Saturday, 7 January 2012

Hey jude

Part 2:

I laboured with viola lessons throughout 1983, guiltily aware that my parents were forking out their precious work-for-a-crumb (beer: dad) income for an instrument I found onerous to play.  Alternately, as an antidote to this tedium, and being terribly bad and bored by viola, I discovered pop music with all of its refreshing charms. Simple, contemporary pop, straight from my little transistor radio I kept at my bedside table.  I’d taken scant notice of pop music in earlier years.  I did recall the video to ABBA’s ‘Fernando’ closing Countdown for about upteen weeks in a row during 1976.  There were other songs that may have come through my brother’s radio that I’d taken some notice of – the one that went “…January, sick and tired you’ve been raining on me…” but that was it really.  No real interest in pop, and no demonstrable facility either.

I enjoyed the Top 40.  Luckily, in late 1983 into 1984, Top 40 music was plentiful and – for a 13 or 14 year old kid - enjoyable.  It was probably consistently better than 60’s pop.  The best of the Sixties stuff may have scaled the heights, but much of the remainder was a little on the embarrassing side, maybe.  Eighties pop was probably the second great era of chart music, after the sixties, in its own way. 

Anyway, my interest in the Top 40 didn’t last too long.  This was rapidly supplanted by an overwhelming love for a newly discovered group, The Beatles.   Late in 1983 I borrowed by sister’s early-80s style ‘KTel’ 8-album LP compilation Beatles set and taped these LPs onto cassettes.   The compilation worked out to be about 65-75% of the entire Beatles catalogue.  It didn’t matter that every Beatle track wasn’t included; as a Beatle novice, it was more than enough to whet my appetite for each distinct era of Beatle music.

The discovery of the Beatles was the most singularly impactful event of my life.  It wasn’t unlike ‘The Wizard of Oz’ film where the scene changes suddenly from black and white into technicolour.  I instantly loved the Beatles and soaked their music in like a love-thirsty sponge.  And I was into all of it too, not just the middle or late-period Beatles.  The vigour and energy of the early Beatles music just totally dazzled me.  Never in my life had I experienced such intoxicating bursts of joy, and delight.  Having this music, too, pulsing through my psyche for the remainder of my life served as a huge confidence and ego-booster for me.   It was the one tsunami of all the external life-long influences coming my way.  Suddenly I had something to live for, an inner-code, that by its genius and universality also encouraged individuality, the joy of being one-self however unconventional or counter-culture this may appear to be to others.  My psyche fast-tracked into a thinking, sharp-minded adolescent.

I recall one evening around early 1984 where I was lying on my bed and ‘Hey Jude’ came on the radio.  At this stage I knew of the song but only really knew the opening line and the long sing-along coda; I hadn’t yet encountered the song on my Beatles compilation cassette-tapes.  So, for the first time, I had an opportunity to listen to ‘Hey Jude’ in its entirety from my tiny little transistor radio sitting by the bedside.   And, as the song twisted its way through those labyrinths of delightful modulations and bridge-sections, I distinctly remember the physical sensation of feeling my brain twitch with these new sounds, this new musical knowledge that amazed me and stilled me to the point where even my brain felt that it was physically restructuring itself.  I was stunned, captivated.  The Beatles were my new master and I was the loving, devoted student.  And something in my musical brain chemistry altered irrevocably with that inaugural experience of hearing ‘Hey Jude’ that night, neurons were fired up and connected in a way they hadn’t been before or since.

I started reading up about the Beatles in earnest.  A new book came out by Brian Epstein’s assistant, Peter Brown, ‘The Love you make’.  I bought that and devoured it in three days.  I became particularly interested in John Lennon who became, and remains to this day, my favourite Beatle.  I bought up books about John Lennon and rued and mourned his passing like the rest of the world had.  Even within the Beatles, as much as I love McCartney’s work, it’s Lennon’s songs that continue to have the most impact for me.

Another group I came to love alongside the Beatles back in 1984 were the Hoodoo Gurus.  I loved their debut album ‘Stoneage Romeos’ and still enjoy a play of the album every now and then.  Dave Faulkner was a very clever songwriter.  ‘Stoneage Romeos’ was one of the best examples of updated 60s garage punk, with all the attendant comic-book themes, mixed with classic songwriting sensibilities. The album’s carefree Australian 80s innocence still appeals to me.  It reminds me of how Sydney was back then, particularly places like Rozelle and Balmain: creaky sun-motted verandahs, grunge, beer, musos.  I lost interest in the Gurus sometime after their second album when aggressive surfer crew suddenly took to them, and it was difficult to be at a gig to see them when surfers would be threatening to ‘bash your head in’.  It’s a pity that, given that they were so quintessentially underground just a few years previously; the sort of band that surfers would want to mug and bash.

For someone who hadn’t encountered music as a child, I did remarkably well to soak in so much in such a short time.  So much so, that the natural, logical course of action to take was to learn guitar.   It was 1985, there was live aid, there were mullets (mine included), there was Madonna, and there were the oversized ‘Choose Life’ T-shirts.  It was a good time to be 15, and I enjoyed the commercial pop scene for what it was.  Finally, on one weekend back in September 1985, I asked the music department if I could borrow a guitar.  It was a cheap nylon string.  I had a page of chord shapes to work with; these were taken from my year 7 ‘Introduction to Music’ book, the same book where all those hip recorder tunes that first inspired me were to be found; and that was it.  After a weekend of around the clock practice I’d learned the chords.  And aside from learning up some fingerpicking from a book some 11 years down the track, influenced at this point by Nick Drake, I remain self-taught.  I don’t think I improved too much since that weekend back in 1985, just learned new ways to play lots of different chordal shapes and fingerpicking styles, too.  Probably got a bit jazzier with it over the years.  I had to return my inaugural nylon string guitar to the music department as it belonged to a violin student in the year below me, but I ended up nicking other guitars from the department.  Cheap, nasty nylon strings.  And I’d smash them up.  I wouldn’t do that now.  But I was 15, 16 then.  I was kooky, and strangely aggressive.

The problem with playing guitar in the 1980s was that the scene was overwhelmingly electro, pedal-centric.   I only found my natural home with the guitar a good 12 or so plus years later when the acoustic movement came back into popularity.  I’m an acoustic player, not an electric player.  I felt vulnerable, a little naked even, when playing just the electric guitar, unless I was playing mod-style guitar.  But this was already a done thing, the Jam, the Who, etc.  I just wasn’t comfortable with the whole show, so I turned to bass.  Part of me resented this move at the time because I felt that some of my talents were being quashed, but I also discovered that I had a very particular ear for the bass.   The instrument’s understatedly cool intellectual appeal also attracted me to the instrument.  So I became the bass player.  I would slowly grow to love the instrument over the years, and I play it on-and-off to this day.  And so it remains that the only electric guitar I play live is the bass, and not the six-string.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Recorder

Part 1:

Music for some is a means to making money.  For others, it attracts fame, or a steady job.  In many ways music has been a saviour to me.  Sometimes, a stress and a strain.  But mostly, music has been a joy, and my life’s journey has been a series of ever contrasting and changing musical scenes of different varieties and colours.

As a child I demonstrated zilch aptitude for music.  I didn’t particularly demonstrate an aptitude for anything in fact, and nothing was encouraged of me in any way either.   I recall loving geography books and maps, and I still enjoy maps to this day, but in hindsight I see that my childhood interest in maps stemmed out of intense boredom – aside from my summer trips to my cousin’s farm in the country, my parents weren’t that interested in going anywhere, so maps were a lonesome substitute for my travelling imagination.  Any outing however small was always a major event for me.  My natural childhood curiosity mostly remained perpetually snuffed in the household I grew up in.

I did receive a toy kiddie piano for Christmas, I think it was either 1977 or 1978. I banged around on it haphazardly for a bit, as kids do; I can remember my cousin wincing at the cacophony I made that Christmas day.  I smashed the piano soon afterward in the back garden using a hammer that was lying around.  I was bored and needed to release some pent-up energy.  I used to smash my toys for pleasure, partly because I never really liked toys, and also because I was bored.  I don’t do that kind of thing anymore, smash stuff.

