Saturday, December 1, 2007

Vamping Rose

December ’07 – A friend was talking about when his granddaughters had gone through their Spice Girls phase, and he assumed that in my pre-pubescence, I’d had an equivalent late-70s-early-80s, destined-to-be-embarrassing fancy for a pop band. I couldn’t think of one. I can remember going to a friend’s house in Year 2, and being played a Chipmunk Punk record, followed by an Abba record…I recognised it as the culture that I should have been absorbing (or at least pretending to absorb – I pretended to have seen Grease for years, finally genuinely watching it at the very mature age of fourteen) but for the time being, I was satisfied enough with my parents’ records.

On my father’s side, there was his clanging metal filing-cupboard full of Tom Waits, The Supremes, Chuck Berry, Frank Zappa, The Beatles, Daddy Cool, John Lee Hooker; my mother liked Linda Ronstadt, Nina Simone, Elvis, country compilations; my stepfather’s record collection included Blondie, Ry Cooder, Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark, Brian Eno, The Persuasions, Rick Nelson, Sarah Vaughan, Sam Cooke, Keith Jarrett. I didn’t bother about the music of my generation until I was fifteen and going out to pubs and hearing it (seeing it!) live. I told my sister recently about how in Year 8, our gym class had been given the assignment of pairing off and working out a dance sequence; so I subsequently brought in a bluegrass banjo instrumental taped from a warped LP of my father’s called ‘Blue Ridge Mountain Music’ and forced my partner into doing a square-dance-esque routine, complete with full, twirling skirts (supplied by me). My sister said, “When I was in Year 9, we had to review a song for our English class, so I taped VAMPING ROSE off the gramophone and reviewed that.”

My father also had a lot of 78s and a great, big wind-up gramophone that had been his father’s (our grandfather had been a haunter of auctions and a lover of bargains, even useless ones). I claimed a song called ‘Lu-Lu Belle’, my older brother John claimed a song called ‘Oh, Johnny, Oh’ and my sister Julia (middle name Rose) had ‘VAMPING ROSE’. I can only remember the chorus of my song, but almost all of ‘VAMPING ROSE’, a 1920s, bitchy, lilting, conversational dance-song, is fixed in my mind: “Vamping Rose, there she goes in her fancy clothes. Goodness me! – can it be? My, what class she shows! She don’t care for a heart, she just tears it apart – that’s why they call her Vamping Rose. She wears a gem from the Pilot’s End [no idea what she is really singing there, probably the name of a famous jewellery shop, but I pictured a perilous diamond mine in Africa], with her flash and her dash, she gets all the men. She’s got rouge on her cheeks, it’s been on there for weeks – that’s why they call her Vamping Rose.” Having been obsessed with boys from a very early age, Vamping Rose was exactly the sort of role model I sought (I am sorry to report that, in that respect, adult-Lucy has let down child-Lucy – I never wear rouge).

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Nina Simone

November ’07 – Nearly two weeks ago, I played a show in Brisbane, supporting Pikelet and Darren Hanlon. I felt a bit like the one who had won a competition – “Be a muso for a week! Go on tour with a real band!” After the Brisbane show, the other members of the tour drove on to Tweed Heads, and I was billeted out to the hospitable Sue Ray (or Suray, as I called her until the next morning). Not only did she give me - a complete stranger - a comfy bed (next to her blue-tongue lizard enclosure), a cup of tea, a burn of a Pete Molinari CD, but she even gave me a lift to the airport in the morning. On the way, a Nina Simone tape [note: tape] was playing in Suray’s car…I recognised it as an album I’d had and loved then somehow lost about twelve years ago. When ‘PLAIN GOLD RING’ came on I realised that I had been subconsciously anticipating (for twelve years!) hearing it again – I almost shuddered, and asked Suray to rewind it and play it again. We sang along (two sing-alongers shamelessly outing themselves). Hearing ‘PLAIN GOLD RING’ wasn’t like being reunited with an old friend; it was like coming face-to-face with a truth that I thought I had successfully avoided. As soon as I was home again, I picked it out on the guitar – what I could remember of it - looping Nina’s ominous piano riff and singing over the top of it, disregarding (or relishing) the discordance of any ill-suited notes that clashed together. It is a reminder of a time when a whole life (and usually more than one life) could be ruined when someone married the wrong person - of course, I interpret this song to suit my anti-marriage agenda. But agendas aside, it is one of the darkest songs in existence: “In my heart, it will never be Spring/ Long as he wears that plain gold ring.”

