It’s all in the delivery

In ‘Autoluminescent’, a documentary about the late musician Rowland S. Howard, there’s some great live footage of The Birthday Party, with a young Nick Cave writhing on the ground and Rowland, bent over his guitar with the sweat dripping from his face, sending out enough feedback to beach a pod of whales.

When I watch that scene, I can almost smell the testosterone funk of Australian rock in the 80s.

The more delicate parts of the doco involved Rowland talking about singing and songwriting. It’s interesting the language people use when they talk about singing. People talk about ‘delivery’, as if a singer is a midwife bringing songs into the world.

At only 16 – remarkably – Rowland wrote the song ‘Shivers’ and he says in ‘Autoluminescent’ that he intended it to be a wry commentary on teenage love-angst. Its beginning, ‘I’ve been contemplating suicide but it doesn’t really suit my style” is a pretty strong hint that at the time of writing, Rowland’s tongue was firmly in cheek. Yet the chorus, “And my baby’s so vain, she is almost a mirror and the sound of her name, it sends another shiver, down my spine” is just too sophisticated, tender and anthemic to sit quietly with irony – especially when Nick Cave bears down on it with all the drama of youth. When Rowland sings ‘Shivers’ and when Nick sings it, their delivery is so different the song takes on completely different qualities. So it’s no wonder that Rowland, as the song’s writer, thought that Nick Cave’s rendition was somewhat amiss and that Nick, with the benefit of hindsight, thinks that Rowland should have recorded it.

Here are the two different versions. See what you think.

In ‘Autoluminescent’, Rowland talked about his delight on forming his own band and being able to deliver his own material, rather than write songs for Nick Cave’s voice and sensibility. Warming to the theme of how a song’s intention can get distorted, he mentioned Bryan Ferry’s version of ‘You are my sunshine’ and how Bryan had restored that song’s lyrical intent as a song of mourning. ‘Please don’t take my sunshine away.’ It’s about a person’s lover dying but somehow along the way the song’s sadness had been lost. In the repetition of the word ‘sunshine’ it had acquired a nasty veneer of campfire chirpiness. Here’s the Bryan Ferry version of the song:

And the beautiful version by that master of delivery, Johnny Cash.  If you’re feeling particularly mawkish, search out the YouTube clip of Johnny and June Carter performing the song together.

Rowland’s mention of Bryan Ferry and song delivery made me remember a gem I discovered somehow a while back (let’s face it, I was probably cyber stalking Bryan Ferry). This clip is from a 70s TV show in the days of Bryan’s flirtation with jazz standards. Upon seeing this, I wanted to cover this song with my band, chiefly on account of the way Bryan Ferry sings the line ‘Oh how the ghost of you clings’…but luckily a fellow band member considered the song too sentimental for words and vetoed the idea.

The song, ‘These  Foolish Things’ was written in 1936 by Eric Maschwitz, under his pen name Holt Marvell. Supposedly Eric wrote it over the course of one Sunday morning, when he was pining for his lover, a Chinese-American actress, Anna May Wong, who had gone to England. As my friend S. pointed out, this may well be the only video clip in which an ashtray has a starring role.

Compare Bryan Ferry’s delivery with that of Billie Holiday. With the softly swinging instrumentation, I think Lady Day manages to make this song sound like she’s missing her lover while enjoying taking up every inch of the bed she finally has all to herself:

And one last comparison to shed some light on the fine art of song delivery. It’s another big, melancholic love song sung by two of my favourite musicians. Which do I prefer? Don’t make me choose between the children.  Oh, alright then, I prefer the more restrained and rhythmic instrumentation of the David Bowie version. I give you Nina Simone and David Bowie singing ‘Wild is the Wind’. (Ironically, if Nina Simone sang ‘Don’t you know you’re life itself?’ to you directly, it might just kill you.)

David Bowie:

Nina Simone:

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Brother Number One – an extraordinary film

Since my return from Cambodia, I’ve been living something of a double life. I began a new, part-time job, which has involved getting reacquainted with the culture of the government shared office. There’s ‘Casual Friday’ – the day on which staff who wear neatly pressed shirts and pointy high heels on any other day of the week suddenly arrive in their gardening clothes. There are cheerfully aggressive notes pasted around the kitchen, about cleaning up and taking your food out of the fridge. There’s talk about work/life balance, as if ‘life’ is what’s left over after the 40-hour working week.

