THE LONG FAREWELL

When your child starts school, one of the biggest changes is the use of the refrigerator. Not the inside—the essential foodliness of the contents remains the same—no, I’m referring to the outside.

Where once a clean brushed-aluminium surface gleamed in the morning sunlight, perhaps adorned with a socially aware sticker or a novelty magnet, now sprouts a wilderness of notes, notices, essential phone numbers and lists. It’s like the chaotic desk of a harried admin officer has been flipped to the vertical plane and had a handful of advertising magnets flung willy-nilly at the mess.

When the boy was young, we had a couple of non-matching sets of letters and numbers on the fridge door as an encouragement for him to forever associate words with food. Just joking. They were for play, and for announcing special timelines or events.

“Four weeks to Xmas!”

“Cats for the premiership!”

“8th Birthday party on Saturday!”

The exclamation mark was one of the most used tiles.

As he became a little more sophisticated, sometimes I’d put up a phrase relating to current affairs and see how long it took him to notice the covert communication. In the lead-up to the last election, for instance, I mounted a political message:

“Darth Vader for President”

Usually it took the youngster mere seconds to notice the change on the fridge door, but he’d only comment when he thought the line was worthy of notice. Our fault. We’ve trained him to be a critical consumer of media, even fridge-memes.

Change is constant. Every phase of childhood is more complicated than the previous one; the new version overlays the old so effectively you can sometimes forget what the little fella was like. Browsing old photos or mini-films can mist you up quicker than you can say “The long farewell”.

Because that’s what it is, being a parent. A series of lettings go coupled with moments of holding close. When he’s sick he still needs us for comfort and re-assurance, but other times he’s immersed in a world for which we have no key, no entry pass, no real training. It’s how it should be, and doesn’t change one jot the immense love I feel, but often I notice a twinge of sadness, a stab of pre-emptive grief. Childhood, endless when we traverse it ourselves, passes in a blur of days for a parent—especially when there is you and a single child.

In our home, we are fast approaching the end of Primary School. Six years of elementary education have been completed; the new year will usher in a new adventure. Not sure if we are ready, but the boy is. He is tall and twelve and up for the next challenge. Deep into the endless Wheel of Time fantasy novels, downloading complicated sheet music for Undertale tunes, using language I was grappling with in senior high school. I hope I can keep up.

Yet in the rush of daily routines and weekly cycles, some things stand out.

Recently the lad was unwell. Just a cold, but a nasty one that laid him low for the best part of a week. Mum re-arranged things so someone was at home, offering paracetamol and comfort as required. He lay on the couch and read or watched old DVDs. It’s funny, that. When he’s unwell he reverts to entertainment from long ago, like Thomas the Tank Engine or re-reading Captain Underpants.

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A.A. Milne’s classic books were featured one sick-day. As I departed for work he was well into Winnie-The-Pooh and when I returned around supper time he had just finished The House At Pooh Corner.

I sat next to him on the couch. And after checking on his recovery, I made an observation.

You look a little sad, I said.

He fiddled with the sash on his Star Wars dressing gown and nodded. The books sat next to him on the other side. The same volumes that had entranced and entertained me as a child.

Not quite knowing how to proceed, I waited (a skill still needing considerable practice on my part).

It’s the ending, he said.

Of the books?

Yes, he said. The second one especially. Christopher Robin is leaving. He’s going to school. It doesn’t say exactly, but that’s what’s happening.

There was a very slight quaver in his voice.

It’s a long time since I’ve read The House At Pooh Corner, I said. Maybe I better refresh my memory.

He reached for the book and carefully opened it.

CHAPTER X

IN WHICH CHRISTOPHER ROBIN AND POOH COME TO AN ENCHANTED PLACE, AND WE LEAVE THEM THERE

The boy sat quietly as I read the chapter, easing a little closer as he detected the occasional sniffle.

Eeyore’s poem provides an eloquent summary.

Christopher Robin is going.

At least I think he is.

Where?

Nobody knows.

But he is going—

I mean he goes

(To rhyme with “knows”)

Do we care?

(To rhyme with “where”)

We do

Very much.

Yes, we care very much.

