice at the Enmore Theatre in 2008 and 2010, the Metro in 2010, and now the Sydney Opera House in 2018.  Seeing the almost 60-year-old Weller onstage you know he remains as fervent a performer and musical practitioner as he’s ever been.  He’s probably a lot sharper now than he was a decade ago when he was still a drinker.  The packed out audience was delighted and responsive, and Weller and his band were visibly overwhelmed.  In a radio interview, Weller said that playing the Sydney Opera House was one of his highlights, and said as much throughout the show.
Weller ended his second encore with ‘A Town Called Malice’ and blew the roof off the auditorium.  In the spirit of classic Brit-pop, the entire audience sang along to this eternal paean of suburban disaffection that’s matched to an energetic Motown-style beat and crafted with Weller’s finest lyrics.  It was obvious that Paul Weller continues to mean every word of this song as he’s furiously singing away with his tambourine.  And that’s why we all love the Modfather so much.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Morte Calabria


I just finished reading Christos Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe which I loved.  As a second generation Australian I found the novel confronting and difficult to read at times with its haunting depictions of past-generational traumas.  This book acts as a conduit toward my coming to some better understanding of what my parents went through as individuals in 1930s-40s Calabria, Italy.  Anna Maria Dell’oso’s Songs of a Suitcase did similarly, however that book is more impressionistic in tone, something of an Italian-Australian Anais Nin minus the erotica.  Tsiolkas by contrast is harsher, he is direct and unflinching in his expressions of violence, bigotry and bloodlust.  The author conveyed Europe as a continent of insurmountable burden, of which every player, every person, had to bear some or much of that leaden psychic load.  This is the Europe that my parents, and their parents, knew, or more precisely, the god-fearing, superstitious ultra-catholic and xenophobic southern tip of the mainland peninsula of Italy, Calabria.

I often wonder what it’s like to enjoy the open, embracing company of parents and grandparents.  Facebook friends gush about their fathers and post loads of happy photos of father and daughter, father and son (“the best father in the world!”)  I sit in cafes and glance over at families gathered around tables.  I observe grandad enjoying his eggs, his coffee, the company of his extended family.  Lovely, jolly old grandparents.  I only ever knew one of my grandparents, my sweet-faced mother of my own mother.  She lived with us in that house.  She died at age 79 when I was four years old.  She had the same cat-shaped face that come down the line to my mother, although she wasn’t as pretty as my mum.  I recall that she wore black constantly and emanated an aura of superstition and liturgical rites.  I’m sure she wore the rosary beads.  She used to bring me Freddo Frog chocolates from the local fruit shop.   I accidentally hit her with a belt, mum told me years later.  She died of a stroke in 1974.

I also recall my own father’s grandmother on the maternal side.  She lived in Griffith and died in 1978.  I recall her as a sweet and hardy soul living alone in that small fibro house.  I was scared of her food and only ate Arnotts biscuits when visiting.  My dad’s grandmother and mother-in-law seemed to have had a calming influence on my father, one would have hoped.

My mum’s father was a distant figure to my own mum, his youngest daughter.  He wanted a son and instead had to come to terms with a fourth daughter, so my mum was treated by her father, and to some extent her older siblings, as the runt of the litter.   He finally shuffled the family off to Australia in 1950 as my mother was turning seventeen.  She had no say in the matter, of course.  Like the young, female Greek travellers in Tsiolkas’ book, my mum stayed put in a ship’s dormitory shared by her sisters and other young Italian women.  By her own account she was sick for most of the journey and had to have food brought to her, just like Reveka in Dead Europe.

My mother is not well-travelled, and nor was my father for that matter, but he did make one trip abroad back to Italy and Germany in 1971 to visit his abusive old father in Calabria.  I don’t know when my ‘grandfather’ passed away but it must’ve been in the few years after I was born.  No one spoke of it and I never knew anything about it.   And I don’t know why my dad visited Germany after Italy, but I’m kind of glad he did so.  I remember him saying that the streets in Germany were very clean.

