Book review – ‘Curtin’s Gift’ by John Edwards (2006)

To many, John Curtin was Australia’s greatest prime minister: a hero who was cheered as he walked through the streets of Melbourne and later farewelled by thousands. In many ways, he makes an odd choice of national champion, lacking as he did the grandeur of Whitlam, the wit of Menzies, the fabled common touch of Hawke. But what Curtin lacked in personal style he made up for in achievements, the kind of inarguable, towering accomplishments upon which history books were once based.

He brought Australian troops home in defiance of Churchill and Roosevelt, re-aligned Australian allegiances from the motherland to the new frontier of the United States and saved Australia from Japanese invasion. He was the reluctant hero, the saintly, self-sacrificing figure who safely guided the nation through its darkest, most sleepless night, all the while battling his own personal demons of alcoholism and depression.

Or so the story goes. Curtin’s Gift argues that Curtin was indeed the greatest Australian leader, but that the accomplishments normally attributed to him have been confused or exaggerated and obscure his real legacy. The popular claim that he rescued the nation from Japanese invasion is seen here as an overblown and misleading one, as is the image of Curtin as some kind of Pacific warlord—he mainly deferred to the capable American general Macarthur. Nor was Curtin as opposed to Britain as legend would have it. It is often forgotten that he appointed the Duke of Gloucester to the position of Governor-General, contrary to Labor policy that an Australian should be appointed to the role.

Author John Edwards also argues that Curtin’s intervention in bringing the 6th and 7th divisions home was not as crucial as popular belief would have it. It was a commonsense move and a popular one, he asserts, rather than an inspired and idiosyncratic one. The political machinations leading up to the move are chronicled here, though this section is not as clear or as convincing as other parts of Edwards’s argument.

The notion of Curtin as reluctant leader is more convincingly overturned here. While Curtin was apparently prepared to walk away from politics if he lost his Fremantle seat, he was by no means timid about the prospects of becoming leader and pursued the post with vigour. A lifelong convert to the Labor cause, he was a voracious reader and thought widely and critically about economic issues. As such, he came to the national leadership as the ‘best prepared and trained leader of his generation’.

In addition to throwing light on some of the misconceptions about Curtin’s prime ministership, the book is valuable in that it traces Curtin’s development as an economic thinker. Born in 1885, Curtin experienced Depression-era poverty first-hand and it was formative in his thinking. Later, he became involved with the Victorian Socialist Party, where he absorbed the teachings of Tom Mann. Also crucial were his observations of the wide-ranging powers held by the government during World War I. Appointed editor of the Westralian aged just 25, he possessed what Edwards calls an ‘easy familiarity with concepts and numbers’.

During Scullin’s ill-fated leadership, Curtin distanced himself from the prevailing wisdom in the party on how to end the Depression, rejecting the conventional analysis, which was to cut wages, and supported the Keynesian notion that reducing spending would not end the Depression. When he became leader, he spoke of the urgent need for ‘the reshaping, in fact, the revolutionising of the Australian way of life quickly, efficiently and without question’. His government assumed control of income tax from the states, made key changes to social security, introduced modern central banking and strengthened Australian involvement in the global economy, participating in talks that eventually led to the nation’s involvement in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It was these developments, Edwards contends, that constitute both Curtin’s greatest achievement and the foundations upon which Australian prosperity would once again flourish.

Edwards, formerly one of Paul Keating’s economic advisers, holds a PhD in economics and is now chief economist at HSBC. As such, he brings considerable economic proficiency to the work, and some will no doubt find this aspect of the text dry and somewhat difficult. However, as a look at how economic policy is inextricably linked to social change, the book is invaluable. And as a study in how Curtin’s hard work in establishing the framework for Australia’s recovery was more significant than his more celebrated and dramatic moments, it’s an incisive look at how politicians are perceived and remembered.

Edwards’s work is by no means the definitive or exhaustive Curtin biography (David Day’s tome still holds that title), but rather a convincing re-examination of some of the key strands of his life. We may revere Curtin, Edwards argues, but we have got him all wrong. For someone who got it right so crucially and so often, perhaps the least we can do is understand him and his precious gift. 

Originally appeared in: Eureka Street

Book review – ‘Tree of Smoke’ by Denis Johnson (2005)

In a word : extraordinary. It begins with news of the JFK assassination reaching troops in a Vietnamese jungle, and the horror of innocence lost which that moment so powerfully represents remains omnipresent throughout. Characters include young soldier Bill Houston (first seen shooting a monkey in one of the book’s most powerful scenes), his brother James, a Canadian nurse named Kathy, a young CIA operative called Skip and his shadowy uncle ‘The Colonel’.

To list their storylines would take a review much longer than this and even a comprehensive plot summary would tell you nothing of the book’s towering ambition, its compelling vision of the “loveliest country on earth” and how inexplicable it remains to the combatants even as they wreak havoc across it, its perfect tiny moments (“He didn’t like coffee. He just drank it”) and the glimpses of redemption it finds in the darkest depths of human suffering.

The only writers Johnson can be fairly compared to are all giants: Walt Whitman, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene. Tree of Smoke is a very long book about a wretched war that has been the subject of countless novels and films. Yet it never feels like a chore, never seems familiar ground. In fact, you never want it to end.

*****

Originally appeared in: Good Reading

Book review – ‘Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix’ by Charles Cross (2005)

 

What an amazing performer Jimi Hendrix must have been. Wildly charismatic, shockingly sexual and a flamboyant showman, Hendrix’s career was as short and spectacular as a shooting star. This new biography reveals both the legendary stage presence and the vulnerable man behind the iconic image. Written by acclaimed Seattle journalist Charles R. Cross, it is an extensively researched, sensitive and insightful look at a complicated character.

Named after one of Hendrix’s most autobiographical songs, “Room Full of Mirrors” covers the great musician’s life in vivid detail, from his early days as a “latchkey kid” to his whirlwind first tour of England, the tumultuous end of the hippy dream and, of course, his wretched death in a hotel bed, aged just 27. Particularly impressive is the way Cross traces how Hendrix’s distinctive and unmatched guitar style (memorably described here as “a visionary, brilliant accident”) developed during his time as an impoverished session musician and freewheeling gun-for-hire.

Cross never shies away from the darker side of Hendrix’s character, his mistreatment of women and drug-addled flakiness, but sees him as an essentially sympathetic figure, a man who never truly escaped the loneliness of his early years. Destined to be considered the definitive Hendrix biography, “A Room Full of Mirrors” may well be one of the best portraits of a rock musician ever written.

Originally appeared in: Good Reading

Gig review – The Gutter Twins, York Theatre 2009

So much of rock music is about collaboration – individual talents finding the perfect collaborators to elevate and inspire their own work into something great. Even certified geniuses like Morrisey and Marr have not quite reached the same peaks without their creative partners. Consider it a blessing then, that Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegancrossed paths, for their dark alchemy makes them seem nothing less than musical soulmates. As The Gutter Twins they have produced career-best in the twilight of already distinguished careers.

The setting was the intimate surrounds of York Theatre, more usually a venue for staged drama than that of the musical variety. With the twins (and Twilight Singers guitarist Dave Rosser ) draped in black and performing in acoustic mode, the sense of occasion was heightened and the audience hushed and respectful. It was spectacular from the start, with God’s Children setting an ominous mood early, conjuring up all sorts of darkness to complement its impressionist, barely-there lyrics: “Whispers…captured lies”.

Never known as a particularly jovial frontman during his time with the Afghan Whigs and The Twilight Singers, Greg Dulli was nonetheless in relaxed form tonight, breaking his near-silence to banter with an audience member at one point and leading the crowd in handclaps during a powerful cover of Jose Gonzalez’ Down The Line. The cover proved a perfect choice for the pair, who pick up on the tune’s foreboding, its underlying sense of unease and violence and run with it.

