Saturday, November 1, 2008

Justin Townes Earle

November ’08 – I supported Justin Townes Earle (and Perry Keyes) when he played at the Annandale at the end of November. I’d been looking forward to the show for months – when I’d been offered the gig back in August, I’d been feeling a bit forlorn, having just broken up for the last time with a man I’d been breaking up with, it seemed, from the very first night we spent together about nine months before. Or another way to put it is that I jumped aboard a ship that had a great big hole in its hull, only it took nine months to sink.

The prospect of the gig made the future just a bit brighter. I was not immune to the fact that Justin Townes Earle was Steve’s son. In another broken-hearted phase of my life, I had even written a song (‘Take Me As I Am’, soon to be released by Nic Dalton And His Gloomchasers) in which I channelled Steve, and wrote a love song to me. “How did you get here so quickly? What took you thirty years took me fifty,” I had Steve singing to me. “Even then I nearly didn’t make it – offer me a bad deal and I’d take it. But everything happens in its own time - I’ll be your reason, and you can be my rhyme.” My love for Steve’s songs has comforted me over the years, and it was very bemusing to me that he was comforting me again, in a more convoluted way, by siring a son some twenty-five years before who needed another act to open his show in Sydney.

By the time the gig came around, the forlornness had passed, as it does (oh, shame!), and I had trained myself to drop the epithet, “Steve Earle’s son.” My set was fun – thankfully, as it was being filmed by Moshcam (you can see the whole night at…) – and when the time came, I shoved my way to the front of the crowd to study Justin. The spectacle of JTE was very arresting. Off-stage, he was lanky and polite, a bit odd-looking, with a touch of gawkiness; on-stage, his eyes burned, his face was lighted ridges and gouged-out shadows, his combed-back, macassar-oiled hair gleamed. He is very tall and rangy, and had his mic arranged at chest height, so that he loped around the stage, his guitar hanging round his neck, and had to duck his head to sing into the mic. I don’t think he glanced at his guitar once, no more than you need to look at your own mouth to make sure you’re chewing properly. He was an amazing player – very percussive, very distinctive. I was looking very hard, but I couldn’t see how he was making all that noise with just one guitar. A fair bit of hammering, and just general wizardry. At first, he reminded me of a caged animal prowling up and down the stage, taking leisurely bites out of the microphone as he passed it. An hour later, as his set continued, I was up the back with a friend who commented, “Guitar addict!” By this time, JTE seemed more like a moth, drawn again and again to the candleflame-microphone. “You get the feeling that he could go on like this all night,” said my friend, a boy, and therefore less susceptible to Justin’s charms. Every girl in the room was at that moment wishing he WOULD go on like this all night, preferably in a private concert performed solely for her pleasure.

Of course, my favourite song, one that will be on his soon-to-be-released album, was about him and Steve, “I am my father’s son.” The next day I could remember most of the lyric – it was simple, with a repeated line at the end of each verse, and was in that plain language you use when you have something very, very definite to say, and your meaning comes through with a stark truthfulness almost embarrassing for the listener. I can only remember the gist of it now, two months later. The first two verses were about characteristics he shares with his father, including, “We don’t know when to shut up.” Then in the next verse, he says, “I have my mother’s frame,” and the song begins to turn. One lonely night, he lights a cigarette in the kitchen, and in the reflection, he sees himself clearly, because, “I have my mother’s eyes.” There was something quite devastating about him, such an assured showman, sharing this troubled relationship with us, a roomful of strangers with no helpful advice to offer. Driving home, my flatmate Stella was in the back-seat, scarcely able to speak, for love of Justin (who had told her, after the show, that her eyes were “prettier than Pearl’s”; Pearl being the beautiful woman who joins him on his album cover). For Stella, I had plenty of not-so-helpful advice, considering myself an expert, after my recent experience, at identifying sinking ships.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pete Molinari

October ’08 – The singer for October at my house was certainly Pete Molinari (though Sam Baker is still our bread and butter). One evening, I was walking past the almost-corpse of a dying CD shop; its twenty-percent-off-everything offer induced me to do what I had only done once or twice while it was still alive, namely, go in. I hoped there would be a few shreds worth picking off the bones. There were several copies (someone’s fatal over-ordering) of Pete Molinari’s ‘A Virtual Landslide’. His name rang a bell, and his digi-pack was quite nice and featured photos of a very attractive guitar. I had twenty-two dollars in my wallet, so I bought it. Good move! I played it a lot, and, in my enthusiasm, I even unearthed a burn of an earlier album that had been given to me (then promptly forgotten) last year. His lyrics do the job; like power pop, you hear “glove” and know that “love” is coming up next, but you accept the limited parameters as part of the genre, and are perfectly satisfied with the two or three lines per song, generally in the chorus, that actually say something. I love the sound of his guitars, his drums – old-fashioned, raw, full of twang, toughness and sweetness. His voice is probably what I like best. It’s the quality of his voice, the widely-ranging melodies, but mainly his absolutely heartfelt performance. A few of us were sitting in the back garden listening to him, and I said, “Listen to that! He sounds like a woman!” He certainly did. Debbie added, “I suppose Odetta sometimes sounds like a woman.” I said, “Odetta nearly married Gary Shead” [the Sydney painter]. “Odetta IS a woman.” But Debbie is perfectly right, Odetta does sometimes sound like a woman.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Sam Baker