My father would promise to take my mother around the world after he retired, and she has never gotten over this travesty of justice, that he was taken from her before his 'retirement'.  All this talk of overseas holidays was horseshit really, all bluff, just the ramblings of the inebriated, another form of alcoholic irresponsibility.  I wonder if the organisational considerations of traveling with someone who was so ensconced in living their lives to drink and smoke copious cigarettes occurred to my mother.  She was in denial then and incredibly remains so to this day.  My sister told me that years earlier they won an overseas trip together but he created an excuse for not going.  All drinkers want to do is to stay home and drink, it's that simple.  My dad's universe was centered around the three local pubs, and that's how I've known him all my life.

A few years ago in discussing a trip I had to Melbourne I’d asked mum if she’d visited.

-Yep.

Did you like it?

-No.

Why not??

-Because.

What do you mean, ‘because’?

-Because I no like it.

But what did you see?

-Nothing.

What do you mean you saw ‘nothing’?

-Because my father wouldn’t let me off the boat.

Well, how long were you on the boat for in Melbourne?

-Three days.

… *oh*

My mother was brought to a small, farming town called Hanwood in the middle of New South Wales.   Hanwood was a satellite town to the larger centre of Griffith and part of an irrigated parcel of land that had its genesis in the Snowy Mountains irrigation scheme project of the late 1940s.   To my understanding Hanwood and Griffith attracted mostly Calabrian immigrants who were seeking out farming opportunities in the new land.  And in small and growing ways, opportunities for a hard but sustainable and even comfortable life were there to be had for the honest batch of new settlers.

My mum cried for 18 months after settling into this strange and foreign land.  She hated it, but there was no choice for her than to toughen up as there was little sympathy to be shared around, least of all from her father.  She just had to get on with it with little or no support from her older siblings, all sisters.

I visited Hanwood numerous times as a child but haven’t been back since.  I never liked the place; the flat, tiny town seemed dank and oppressive to me and I recall the feeling of always wanting to get out of there quickly.  I believe the place carried lots of ghosts from the past.  Hanwood was a mini-Calabria shipped over to a new land.

My father said that there weren’t that many available women around when he was young, and that you had to fight for your girl.  He met my mum when she was probably eighteen or so and barely out of mental nappies.   She in turn met a handsome, larger-than-life figure who serenaded her with his deep baritone over a simply strummed guitar.  They met, and married, but not until he’d worked in Far North Queensland cutting cane to save some money.  It was here he discovered the art of carousing, drinking and smoking and he prided himself on making friends with everyone, the local black and white populations along with the other migrant workers. 

My mother had fallen ill with pleurisy at this time.  My dad came back to find a very sick young woman who was given no support from her diffident father and lazy doctors.  My father immediately marched up to the town doctor in Griffith and forced him to come to the property to diagnose and treat my mother.  She ended up in hospital for nine months, some of it in Griffith and some of it in Randwick in Sydney. 

My parents eventually married in 1953 with my dad at 23 years old and mum three years younger at 20.  They bore two children and lived in the Griffith area, finally moving to the big city as the new decade crept in.

Two-and-a-half decades later and we’re in Sydney and it’s the 1980s.  There seemed to be a carefree optimism in Sydney of the 1980s despite all that had gone before in this place of the ‘first settlement’.  Sunny, beachy, ultra-liveable, Sydney was the ‘Emerald City’ as depicted in David Williamson’s 1987 play.  We were in ‘the lucky country’.  Enduring rock albums by The Church and Go-Betweens, Heyday and 16 Lovers Lane, reflected the energy and spirit of 1980s Sydney. 

The positivity of these times assuaged to some extent the palpable familial negativity that had been carried over from the past.  These negativities weren’t minimised, but rather smothered over just enough to enable a deteriorating alcoholic to maintain the appearance of functioning ok.  We functioned, yes, and the appearance put out to the outside world was passable, and often celebrated by those who enabled the alcoholic, being pretty much everybody.   Bob Hawke, after, all was Australia’s Prime Minister.  A notorious boozer and carouser, my father actually resembled him with the big silver hair and personality, and I suspect - although I can never really know this - that my dad modelled himself on Bob Hawke.  Having Bob Hawke as a role model may have encouraged my father to further indulge his bombastic and drunken tendencies with his other drunken associates; such was the spirit of the times with Hawke as our Prime Minister, a man my dad seemingly admired.

