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Monday, 19 January 2015

Something Quite Peculiar - Steve Kilbey (2014)

Steve Kilbey hams it up at his book launch in Fremantle with yours truly, finger-food not pictured.

I’ve read a few music autobiographies over the years; Keith Richards’ Life (2010), and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles (2004) come to mind, but the gold standard in this genre has to be Julian Cope’s Head On (1994), in which Cope’s rather eccentric and intense personality created a wildly hilarious ride into the outer realms of rock stardom. Appropriately The Church’s Steve Kilbey is name-checked in Cope’s book, appearing back stage during The Teardrop Explodes Australian tour to offer Cope a solitary magic mushroom, causing the initially skeptical Cope to “levitate above the audience”. This anecdotal link between Cope and Kilbey is significant because both share a predilection toward exploring the frontiers of psychedelic music, and now Kilbey has joined Cope in the ranks of rock stars who have given voice to their own stories.

Just what is the allure of reading about rock musicians lives? Is it because they appear so god-like in the fan’s mind? They can be so readily placed onto pedestals by the impact of their music, powerful multimedia and apocryphal myths that circulate endlessly. Rock star autobiographies offer a glimpse at the human aspect behind the god-like archetype; it’s like being able to find out what was going through Apollo’s (the god of music and the arts, appropriately) mind during his pursuit of Daphne. An interesting idea perhaps, but also a nice segue to Something Quite Peculiar, in which we learn that at a young age Kilbey became obsessed with Greek mythology. Kilbey fortunately begins Something Quite Peculiar with his childhood, even though Greg Dulli bluntly advised Kilbey not to “...write about your fucking childhood, no one want to read that!” Just as well such sage advice was ignored because it is both refreshing and relatable to read about an Australian childhood. It’s also fascinating to learn what influences were brought to bear on the young Kilbey. There’s his music loving father, but also the rough and tumble world of Australian rules football umpiring (who’d have guessed!), school bullies, tragic teenage love and, of course, music.

All through Something Quite Peculiar music is the strand that holds everything together. The young Kilbey loved The Beatles and The Rolling Stones of course, but also intriguingly Chicago, Leon Russell and Jo Cocker. Then later came 70‘s greats such as T.Rex, Bowie and Brian Eno. Essentially a book about Kilbey is also a book about The Church. As a teenager in the 1980’s The Church played exactly the kind of music I wanted to hear. The band seemed so fully formed and perfect that it never even occurred to me to wonder about how it all happened. Fittingly the sequence of events that led to The Church’s formation reads like serendipity in action. When Kilbey’s Canberra band, Baby Grande, has to share a double-booked rehearsal space Kilbey meets brilliant guitarist Peter Koppes. When playing as a three piece Marty Wilson Piper comes back stage after a gig and Kilbey asks him to join the band before even establishing if he plays an instrument! Kilbey’s intuition was correct and Wilson-Piper became the perfect second guitarist for The Church. After ridding themselves of bullying drummer Nick Ward they let a smart-ass teenager with no drum kit calling himself President Camembert try out for the band. Any band that wants to come close to greatness needs an amazing drummer and the one and only Richard Ploog definitely had that special spark (plus the best surname for a drummer ever.)

For Church/Kilbey fans Something Quite Peculiar makes for addictive reading. There’s a plethora of great anecdotes and observations, tales of band ructions and the frustration of dealing with the unforgiving music industry (Capitol Records were “...fuck-knuckles to a man” apparently). Kilbey writes like a songwriter, with an emphasis on pacing and structure. There’s even the literary equivalent of a middle eight, with a prose poem detailing his experiences touring with The Church in Europe right in the middle of the book. The second half speeds up (life speeds up, don’t you know...) to match the weird intense energy of being in a band that’s making it, being on the road endlessly and dealing with intensely obsessed fans. The chapter about the making of Starfish in L.A. is a cracker, with Kilbey’s wit and humour coming to the fore. Kilbey perfectly conveys how you can be fulfilling your dream whilst at the same time having to deal with the terrible bullshit that comes with it.

