OF FLEAS AND FAUST (REDUX)

Like a down-market department store for heads and hippies, Goesunder Flea Market in the heart of Melbourne’s retail district was the unlikely venue for an import record shop, yet it is where I first ventured outside the confines of AM radio hits via a close encounter with the multi-hued constellation of musical meteors known (ridiculously, but pervasively) as Krautrock.

It was the mid-seventies and my first year at the university, a 15 minute walk north of the city centre. I was callow, confused and desperately earnest not to appear the first two. I knew no-one in the entire university and hadn’t made friends; the multitudinous clubs and societies spruiking their charms during O-Week were much too intimidating. I remained resolutely and unhappily alone, perfecting a kind of alienated aloofness that, sadly but not unpredictably, only reduced the chances of connection even further.

My regular solitary ramble back down Swanston Street each afternoon led to an acquaintanceship with Space Age Books, specialising in science fiction and fantasy. Bookshops were (and are) one of the few retail spaces you are at liberty to browse unassailed by over-zealous staff. Generally quiet and slow-moving, patrons studiously avoid interacting with each other and only converse with staff when absolutely necessary. You can be alone and safe in a bookshop; they are a sanctuary for the socially inept. And fans of Sci-Fi and Fantasy—especially neophyte ones—need that kind of refuge.

The space next door to Space Age was, however, another universe entirely.

Through the wide portal was a large shadowy space whose air was redolent with the mysterious scents of incense and patchouli. Stalls swathed in sheets and shawls of strange design formed uneven rows like a gypsy marketplace. Kaftans rubbed shoulders with tie-dyed t-shirts; handmade leather sandals reclined next to hookahs; essential oils whispered heady secrets to psychedelic posters.

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Artist’s reconstruction of the scene

And there was a record stall. I thought I knew a bit about music, having secured my first record store job the previous summer and slogged through eight years of piano lessons. But not one album did I recognise. All were strange, exotic, alluring, impenetrable and—for one of extremely constrained means—unattainable. Most weeks all I could do was leaf through them and devour the covers.

High School German classes were sufficient to reveal the origin of these exotic treasures but that was little help. Neither were the staff, whose alternative noses doubtless picked the smell of a tightly wound suburban boy as easily as clocking a virgin at an orgy. Or so I imagined. Maybe they were simply stoned out of their gourds. Certainly they did not seem fazed by my leisurely browsing and absence of purchases; Goesunder was like Space Age books but in a phantasmal underworld.

This shy courtship might have gone on forever had I not got a lead from Billy. These were the days when the only access to new music was radio. For those not drawn to the music mainstream, the Sunday night Album Show on 3XY was compulsory listening. Late one evening Billy Pinnell played a long instrumental piece that blew me away with its distorted guitar and hypnotic rhythms. It was a cosmic storm blowing in from another galaxy. Hell, the drums only came in over halfway through the 12 minute piece yet the groove was monumental. At its conclusion Billy’s nasal drawl announced it as ‘Krautrock’ by Faust. It was the opening track on their fourth album, mischievously titled IV, and the piece took its name from—and a sly swipe at—the casually racist term coined by English journalists for a disparate conglomerate of independent German rock music. It’s a term that is still used today.

Back to Billy. He went on to describe the cover: empty music staves on a parchment coloured background with minimal print in a plain typewriter font. The simplicity took my breath away. Op art? Pop art? Minimalism in the age of flares and platform shoes? Who knew? I had but one mission: find that album.

There was no chase, no excruciating search; I knew exactly where to go. A day later I marched into Goesunder with a new air of confidence and a fistful of Deutschmarks. Aussie dollars, actually, but I was pumped for Das Vaterland. This would be my triumphant entry into the mind-altering world of sinuous long-haired women and men who said ‘Man’ a lot. No more Neil-sodding-Diamond or ultra-boring Allans Music stores. Brave new alternative world, here I come.

Do you have Faust IV?

No.

Oh.

It’s Virgin.

(Was this a sly comment on my interpersonal development?)

Virgin?

(I may have blushed at this point)

Festival Records does Virgin. We don’t stock Australian pressings.

Oh.

Try Allans.

Exit Goesunder, deflated.

Pause for a calming cigarette. Probably St Moritz, an expensively foul menthol concoction I had adopted to mark myself out from the tobacco pack, thus proving beyond reasonable doubt you can be lonely and ignorant and still be a complete plonker.