Sept ’08 – One of my brothers recently gave me a burn of Sam Baker’s ‘Pretty World’ and ‘Mercy’. As I subsequently fell in love with the albums, I went out and bought them, an act that places me squarely in an older age-bracket: the ‘went out’ - i.e., went to one of those anachronisms, record shops (so anachronistic that this one actually closed down before my order had arrived) – the ‘bought’, and the fact that I wanted to actually hear the albums, with the tracklisting in the right order, and liner notes, and the quality better than a many-times-compressed-and-uncompressed-download-burn (at first I thought Sam Baker had a lisp, but if he does, then so does the woman who sings harmonies with him, and even his guitar has one). His songs are very much in the Texan singer-songwriter camp, with lots of anti-heroes, lots of characterisation, specific town-names, horses, oil, whiskey. He goes so far as to sing a song about Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Waiting Round To Die’. But he doesn’t limit himself to the genre; and by reaching out to other subjects, other sources of imagery, other influences, he ensures the genre’s survival.

One of his songs, about an Odessa oil heir, incorporates a couple of verses of ‘HARD TIMES’, a song I knew from Emmylou’s ‘Live At The Ryman’ (which includes an enigmatic anecdote where Bill Monroe says to Emmylou, “I’ve got some scissors if you need ‘em.” This phrase, its context shed, has been lodged meaninglessly in my mind for about twelve years). It’s impossible to sing ‘HARD TIMES’ without putting your heart into it, and I downloaded (see, I accept that this internet thing has its uses) the lyrics, and even went onto All Music Guide to read about Stephen Foster, who wrote the song in the late sixties (that’s the lateeighteen-sixties). I sang it at our recent house-warming, which might have been a bit of a downer, as its first verse begins with ‘Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count her many tears’, and goes on, ‘Though we seek mirth and beauty, and music light and gay, there are frail forms fainting at the door.’ Don’t we have parties precisely to forget all that? But I think everyone was too drunk by then to be capable of taking in anything except another chug-a-lug.

Friday, August 1, 2008


August ’08 – Four years ago, I was in Ireland for my birthday, having been sent to Annaghmakerrig for a 6-week writing residency (if anyone from the Australia Council reads this, you might think “Oh, another grant squandered on a project that was never finished,” but I am actually working on it every day, and this afternoon, I think it’s really good!)…anyway, my lovely inmates gave me a book of 130 trad. irish songs. I never learn songs from the paper, but from singing and playing along. Words on paper have a certain effect on me: I must sunconsciously think, “They’re written down; therefore, no need to use up precious brain capacity by remembering them.” But ‘ROCKY ROAD TO DUBLIN’ is a song that, perhaps, can only be learnt from the paper. The Dubliners have a wonderful version of it that I used to mumble along to. The difficulty isn’t the irish accent, but the incredibly fast, tongue-twister pace. In my birthday songbook, it’s given no author credit, but it’s such an artful, ingenious song, it couldn’t possibly have organically developed from mouth to mouth like some ‘trad.’ songs. I’ll limit myself to quoting a few highlights (there are five long verses): “In the merry month of May, from me home I started, left the girls of Tuam severely broken-hearted, saluted father dear, kissed me darling mother, drank a pint of beer, me grief and tears to smother…” Later, he’s robbed of his possessions: “Something crossed me mind, then I looked behind, no bundle could I find, on my stick a wobblin’! Enquiring for the rogue, they said my Connaught brogue wasn’t much in vogue on the rocky road to Dublin.”

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Lara Meyerratken

June ’08 – I’ve been a fan of El May since the days she was Lara Meyerratken, playing (everything) and singing in Sneeze in the late-90s. I got hold of a copy of about six Lara-solo demos some years ago, and listened to them endlessly, and now I have El May’s four-songer ‘Sound The Key Note’. DRAINING A LAKE has become my favourite track. Sometimes when I’m writing - either a song or a chapter - I’ll think, “Yes, but there’s more to be wrung from this idea – I haven’t fulfilled all its possibilities yet.” One thing that’s so appealing about El May is that all possibilities are explored…In DRAINING A LAKE, with its loose, toe-tapping feel, and rumbling, cascading piano track, and the many layers of ingenious (and not gratuitous) backing vocals, the chorus, “Wouldn’t I know, wouldn’t I know by now?”, is teased out, revealed, explained. I love the way its meaning (or one of its meanings) is made explicit only at the end of the second verse, in a satisfyingly neat inversion: “You’re not coming back to me, ‘cause I’d know by now - wouldn’t I?” She makes these words resigned, yet longing; she’s come to a conclusion, but she’s still asking a question; she’s let go of the past although she’s still singing a song about it.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Endeavour Jones