Meanwhile, my double is where I was physically three weeks ago. I’m making a radio program about the music that’s being made in Cambodia.  So in listening to the interviews, the music, the sounds and the lovely clucking intonations of the Khmer language, I’ve been regularly transported back there.

Telling this story is daunting. Like every story about contemporary Cambodian culture, it must refer to that country’s darkest time, when nearly two million people died during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. The genocide and its effects have shaped Cambodia’s present and will continue to do so for many years.

But it’s not for nothing that there is a stream of therapy – narrative therapy – in which the stories we tell ourselves are reframed, often to give us a greater sense of agency over our lives. Every day we tell ourselves stories to make sense of things. These stories become memories. They become the framework of how we view the world and our place within it. Stories are important.

I saw an extraordinary documentary as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Brother Number One tells a tragic and deeply moving story that began during those darkest years of Cambodia’s history.

The title refers both to the moniker that Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot bestowed upon himself and the position in the Hamill family held by one of his victims, New Zealander Kerry Hamill, the first-born of five children.

At 26 years of age, Kerry Hamill set sail from Darwin, heading to Asia on one of those long journeys of discovery through the hippy belt.  He sailed through Indonesia with a new Australian girlfriend and his Canadian friend, Stuart Glass. Thankfully, his girlfriend Gail returned to Australia, with a plan to meet Kerry in two months’ time. In the film, there is a photo of Kerry and Gail on board the yacht, smiling and suntanned. Kerry, a good looking man, looks like he’s having the time of his life. After Gail left, Kerry and Stuart picked up an English crew member, John Dewhirst, who was on his own adventure far from his home in the Yorkshire dales.

It was August, 1978. The men were sailing past Cambodia when a storm blew up around them. They had been at sea; they were young and innocent; it was the pre-Internet days – so they did not know of the horror the Khmer Rouge was unleashing on the people of Cambodia.  They headed to the island of Koh Tang to shelter from the storm.

Then, a boat appeared and began firing shots at them. Stuart Glass was killed. Kerry and John were taken captive and transported to the Tuol Sleng (S21) prison in Phnom Penh. Few who entered Tuol Sleng as prisoners left alive. More than 12,000 people were tortured and killed there – including Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst.

The documentary, made by New Zealander Annie Goldson, traces another journey from New Zealand to Cambodia – that of Kerry’s youngest brother, Rob Hamill. Thirty one years after his oldest brother arrived under arrest, Rob Hamill arrived in Phnom Penh to seek answers about his brother’s death and to testify at the trial of Comrade Duch, the Commander of Tuol Sleng.

Rob Hamill is an Olympic and trans-Atlantic rowing champion. The film builds a picture of him as a dedicated family man – dedicated to the siblings of his birth family and his late parents, Miles and Esther – and to the family he has made. The film also reveals him to be a man of incredible courage and resilience. In trying to find answers about what happened to his brother, Rob interviews survivors of Tuol Sleng and the prison photographer who takes a ghoulish pride in the quality of photographs he took of every new arrival. In court, Rob’s victim impact statement will affect the sentencing of Duch, so in the presence of the man responsible for his brother’s murder, Rob has to articulate his family’s terrible pain. In addition, Cambodians and others associated with the trial remind Rob that he is one of the few who will have the opportunity to testify. All those whose loved ones were tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng have been waiting for justice for more than 30 years.

The Hamills were a close family, from Whakatane, a little town on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island. When Kerry disappeared in 1978, people overseas could only contact each other by letter. The family endured months of silence before they found out what had befallen Kerry. How could they possibly conceive of this fate for their son and brother?

To say that this is not an easy film to watch is a great understatement. A major element of Brother Number One’s efficacy is Rob Hamill’s lack of self-consciousness about being filmed. It means you are going with him on this journey. There is one scene in which Rob reads the ‘confession’ to being a CIA spy that his brother Kerry has fabricated after months of being tortured, a letter that will lead to his death. His brother’s statement is funny. Kerry used coded words that only his family would understand. At this point, you realize how special a person was Kerry Hamill, who would have comprehended that he was signing his death warrant, but had the chutzpah to write a letter that would make his family laugh.