Fortified with 666 deadly chemicals, I strode off to Allans muttering under my breath. Yet the setback failed to suppress a thrill of anticipation as the sales girl put my ‘local’ copy of Faust IV into a bright yellow Allans carry bag.

Here was a soundtrack for my still unpopulated world. There may not have been women, lithe or otherwise, but there were books and records and both would become long-term friends. These inanimate yet exotic companions would ultimately lead towards a scary yet longed-for domain: relationships with living, breathing—possibly even sinuous—human beings. I couldn’t wait.

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An earlier version of this piece appeared at Vinyl Connection in 2014

 

SPIDERFINGERS

Remember those family visits you were forced to endure as a child? The Uncle and Aunty who served stale biscuits; Dad’s former work colleague and his wife whose own child, fully two years older, totally ignored the visiting juvenile; the Grandparents whose dim, musty house imprisoned you for the mandatory sentence of stilted conversation about school and sporting activities until you were permitted to escape to the overgrown garden…

In former times a common badge of middle class cultural aspiration was the inclusion, as part of the lounge room furniture, of an upright piano. Usually nobody played—perhaps Dad once aspired to learn a handful of Broadway hits or sister suffered several years of unproductive lessons—but now the walnut box sat sadly against the wall, its cover down and a pair of almost-matching china vases sitting in symmetrical silence on top…

Mute, brooding, perhaps a little hurt. Staring down at the floral carpet and watching motes of dust dancing to secret tunes as late afternoon sun filtered through venetian blinds. That’s how it felt to be a piano in the middle-distance suburbs of the late 60s…

Unless, of course, visitors arrived towing a reluctant child who was known to learn the pianoforte. Give us a tune! What’s your latest piece? I hear you did very well in your Grade 5 exam! Know anything from The Mikado? How I dreaded these conversations. Not for their lack of connection to my musical world (because I did not really have one, then) but because they indicated an inexorable arc towards a particular outcome; I would be pressed upon to play.

Was it the repetition of this scene that encouraged my committing to memory a couple of pieces I could trot out with little pain, thus fulfilling my musical obligations? If so, how on earth did I conclude that 1918 compositions by a contemporary of Satie and Stravinsky would be well received by the Gilbert and Sullivan loving audience my parents inflicted me upon? Was it some kind of quiet rebellion? That is unlikely both for reasons of general emotional squashedness and because my tastes were still entirely constrained by the musical environment of my parents and a generally conservative piano teacher. Perhaps the two pieces by Poulenc were my standard performance repertoire because they were short. And after hearing their surprising melodic dissonance and unusual structure, people usually did not ask for more. That has a certain truthful cadence to it.

And so, one Sunday afternoon, the young pianist was found in an unfamiliar lounge room, perched on an unyielding wooden stool before the yellowing keys of a neglected parlour instrument, his back to a quartet of middle-aged adults juggling coffee cups and biscuits and ready to be entertained.

A couple of arpeggios proved the instrument to be more-or-less in tune, so, with a brief, inaudible sigh, I launched into Trois mouvements perpétuels No. 1, it’s unusual melody—combining salted caramel and peanut brittle—filling the room. The eighteen-year-old daughter of the hosts, hitherto unseen in such tedious company, appeared in the doorway. In my peripheral vision I could see her leaning against the door jamb, arms folded under her breasts (the memory of which irrefutably dates this story to teenage-hood), her eyes fixed on my hands. Halfway through the brief piece she could contain herself no longer. “His fingers are like spiders!” she exclaimed, to the mixed embarrassment and amusement of the older section of the audience. Me? Despite abhorring all arachnid life forms, I was quite chuffed, and launched into movement deux with scuttley enthusiasm.

What strange neurone webs, long dormant in our endless brain-matrix, are quietly breathed to life years—decades—after the experience occurred? Perhaps it was seeing a photo of an LP of Poulenc’s piano music on social media or picking up a CD of music associated with Picasso that included works by the French composer. Hard to say, but I found myself thinking about those pieces and wondering whether they had been recorded on disc.

You can find anything on the web, can’t you? And so a copy of Poulenc: Piano Music Volume 2 (Naxos, 1999) was ordered in the click of a mouse.