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Roches

October ’07 – I am going through a phase of having to ration my intake of The Roches. I don’t usually ration music, because I (sadly) know myself well enough to realise that I go through passionate fads that come to their end simply by being usurped the next month by the next passion. So I reason, “Why hold back? Devour it while I have the appetite for it!” But The Roches are different…not because I am fooling myself that I have found a passion that might last forever, but, rather, because The Roches could be justifiable grounds for my flatmates to stage a walk-out. My sympathy would be with Janet and Stella if they marched in with their hands over their ears, crying, “As if it wasn’t enough that you practise your songs ad nauseum (FYI, even when you close your bedroom door, we can still hear everything – EVERYTHING), but now this? It’s too much!” The fact is, three-part harmonies are simply in a different solar-system to two-part harmonies. In the two-part harmony solar-system, couples skip hand-in-hand through beflowered meadows. In the three-part harmony solar-system, conjunctions exist that beggar belief (stop! Don’t even try to imagine it! You might see something that you don’t want to see – and that you’ll never get out of your mind).

The first song that piqued my interest was ‘Runs In The Family’. “I’ve never heard of The Roach Sisters,” I said. “Oh! Well, you have a treat in store.” I was a treat-hoarder in my early youth, but no longer, so I tracked down their first album and loved it. When I saw another album, ‘Nurds’, in a two-dollar milk-crate at the Glebe Record Fair, I bought that one, too. Their harmonies might be their distinguishing feature, but their song ideas and lyrics come from another solar-system, too. At first, I feared that the sisters were just too silly (for example, the song sung by the woman who runs the laundromat where Suzzy Roche washes her stinky, crusty socks; or the one where the singer is a chocolate bar and her addressee is a bag of soybeans), but it didn’t take long to learn their language. Now my current favourite is ‘ONE SEASON’, where the harmonies go so dreadfully awry in the third verse that even Steve Reich might be envious. I like the line, “I am the only tree, and everybody leaves.” I imagine that it would be hard to bring heartfelt, diary-esque material to your two sisters…wouldn’t they (at best) be stifling sniggers as you unveiled your earnest, new song to them? It makes sense that the songs’ painful hearts are disguised as witticisms, similes and wordplays; decoys that would distract the other sisters long enough for the wound to heal…a year or so later, they might say, “I just realised! This song’s about that bloke you were seeing - the one who didn’t leave his wife after all.” By then, the songwriter would be capable of asking breezily, “Which one was that?”

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Fred Eaglesmith

September ’07 – A couple of months ago, Fred Eaglesmith came at me from two directions at once. First, Roddy Cameron played me a song he’d written after a disappointing Fred Eaglesmith show (among other things, Fred had bitched all night about Scotland). The next day, my attention was arrested by a song playing on my brothers’ computer, with a chorus that went, “Time to get a gun, that’s what I been thinking. I could afford one, if I did just a little less drinking.” With lurching drums (and garbage-bin lids and beer bottles?), idiot savant banjo, and some raucous neighbours joining in for the chorus, it was a sound I couldn’t resist. The title of the song alone, ‘TIME TO GET A GUN’, would have appealed Danny and Teddy, who got their gun licences as soon as they turned 18. They played me other Fred Eaglesmith songs that they had downloaded (such as ‘I Shot Your Dog’, and ‘Lucille’, about a 19-year-old boy’s affair with a 50-year-old woman)…I liked all of them. He has a loose, conversational style of songwriting, where the melodies are simply an exaggerated version of the natural risings and fallings of speech, and the dramas are everyday and domestic. He might seem to be an unxepectedly-eloquent yobbo-redneck, writing from a sidelined, semi-rural, Canadian outpost, but I suspect that the imagery in his songs is just as exotic and marvellous to him as it is to me. He is an expert in setting up a story so that it’s believable, then nudging it to an extreme. The listener swallows it all…then, a few weeks later, thinks, “Hey! Did he really take his Cobra to the nursing home, lift her out of her wheelchair and put her in the passenger seat so that they could go for a joy ride?”