Brother Number One is a fine example of how one person’s story can illuminate a dense and complex narrative. Through Rob’s communication with people in Cambodia – including the translator – whose father was killed by the Khmer Rouge, one gains an understanding of this country’s history post World War II and how the dark years of the Pol Pot regime continue to affect Cambodians today. With the trial of Pol Pot’s lieutenants happening now, the screening of Brother Number One is timely and shows how difficult it is for the legal system to deliver peace and restitution, especially 32 years on.

 Brother Number One is showing again as part of MIFF this Saturday, August 6, at 1.30pm.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

There’s also a Brother Number One website.

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An assault on the senses

I remember having a pillowtalk conversation about attendance at the arts versus sport in Australia, as you do. My view was that the arts are as popular as sport in Australia – it’s just that people aren’t going to arts events  en masse all the time and they’re going to lots of little events, so arts folk are less visible. ‘If everyone’s going to at least one gig a week, that’s… a lot of people,’ I said, being both too lazy and maths-challenged to actually come up with a number. ‘But most people aren’t like you. You would be statistically (something or other that means abnormal),’ my then-partner said. ‘I’d say most people would go to about one gig a year, maybe two.’ I made various snorting and chortling noises indicating disbelief. What could those people be doing with their time? And what do they do to fend off reality’s nasty side?

‘Coffee?’ I offered. Naturally, while waiting for my favourite morning noise – the merry gurgle of coffee into pot ­- I consulted the Interweb for evidence that I was right. I was wrong. He was spot on. MOST PEOPLE IN AUSTRALIA ONLY GO TO ONE GIG A YEAR!! (Cue very quiet snorting and chortling noises indicating disbelief). Return with coffee and a change of subject. ‘Goddamn, that yeti’s been in the garden again.’ ‘I was right, wasn’t I?’ he said.

All this is by way of saying that I have seen a fair number of performances.  So when I saw Nederlands Dans Theater recently, it was gratifying to know that I’m not jaded by my accumulated years of arts consumption. Far from it – during the show, I thought I might have some kind of beauty coronary. Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, a dancer would assault me with some other divine combination of limbs moving through space, or the train of a dress, a grand swathe of blue silk that covered the entire stage, would suddenly billow in sympathy with the Phillip Glass score. (You can see the beginning of this in the YouTube footage at about 5:05)

Also enjoyable was the post-show, breathless, high camp/Valley Girl-type conversations with people who’d also seen this performance. ‘Oh my God! Did you nearly DIE?’ ‘I think I was shallow panting the whole time!!’ ‘It was like…Oh my God’. ‘My friend kept making little squealing noises.’ ‘I want them all to live at my house. I want them to run the country!!’ The next morning, I was on the phone to a dancer friend, telling her she must sell her child if necessary to get to the final show.

At the end of the third and final work, Silent Screen, choreographed by Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon, my friend and I joined the rest of the audience in applauding the company until our hands hurt. Other audience members shouted and whooped as the company returned again and again to receive the love. When a performance has moved me, I try to store as many images in my memory as possible but inevitably before I’ve left my seat, much has disappeared into the ether. But then, the ephemeral nature of performance is also part of its magic. We left the theatre, somewhat dazed after being so roundly assaulted by beauty, to join the ‘Saturday night in the city’ world outside, where the next performance we encountered was a busker with a long mullet playing a bad rock solo outside Flinders Street Station on his electric guitar. All aboard the Reality Express!

For a peep at what I loved so much about the Nederlands Dans Theater performance, this promo features excerpts from two of the works I saw:

 

And a question to ponder, if you’re so inclined: if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what’s writing about dance like?

 

 

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Holiday in Cambodia

Back in Melbourne, I’ve got a cold and the heater is up to 11. Three nights ago, I was sweating under a mosquito net, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of pre-dawn in a rural village in Cambodia. A monk broadcasting from a dodgy PA system; roosters crowing; the chuckling of geckos and the sounds of sleepers nearby, their rustling and snoring carrying through thatched walls.