We had this music teacher in year 6 called KL.  He carried himself with a television-exec air of importance with his suit-jacket and a ‘bog-brush’ hairstyle to match; a style so redolent amongst men of the late 70’s, like Billy Joel’s hair on those album covers with the puffed up bouffant and the hair growing down past the ears and over the collar.  Mr L was a renowned sound designer and technician I seem to recall, and I wonder why he taught music part-time at our school, and to juniors no less.  He probably liked the money, and the money was probably good; he wouldn’t have taught little-uns for altruistic purposes, he wasn’t that type of guy.  I do remember that he gave us a lesson in synthesisers, with all of us taking a turn at playing the synths.  I remember moving and twisting all sorts or knobs and levers randomly and then pressing a key.  The note wobbled and wavered like a movie ghost and everybody laughed. 

He made me write out a thousand times lines or something, that took me all weekend to do, just because I didn’t do some shitty homework.  I’ll never forgive him for that, the highfalutin twit that he was.  And I don’t recall he ever checked up on the lines anyway.  So if I ever run into him again I will throw those lines in his face.

But Mr L was the first person to ever mention the ‘recorder’.  He told us we all needed to go out and buy a recorder.  My immediate understanding of a ‘recorder’ was a taping device, and I wondered why K wanted us to go out and purchase little tape-recorders.  It took me some time to realise that a “recorder” was a plastic flute-like instrument and not some kind of miniature tape-deck.

By year 7 KL was in the past and I faced a new swag of music teachers who travelled with me throughout my high school years.  I was 12, music class was a joke, a period where we could relax, muck around, and let off some steam from the rigours of the more demanding subjects.  I was no more interested in the subject than most of my peers.  But something curious happened in my 7th year, in 1982.  I started to really enjoy playing the recorder.  So much so that I learned all the songs from our song book and even took to transposing Greensleeves in different keys.  The head of music, Hanka Zavodnik, told my mum at student-teacher nights in that sharp Polish accent of hers, that the boy has talent and should study music.  To Hanka I remain grateful – she was the first teacher who saw something of value in me.  For all her faults – volatile, calculating, domineering - she was sharply insightful, and that she took the time to begin to nurture my talents is something I’ll never forget.

Hanka had a tendency to persuade and manipulate people into doing what she wanted them to do.  She convinced me that I should learn the viola.  So I spent most of year 8 studying the viola at which I was fucking woeful at the best of times.  It wasn’t my thing.   My parents couldn’t afford the lessons, anyway.  So to the rescue came Chris Blenkinsopp, one of my favourite teachers at the school.  He gave me free lessons on the trombone which I carried on with through to the end of high school.  I wasn’t very good at the trombone although I did demonstrate scant degree of promise.  I was good with my intonation, or so he told me.  And I enjoyed playing in the orchestra and big band.  But my heart was never in the trombone, so after my final exam, which I bombed (and had stopped caring by that stage), I gave up the instrument, never to return.

One lasting legacy from my teenage trombone playing remains – I often find I play the bass guitar like a horn instrument, such that I phrase bass patterns in the way trombone passages are phrased.  I’m glad these aspects of my horn-playing have stuck with me.  I wasn’t much of a horn player.

A sadder legacy stems from a discussion I had with a work colleague a year ago.   We’d just discovered that we attended the same school.  After much bitching and groaning in general about the alma mater, I discovered that he also studied music and he played violin in the orchestra, but because he was three years older than me, we don’t remember each other from school at all.  We reminisced about the music teachers and I remember feeling pensive when discussing Hanka Zavodnic.  I pondered her whereabouts with my colleague as I’d sensed she’d passed away.  My suspicions proved correct when, a few weeks ago, an old school friend returned from Germany with the definite news that she passed away sometime over the past couple of years.  My intuition also tells me that it was an unhappy passing, and that there was much loneliness in her life.  

Whatever may have been, may she - like all of us - travel well.

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...