Robert Lurie's biography on Steve Kilbey & The Church
"With the Church, what remains...is real, tangible magic - ultimately unidentifiable and unexplainable." - Robert Lurie, No Certainty Attached, 2009.
I've just finished reading Robert Lurie's biography on Steve Kilbey & the Church, No Certainty Attached. In reading this book I was immediately struck by how good a writer Lurie is; he's my hero now, not Kilbey! I think he's done a damn fine job in balancing critical, well-researched perspective with the passion he has for his subject. His grammar and vocabulary are ace, too. I'm enthralled! So I'm going to use this book as an influence, a template, for my future scribe-extrapolations! ;)
Robert Lurie intersperses his narrative with occasional autobiographical anecdotes, such as his account of discovering the Church and the 'Starfish' album in 1988, and the immense, lasting impact the band has made on him. He talks about his time in Sydney in July 2003 where he met up with Steve Kilbey for interviews, and his general thoughts and ideas of Sydney and the city's relationship to the band he loves. You come away from this book thinking just what a congenial guy Robert Lurie is; by now he'd have many offers of friendship from Church fans worldwide!
I understand where Robert is coming from when he writes about the impact Starfish had on him in 1988, when he was 14 years old. I've often commented on Kilbey's blog of a parallel experience. I was a fan of the Church throughout my teens, but a very special moment occurred about a month after I finished my final exam for high school in October 1987. I remember sinking into a pleasing though vacuous nothingness void after my exams, to be shaken and stirred by a new song that just hit the airwaves and MTV. It blew me away, kicked me up from my sofa-lounge, and totally inspired me into new dimensions of possibility. This is the song that the Church are generally most known for, and it's the second track of their Starfish album. I remember the band playing this song at the Tivoli in December 1987 and the rapturous applause it received. The band looked very pleased with themselves. It may have been their very first performance of the song.
That which I love about Kilbey, aside from the Church and all, is his story. His is a compelling (for me) post-war story, of coming out to Australia from England on a boat in the mid-50's, and settling in Dapto near Wollongong, then mid-Victoria, and finally Canberra. My sister was born 4 days prior to Kilbey in the month of September 1954, in mid-west NSW, and I see parallels with Kilbey's story and hers. She was my first big influence, my sister, and a most thankful and invaluable one at that too. She retains an outrageously bohemian viewpoint on the world to this very day, and like Kilbey, she has a sharp way with words that always thrills me and makes me laugh. She is a great human being.
I can relate to Kilbey's lack of true identification with Australia. I've always felt a sense of misidentification here with both my parents having come to Australia from southern Italy in the late 40s (dad) and early 50s (mum). I've never considered myself a "true" Australian; but in saying that I realise I'm more 'Australian' than those who boast themselves the loudest. I don't really fit into any social categories, or none that I can readily think of (I'm disdainful of sport for example). And yet, over the years, I've come to love the best aspects of Australia so that I'm now very thankful and happy to be a citizen of this great southern land. Australia is a wonderful, magnificent place, and it's an honour to take up temporary abode on this lovely part of the earth, of the universe.
On page 80 of the bio I was astounded to discover, as I was lying on the bed keenly reading away, that I'm quoted in a footnote! Robert wasn't able to quote my full name as that's not displayed on myspace where we corresponded. Originally I'd contacted Robert on myspace after I discovered he was writing a bio on Steve Kilbey & the Church. I just decided to say hi and to send him an article I wrote back in 2004 for a local zine on the Church's rereleased & remastered 80s EMI recordings. Robert quoted a sentence from that article to illustrate a point he was making about the musicality on the Church's debut album 'Of Skins and Heart': "...Steve's bass playing may not be ambitious rhythmically, but it is aggressive and melodically inventive". The tagged footnote to my quote is as thus: "Australian singer/songwriter "Ross" comments: 'Kilbey's bass on the debut album is stunning, virtuosic and propulsive, he's obviously feeding off Ward and he never played like that again on record'."
So yeah, I was pretty astonished. I'll write to Robert soon and say thank you!