Many migrant Italian men who I’d known were stolid and quietly proud individuals.  They carved out simple yet satisfying lives for themselves in their new home.  They may have lacked formal education, but they were smart enough to settle into a lifestyle that incorporated the old ways with the new.  They ignored the habits of the Australiani with their pubs, drinking and larrikin ways, instead preferring a quiet beer or wine over dinner with the family.  These men wouldn’t be caught dead in pubs.  They owned their small houses with small gardens from which they grew produce whenever they could, and made batches of home-grown tomato conserve, affectionately branded by author Melina Marchetta as ‘National Wog Day’ in her coming-of-age novel Looking for Alibrandi.

Some first generation Italian-Australian men were roguish, wayward and violent towards their families.  Others were fixated with money, viewing Australia as a property bargain centre, which it was in the 40s and 50s, snapping up properties at any given opportunity.  My father was none of the above.  He was aggressive and angry, verbally and sometimes physically abusive towards his children, but to my knowledge he never hit my mother.  He seemed to behave “better” with her than with his own kids.  I heard he punched out his brother-in-law for hitting his own wife – my auntie – berating him on “what kind of man hits a woman”.   Another time he punched out a copper and won the court case, the police man had called him a ‘dago’ or something.  These events happened in the early 50s, way before my time.  And of course he saved my mother’s life by insisting the doctor come to consult her at her bed in Hanwood as she was suffering from undiagnosed pleurisy.  Yes, my father was possessed with lots of fight and vigour in his youth, long before the booze slowly and perniciously sozzled his senses and his spirit.  The tragedy is that my father was in essence a regal and magisterial man, he would have made a great barrister if he hadn’t pursued his first love of opera, his voice a wonderful baritone, and he was also better looking than all of his Calabrese comrades.  Talk about pissing everything you have and are up against an old brick wall.

If the eighties felt like a party that would never end, it suddenly came to a halt as we turned the clock into 1990.  I recall the sombre mood as the 90s commenced: the pop music noticeably worsened and our economic joyride of the 1980s was coming to an end.  In my household any vestige of faux joy de vivre (and there was extremely little) had vanished.  Dad was drinking more on weekends now, coming home wrecked and stumbling on a Sunday after a full day’s drinking disguised as lawn-bowling.  I’d come home of an evening and a damp, dark, wave of in-the-air depression would swamp over me as I opened the door.  That ‘wave’ was the spirit of alcoholism, as depicted in an article going around the net right now, the basis of which being that the word “alcohol” comes from the Arabic ‘al-kuhl’ which means…. ‘body eating spirit’.   Chemically alcohol is used to extract the soul essence of an entity, hence its use in extracting essences for essential oils and for sterilising medical instruments.  When it comes to constant, heavy human consumption of alcohol, the “good” natural of the spirit submerges or simply flies out around the perimeter of the auric zone while the ‘wrong’ spirit of alcohol infests its host and surroundings with its depression and darkness. 

When I opened the door of my family home in the evenings back in 1990 and 1991 I psychically saw that blackness come at me.  It was terrible and I wished things were different.  The place stunk of cigarettes and stale beer mixed in with petrol and brake-dust fumes from the busy, congested road we lived in.  One evening I caught my dad pouring poison onto the kitchen floor from an old beer bottle undoubtedly given to him by one of his mates at the pub, it was "for the cockroaches".  Christ only knows what was in that bottle other than to say it smelt decidedly poisonous.  I was left wondering who he was trying to kill, us or the cockroaches.  Suffice to say I was angered yet again by this base, crude and inconsiderate action.

My dad turned 60 in February 1990.  Looking at an online calendar recently I discovered his birthday was on a weeknight.  As I remember it clearly, my mother told me soon after that none of us kids wished our father a happy birthday.   She was probably disappointed and wanted to make a passive-aggressive point about it but she was a blue-ribbon enabler and there’s really not much that anyone could have done – after all she didn’t actively organise a celebration, she probably told him ‘happy birthday’ after he came home blootered from the pub, with nothing else said.

It’s tragic for a family to not celebrate their father’s 60th birthday; happy celebrations, a lovely party, the cake, laughs, joy, speeches, all of those wonderfully enriching family activities were out of our sphere.  Us kids were flung out mentally, spiritually, and even geographically in the case of my brother and sister as a consequence of our family’s extreme dysfunction, and none of us were travelling at all well as I remember it.  But dad would have been at the pub that night; those drunks he surrounded himself with would doubtless have wished him a “happy 60th” and bought him loads of beers.  The opportunity to wish my father a happy birthday was lost on me: he presented himself in such a way that the pub and his drinking comrades were enough for him.  And I was too much in para-alcoholic torpor to notice his birthday.  As you give, so you receive.

My mother tells my sister that bad luck runs through our family which curiously is something she never tells me.  This isn’t strictly true in the sense that we’re not the Kennedys or the Gettys.  Alcoholism in the family, along with compromise and the enabling of the alcoholic, will spread through karmically into the lives of the generation growing up with that: illness (I have diabetes), relationship difficulties and traumas, financial stresses and ‘poverty mentality’ are some of the things my siblings and I have had to contend with and fight our way through as adults to varying degrees over the years.  Alcoholism, and all of its attendant negativities and dysfunction that course through a family, is the curse, and not whatever happened back home in the land we sailed from almost 70 years ago.

1990-1991.  I’d be walking home mid-afternoon down the busy car-infested road where our house is.  On a couple of occasions I remember crossing paths with my father on his way to the pub across the road.   I’d say hello and he’d offer back a small smile and say hello himself as he passed by.  I remember his clothes and walking manner.  He was a dishevelled old man with an utterly careworn appearance: old bastard trousers, any old chequered shirt and blue cardigan.  But at 60 or 61 he was hardly an old man; the alcoholic gait that compromised his physicality gave off the energy of a much older, defeated, man.

1991.  The Oliver Stone Doors film came out.  I’m not a huge Doors fan but seeing the film must have coincided with having the ‘best of the Doors’ cassette on rotation.  I was in my room upstairs.  My parents were, unusually by this point, outside together discussing the garden.   ‘The end’ happened to be playing.  At that crucial point, at that climacteric ‘oedipal’ moment of the song, I felt the rage, I grabbed that line – the bone - and pointed it at my father.

His decline accelerated within a matter of four months or less.

Ultimately it was my father’s own responsibility to have taken heed of his health and wellbeing, and knowing how he treated his body decade after decade I remain genuinely surprised that he lasted into his early 60s.

But I had to be careful.  I was a para-alcoholic with a venomous rage which could manifest as a snake in the eye, and I recall moments where I killed people with my looks.  My friends back at school said I used to glare.  How awful.  And looking back I’m sure I used the ‘evil eye’ on people whether with friends’ friends or on the street or at uni.  I even glared at my father but he was too drunk to retaliate by that point.  Once he asked me “why are you looking at me like that for?”, a typical question asked by the alcoholic in response to the cool, disapproving gaze of the non-drinker.  I didn’t respond to him, just kept staring.  Thankfully that ‘evil-eye’ behaviour ceased the time I reach 22 or so.

A Faustian pact was made when my father saved my mother’s life back in Hanwood in the early 1950s.  From thereon my mother enabled my father throughout all of his rotten behaviour: his toxic scapegoating of his children, his profligate spending on booze, cigs and horse-gambling, his spontaneous anger and verbal abuse.  Whether my mother enabled him because of his life-saving action, or because of her own virtue of character, or upbringing – she never disputed a man – the fact was that a supercharged vortex of negativity and trauma spun itself throughout the family, playing itself out in difficult circumstances and illnesses over the years to come.

Friendships borne out of the migration process were highly institutionalised in those days.  These friends seemed to be friends for life and each had roles in baptising or confirming each other’s children within the Catholic rites system.  Relations were formal in the sense of needing to be careful “not to offend”.  My father would place these friends’ children on a pedestal - the broad smiles, the big laugh – while at the same time treating his own children like shit.  This is emotional trauma playing out.  My father was in so much emotional pain that he could only do his best: to put on a good front.  But it doesn’t excuse insane behaviour, and nor doesn’t it excuse my mother silently or passive-aggressively enabling every rotten thing he did.