I’m listening to the dance mix of a song by Srey Thy of  The Cambodian Space Project and it’s reminding me of one of the favourite journeys of my holiday in Cambodia. (Am only just getting that Dead Kennedys song out of my system, by the way.) Among the forms of transport I took on my travels – a speedboat, horse and cart, plane, bus, car, tuk tuk and truck, my favourite by far was a motorbike driven by Jan Muller, AKA Professor Kinski, German ex-soapie star, music producer and long-time resident of Phnom Penh.

“I don’t have helmets or lights but don’t worry – I’m a good driver,” he said, as we headed into the peak hour traffic of the Cambodian capital. He was right. He was a good driver – which was handy, as I was juggling a backpack of recording equipment, a handbag and soon enough, a six-pack of beer. Later, as he steered us expertly past tuk tuks, other motorbikes and the bruising four-wheel-drives of the Cambodian nouveau riche and foreign NGO workers, I asked him about his earlier television career. ‘I forgot to ask you about the character you played,’ I said over his shoulder. Jan took a sip from his can of beer while making a left turn into oncoming traffic, which only served to increase my confidence in his driving ability. ‘Oh you know, I was in the soapie for seven years, so everything that could happen to a character in a soapie happened. I went blind. I turned gay. I was arrested for punching a Nazi in the shoulder…’ ‘Punching a Nazi in the shoulder’? Imagine that sentence in a German accent. Then imagine me trying not to giggle too much, so I didn’t have to explain that accident at the hospital. ‘I was OK with the beer and the bags and the no lights and the no helmets but the ‘punching ze Nartsi on ze shoulder’ made me fall helpless to the road…’

I’d first chatted with Jan by email before heading to Cambodia and had called him the day before at 11am to arrange a meeting. ‘Stephanie! Why are you calling me in the middle of the night?’ I was confused. ‘Are you in Germany?’ ‘No, I’m in my mezzanine bed in Phnom Pehn.’ ‘Are you a vampire?’ I asked. ‘No. We made a big party last night.’ This would be a Tuesday. His band Dub Addiction played the first night of the first music festival in Cambodia – which was held at the south-western riverside town of Kampot. K., J. and I flew in to Phnom Penh from Kuala Lumpur, meeting H., who’d been in Vietnam, at the airport. K. and J. went off to spend the night in Phnom Penh, while H. and I were picked up by our Kampot guesthouse host and driven straight there, which was supposedly a three to four hour trip but our driver, with hand stuck to horn and pedal to metal, made it there in two. The festival had ominous beginnings, with a bunch of older expats snap-frozen in the 60s playing overly loud blues and rock covers featuring the solos of eternity.  It was like Buddhist training, except you could buy jugs of gin and tonic.

The venue, another guesthouse on the Kampot River, was full of young expats, all flirting furiously, fuelled by cheap beer and the jugs of spirits. By the time Dub Addiction finally laid down a bassline, the place was literally heaving with bodies and the humid air was weighty with hormones and the promise of sex in a foreign land. I remembered that I was there partly to record the music for a radio doco and had been sending emails for weeks in order to arrive at precisely this place at precisely this time. H. and I finally gave up the papasan chairs we’d been coveting all night to join the throng on the dance floor. Have a listen to Dub Addiction’s Out in the Streets:

The whole scene reminded me of Darwin in the late 80s, when two entrepreneurial musician arts administrators put together the Northern Territory’s first Indigenous rock festival. The organization was kind of patchy, as was the sound quality. Yet the enterprise had a refreshing rawness and the diamonds in the rough shone that much brighter. It was huge fun.

After the gig, we dragged ourselves away to our waiting tuk tuk driver who motored us along the muddy, potholed road back to our guesthouse on the other side of the river, with barely any light but the half-moon and an eerie green neon in his tuk tuk to guide him. We drove past houses on stilts and rice paddies, still with the driving rhythms and Khmer rapping of Dub Addiction’s MC Curly in our ears. K. and J. would be joining us the next day for the longest day of the festival, which was being held in the grounds of our guesthouse. It was late,  so I tipped our driver generously, inadvertently guaranteeing his availability at any hour of the day for the rest of the weekend.