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Neko Case

August ’07 – Neko Case’s albums are my favourite sing-along albums at the moment. I put her on when there is no one else in the house and sing along with all my heart, approximating the vowel sounds when I don’t know the words. I often don’t know the words. Sometimes there will be a single line that hits me – “I leave the party at 3am, all alone, thank god” or “In the end I was the mean girl, or somebody’s in-between girl” or “The most tender place in my heart is for strangers” – but the overall concept of each song generally eludes me. Sometimes I even fear she can be waffly. But the singing is amazing, with melodies flying off in all directions, and the performance is so uninhibited and hot-blooded, or sometimes scarily cold-blooded, that I can only love her music. But I have found a song (on the live album ‘The Tigers Have Spoken’) that is perfectly crafted…taking into account that perfectly crafted includes a few humanising blemishes and flaws. I told one of my brothers that he should download it. I watched over his shoulder as he typed in the song title; he typed “hecs”. I said, “No, the other sort – ‘hex.’” Danny (currently a student) said, “She’s obviously not Austalian.”

There is an impotent evil about a curse song; an evil that is born out of nothing more than scraps – unanswered phone calls, dates that fell through, words that turned out to be meaningless, love that was unvalued after the object got past the initial, thrilling ego-boost. The curse song is tiny fists pounding against the vast, nerveless back of someone who has simply, and finally, turned away. Neko sings, “You hear me calling your name out at night, do you run to your window thinking a coyote might be howling?” and, later, “When the stars in the sky begin to fade, do you tell yourself ‘Don’t be afraid, it’s just the night that’s dying’?” I have always believed that when you put a curse on someone, you run the risk of the toxic poison of the curse splashing back onto you. At the time, of course, you are prepared to take that risk, sure that it is impossible for you to feel any worse (or better) than you do. Later, you come to regret it. “You took my heart, cast it aside, laughed when I cried – like it was just no big deal! And here, all alone in the dark, I know just how you feel.” That last line is my favourite, for its double-edge. Has he been dragged down to her level of suffering, or has she been reduced to his level of baseness? - the curse of the curser, the heartlessness of cursing someone to heartlessness.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Jean Shepherd

July ’07 – ‘SATISFIED MIND’ is one of those songs that I almost knew, but didn’t quite, so a few weeks ago, I sat next to the CD-player and learnt it properly. I know Jean Shepherd’s version, but I’m sure lots of other people have covered it, too, because it’s just so enjoyable to sing and play. It feels best when you play it briskly, and sing it loudly and plainly – then it swings along with its own momentum. Some of the lyrics are a bit plodding, and I considered fiddling with the last verse, “When life is over and my time has run out/ My friends and my loved ones, I’ll leave them no doubt/ But one thing’s for certain, when it comes my time/ I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind,” mainly because I found the “leave them no doubt” perplexing – is it “leave them, no doubt”? But how can you then sing “But one thing’s for certain” if you have already said “no doubt”? Shouldn’t it be “Another thing’s for certain”? And I didn’t like the repetition of “time has run out” and “when it comes my time.” But in the end, I told myself not to be such a proof-reader, and just to sing it. And every time I sing it, I wonder how it feels to have a satisfied mind. And I think I know how it feels (occasionally).