Awaiting arrival of the CD, wisps of memory began to surface. I found myself lying in bed, playing through the pieces in my head until the bar-lines wavered and the notation blurred to foggy uncertainty. But the next day, stacking the dishwasher, another phrase drifted in, then another, until, around the time the package arrived, a sizeable pile of fragments lay passively on the museum table of my mind, ready for an attempt at reconstruction.

The music. I wonder if I still have it? Two possible locations; the first a strike, the second a score. Well, well. Discoloured, slightly dog-eared, but intact and alive with dancing quavers. Open to the first piece, much as visualised and heard in brainwaves made gauzy by time. Next, the second. A single page of music ending in the only glissando I ever played.

How will the pieces sound played by a professional? By an actual musician? I’m almost afraid, but thrilled too. The music has been weaving gossamer fabric from distant memories, images of shadow-phrases emanating from teenaged spider-hands. I’m hearing the notes in my head, upper and lower register, fingers twitching like an insect overcome by spray, quivering out its last movements.

Or perhaps coming to life.

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Time to listen.

GOODBYE PIPER

It was obvious that a new, possibly final phase had been entered when Mother got lost walking home from the shops, a journey undertaken every second day for many years. Closer examination—forensic, domestic—suggested her weight loss was not illness but forgetting to eat.

A few weeks of regular meals in the new accommodation and she was looking fuller and healthier. Happy pottering around the paths of the facility and stopping for a cigarette on her favourite bench. Then she started wandering further. Down the street, across a main road. Traffic sense intact yet, with so little language now available, not exactly safe.

She always liked walking. As long as she was walking she was happy.

Happy? An assumption, but one borne out by seeing the negative contact prints. The police got a bit grumpy about picking her up and depositing her back at the facility. The facility got grumpy about having to interact with the police (who were invariably kind to Mother, it was the business they were exasperated with). What can be done with this old lady who walks? Ah, they said, we’ll have to put her in the lock down ward. With all the shuffling dead, yelling and pissing themselves and raving and shitting their pants and my mother, speechless and horrified, locked in with the demented zombies because she followed the paths. You see, the Aged Care home had no fences.

An aged care facility without fences or gates. Couldn’t believe it. Still can’t. A building full of old folk beyond the end of their tether and there is no perimeter boundary. Rage sits in my gut like a flaming cannon ball. And I did not even see her in bedlam, that interstate hell hole ward. My sister told me of her edging to the walls, eyes glazed with terror, saying ‘Shit, shit, shit…’ under her breath. One of few words she had left. We have to act, said sister. We did, decisively.

A new home in a different state. Not just my city, but around the corner in the same suburb.  Different surroundings. Shit shit shit, she muttered. You’re feeling a bit scared, it’s new, but it’s OK. You’re safe here. The muttering subsides. Soon there’s a regular seat in the tiny walled garden where she can have a ciggie. Does so, until she forgets that she smokes.

Could have seen her every other day, easily, little bother. But didn’t. The shame curls my lip and brims my eye. I so wanted to be the kind of man who could leave behind the solitary confinement of each inmate in our family of origin prison; share the autumn garden. Or at least peer over the fence and say, how ya going? And I did, but not often. Not often enough to take satisfaction from the entries on the Family Compassion Ledger just inside the number-coded front door. Frequently enough to feel a chill portent; what if my child will not sit with me either? But no way I could think about losing language myself. A nightmare too far. Her, not me.

This year, as Mother slowly lost the ability to move even within the confines of her room, as the compacting process of an organic life-form shutting down for good claimed one capacity after another, I wondered to myself to my partner to my therapist to myself, what I could do. Time is getting short, the wizened carcass with eyes now glazed, now dreaming, now anguished, said. Time, intoned this collapsed suitcase, emptied of communication, has almost run.

Read to her.

Take a book, and read to her just as she read to you.

Forget the sadness, the transferred trauma, the inability to understand who you are. These did matter, but no longer.

The choice was simple, instant. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Given to this grandchild by Nana, inscribed by her daughter. I looked at the pictures by Ernest Shepard and Mother read the words.

Unsure if she can move at all, sat positioned so her face was pointed towards me. Started at the beginning, a very good place to start. Do Re Me with Mole and the beginning of his journey to a bigger self in a larger world. Over a couple of weeks we got through a few chapters, through the Wild Wood, meeting Badger, a role model for the son in grumpiness if not valour.

Not eating, not really drinking. Not long to go.

This day I jumped forward to Chapter VII, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Unarguably my favourite part of the book and perhaps my favourite chapter in all children’s literature. Mystical, deeply spiritual, touching and mythic. Rat and Mole search for the missing baby otter, Portly, through the summer night and luminous dawn of the River Bank.

And then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter.

I cannot say the reader remained dry-eyed to the end of the chapter. Your greatest gift to me was a love of reading, I said. Words have enriched my life. Thank you.

Maybe it was the position of my chair, but she seemed to be staring at my face with piercing, ravenous intensity. I held that energetic link as long as I could manage, then kissed her forehead and said goodbye.

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Illustration: Ernest H Shepard

 

MORE FANDOM THAN EKPHRASIS

I’ve just completed a long, wandering, engrossing journey with a man I’ve never met. Might never meet.

At the end and during, he writes about creativity, suicide, nature, work, self-absorption and music. Every post there was something I wanted to riff off; grab the baton and run (or at least trot) a few metres on my own, see if it took me somewhere else, somewhere different to where I am with my own writing.

The cage of music. That’s what it’s become. It’s a huge enclosure, none of your two-paces then reverse, bars in your face, shit on the floor penitentiary. No, this is a massive wildlife zone where you can ramble and explore and never quite know what is coming next. Like the Hunger Games dome, but with less teen deathporn and more prog rock.

But still, I have been feeling constrained; there are only so many memoir stories directly relating to albums. Without the personal, Vinyl Connection is just another music blog, jostling for space with a thousand others, frowning as it tries to find a unique voice. A voice about others’ work, others’ creativity. A bottom feeder. The music is made, recorded, it sells, gets played, gets shelved. Hundreds of albums a year, thousands of songs. It’s overwhelming. We carve out niches of expertise; passion becomes a castle. It’s impossible to keep up, so put your head down. Explore the contiguous unknown, buttress enjoyment with opinion, plug gaps with arcane knowledge. Collect.

One of my music pals, Michael PH, loves much of the same progressive music I do.

I remember Michael as a diffident young man in his early twenties, burrowing through my crates at a long distant record fair. I kind of recognised him from previous fairs, maybe he’d bought some of the records I stupidly sold when I bought the CDs. The gif I remember relates to an amazing album by Dave Greenslade and Patrick Woodroffe. The package is amazing, not the music. The music sucks.  Taste the disappointment, if you wish.

I was selling a spare copy (the old record collector ‘upgrade’ idea) and because it is kind of rare, punters kept taking it out of the protective plastic cover to look at the pictures. The pictures are amazing, I shouldn’t have judged them. Most would only have heard about the book/record, never seen it. But I did blame them, got grumpier and grumpier with the tyre kickers, the tight-fisted voyeurs. When young Michael repeated the same moves, I said testily, look, this isn’t a library. He looked taken aback. I want to buy it, he said. And did.

Michael didn’t deserve my grumpiness. Not his fault that I couldn’t spot the difference between genuine dedication to the music and idle curiosity. That was maybe twenty years ago. Michael has gone on to be one of the Progarchives website’s most significant contributors. The student has long surpassed the master in knowledge and appreciation of the music. Still, he occasionally messages me, like last Sunday, to ask what I know about an obscure New Age electronic artist from Germany. (Nothing, but that’s OK). And he added the recent Tangerine Dream record to Progarchives just so I could post my review. Not sure I deserve the respect he offers me. He has grown up, I’ve grown older.

Success—no matter what the field of endeavour, performing or reviewing—is a kind of power. And power separates us, when there is too great a differential.

Quite a few years ago I went to see Steve Winwood perform in Melbourne at the tennis centre. Good seats about half-way back, with two mates both slightly older than I. They wanted “Dear Mr Fantasy”, I wanted “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”.

About half-way through some audience members left their seats to move to the front of the stage. As the heat didn’t immediately attack them with stun grenades and night sticks, I deemed it safe to get closer to this long-time idol. Excused myself, apologetically, I have to do this, do you see? Went down and wriggled forwards to within a few metres of the singer, him up above, me below. Close enough to see the sweat, close enough to feel the chasm that separates performer from fan. Always and forever.

Wrote that in response to a William Pearse piece, The ‘kill your idols’ concept. I’ve become a big fan of Bill. The way he works little philosophical quandaries into his tales, his deft use of circularity, his honesty about his own flaws. And his output. You could say his recent journey has charged my batteries. Michael tells me it’s called a bromance. Hm. Could we call it inspiration?

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