‘Something you feel will find its own form’Posted: May 21, 2020
Time flies when you’re in lockdown, hey? Days turn into nights turn into days again. Weird but, in Australia at least, it’s cope-with-able. But the passing of the days does do one thing – it means the release of my new compilation comes ever closer. In fact, to my incredible surprise, it’s now just a week or so until the beast is released.
Friday, May 29, to be precise.
Very exciting. Very good. Can’t wait.
Thinking about this release, I have been musing on the question a lot of people have asked over the years – how did I come to do “spoken word” based stuff with music, in the form that I have developed? I guess it’s just “one of those things”, but over the years there have been key points along the way that have given me insights and guided me along this kind of odd path… Which brings me to a particular story…
In 1991, myself and my brother Simon, plus a group of surfing friends from Bondi, set out for our first big trip overseas, hitting the road for our essential rites of passage journey out into the Big Wide World, without our parents and bursting with the possibilities of youth and the equal possibilities the world may have on offer for us.
Above: Me with the Bondi fellas in California in the Summer of ’91
First stop was California, where several of our friends were competing on the ASP world surfing tour. Some of the guys, Will and Ben Webber among others, were chancing their arms in the trials of the big major pro events while some of the girls, Pauline Menzcer and Prue Jefferies to be specific, were breaking into the ranks of the main events and doing well.
Our ragged group from Bondi went along for the ride, not so much as support crew but more as partying buddies and generally friends living our version of life to the absolute fullest, with surfing and music central and fundamental to everything (then as now, of course).
My brother Simon had gone over a few weeks before me as I was then working as a reporter on Sydney newspapers and couldn’t leave when he did. Thus, I flew to LA alone, excited by everything and anything, a wiry little fella in Stussy pants and wearing a Big Audio Dynamite baseball cap, heading into fabled land of America, to California, to the Gates of the West, to the great neon-lit mythical night, of Kerouac and freeways and stories and legends.
Things didn’t get off to a fantastic start. There being no mobile phones then, I had arranged for Simon to pick me up at some seemingly random spot out front of the terminal at LAX. I arrived in late afternoon and found what I felt to be the designated spot and I waited for him to arrive to pick me up. And I waited. And waited. He was driving up to LA from the beachside town of Del Mar, about a 1.5-hour drive south on Freeway 101. With no way of contacting each other, I just sat there and was getting increasingly concerned as night began to fall and pick-up trucks full of massive scary dudes rolled on by, eyeing me like the innocent victim I most certainly was.
After about 3 hours, Simon did eventually arrive in a massive old Dodge van, rattling at every joint and the back full of old surfboards and wetsuits and god knows what. After several “WHERE THE FUCK WERE YA’s??”, we were soon on our way back down towards Del Mar. A massive album of the era was “Green Thoughts” by the Smithereens and I recall that that was playing on the cassette player as we headed down the mythic American freeway, the big old American Chevys and Cadillacs and huge road wagons sailing on by as the road shone white in that seemingly specific Californian fashion.
Our dreams of America had been fuelled by a mix of Western movies and giant general visions of Hollywood, all the glamour and clamour of the past two centuries, the great myth-making of Kerouac and Burroughs and Springsteen, capturing a thrilling version of a lives being played out on that “huge unbelievable bulge” of land, as Kerouac called it. These visions were also imbued with a “coming to America” sensibility, captured in legendary tropes by the Clash with their collision of imagery that borrowed heavily from American legends and myths and found form in a swaggering militaristic and kind of outlaw visual imagery, something I always think was embedded in Joe Strummer’s mind from his early years as a diplomat’s son and bought into wholly by the rest of the Clash, Mick Jones’ natural swagger and Paul Simonon’s movie-star looks dovetailing perfectly with the sense of possibility that “America” seemed to offer.
All this was swirling through my head as we headed south to Del Mar, a place where we took up residence for a month or so in a chaotic and legendary surfers’ house known widely as The Dog Pound. Inhabited by a hardcore Californian surf crew of epic partying prowess, us group of Aussies soon became known as “the farken convicts” and we fully embraced the lifestyle on offer – surf missions up and down the Californian coast, even over to Mexico, where Tijuana offered us perfect waves and even more perfect post-surf beers and tacos. We had kegs on the beach and attended chic parties at places such as Rancho Santa Fe, at a house where apparently the pool scene from the movie “Cocoon” had been filmed, and we discovered an array of nightclubs and bars and other general mayhem, including, if memory serves, attending a gig by Aussie band the Divinyls at a venue called The Belly Up, the band high on their chart success of the song “I Touch Myself”.
This was a formative time in my life, everything was pouring in. Music, surf, sun, girls from UCLA who knew a thing or two about a thing or two… All of this was having a profound influence on me, all the possibilities of the world were showing themselves under the smoggy Californian sun and I sought every day to try to write down my experiences to somehow capture all these scenes I was experiencing.