Mark Lanegan, meanwhile, is nothing less than a force of nature. His voice seems not just weathered or aged, but absolutely timeless, so deep and dark it seems to have risen out of some primordial sludge. Few voices in rock are so richly evocative and to hear him sing Creeping Coastlines of Light, a lovely torch song from his solo record, was to know greatness.

It takes artists with real gravitas to take on material like The Stations, with its visions of the rapture and overwhelming emotional heaviness. But there’s something about Dulli and Lanegan’s combination that makes their explorations of sin and redemption positively inviting, even addictive.

With only the sublime Saturnalia record to their name, and some of its best moments ( Idle Hands, All Misery/Flowers ) apparently unable to be replicated in acoustic form, the twins range widely through covers and their back catalogue. Dulli’s raw take on the Afghan Whigs’ classic Summer’s Kiss is absolutely heart-stopping, while maybe the most magical moment of all comes in during the sublime harmonies on Everly Brothers’ perfectly melancholy All I Have To Do Is Dream. If you weren’t there, you really missed out. If you were, you’re probably still in a reverie.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Gig review – Explosions in the Sky, Metro Theatre 2011

It’s been four long years since Texans Explosions in the Sky last graced these shores and judging by the palpable sense of anticipation in this sold out crowd, it has been an agonising wait for many. For fans of heart-on-sleeve post rock there’s nobody better. While other bands of their ilk opt for chin-stroking, intellectual music or settle for impressive but ultimately unmoving displays of technical virtuosity , EITS aim for soul-soaring, heart-in-throat catharsis.

Tonight’s support, Sydneysiders Charge Group, proved an inspired choice as there’s something similar to the headliners in the way they use loud-soft dynamics and building momentum to take the listener somewhere emotional. In songs like Speakeasy Death Song they use space to great effect, the crescendos all the more powerful for their restraint that surrounds them. Broken Summer, meanwhile is a frail, pretty tune that hints at something darker lying beneath its surface. New song The Gold is Gone, from an EP due for release next year, plots a more conventional path, its sprawling guitar work reminiscent of some of the moodier Bluebottle Kiss work and adding another dimension to this always impressive outfit.

Following a mercifully short break between bands, the curtain draws (slowly and, in a comical anticlimax, incompletely) on Explosions in The Sky, guitars at the ready and a Texan flag proudly draped over an amp stack. De facto frontman Munaf Rayani says a few words and then for the next hour or so, they say absolutely nothing. It’s better this way, though – this is music that is so totally immersive and emotionally involving that it’s easy to forget where you are, to be completely, utterly, lost in the best way possible. The Only Moment We Were Alone is a stirring beginning, its graceful, slow build expertly rendered by a four-prong guitar attack.

Songs bleed into each other, riding waves of pure emotion and blissful cacophony. Time and again, their wild ambition and cinematic scope builds to satisfying emotional payoffs. The Birth and Death of the Day was triumphant and the symphonic Your Hand in Mine almost overwhelming. Catastrophe and The Cure is similarly grand, melodies flickering in and out of beautiful noise. This year’s Take Care, Take Care LP, their best work in years, is also well represented, with the likes of Let Me Back InLast Known Surroundings and Postcard from 1952 all being thrown into the mix. Finally, they’re sweat drenched and emotionally spent and Rayani farewells the crowd with some simple words of gratitude. As ever, he doesn’t need to say much – wordless as they are, these colossal songs speak volumes for themselves.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Gig review – Kanye West, Sydney Entertainment Centre 2012

Kanye West is one of the most acclaimed musicians of his generation and a certified, name-up-in-lights superstar, yet a live Kanye performance nonetheless seems a bit problematic on paper. His records are heavily collaborative affairs, cherry picking the biggest names from his genre and beyond to realise his visions of kaleidoscope, wide-screen extravaganzas. Live, there are just a couple of musicians, no special guests and a lot of pre-recorded backing. It’s basically all Kanye. But in this high-energy juggernaut of a show, that proves to be more than enough.