And when Pooh and Christopher Robin are at The Enchanted Place, and Christopher Robin knights Pooh and Pooh worries about being a bear of little brain and how he’ll live up to being a knight if he doesn’t understand Christopher Robin’s world, and when he wonders if “being a Faithful Knight meant that you just went on being faithful without being told things” it was all the boy’s daddy could do to contain his love and grief and overflowing heart. So he reached his arm out for a hug and the boy nestled in and they held each other and who’s to say whether there were tears or who was comforting whom but it felt good.

A few days later I noticed a new message on the fridge door.

Time g0 to

colLge and

make U prouDs!

Eeyore would complain about the grammar, but Pooh would understand.

It’s the long farewell, you see.

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THE WINDOW AND THE WALL

In the late eighties I was living alone in a small house in Footscray, an inner-west suburb of Melbourne nestling between industrial docklands and a waste management terminal. Bunbury Street was quite special not for any Oscar Wilde association but because a railway line ran underneath it, lengthwise.

It was a goods line from the industrial complex across the river so the trains rumbling down-under were lurching, heavily laden affairs that took forever to pass and seemed to be causing the strip of five conjoined “workingman’s cottages” to slowly subside towards the tunnel. No exaggeration here: while I was in residence a pot-hole larger than a car tyre and deep enough to hold a basketball opened up in the footpath near my front gate. Could’ve swallowed a jogger, but given the pollution and the demographic, exercise hounds were rare in that part of the world.

The house itself was what Real Estate agents like to call “original condition”. The walls sported a network of ever-widening cracks while the bathroom was reached via a covered walkway out the back door. In the back yard was a brick pigeon-house (not in use, but with sedimented evidence layering the floor) and on the back fence, the outhouse. Once you got used to the trek and the occasional need for an umbrella it was actually quite peaceful. Though very draughty.

The cottage next door was a mirror image of the one I occupied, though ‘improved’. I deduced that they put the rooms to different use as his lounge room appeared to adjoin my bedroom. Note the location of the windows and the stereos. This information will become important.

Fig. 1 Plan

Figure 1. Plan

Though I do not know what his job was, I do know that my neighbour worked late. No problem there.

He liked to relax with some music on returning home, usually around midnight. No problem there, either. In winter.

But on a muggy Melbourne summer’s night these little brick houses become awfully stuffy. You gasp for all the air you can get, opening every portal to catch a whisper of breeze.

Referring back to Figure 1 you will note that the actual distance from the recumbent would-be sleeper’s head to the right speaker of the neighbour’s stereo is about nine feet. With both windows thrown open, that’s nine feet of air. My ears were substantially closer to his hi-fi than to my own sound system.

Now I am, and have been these many years, a serious Pink Floyd fan. The entire catalogue resides on vinyl and on CD too. If you visit Vinyl Connection you’ll find several feature posts. I’ve seen them live in Melbourne and Hannover and ridden a bicycle through Grantchester Meadows in homage to the Ummagumma song of the same name. Been there, heard that, own two t-shirts.

But I do not enjoy The Wall. Didn’t like it in 1979, don’t rate it now. It is one of only a handful of albums I have written scathingly about, including the following review:

Power corrupts. By 1979 Roger Waters had all the power in Pink Floyd and TheWall is his dystopian personal vision unshackled from group quality control. The album is over-long, over-serious and vastly over-rated.

At the end of side two when Roger moans ‘Goodbye cruel world’ you sincerely hope he means it, but no, there’s a whole other record to go. If it was not for some terrific playing, especially by David Gilmour on guitar, you’d be hard-pressed to find much to like in this dismal self-indulgent rant. Richard Wright was so depressed he was sent home. And don’t bleat about how marvellous “Another Brick In The Wall, Part II” is—that’s only because you’ve heard it so often you’ve forgotten it is used three times on the first disc and are able to ignore the manipulative use of a children’s choir to cover a bilious attack on education generally. (Where did you go to school, Roger?)

The best thing to be said about The Wall is this: it is better than the album which followed it.

So when, late one sticky summer night, the maudlin sounds of “The Happiest Days of our Lives” wailed through the window at substantial volume,  I was considerably less than entranced.

But how to respond? I started subtly with some muted coughing and harrumphing. Not surprisingly, given the volume, this had no discernible impact. I shut the window. Then I opened the window and shut it again, firmly. The third time I positively slammed the sash closed, hoping at the very least to make his stylus jump but alas, although some plaster showered down upon my head, the soundtrack continued.

Collapsed on the bed, panting from my exertions, I pondered the options. A plan of devious malevolence took shape in my heat oppressed brain.

Padding off to the lounge, I uncoiled the speaker wire; maybe there was just enough. Lifting the box on its stand, I staggered down the hall and into the bedroom. The cable pulled taught. Not exactly at the open window, but perhaps close enough. I paused, listening intently, then trotted off to my shelves.

Fig. 2 Response

Figure 2: Response

Crouched at the amplifier, the Floydian noise bouncing down the hall from next door was somewhat muffled; still it was not difficult to find the song currently booming out. Waiting with fingers poised until the end of the song, I cranked up the volume and let the next track rip a second before his began. As my future echo surged out the window I added a bit more volume for good measure though not so much as to drown out his, now slightly delayed, transmission.

I have no idea what it sounded like next door because I stayed in the safety of my lounge-room. But the stereo delay caused by my own separated speakers was quite disconcerting enough, so I can only imagine what it sounded like in the neighbour’s lounge.

The side ended. The stylus lifted.

Silence.

Relieved rather than jubilant, I slouched back off to bed, happy at least that a window of opportunity had created a constructive use for The Wall.

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An earlier version of this story appeared at Vinyl Connection in January 2014

ECLIPSE ’76

One Saturday afternoon in October 1976 I rode my bicycle ‘round to Rod Amberton’s place to watch a total eclipse. It seemed like a friendly thing to do, given this sort of solar phenomenon only occurred every few decades and Melbourne was, apparently, a prime location from which to view it. Assuming the clouds gave permission.

Arriving a few minutes before the big yellow orb was due to be blanked by the dark side of the moon—or the sun being followed by a moonshadow, if you prefer—I dropped the bicycle on the grass and knocked on the screen door at the back of the house.

Silence. Hm. It hadn’t occurred to me that they might be out. When I say ‘they’ I guess I meant Rod, as the family was not really one for doing stuff together. The older brother was indeed older, a lot older, while Rod’s Father worked all the time and his sweet Mum mostly kept things ticking over at home. But not today.

I could see into the glassed-in porch cum family room off which Rod’s bedroom lay, far enough away from the proper adult living areas that we could play records up to distortion point—in those days somewhere around 15 watts per channel, don’t you know—until quite late. Maybe half-past eleven.

But in the lonely present it was half-past four and a decision point. No time to ride home to watch the eclipse in my own back yard. No point in racing off anywhere.  So, feeling just a little uncomfortable about occupying the Amberton patch on my own, I sank onto the grass and waited.

What was memorable was the silence. It was quiet. It was still. Though there was some cloud haziness, a dark scimitar crept across the shining disc, carving light into shadow.

Then it wasn’t quiet. Birds. Raising confused voices to this unexpected evening. Chirruping their outrage at being robbed of four hours of daylight and crankily preparing for sleep like a banished child.

Then, before they could get properly settled, the twilight began lifting. Like a curtain slowly pulled back, the bright afternoon stage was revealed once again. The birds cheered. I rode home.

Later, having dutifully deposited my 20 cents in the designated money box on top of the fridge, I phoned the Amberton residence and ascertained that Rod was now in residence. So I rode over there again. It was after the real actual twilight by this time, and getting chilly. After watching a news report of the eclipse we repaired to his room and I once more sank earthwards, this time onto a cushion against the wall. A stack of LPs were slouched against the wall next to me so I leafed through them, extracting a cover that seemed truly apposite after the afternoon’s entertainment. No, not the dark-sided prism one; Santana’s Caravanserai.

“Pass it over, I’ll put it on,” said Rod.

The needle thunked onto the vinyl and a moment later, emerging from the background crackles came the quintessentially summer sound of crickets, their phased whistlechoir being joined by a keening sax sounding an evening call to prayer. The bass and percussion entered, building very slowly with carefully placed guitar notes then sustained electric piano chords like ancient temple bells. I was entranced. It seemed the perfect album for such a day.

More than forty years later, I put on Caravanserai again.

Once more I’m transported.

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[Originally appeared at Vinyl Connection with more on the music]

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