Years later when I was a late-teenager my father would sometimes call me a ‘snob’.  He was pissed, so I ignored him.  ‘Snob’ was his way of recognising that I objected to his lifestyle, which I certainly did and still do.  He also called me ‘Uncle Scrooge’ to my nephew seeing how uptight and strangulated I was.  This is scapegoating.   Unlike my father I just couldn’t put on a happy front, I always sought to be genuine and real.  My cousins, as a good example, would see my dad all smiling and jolly and drinking and I would be snarled up and difficult in turn and seen to be the ‘snob’, ‘thinks he’s better than everyone else’, and so I internalised my hurt and anger as a way of coping because I wasn’t into pretending and I wasn’t into drinking either.  Even my brother became a scapegoater, following in his father’s footsteps – for a time.  Unbelievable.

Late at night in those shadowy unguarded moments I would occasionally encounter my father in the living room and he would begin pontificating to me about Italy.  He didn’t invite conversation, instead he would begin talking about the past giving off no eye contact or introduction.  This behaviour increased over the years leading up to his passing.  The man was so obviously haunted by his brutal upbringing, although sadly hadn’t discovered the tools to deal with or cope with his burdens; alcohol as we know only exacerbates and enhances emotional pain.

From what I can recall my grandfather punished my father constantly, physically and verbally brutalising him under the enabling gaze of a silent mother.  My father must have had some years of respite when my grandfather was banished to Corsica as a form of political punishment, but upon returning home from the war my own father ran away at fifteen years old.  He never really had a father, and as the sins of the fathers fall upon the grandchildren, so neither did I.   This is why when to this day people speak lovingly of the grandparents I always do a double-take, it’s a concept that takes me a few seconds to register.

My father was helped and assisted by uncles and extended family members and worked as a kitchen-hand in Genoa, as I recall.  He offered me one piece of wisdom in life, relating it to an event that happened to him as a young man in Genoa.  He told me to never be shy when eating in public, just eat.  He bought himself a plate of pasta in a restaurant and feeling self-conscious he ran outside and scoffed down a piece of bread with salami in the nearby laneway.  After that he never felt self-conscious about eating in public again.  Just eat.

And eat I did to the point where my weight would balloon on and off for 14 years before it sickened me.  I resembled a blimped-up Brian Wilson.   My illness when it manifested actually offered me relief from that physic – physical – weight of negativity, so there’s always a silver lining somewhere.  I felt a lot freer once I suddenly lost my weight due to diabetes.  I was sick, but I was freed.  It was a good feeling despite the constant thirst.

There’s a photo of my dad at age two.  He is with his youngest uncle who happens to be nine months older than he.   My dad’s uncle looks solemn, yet sturdy.  My father, the darker of the two, appears strong also hapless and needy.  His similarly-named uncle left Calabria at age three for Australia.  His upbringing was altogether more conventional and the educational opportunities offered to him in Australia allowed him the freedom to follow the career path of his choice.  He did well with his life, and he still lives with his wife of almost seventy years in a lush retirement village on the leafy northern outskirts of Sydney.

My father was a defeated man.  His Bob Hawke / Oliver Reed act could only last so long.  Omens abound.  In 1990 Bob Hawke was re-elected as Prime Minister with a reduced majority.  By mid-1991 his treasurer Paul Keating was making attempts at “going” Hawke to take the Prime Ministership for himself.  My dad’s physical sickness began manifesting by this point.  It interests me how much my father resembled Bob Hawke just as I resembled Paul Keating: I the dour, dark-haired, angular, one-pointed son facing up to my silver-haired, garrulous, drinking, people-pleasing old man.  Paul Keating deposed Hawke of his Prime Ministership in late 1991 at which point my dad was on his way out with diagnosed terminal illness.  He died in June 1992, at precisely the same time give or take three or four days that my partner gave up her promiscuous drinking.  I feel that it was all meant to be, but this doesn’t negate the tragedy of it all, a man of immense promise destroyed by the burden of deep-seated and unfaced trauma, alcohol, cigarettes and emotional pain.