At the time we were all heavily influenced by The Clash but in these particular years were hugely also influenced by Mick Jones’ later band, Big Audio Dynamite. A band I still don’t feel is given enough credit, their albums were absolutely massive for me and all of my friends. What appealed to me greatly was the “cut-up” nature of their lyrics and songs, like a visionary widescreen panorama was being presented in every song and being complemented by their use of samples and bits of mashed up sound. This in turn gave me the idea that lyrics and words didn’t necessarily have to be linear in their form to create a version of “art”. What I felt I had been writing prior to this were “poems”, for want of a better word, but BAD injected a very flexible attitude, and gave me the idea that maybe these things I was writing could be lyrics? But how to deliver them? How to get them into a form of song?
My brother and most of my friends had dabbled in bands for years but I knew pretty early on that I most definitely NOT A SINGER. You’re born with some things and you’re not born with others… But I was also a firm believer in Kerouac’s line, “Something you feel will find its own form”. So I knew that I was “feeling” something and I also knew that I would one day find a “form” for that to be expressed. Just right at that point, in the California Summer of ’91, I didn’t yet know what that form might be.
After over a month in California, being pretty much loose the entire time, it was time to fly on to Europe, where the Euro leg of the world surf tour was soon to be kicking off. My brother and I flew from LA to London with Pauline Menzcer and Prue Jefferies, doing the long haul flight and having a version of the time of our lives. Pauline later went on to win the women’s world surfing title, while Prue had a good few years in the Top 10 female surfing ratings. We arrived in London and a formative couple of months was had by everyone, us buying a van and travelling, surfing and partying all the way down the coast of France, across Spain and down to Portugal, living a version of “on the road” life that my old mate Jack K would’ve been proud of.
Above: “Living our best lives” haha. Summer of ’91 in France
But after a couple of months it was time for me to head back towards home; work was beckoning and I guess I thought I might have to get some sort of “career” going. So thus I left my brother in the south of Portugal and flew back to London, inching my way back towards home. Spending a few days in London before flying back the way we came via LA, I happened to pop into a HMV music store on Piccadilly Circus. It was here that I came to browse the racks and came across a CASSETTE of Tom Waits’ album “The Heart of Saturday Night”. I’d previously vaguely heard of Tom and recalled someone describing him as “the musical Jack Kerouac”. (!) For that description alone of course I was going to buy it, so thus I did, and armed with a Walkman and a remaining sense of excitement about the world, I jumped on a plane the next day back towards LA.
And on that flight, I slipped the cassette into the Walkman … and it’s actually true to say my life changed. Tom Waits suddenly gave me a whole new world, a whole new vision, a whole new way of seeing everything. The memories of recent times in California came flooding back, Tom on that album capturing an incredible impression of California and America in general, the great Saturday night of the country, connecting with the legendary lyrical set-pieces of Kerouac in “On the Road”, describing Denver in the evening or San Francisco in the early hours. He was writing about the world that he knew in an incredibly powerful and poetic fashion, nostalgia wrapped with tenderness wrapped with the power of the “warm narcotic American night”, to produce a thrilling apparition to this boy from Bondi Beach.
I arrived back in LA late in the evening and my immediate mission was to find a hire car and drive to a family friend’s home in Thousand Oaks, a satellite town about 80km north of LA. I ended up at a backlot parking lot somewhere behind LAX where a proprietor was amazingly willing to cheaply rent a car to this callow youth from Australia who had fuck-all idea of how out of his depth he was or how the hell he was going to find his way to Thousand Oaks. But rent the car I did and I was soon off, heading north on the 101 in California.
And of course I slipped the Tom Waits’ cassette into the tape deck. And then, suddenly, it all made sense. It all connected. And the song that did that specifically was “Diamonds on my Windshield”. This was a jazz-inflected spoken word jam, Tom skit-scatting about himself driving on the 101, about how “the East goes east the 5 goes north, merging exits back and forth, you see the sign, cross the line, and signalling with a blink, the radio’s gone off the air and it gives you time to think.” This was a thunderstruck moment because I realised that this was essentially a SPOKEN WORD vocal, Tom just telling his story and getting all the info in there, with the music propelling everything along, framing his narrative in a beautiful way, removing the need for specific “singing” and yet still being one of the most affecting “songs” I’d ever heard.
Wow, bang, kerboom. There it was. There was the “form” I’d been looking for suddenly right before my ears. This all quickly coalesced, it all quickly made sense. I could see a path unfold before me. I wasn’t going to be a conventional singer, but I sure as hell was going to write “songs”. It took me several years and many and varied false starts and dead ends and cul de sacs, but over the next decade I did eventually find my own road – the great myths of the American night, and one of their greatest poets, having inspired me to find my own form of that. Supplanting the neon lights of America with (initially) the bug-buzzing lights of Australia, I felt as though I had found my path … and here I am, almost 30 years later, still on it.
Details on the new release are here: