Thursday 29 January 2015

In Patagonia - Bruce Chatwin (1977)

I read In Patagonia because it features in 501 Must Read Books (2007) as an example of great travel writing. I found a copy sitting on top of a pile of donated books to the library; it was not accepted into the collection due to its poor condition and in fact it degraded badly as I handled it, the brittle cover breaking off and pages falling out whilst I was trying to read it on a crowded work-bound train. I was primed to enjoy In Patagonia, but unfortunately it was not to be and often I found the people on the train and the view racing by more entertaining.

In Patagonia is not your typical travel writing; its structure is fragmented and a significant portion of the text concentrates on past events in Patagonia, rather than Chatwin’s own ‘adventures’. For example Chatwin traces the movements of Butch Cassidy and his gang, who fled to Patagonia in the early 1900‘s to avoid the authorities. The book is filled with the lives and histories of significant people who spent time in the region and ordinary immigrants who hoped to to make their riches with the wool trade. Chatwin’s writing is elegant but quite formal and I felt like there was something missing as the book progressed, perhaps a sense of adventure or danger, instead there are more potted histories and land owners complaining about the government. Chatwin does succeed in giving a strong impression of Patagonia’s landscape, which seems mysterious and breathtaking; a land of half mythical prehistoric creatures and mountainous terrain.

I mostly enjoyed the first half, however In Patagonia’s limited charm began to wear thin and the mini history lessons and formal style became almost intolerable. It’s not often I consider giving up on a book, but I came very close with what is meant to be a classic of travel writing. In amongst the historical anecdotes the closest Chatwin came to adventure was walking a mostly disused trail through a mountainous region. He ends up thinking he is lost as darkness approaches, only to hear cars nearby. Relieved he promptly camps for the night and is safe and sound the next morning - exciting stuff! If travel writing is meant to make you long to wander the world’s lost byways, then In Patagonia fails miserably. Far better is Ryszard Kapuscinski’s brilliant The Shadow of the Sun (1998), detailing his travels through Africa. Kapuscinski’s writing conveys tension and verve that Chatwin doesn’t come close to emulating. This particular copy of In Patagonia days are numbered and it will end up in the recycling bin; a nice metaphor perhaps?

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?