2011. It’s a hot and sunny Aussie Christmas Day.  My then 15-year-old nephew is showing Google Earth to my mother on his iPad.  He is showing her Plati.  My mother is overwhelmed on seeing the familiar streets, the church and piazza around the corner, and what appeared to be the terrazza she grew up in.  Plati looks quaint and pretty, and my mother had a settled time growing up there before the disruption at the tail end of the war when food suddenly became scarce with advancing German soldiers threatening lives and livelihoods, leading through to permanent resettlement in Australia in 1950.

Cinquefrondi, or “five fronts”, where my father was born, appears differently to Plati when looking at it through Google Maps.  It still has the same highland feel about it, but the place otherwise exudes a solemn, eerie vibe.  I can imagine my dad being a frightened little boy tottering around those curved, sinister laneways, but then my father’s three uncles and aunt were probably raised there too and they all had solid, hardy lives in Australia without the traumas that my own father seemed forever burdened with.

I’m not like the protagonist Isaac in Dead Europe.  I’m not going back to Calabria, no fucking way.  Whatever familial ties remain there I’m not touching.  My mother has no desire to go back, partly because she is now an old woman, but really it’s because she feels the same way as I do.   My mother herself is a good source of family history but sadly remains tight-lipped over the story of her late husband.   My sister knows a lot, and often shares stories.  My last remaining great-uncle, the one who is nine months older than my father, knows a lot too, and one day I will make the pilgrimage to the leafy outer northern outskirts of Sydney to take in some family history.  He has lived a good life, and I’ve no doubt he’ll live past 90 years.

Here in Australia I am free.  If I remained in Calabria I wouldn’t be quite so free.  From what I’ve been told, Calabrese are stigmatised in Italy, with territorial prejudices befallen onto the Calabrese.   But here, as an Australian, I am essentially an emancipist.  I walk, live and eat freely among the bounty of this land’s produce, sunshine and natural landscapes.  I’ve lived my life without pressures to marry or to go down any particular line of work or career path.  I avoid class stigmatisation and am free of Catholicism.  It’s not been plain sailing though.  I’ve made many sideways decisions stemming from growing up in an alcoholic household and an atmosphere devoid of demonstrable love and support, but at least I’ve been able to live and make mistakes and learn from these as part of life’s journey.

My father had principles.  He wasn’t into the easy corrupted money as quite a few of his Calabrese compatriots were.  He worked (physically) hard and allowed himself to be screwed by bosses, but his philosophy was about the basics (“food on the table, drink, a roof on your head, that’s all that matters”).  A couple of times, very close to the end of his life, he said he just wanted to give us kids the opportunities he never had.  He said this standing up, fuelled on drink, with his hands in his pockets, and looking askance as always.  While I appreciated these backhanded sentiments, I also observed boatloads of uneducated immigrants who flocked from Calabria that managed to make good lives for themselves despite their lack of education.  That my dad took readily to the dowdy aspects of the Australiani lifestyle was ultimately his chosen path.  Looking back on it I suspect that during those the last two years of his life he was dealing with looming and overwhelming sensations of regret, of lost opportunities for a decent, happy and sharing life.  I could tell this by the look of doomed intensity in his face as he sat sozzled in his chair.  He was caught in an irreversible malaise, well aware that his lifestyle was beginning to devour him both spiritually and physically, and with no one around him to help or to share his predicament.    Devastatingly he was left alone to confront his own psychic terror and the horrible physical diseases that finally overcame him.

Loved ones may signal their presence after they pass in the most subtle and sweetest of ways.  I sensed my father’s presence once, about two or three weeks after he passed.  As I was falling asleep I was awoken by the clamour of the piano smashing to the ground downstairs.  It was an aggressive, cacophonous noise.  I walked downstairs to investigate anticipating a vicious display of shattered wood, strings and keys, so real was the sound that startled me.  But the piano was intact, along with a heavy, pregnant sensation in the air.  My poor father; I gave the piano all of my attention and he none at all, but, as is often said, as you give so you receive.  Sadly my father didn’t give of himself to us.  He wasn’t interested in engaging or knowing his own family, so there was nothing for us to reciprocate.   When he died I was more concerned about losing piano practice than the death of my own father at 62.  I wish that circumstances had played out a lot sunnier, but they didn’t.  That’s life.