The Church’s initial history is a slow burn to significant international success, then followed by the inevitable comedown. Post Starfish makes for sobering reading, with members leaving (Koppes came back though) and Kilbey succumbing to heroin addiction; but typically there was also some great music made during this period as well. Something Quite Peculiar ends with Kilbey finally kicking the habit a decade later and then there is a ten year jump to The Church playing the Sydney Opera House in 2011. Some have been disappointed with the jump in time, but as all good artists know what you leave out is just as important as what you leave in (there are, however, some unanswered questions*) and does the reader really need to know everything anyway? In any case all you need to know is that Kilbey and The Church kept on going all through those years, making great music, playing fantastic live shows and proving to have more endurance than pretty much every Australian band that emerged in the 1980’s.

Something Quite Peculiar is essential reading both for Church fans who can’t get songs like Violet Town out of their heads (that’s me) and also for the more casual fan who might only be familiar with the Starfish era. As far as rock star autobiographies go it’s engaging, well written and funny as hell. If this book came out in the 1980’s then people would be calling Kilbey a ‘survivor’, something I’m sure he’d dislike. What you can say is that Kilbey, and The Church, are an example of great artistic tenacity to keep doing what you love irrespective of trends and opinion, and that is something to be admired.

Do the surviving members of INXS still want to beat up Kilbey?
Did Ploog get into catering post Church and is he still a situationist?
Does Tom Verlaine still get around in just socks?
What happened to the chewing gum?

Monday, 29 December 2014

End of Times (Well, this year anyway...)

By the end of the year all the words just pile up, so there’s a need to assess the situation so we can all move on. Looking back I note that my reading this year was reasonably eclectic, but unfortunately not always satisfying. Thankfully there weren’t any books read that were as noxiously offensive as the infamous Finkler Question (I will not even reference it - you just don’t want to know...); but probably the least worthy was Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts. That was a book club read, so I had no choice in the matter - the things I do! Enforced reading has its benefits however, with Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites proving to be one of the best novels I have ever read, and that’s no mean feat. Other highlights include The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis, J.G.Ballard’s The Complete Short Stories, Samuel Delany’s The Einstein Intersection and Annabel Smith’s The Ark, which achieves that rare feat of pushing at the boundaries of the novel.

Do I have any New Year’s resolutions? No - I just want to read.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Owls Do Cry - Janet Frame (1957)

Those who are familiar with Jane Champion’s film - An Angel at My Table (1990), would have an awareness of both the hardships and the triumphs of Frame’s life. Owls Do Cry was her first novel and like her admirers work, Patrick White, it is a fine example of high modernism. The style is organic; words tumble along with allusive child-like poetic imagery. It is quite beautiful, but can present a challenge to those unfamiliar with modernist forms bending narratives. Owls Do Cry follows the fortunes of the Withers family, including Daphne, whom is modeled on Frame’s own experiences (although in interviews Frame advised against seeing her work as autobiographical). There is also pointed social satire; revealing New Zealand’s growing middle class to be shallow and hypocritical. The novel is profoundly sad and left me feeling bereft and slightly adrift. I admired the writing but did not enjoy the overall experience; it felt like I was being forced to confront some deep inner core of melancholy. Tackle Owls Do Cry when you are feeling robust and adventurous, otherwise it could turn out to be an emotionally draining experience.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Paris Architect - Charles Belfoure (2013)

I wonder if Charles Belfoure is the only architect to have ever written a novel in which the main protagonist is an architect? It sounds like a recipe for literary disaster, but to give Belfoure credit the outcome does have its merits. In Nazi occupied Paris architect Lucien Bernard is offered much needed money to design hiding places for Jews by a rich Jewish industrialist. Lucien is a reasonably well drawn character who initially has little sympathy for the Jews, but then undergoes a moral transformation.  Although it is no great literary triumph The Paris Architect is an old fashioned pot-boiler that does produce some genuine narrative tension. However many of the German characters are one dimensional evil Nazis and there is an improbable feel good ending that you can’t help liking despite its cheesiness. Against the odds the novel draws you in and although Sacred Hearts (2009) was a much better written novel I enjoyed The Paris Architect much more, although some of my book club members would disagree. Read this one on the train, or propped up on your sick-bed when you can’t bear too much intellectual strain!