Kampot River Music Festival could have been sub-titled The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. At least on Saturday, we four had home advantage. If a band pushed rudely past the boundaries of good taste (and I’m not naming names), we could retreat to the verandah of our bungalow or take a swim in the river. Many of the bands were fusion bands of Khmer and ‘barang’ (foreigners), playing intriguing hybrid forms of old Cambodian songs. A few were just your average cover bands made up entirely of expats. People could buy tickets for Friday night separately but weekend tickets were $30, which excluded most Cambodians and – so we were told – foreigners earning local wages. The number of tickets was capped at 100, for capacity reasons. There were some mutterings about the cost from several musicians but the organizer assured me that this was a first-time arrangement. Next year the festival would be bigger, allowing the economy of scale to kick in.

The highlight was the headlining Cambodian Space Project, with the charismatic Srey Thy at the helm. A song about the ‘kangaroo’, which I think was  written by Thy for her Australian partner, Julien Poulson, was dedicated to the four Australians who’d come all the way to Kampot, Cambodia, for the festival. Not being particularly nationalistic, we danced kind of self-consciously and were startled as a non-Australian guest came confidently bounding past us onto the dance floor from stage left, paws held aloft.

We got talking to some of the many French band members at the festival and to Mark and Chris, from Yorkshire and San Diego respectively, now living in Kampot and playing music with two talented locals in a band called Kampot Playboys. We saw them play the final gig of the festival the next afternoon, at a nearby guesthouse which had a pool. Listening to their peculiarly hypnotic brand of homespun Khmer folk mixed with Americana, while floating in the pool in a rubber tyre, was definitely another festival highlight.

Later, we met up with the band at singer/guitarist Chiet’s bar in Kampot before moving on to the bar Art Bar Craze (ABC), a cute French-run place. H. and I had come across Ann, who runs the bar with her husband Johann, the previous day, as we were looking for somewhere to have lunch. Ann was sitting outside the bar, enjoying a plate of gratin dauphinois and green salad. ‘We are not open until later. I was just finishing the last of the gratin dauphinois for my lunch. It is so delicious,’ Ann said, in an outrageous French accent. ‘That was kind of cruel,’ I said. ‘But we’re definitely coming here for dinner after the festival tomorrow.’

I wondered how we would get home from the ABC. I didn’t fancy a dark stumble along the long, muddy road home. Somehow, it was nearly 4am on Monday morning and Kampot’s not the kind of place where you can call a cab. As we rolled out of the bar, Ngo, the driver from Friday night, emerged, smiling and sleepy-eyed, from his tuk tuk, where he’d been napping, awaiting our departure. So the final night of the Kampot River Music Festival ended pretty much like the first, bouncing through the potholes past rice paddies and wooden houses on stilts, our faces lit like a B-movie, in leery green neon.

Spooky!

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Bali and Cambodia, here I come

The best ideas soon take on a life of their own and my, they are sociable creatures. As soon as they leave your head, good ideas are off gallivanting. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of something sparkly as your good idea disappears around a corner and makes its way into a welcoming world. So it is that a conversation with my friend K. at last year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival has evolved into 40 or so people descending upon Ubud, Indonesia, this week to celebrate K.’s 40th birthday. Continue reading

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Tony Joe White’s Sonic Boom

Do people’s voices reflect who they are as people? Or are they merely a product of anatomy? Be careful with this one.  It’s controversial, as I discovered through some random polling of friends.

It’s a question I started pondering as I lunged across the room to the radio for what seemed the umpteenth time, to turn off a new voice that’s appeared like a plague sore on my favourite public radio station. It’s a harsh, nasty voice that seems to be intent on beating me over the head with a piece of 4 x 2. A voice that may well cause me to not renew my membership. HELLO! DID YOU HEAR THAT, VOICE? Continue reading

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A web of mix tapes

I should have known that Nick Hornby – he of High Fidelity fame – would have beaten me to the punch in writing about keeping music fresh as you get older. His article, from two years ago, is all about music bloggers as today’s mix tape makers. I’ve always been grateful to those kind folk (actually, they were always guys) who spent hours putting together mix tapes, thereby introducing me to new musical worlds: so it was I came to know Afrobeat and late 80s Chicago house. I’ve still got that early house music tape! Continue reading

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