And now, after many years of living with negativity and swirly-dark circumstances, I am freer than I’ve ever been.  I do not carry the burdens brought down by my father.  The burdens of generations past have died on the vine in this new land – it’s taken a while, but it’s happened.  I have not come through unscathed.  I have chronic albeit manageable illness, and sadly the opportunity to have a family of my own has been denied me.  But the abuse of my grandparents and their grandparents no longer carries over, that trail is severed irrevocably.   Calabria is now well and truly buried away in the vaults of the past.  Dead Calabria.

I acknowledge my parents and their role in my life, for by the momentum of living and circumstance they brought me here.   I love the land I live in, the Gadigal land of our First Nation peoples.  I look out onto the vastness of the Pacific Ocean Blue from beachside cliff tops.  Summers are hot and leafy, the days are long and family Christmases are warm, languid and drama-free.  There is daily opportunity here to be made fresh and new.  So thank you to mum and dad.  You lived hard lives.  You left Calabria and here we now are in Australia.  You gave me much.  Life gives us much.

Another thing I heard about the old land: they don’t speak the Calabrese dialect anymore.  Calabrese children are now taught and speak the proper, formal Italian in school.  It’s only the colonising Calabrese in Australia and elsewhere who carry the dialect over to varying and ultimately lessening degrees.  Essentially, Calabrese is a dead language.  I myself am happy to continue speaking it; along with my siblings and cousins I sometimes talk to my mother in Calabrese.  Mainly though I use Calabrese for comic effect.  For instance, I tell my partner loudly what our ‘sausage’ (dachshund) dog is doing and what the ‘sausage’ dog is eating in Calabrese with forced Italianate diction.   I call the dog “mussoni”, meaning ‘mouth’, or ‘snout’.  We always have a big laugh over this.  Even my mum cracks a smirk.




Acknowledgements to the author of the 'al-kulh' article.
Acknowledgements to my family.

Copyright rossmusician.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Tex, Don & Charlie live at Factory Theatre, Marrickville, 23 August 2017




(for gav's little songy mag)


           I’d seen Tex Don & Charlie perform a few times prior to their Factory Theatre gig in Marrickville last week; twice in 1993 when they’d just formed, and again to a packed house at the Hopetoun in Surry Hills in 2003.  Fourteen years later, the group had sold out the larger Factory Theatre over three consecutive nights, confirming their enduring popularity and appeal as they tour Australia for the first time in over a decade.

Something of a mini-super group, the band comprises of Tex Perkins (Cruel Sea, Beasts of Bourbon), Charlie Owen (Divinyls, Beasts of Bourbon), and Don Walker (Cold Chisel, Catfish), with extra musicians guesting on double bass, drums, and at this recent gig a pedal steel guitar.  Tex Don & Charlie weren’t particularly popular to begin with.  Being a huge Don Walker fan I didn’t miss the opportunity to see them live as soon as they started gigging together back in 1993-95.  The venues they played in back then were small and the audiences subdued; I got the feeling that most of the audience were there to see Tex Perkins who was trailing hot from his time in the Beasts of Bourbon and Cruel Sea.  Cold Chisel remained coolly submerged from the fashionable zone in the early nineties and Charlie’s fine skill as a guitarist was known only to fellow musicians and dedicated fans. 

Almost twenty-five years later we find audiences singing along to both the newer and older songs, revelling in the pleasure of music made by three great performers and songsmiths who work just damn wonderfully together.  Tex Perkins is an exceptional front-man; he’s tall, gravelly-voiced, articulate and theatrical.  His once trademark swarthy, aggressive stage manner has refined itself with age.  He’s a little more composed and dignified now without in any way affecting his characteristic stage presence and innate theatricality, on the contrary he is now performing better than ever.  Don Walker is rightfully respected and loved by audiences, and Charlie Owen is seen as an integral musical and personal force as he weaves his way with a variety of guitars around the songs of Don Walker and Tex Perkins.  Fittingly, the first album they made together back in 1993, Sad but True, is now universally regarded as one of the great albums of the Australian music canon.

The group played a mixture of songs mostly from their first and most recent third album, You Don’t Know Lonely.  The songs from their latest release are brought to vivid life in a live context when compared to the understated, skeletal tone of the album.  These are reflective, almost world-weary pieces that resonate well with middle-aged folk, sounding refreshingly vibrant when performed live.

The band started with something quite familiar.  ‘Redheads, Goldcards and long black limousines’ is the opening track of Sad but True and was sung by both Tex and Don over alternating verses.  It’s a great opener and introduces us to the concert with a fitting line, “…I’ve been in and out of trouble, mainly in…”.  ‘Man in conflict with nature’ showcases a fine lyric from Tex who is himself a fine storyteller.  “…I got myself three hookers, and some sushi…” was easily the most memorable line here, and all the more satisfying when ‘taxi’ was used to rhyme with ‘sushi’.

Danielle’ was featured early on in the set.  This is one of Don Walker’s Ray Charles flavoured, jazz-blues signature tunes that had been adapted from a Chisel song ‘Janelle’ and re-recorded by Tex, Don & Charlie for Sad but True.   This version had Don swapping his lead vocal with Tex, mirroring the Chisel version which had Ian’s lead vocal swapping half way with Jimmy Barnes’.  Of the four, Tex probably sings it the best with his warm, commanding baritone, and Don for that matter as composer is not quite the singer that the other three are, but no matter: ‘Danielle’ is a musical and lyrical delight and was a set highlight.

Don and Tex swapped places on stage for ‘Harry was a bad bugger’ which featured Tex theatrically carving out single note motifs on the piano, underpinned by Charlie’s understated guitar.  This song of a racketeering, notorious crim called “Harry” managed in its four minutes to eek out the terrain of the entire Underbelly series.  Musically sparse though lyrically detailed, ‘Harry was a bad bugger’ was delivered with a poetic precision that once again showcased Don Walker’s unique talents as a songwriter.

Tex commandeered his acoustic guitar on a number of songs including ‘Fake that emotion’ from Sad but True.  This is one of Tex’s better-known tunes from Tex Don & Charlie, and the song elicited an enthusiastic response.  The band overall gave a committed performance and engaged in some laid-back on-stage banter, particularly Tex.  The audience in turn delighted in the songs, the performance, and the band’s easy camaraderie and humour on stage.  And they got their money’s worth with the main act playing for almost two hours.

The final song performed prior to the encore was Don Walker’s ‘Sitting in a bar’ from Sad but True.  The guest musicians left the stage at this point and for the first time we witness only the three men on stage, Charlie, Tex, and Don.  This song encapsulated everything that is great about the band: Don’s compositional genius and storytelling mastery, Tex’s singing and showmanship and Charlie’s deft musicianship.  The audience loved it and laughed and spurred on the singer as he approached those iconic lines, “…I’m sitting in a bar doing lift-home deals, with the last two drinkers in the skirt and high heels, one of them’s a girl, the other one…I’m not so sure…”.  These lines surprised audiences in 1993, but in 2017 the audience at large know the song well, laughing and anticipating Tex’s customary send-up as he came to sing those lines.

Sitting in a bar’ could be set anywhere, ostensibly Kings Cross, but reads also as an indictment of empty lives centred around far-flung, nowheresville, landlocked suburban pubs where Friday nights are met with “the usual bender in mind, a wet week’s end” and a “cold grey Saturday coming in under the door”, fleeting romantic prospects so that “I’m making eyes at the floor” and a midnight meal that’s “coming alive” at “half-past five” when I’m “half alive”.

The band finished their encores with ‘Postcard from Elvis’, written by Smotherman/Ehmig and featured on Sad but True.  It was a fitting ending to a superb concert, with the band jamming out heartily to the song’s calypso-like coda.  Tex by this point had cracked open a beer and sung out the refrains with his own improvised melodies, losing himself in this terrific home-cooked musical corroboree.

Tex, Don and Charlie appear to get together about once every twelve years.  These guys are wonderful musicians with their own unique flavour and appeal.  Let’s hope their next album and tour comes along a lot sooner than 2030.

Paul Hewson shooting star

i'm in the sunshine A mate of mine produces a monthly songwriter newsletter which goes out to a hundred or so mainly Sydney-based...