While 1985 may have been the year of ‘Choose life’, 1986 seemed altogether more subdued. It was an auspicious year for me as I, at 16 and in year 11, found myself seeking, discovering, and then assimilating more enduring, character-shaping influences. I’d made a decision during the previous year to give up on the sciences. I kept on with maths but my study load otherwise delved around the humanities. I needed the succor of the arts to nourish a being thirsty for muse, for inspiration, for love.
My favourite subjects were Ancient History and English. I topped Ancient History at my school and believed that it was teacher bias as to why I didn’t get the Ancient History prize. I loved Ancient Greece in particular and took great pleasure in dissecting Cicero’s speeches and writing essays about them.
English was another bombshell. Having not been much of a reader as a child I came to love reading and exploring all this new literature handed to us in class. It was an inspiring, imagination-expanding time. I loved ‘1984’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ and even ‘Pride & Prejudice’. We studied ‘Emma’ for our final year and I recall groaning when I got to chapter 35 knowing there were 20 more chapters of the book to go. I wouldn’t read Jane Austen now, but when I was 16 it was very much an eye-opening excursion into this amazing world of English literature.
My musical explorations similarly traversed a deeper, more intellectual-emotional route. The next big thing for me after the Beatles was to discover the songwriting of Paul Weller with the Jam. I liked the Style Council so I was happy enough to take a taped copy of the Jam’s compilation album ‘Snap’ off a friend, once I found out that the Style Council’s Paul Weller was previously in a band called ‘The Jam’. I really knew nothing of the Jam other than the song ‘A Town called Malice’, so that was the tune I listened to over and over on that cassette. But I slowly began to discover and listen to all of the other songs on the tape.
The Jam was probably every bit as impactful as the Beatles were for me. But whereas the Beatles had opened up for me the possibilities of what music can do in the fullest sense, the Jam honed in on my personal proclivities and attitudes that were maturing during this period. Here was this smart guy writing songs with a sharp, poetic lyrical bent but with a cutting, dry, ‘fuck-you’ attitude. That his dad was a brickie and his mum a cleaner, like my folks, appealed to me no end. I began to love words, lyrics, verbal expressions that allowed me to project who I was, and what I felt. I may have grown up dumb but that was a changing fast, as even my school results testified.
My sister bought me a copy of Paolo Hewitt’s biography of the Jam (‘A Beat Concerto’) and I grew to love the bio as much as the music. Hewitt’s colourfully descriptive yet incisive style of writing appealed to me. If I was ever going to be a writer, I thought, this book would be my template.
During this time I continued to play the trombone in the orchestra. I enjoyed it enough, and it kept me out of trouble. I continued to study music as a subject all the way through to year 12. Music was simply a period of release for me, away from the ordinariness of my other classes and peers. I ended up scraping a narrow pass in Music to which I was grateful for given that it was my designated class for putting my feet up. Yet I was interested enough in the subject to listen to and absorb into my psyche some of the pieces we were studying in class, enough to say that I enjoyed those pieces by Bach and Stravinsky in that they made me feel good. It was all very creative and dreamy. They touched subtle pulses I felt existed in me for forever, even though I was only 16.
Similarly, while I loved the mod-rock sounds of the Jam, I couldn’t help but gravitate to softer, more reflecting music. Suzanne Vega’s debut album was one of the first “gentle” albums I ever got into. It had an immense influence on me, both musically and personally. It had to do with those cool textures and icy-sharp lyrics; stories sung with a sharp-minded precision yet coated in evocative textures and tones that personified New York City. At 16, I was fairly captivated. I loved ‘Cracking’ and those lines “…through the park in the afternoon” and “…dizzy golden dancing green”. The album widened my musical perspectives and my musical vocabulary. I studied the album and attempted to the best of my ability to work out the songs on my guitar. Upon reflection, I could gauge the album’s influence in future years when I took more to songwriting, hearing how much Vega’s textures and tones shaped and influenced my own. And like any of those classic Woody Allen films, the album holds a very dear space in my heart and mind.
Suzanne Vega first toured Australia in 1987. She played the Sydney Town Hall in September of that year. I didn’t attend that concert, but on that very night before Vega’s gig, at the Town Hall, I played in a combined orchestra concert. I scrawled a note on the wooden floorboards of the stage, something like “I love you Suzanne”. I don’t think she would have seen it and I was disappointed not to have attended Vega’s concert the following night, after my trombone soiree. I did go to see her at the State Theatre five years later, with Mitchell Froom backing her on keyboards.
And that September 1987 concert at the Town Hall – I can barely remember it – was my last trombone gig. The world remains a better place for that.
Leaving school is one of those obvious rites of passage to impending adulthood. It was at this point, soon after my last exam and finally free of the interminable shackles of school, a song came onto MTV that lifted me way above anything I’d heard before, up from the ground and into a hitherto uncharted universe. It was fresh and inspired and very much of the time. This was The Church’s ‘Under the milky way’. I saw the Church play it probably for their very first time, at the Tivoli that December. I recall the rapturous, quite exalted applause after they performed this brand new song, with the band looking quite pleased onstage. The song has travelled well since then, since 1987.
And as I reminisce and think of Suzanne Vega’s debut album, and ‘Under the Milky Way’, and their impact on me back in the day, I realise for me these were magic times, magic times. I can’t traverse the universe with music the way I did back in the 1980s. Now, to traverse the universe, I need to go within. You go so far out you inevitably come back into yourself. This is what meditation or the universe-within state is. This is death, this is life.