While a persistent criticism of touring hip-hop acts is the stop-start nature of their performances, Kanye’s foot is rarely off the pedal tonight. After appearing deep in the dancefloor crowd on a crane, he powers through Powerand Dark Fantasy to a near hysterical reception. The classic Jesus Walks soon follows, West stalking the stage and spitting out words with such urgency, he seems more a hungry up-and-comer with a point to prove than the stadium-filling multi-millionaire he has long since become.

As choreographed dancers swoon and swirl around him, West covers just about every highlight from his feted back catalogue with older cuts like the slinky minimalism of Love Lockdown, the robotic maximalism of Strongerand the typically defiant Through The Wire all maintaining the irresistible momentum, while Heartless, featuring a crowd singalong, is a clear highlight.

Like some gold-chain clad pied piper, West keeps the crowd energy bubbling as he moves down a catwalk extending from the main stage and later ventures into the upper tiers of the cavernous Entertainment Centre during Touch The Sky, camera phones flashing and fans racing for an up-close glimpse of their charismatic idol. After completing almost a full lap of the venue he disappears through an exit and reappears a few seconds later on stage to launching into another of his monster hits, the ear-worm Gold Digger.

Divided into three acts, apparently to allow for a costume change and add even further to the stadium-sized grandeur, the final section begins with a Chariots of Fire introduction – ridiculous and over-the-top, sure, but nobody comes to a Kanye West show hoping for a low-key production. Dressed in an eye-catching red suit, he stretches his masterpiece Runaway out into something truly epic, with primal screaming and samples mashed together into noise adding to its cathartic power. Lost in the World sees him pondering the state of the universe, before Hey Mama ends proceedings.

Generous in length and packed with hits, what this show lacked in spontaneity it made up for in sheer spectacle. While his all-star collaborators may have been absent, you wouldn’t say they were missed. Some performers get swallowed up by a venue this big, its lack of intimacy working against them. But Kanye West seems to thrive in such a setting and tonight was no exception. His juggernaut rolls on.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Gig review – The Flight of the Conchords, Sydney Opera House 2012

Less a regular Thursday night show and more a triumphant, agonisingly belated victory lap, New Zealand’s self-styled “fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk comedy folk duo”, The Flight of the Conchords, have finally made it to our shores. It was worth the wait. In front of a capacity crowd at Sydney’s “hat-shaped building”, the answer to their rhetorical question “Who wants to rock the party?” was pretty much everyone.

First though, the unbilled support act was FOTC collaborator and honorary Australian Arj Barker, whose ‘I just smoked some cones and now here’s some weird shit I observed’ demeanour has now been polished to slacker perfection. There’s a deceptive art to what he does, his apparently casual looseness belying his precise timing and ability to extract every ounce of humour out of even the slightest of anecdotes. Jokes about Michael Phelps smoking weed, ‘freeballing’ a solar eclipse and having corrective eye surgery may appear tossed off and almost improvised, but there’s serious polish and comedic know-how here. Taking in crowd-pleasing local references (“I’ve been doing tourist stuff. I went to see the famous 3 sisters…up in Kings Cross”, Breaking Bad impressions and recurring riffs on ‘Marley and Me’ (“Spoiler alert: the sequel is just called Me”), the themes of Barker’s set would have been fairly familiar to anyone who’s seen him before (is there anyone who hasn’t?) but he proved the ideal, crowd-pleasing appetiser for the Conchords.

Mercifully appearing straight after Barker, the Kiwis had the crowd, if not at ‘hello’, then about two lines into first song Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor, which Jermaine explains is not just a literal re-telling of their experiences, but something of an analogy: “It’s about how there are a lot of dick-like people on the dancefloor of life. If you explore its hidden meanings, you’ll be richly rewarded”. We’re then left pondering the possible metaphorical implications of Robots, the hilarity of which is added to by the pair’s cardboard robot heads which leave those side of stage basically watching the side of a box. “They’re getting a very different show up there” Brett observes, dryly.

One of the triumphs of their instant-classic show was how the duo seamlessly transitioned from the all-conquering musical chameleons of the musical interludes to the uber-gormless, provincial naifs who bumbled through the storylines, forever confused by their big city surrounds. So it is tonight, with the pair skilfully skewering every genre from lovers rock and folk balladry to futuristic glam rock and then basically reverting to their hapless personas between songs. New Zealand’s image as a backwater is played up throughout, with the ‘New Zealand Symphony orchestra’, consisting of a single member called Nigel joining the pair for most of the set.