Friday, June 1, 2007

Lucinda Williams

June ’07 – I was given Emmylou Harris’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ for Christmas when it came out in the early-mid ‘90s. I wasn’t sure about the production (Daniel “Turn Up The Reverb” Lanois) but there were some songs on it that I fell completely in love with: ‘Going Back To Harlan’ (my introduction to the McGarrigle sisters) and ‘Sweet Old World’. I had heard Lucinda Williams before and didn’t like the way she sang. She didn’t sing – she chewed. But I had to admit, ‘Sweet Old World’ was one of the saddest and most beautiful songs I had ever heard. Several years later, I gave Lucinda another go with ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’. Same problem; I liked the album, but just wished that Emmylou had been singing it instead. Then, after ten or fifteen years of ambivalence, I bought Lucinda’s first album for $2 (from my local, at the Parramatta end of Glebe Pt Rd) and, after a few listens, finally understood. She is a difficult knot of harshness and sweetness. She brutally undermines her lovely melodies and neat word-plays, not because she wants to make things hard for the listener, but because she is trying, trying, to be honest; hoping that somehow we can accept the way she sees the world; and hoping that we won’t refuse to listen unless she comes back with a sugar-coated version. My favourite on this album ended up being ‘CRESCENT CITY’. I don’t even know exactly why; it captures some happy-sad, looking-back mood, “We used to dance the night away/ Me and my sister, me and my brother/ We used to walk down by the river.” And there is a fantastic, subtle chord change between the verse and chorus, and a melody that just makes me want to sing along at top volume.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Merle Haggard

March ’07 – I was on my way to play a show a few weeks ago and a woman, seeing my guitar, asked me what music I liked. I asked her the same question and she said “Country music, Aboriginal music.” She listed a few singers, including Merle Haggard, so, sometime later, although his conservative politics always bothered me, I got his Best Of down from my shelves and since have been listening to it a lot. I love ‘MAMA TRIED’ – it is a compact little life story, with brief but vivid character sketches, and a chorus so rousing and full of energy that you almost forget the meaning of the words that you’re singing along with: “I turned twenty-one in prison, doing life without parole”. Great guitar riffs, too.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

David Blue

February ’07 - One song I listened to about ten times in a row recently was 'HOUSE OF CHANGING FACES', by David Blue. I thought only Townes Van Zandt wrote songs from such desperate places (like Sanitarium Blues, which makes me picture Townes buckled to a bed but still groping for a pencil, then scrawling lyrics on his green hospital gown, saving up the very last of his brain cells for a song). There is not a single wasted word in David Blue's song - “It wasn’t easy when I think about it, living in the house of changing faces. I still have the tracks to remind me what life was like high and wasted, when I wanted to die” - and his guitar, heavy, harsh and twanging, says even more, maybe all the truly awful but undramatic details which just can’t be conveyed by words. His vocals are double-tracked, which I think is often a mistake for really personal songs…but in this case, maybe he needed the moral support of another voice (and it could only be his own).

Monday, January 1, 2007


January ’07 – For $2, I bought Prince’s ‘Round The World In A Day’. I used to listen to it at a friend’s house when I was fourteen; ‘Raspberry Beret’ was a favourite, for the lines “and if it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more” and also, “the type you find in a second-hand store” (buying berets in second-hand shops was the sort of thing we would do, as was partial nudity). I have liked Prince since I got ‘Purple Rain’ for my twelfth birthday, but not very thoroughly…I loved Love Positions’ version of Kiss (again, the lyrics were so hippie and down-to-earth for someone who has kiss-curls like Michael Jackson) and there was that song about “If I was your girlfriend”. So I was very curious about my second Prince album. And it turned out to be amazing. ‘PAISLEY PARK’ quickly became my song of the moment – it’s so happy that it’s almost creepy! At about the same time I made this purchase, a Mr Whippy van had taken to visiting Arcadia Rd (one day I heard joyful cries as ‘Greensleeves’ approached, and spied two grown-up boy Goths from down the road run out and buy ice-creams), and I thought, “If everyone in the world were like me, in twenty years, all the Mr Whippy vans would shelve ‘Greensleeves’ in favour of ‘Paisley Park’.” Caution, children!