May ’08 – My most replayed song lately has been SAME HERE by Endeavour Jones. So many songs, especially the ones addressed to an anonymous ‘you’, are written simply to ease, in the moment of writing (and then of playing), the pain of being parted from the latest you-who-are-not-here. SAME HERE doesn’t go into particulars – the listener finds out neither why they are apart nor whether a happy reunion is shortly anticipated. In SAME HERE, the singer is going about his daily life as usual, yet for him everything is drastically changed, and only the voice he carries with him can understand: ‘I hear the silence of my room at night, I listen to its memories. I still pretend that you can hear my breath - it’s evidence of absence of one’s death. And you just whisper, “Same here, same here.”’

Of course, if you happened to have been Endeavour Jones’s correspondent since 1997, when you’d met him at the Oberhausen Kurzfilmtage, then you’d be able to ask him for the full story behind the song. Even though we’ve only spent a total of three weeks in each other’s company, his voice is one that I carry around with me – about once a day I hear him make a comment about something I’m doing or seeing or thinking about. He is an extremely prolific maker-of-things – he has written two novels, made several short films, written hundreds of songs, he paints, he draws, he did a PhD about plane crashes in movies, he is a design professor in Bern, Switzerland, and he even sews! - (at this point I hear the voice of another friend, who sings a rather good ‘Making Whoopee’). With so much capacity, at times Endeavour Jones has been too sophisticated – jazz chords! - for a simple faux-country girl like me. Slightly dazzled, I used to wonder, “But who is the real Endeavour Jones?” Songwise, I know him better now, and understand that his flights of fancy are as true an expression of him as his cries from the heart.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Tommy Maken and Liam Clancy...okay, okay, Eric Bogle

April ’08 – Here’s a song from this very moment: THE BAND PLAYED WALTZING MATILDA as sung by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy (written by Eric Bogle). Just a moment ago, I was innocently listening to a batch of songs poached from my brothers’ playlist, while I was log-cabinning (any patch-worker will understand that verb) a cushion-cover I’m making for another brother, and thinking, “I should get ready to go out and meet Chris, just as soon as I’ve sewn on this strip…” (and so I reveal that my habitual lateness can be blamed on the allure of hobbies). Next thing I know, I’m sobbing away for the man whose legs have been blown off at Gallipoli, and who realises that there are worse things than dying, and, when he disembarks at Circular Quay, sings, “I looked at the place where me legs used to be, and thanked Christ there was no one waiting for me.” And now my eyes are red and if I leave my room, I might bump into a flatmate who’ll ask me what’s wrong. Unplanned bouts of weeping are also very occasionally a cause for lateness. And having two legs, and being able to walk, is regularly a cause for great happiness. If you happen to be in Sydney, visit the War Memorial in Hyde Park (go by yourself, and bring a handkerchief).

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Ian and Sylvia

January ’08 – I have years where I love Ian & Sylvia, interspersed with years where I find them simply too twee and tame. The past couple of years have been Ian & Sylvia years. Maybe when my life is wearing aprons, knitting blankets, cooking from recipe books and having five-hour-long cups of tea with mature-aged neighbours, then listening to Ian & Sylvia (on top of all that) would be pushing myself dangerously close to an overdose. But in years where my Vacola Preserving Outfit is shoved to the back of the cupboard and piled up with plastic bags of plastic bags, Ian’s dignified, school-teacher appearance and Sylvia’s demure poses, and their polite, proper voices no longer (quite the contrary!) make me want to puke. I once had a tape of American sixties folk songs; Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Candyman’ was on it (I used to think that song was creepy) and so was the Tyson/Fricke classic ‘YOU WERE ON MY MIND’. Last Saturday, I played all four sides of an Ian & Sylvia Best Of (I hope that doesn’t reveal too much about my Saturday), and the very last song ended up being ‘Y.W.O.M.M.’. I thought, “I should learn that.” I already knew the words, and it sounded simple, like a standard 3-chorder plus a little optional extra something (e.g. an F#m thrown in among the Es, As and B7s). But I learnt it mainly because it is one of those handy songs that perfectly captures a thought-cycle that most people will experience at some point in their lives, and it’s better to sing and play it aloud, and possibly even pair up with someone who can add an Ian or Sylvia harmony, than to have it trapped, voiceless, in your brain, where it circulates tiresomely. And it’s somehow morale-boosting to apply a light and pretty melody to lines like “Woke [well, it’s “got”, but I prefer “woke”] up this morning/ You were on my mind/ Got some aches and got some pains and/ Got some wounds to bind.” Or, “Went to the corner/ Just to ease my pain/ I got drunk and I got sick and/ I came home again.” There! Only one more verse to learn and you’ve got the whole song.