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Ark - Annabel Smith (2014)

Annabel Smith is a Perth based author who has followed her two previous books, A New Map of the Universe (2005) and Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (2012) with The Ark, an edgy post apocalyptic novel set in the near future. The Ark is a radical departure for Smith; it is both available as a traditional print book and digitally as an ebook with the option to use an APP that allows the reader to interact and contribute to the world depicted in the book. In addition the novel experiments boldly with form and style. Clearly this is a novel with one eye set on the future.

Sometimes experiments with narrative form can detract from the story, but fortunately with The Ark Smith has blended form and plot seamlessly. The novel is set in two parts, the first set in 2041 and the second in 2043. The ark itself is a state of the art seed bank in which a small group of biologists and their families have taken shelter from a world in the throws of a post peak oil chaos, leaving the natural environment ruined. The Ark could be a typical post-apocalyptic novel, but the fact that the narrative form predominantly consists of electronic media of the near future provides a new and engaging angle. The characters communicate with both the outside world and each other using various future mediums such as Gopher, Dailemail, parlez-vite vitality (like a chat room), and Articulate, which is a voice recognition technology.

The real strength of The Ark is the fact that Smith has created compelling characters whom are both complex and sympathetic, despite using few of the usual narrative techniques to build character. The dialogue is entirely electronic, complete with fonts and software frameworks used by the various mediums. There is no authorial voice and none of the traditional methods are used to give the reader an idea of the settings, with the only descriptions coming from what the characters are saying to each other. The narrative is completely carried by character perspective, with some sections dedicated to specific characters.

Smith has taken some great risks with The Ark, but thanks to quality writing and a strong plot she has succeeded admirably. Also intentionally or not The Ark says something deeply profound about humanity and the ending can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The Ark is an intriguing novel that offers something new in a market crowded with future dystopias and hopefully it will find the audience it deserves.

Annabel Smith’s website can be accessed here for more information about the novel, the APP and the world of The Ark.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Portions From a Wine Stained Notebook - Charles Bukowski (2008)

So what do you do when you are feeling oppressed by nuns and sick to your stomach? Read some Bukowski, that’s what. It was a no brainer reaching for this, the first of two recent volumes of previously uncollected short pieces, including some from his infamous “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” columns and other rare Bukowski miscellany. Bukowski’s writing makes you feel better, it soothes the rough edges of life and gives you a smelly beer-soaked hug and a cuff around the ear for daring to have any pretenses. Portions From a Wine Stained Notebook covers all the Bukowski bases, from musings over the stupidity and cruelty of humanity, to the greatness, or not, of other writers, drunkenness, perverted sex, John Fante, women, assorted lowlifes, tragedy, bathos and pathos - sometimes all at once. Although a fine Bukowski collection, it is not quite up to the standard of Absence of the Hero (2010) and some of the pieces are bordering on substandard for Bukowski. Still, it’s well worth a read for Bukowski enthusiasts; others should start with the immortal novels, Post Office (1971) and Women (1978).

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Sacred Hearts - Sarah Dunant (2009)

Sacred Hearts is historical fiction set in a convent in Ferrara in sixteenth century Italy. Medieval political intrigue melds with the rigors of convent living as the narrative follows the struggles of a rebellious fifteen-year-old novice called Serafina and the egregious demands this places on the Abbess and the apothecary, Zuana, whom is also the most engaging character. Read for the library book club whilst under the influence of various viral invasions (yes, they were medieval on my ass, so to speak), this novel did not sit well with me. Dunant’s prose style is merely adequate, bordering on dull.  Although the historical aspects were reasonably interesting, it was not enough to sustain my attention and provide a counterbalance against the moribund narrative pace, the endless whispered prayers, the smoothing down of habits and acts of god caused by termites. I’ll remember Sacred Hearts as book club fodder and although it has its appeal for some readers I struggled, which forces my hand into giving the novel a mediocre rating.