I'm impressed that Robert's bio maintains firm critical ground on the Church's records, never shying away from calling a spade a spade or a dud a dud if he sees fit. To my judgement, his appraisals and criticisms are correct, although I find myself tending to view much of the Church's work through rose-coloured glasses. I find it difficult to fault their work at all, particularly those early EMI recordings. Even if there are dud tracks or lapses of judgement on these early albums (or awful production and mixing), these recordings nonetheless capture the buzz and energy of the band's time and place. The undeniable magic is captured in those grooves from Skins to Heyday, even if various aspects of the songwriting or production are not always perfect. But to me, that's perfect! For the Church are a magic band who came and flourished at precisely the right time. And the eighties were a bit of a magic time for me too (again, these are my rose-coloured glasses...).
Early on in the piece, as Robert lands in Australia for his month-long stay, he writes about wishing to find a connection between Australia and the art of Steve Kilbey. Perhaps this is why, personally, I love the EMI recordings so much. My memories of 1980-1986 are dazzled, stirred somewhat, by listening those EMI recordings now. The band do capture an element of the local buzz in those early recordings - it's oblique, yet tangible enough. Partly, the recordings capture the energy of a city on the rise. From the late 70s in particularly, Sydney moved fast, rapidly metamorphosing into the "international cosmopolitan" city it's heralded to be today. This propulsive energy is captured in the grooves of the exciting debut album. Blurred Crusade is a wonderful soundtrack to Rozelle on a Saturday morning, a sunny summer's Saturday morning at the markets. Seance is astoundingly away and beyond it's time - likely my favourite Church album. Yet it's probably Heyday that has the most discernible Sydney energy to it. It's relaxed and cruisy and reflects a time for the band (and the city) of great optimism. You can imagine driving up to and through the northern beaches on a warm spring or summer's day, in a convertible, with Heyday blaring through the speaker cones. 'Already Yesterday' quotes one of those northern beaches, Avalon.
I guess the only feeling of disappointment I have with Robert's efforts is not so much to do with his excellent book, but in he not having visited Canberra, the home of Kilbey's youth and early adulthood. He told me he never got to Canberra in our myspace correspondence. I feel that if he had ventured to the ACT he may have come to a clearer understanding of Kilbey's genius and uniqueness. Canberra has always held some kind of semi-mystic fascination for me. I've spent a lot of time hiking in the extraordinary sub-alpine ranges and forests that are about a half-hour drive south from the city central. On the surface, the city can feel sterile and somewhat misplaced, like it shouldn't really be existing at all. The original pre-white settlers used the area as a meeting ground only. And to modern-day dwellers and visitors, it's the easiest place on earth to find yourself lost. Yet the disparate, isolating feeling you get in Canberra is a surface one; I find the vibe around that city - and particularly as you go south towards and into the alps - to hide some fantastic sense of possibility, an ultra-dimension beyond surface appearances. There's something eerily enchanted about the place, that anything is possible, attainable. There's a tracking space-station down near the Tidbinbilla ranges so it doesn't surprise me if the whole area is a UFO radar site. It certainly accounts for the 'outer-worldly' element you feel in the Tidbinbilla ranges, in addition to the sublime sub-alpine beauty of the place anyway.
Kilbey may not have noticed any of that. But his art is of a quality of genius where anything is possible, and it has lashings of that "opaque", icy power that is noticeably Canberrean to me, particularly demonstrable in the Church's debut album and first EP. In short, Kilbey's work may have turned out a lot differently if he'd moved to London or Sydney after finishing school. It may not have been quite as strikingly original, but one can never be certain of that. That he allowed his creative capacities to formulate and flourish in the confines of a place like Canberra probably and inadvertently did him a world of good.
There are obviously some quite thrilling moments in Robert's narrative: Kilbey's sojourn as a Canberra musician throughout the 70s, his relationship with his charismatic father Les, the forming and swirling together of the Church in 1979/80 with the amazingly fortuitous meeting of Marty and the tempestuous relationship with original drummer Nick Ward, the lead-up to and the recording of Heyday, Marty briefly leaving the band in 1986, the band's rise to international stardom and American fame in the late 80s, Robert's first meeting with sk as a support for an acoustic gig in London, etc. The narrative takes a decisive turn for the worse from the juncture of the early 90s where the menace of heroin rears its ugly head. At this point the book starts reading like William Burroughs' 'Junky'. Robert handles this subject with aplomb, and it's to the subject's credit that he eventually kicked the habit, for himself and for his family.
Robert, during his personal anecdotes in relation to Steve Kilbey, muses a lot about his fascination with the man, and how his perceptions alter and change as he gets to know his subject. It made me think of myself, and my feelings towards Steve Kilbey. And not just me, but loads of other fans. We love him! Why is that? What is it about Steve Kilbey that holds so much personal power and charisma that fans the world over assume friendship or long for recognition from him? Why is he such an everyman?
There's no answer to that, he just is. He holds an enormous magnetism and charisma that draws many to him - it's in his person, physical appearance, and it's definitely in his music. Not everyone is born equal, some people just have more presence and personal power, more mass than others. And yet, for myself, I can never be as huge a Church or Kilbey fan as Robert Lurie or many other Church/Kilbey fans. I don't own everything the band or its members have ever produced. I have one solo album only, and that's Kilbey's 2008 Painkiller release (a damn brilliant record actually). And I suppose that my own artistic ego, formed from a lower-middle class midset, prevents me from being too sycophantic. Many other artists who I love appear to be, on the surface at least, quite disparate to Kilbey and the Church. There's John Lennon, and there's also Eva Cassidy, Paul Weller, Beethoven, Don Walker from Cold Chisel. Oh, Kilbey hates Cold Chisel, I think. I'm likely to be the only person in the world who, when naming two Australian bands they adore and revere, would drawl out 'Church' and 'Cold Chisel' in the same breath. Well, ostensibly I'm a Kilbey fan and a Don Walker fan. You can be a fan of both, y'know! And both bands start with 'C'! ;)
Kilbey's main influence on me would have to be his bass-playing. I would say, for me as a now (semi) serious bassist, that Kilbey would easily have to be my prime bass "hero". His bass-playing is like no other, for even when he's playing relatively simple lines his touch is so passionate and true, as if he's travailing beneath the earth's surface to its molten core to extract the depth you hear in those bass lines. I regard Steve's songwriting and recordings as possessing a quality of genius and uniqueness that I love and enjoy, but do not aspire to emulate in any way. What I'll take from sk, ultimately, is his approach to playing bass. That, and the encouragement he bestows on readers of his blog to undertake and explore their creative potentials. This encouragement has spurred me on a lot, most particularly in exploring narrative writing, and I suspect it has spurred many other of his readers too.
I met Steve once, briefly at a vegan festival that my nephew had invited me to attend, offering the man a book I was certain he'd like, a book on life the universe and everything. A week later he commented on his blog that he really enjoyed this book. I'd like to meet him again if that's to be, but not to talk about music or the Church, but more about family background and general matters. Besides, I love his blog and his perspective on things and he's the type of person I covet in my life. He lives walking distance from me too. Of course the last thing I'd do - and this applies to anyone - is to bug them unduly. People have got their families and activities and jobs to get on with in life. Blog correspondence is more than fine. It's nice that the man who gave us 'Constant in Opal' and 'Seance' all those years ago makes himself happily available through his great blog.
Kilbey and Church drummer Tim Powles produced an album for a friend of mine called Pennie back in 1997. She became my friend in subsequent years and has revealed very little about her association with Steve. I love her work very much, I had two of her EPs before hearing her full-length album that was produced and performed (bass & drums) by Steve Kilbey and Tim Powles. She now lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with her musician partner and they continue to perform.
As for No Uncertainty Attached, it's a great read! I'm very impressed and influenced by the writing style, so Robert, this is now a textbook for me!! :)
And now, I myself shall leave the subject of sk alone and will be writing about other things!!
but I still love and listen to the crnch!! ; (when i ain't listening to chisel ahem!)