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

 

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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.