The focus throughout, however, is firmly on Brett and Jermaine. Unlike many comedy pairings, there’s no straight man here, no half of the duo that’s a bit smarter or a little more worldly. Both are equally out of their depth at all times, a dynamic beautifully explored on the hilarious We’re Both in Love with a Sexy Lady and the not-quite-gangster rap Hurt Feelings. The banter between them is priceless, not least when they negotiate with the lighting desk for an appropriate backdrop to one song: “Can we have something that’s like the smell of heather and the woods?” Brett asks. “I think they mainly just do colours, Brett” Jermaine deadpans.

The straight-faced absurdity of The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room and Inner City Pressure keep the laughs coming, and their deadpan banter between songs is almost as amusing. There are hilariously stilted non-anecdotes about getting free muffins in a hotel (“complementary means free. The muffins weren’t flattering me” explains Brett), getting stuck in a lift and a truly ridiculous gag involving misuse of a fish where we have to wait until the end of the show to hear the pay-off.

In many ways it was a night of firsts. It was surely the first time anyone has led the Opera House Concert Hall in a mass sing-a-long about epileptic dogs, and almost definitely the only time a song featuring the phrase “David Bowie’s nipple antennae” has graced the venue. There were also some newer songs to complement the favourites we’ve all long since memorised, including the mock-heroic Summer of 1353 which recounts the difficulties of wooing in the 14th century, and the typically ludicrous Fuck on the Ceiling, which takes them a few goes to get through.

Most comedy rock has a limited shelf life, but the Conchords’ songs were always better than novelty numbers. You get the impression they could have carved out a successful career in any number of straight musical guises, but that they decided this was way more fun. Having had the good grace to end their TV show before it risked getting stale, this unlikely cultural phenomenon shows no signs of coming to an end, and by the time they get to the last song, a roof-raising Sugalumps, you’re already hoping their return visit comes around quite a bit sooner. I missed favourites like Hiphopopotamus v Rhymenoceros and If You’re Into It, but maybe next time. Otherwise this was a joyous, faultless Australian debut. They have no peers.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Art review – Richard Kean: Aural Labirynth at Articulate (2012)

A ubiquitous feature at most art exhibitions is some variation on the ‘DO NOT TOUCH THE ART’ sign; a surly security guard, a cordon subtly but firmly separating audience from artist, a general feeling that chin-stroking contemplation and a safe distance from the work is expected. Richard Kean’s new installation ‘Aural Labyrinth’ flips the script on these norms and instead directly encourages and almost demands participation from those who visit.

This new piece consists of a series of acoustic strings, stretching out stretch out along the walls and vaulting to the ceilings of the 300 cubic metre room. Sounds are made when people touch the strings, which are affixed to the space with objects roughly approximating the frets of a guitar. The transformation of the room into a giant instrument is not merely a vessel for the interactivity but allows the piece to also function as a large scale, minimalist, visually striking response to the grey walls, wooden pillars and exposed beams of the space.

The setup means strangers can become instant collaborators and co-conspirators in a fun, messy, musical melange. One of the real pleasures of the installation is watching the looks on people’s faces as they react and reply, often with surprise and laughter, to the discordant musical interjections of those around them. The artist himself does perform on the installation, and proved a surprisingly accomplished practitioner of this most unlikely of instruments, but generally the work becomes a kind of toy instrument cacophony as multiple people pluck strings and have the sounds overlap and reverberate around the space.

Kean is a Sydney-based artist whose previous works have focused on the interplay between space and sound, and here he has come up with a work of real playfulness. This seems inspired in roughly equal measures by heavy art theory on the relationship between a site and the art and the artist and audience and those giant keyboards that you could walk across in toy scores as a kid. No two people experience find the work exactly the same and that’s the beauty of it. This is art you can touch, pull, pluck and play with to your heart’s content.

Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground

Art review – Marco Fusinato: The Colour of the Sky Has Melted at Artspace (2012)

Probably the only art exhibition in Sydney which comes with free ear plugs, Marco Fusinato’s The Color of the Sky Has Melted collects the best of the always challenging Fusinato’s recent work. The ear plugs are a good idea for the central work, the striking interactive installation Aetheric Plexus(2009), a somewhat ominous-looking industrial work which suddenly blasts those who dare to walk in its crosshairs with a brain-melting flash of intense light and deafening 105 decibels of white noise.

Also a noted drone noise guitarist who was collaborated with Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore, Fusinato’s interest in the extreme possibilities of music and the blurry line between extreme music and noise continues in the ongoing series Mass Black Implosion (2007-). These works see Fusinato take a score and draw lines from individual notes like light beams shooting off into the distance, making the scores look like some chaotic, mathematical diagrams.

There’s more noise in Free 1998-2004 (2012), a video series compiled over a number of years where Fusinato proves himself possibly the worst guitar shop customer of all time, turning up at unsuspecting stores and launching into high-volume noise assaults on the store guitars. This is guerilla art at once playful and wildly unpredictable, the stunt often ending with him being ejected from the store.

Free is also a useful introduction to Fusinato’s distinctive guitar style, which is more akin to attacking the instrument then playing it in any conventional way. Like much of what he does, it sees the artist refusing to accept passive engagement with his work and making the audience part of the art rather than passive receptacles.

Elsewhere there’s a striking photo print of a rioter with a rock poised reading for action, all the more disturbing for its lack of context, and a huge screenprint which is a reworking of a protest sign made by an Eastern European art collective in the 1970s. Although the collection covers a number of mediums, it is very much cohesive, tied together by an unremitting palette of black, white, and gray, an interest in revolutionary movements, and a furious intent to smash the barriers of what sound and image can do. This is one of the most intriguing and in-your-face collections of art in Sydney at the moment. It’s also almost certainly the loudest.

Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground

Art review – We Used to Talk About Love at Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2013

Taking place in a recently redesigned space in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, We Used to Talk About Love is a small but fascinating exhibition curated by Natasha Bullock. It features 11 contemporary Australian artists covering a theme that is so central to our lives yet surprisingly under-represented in the visual arts.

Love is interpreted pretty broadly here, with unexpected curatorial choices. Glenn Sloggett’s photos of unlovely suburbia include the ominous words “U R Alone” carved into a concrete footpath and a wrecked car on someone’s front lawn. Paul Knight’s photographs also tap into something subtly unsettling, depicting a series of couples and lovers in bed together. Each image is comprised of two separate halves ripped and roughly folded together, suggesting each of the pair’s overlapping but ultimately competing views of the same intimate moment.

A completely different sensibility is seen in Darren Sylvester’s prints, which have the glossy, polished look of high-end fashion mags but capture moments of vulnerability and awkward contemplation. In Your First Love Is Your Last Love a private schoolboy sits in an austere-looking house surveying a love letter, accompanied only by the incongruous remains of a half-eaten subway meal.

Also featured is Angela Mesiti’s remarkable video Rapture (Silent Anthem). A past winner of the Blake prize, it is a series of slow-motion close-ups of teenagers at a music festival. Like much of this exhibition, it focuses the viewer on something vital but rarely examined. Music festivals wouldn’t exist without passionate fans, but seeing the open-mouthed awe of devotees — completely enraptured in what they are watching — offers a compelling new visual perspective, even for the most hardened festival veteran.

Even better is Grant Stevens’ video, where words of break-ups and romantic unhappiness appear on a background of a starry night set to sentimental soundtrack music. The text is revealed slowly at first, eventually speeding up and becoming an incoherent mess of polite yet painful kiss-offs. It’s ahypnotic, strangely moving piece that works as a kind of reversal of the famous opening line of Anna Karenina, suggesting that every happy couple may be happy in their own unique way, but the sting and the fumbling, cliched language of a break-up is depressingly universal.

Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground