September 06, 2019 05:40:09
As a teen in late-80s Brisbane, Andrew Stafford discovered punk and it changed his life.
“I was coming to it ten years too late — I was born in 1971 and punk really got going in 1976 or so — but it was galvanising,” he told RN’s The Bookshelf.
Later in life, as one of Australia’s foremost music writers, he wrote about the Brisbane scene in Pig City, set against the backdrop of Queensland’s repressive political climate under premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
More recently, in his new book Something to Believe In, he charts his life (significant moments and formative artists) song by song — from Pilot’s hit January, released when he was four years old, to Liz Phair’s Divorce Song.
“There were hundreds if not thousands of songs that I could have chosen, but what I tried to do was let the story tell itself, and songs would come to me organically,” he explains.
In the spirit of Something to Believe In, below he takes us through five rock ‘n’ roll reads that shaped and informed his writing.
Paul Williams was the first serious rock critic. He created Crawdaddy! magazine at the beginning of 1966 and honoured rock ‘n’ roll as a genuine new art form by helping create the language for describing it. And the way he did that was simple; he never over-wrote.
A lot of bad rock writing is like a lot of bad rock music because it’s over-complicated — it’s showing off, not connecting.
Williams used very plain language. He wasn’t afraid to write in the first person, so his work was very emotionally direct, like he was mainlining the music that moved him onto the page. At his best, you could hear the music just by reading him, and when you heard whatever it was he wrote about for the first time, you recognised it, because he’d nailed it. He wrote melodically, and I’ve aspired to that ever since.
He wrote a ton of books, especially about Bob Dylan, but the one that really stayed with me was The Map, from 1988, which he published when he was 37. He’d fallen out of touch with rock ‘n’ roll and set out to rediscover it. At that point, he’d never even heard a U2 record, or an R.E.M. record: he was like a lot of Baby Boomers who got stuck on the music of the 1960s and had never moved past it.
So he gets back out there and he falls in love with it all over again. He goes and discovers everyone from Black Flag to Lone Justice to the Jesus and Mary Chain to Prince, and he writes about all of them with equal enthusiasm. And he recognises something that was a really crucial component of Something To Believe In, that rock ‘n’ roll (or pop or what-have-you) is a healing music, and that most of all it’s for everyone.
It’s no secret that I’m a Midnight Oil tragic. Strict Rules was Andrew McMillan’s document of their tour with the Warumpi Band in 1986, which led to the making of Diesel And Dust. So obviously I was attracted to it for that reason, but it’s so much more than a music book. It’s an unflinching account of the tortured relationship between white Australia and First Nations peoples. And like Diesel And Dust, it’s sympathetic and it’s stirring.
But he doesn’t spare Midnight Oil from criticism either. It describes some bad gigs, where the audience, who’d never heard anything like them and probably never wanted to, walked away covering their ears. They went into the desert with the attitude that they were going to talk to Indigenous people and then realised they’d got it entirely the wrong way around. They had to slow down, sit down, shut up and listen — as might the rest of us.
It’s a book covered with red dust and that grit sticks in your throat. The landscape permeates the whole thing: “The razorback ridges of the Macdonnell Ranges split the plains like a wedge, splintering the earth with shards of granite and sedimentary deposits. A glowing, primeval spine from the air, they crease the desert like the ceremonial scars on an old man’s chest.”
McMillan refers to himself in the book as the Hitch-Hiker, meaning that he was an interloper, a way of acknowledging that this land wasn’t his land, but his prose fully inhabits it. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t turn away from ugliness either — from the dislocating effects of colonisation that have caused massive intergenerational trauma for over 200 years of European settlement.
This is hands down one of the greatest and most influential music reads ever. It’s subtitled “The uncensored oral history of punk”, and that’s exactly what it is. It traces the genre’s history from the Stooges and the MC5 in Detroit, through to the New York scene and across the Atlantic to London — not including what was happening in Australia, unfortunately.
It’s a book filled with larger-than-life characters. There’s not a lot of music writing here as such — it’s just a bunch of incredibly charismatic people who created a revolution, in their own words. Often their quotes are wildly contradictory, but they’re so skilfully woven together that it tells a beautiful, strangely seamless story. You definitely won’t find a more entertaining or readable one.
It’s also completely scurrilous. It’s full of gossip and hearsay and innuendo and relies on the memories of people who were completely addled, so large slabs of it are probably untrue. As history, these are unreliable memoirs. But that’s like a lot of gonzo journalism, where the exaggerated version of a story tells a bigger truth.
Unfortunately it hasn’t left such a great legacy — its influence has mainly meant a huge number of identikit, inferior oral histories – but I’ve still got a bounty on the head of the person who borrowed my copy.
This was important to me mainly because it was a memoir by another music writer. I couldn’t compete with Kent, though – he’d borne witness to the salad days of rock ‘n’ roll, when there were piles of money around and he joined the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin on tour. So he got to see and join in all sorts of bad behaviour first hand until his bad habits got the better of him.
It’s a memoir of the 1970s, taken year by year until 1978-1979. Those two chapters are lumped together because mostly he can’t remember them! The main thing about Kent, though, was that he was far-sighted. He was like an English Lester Bangs in that he was as far ahead of the curve as some of the musicians that he lionised, and helped bring to greater prominence, like Iggy Pop.
Kent didn’t write about music so much as he wrote about people and their character flaws. In his early years he wrote horrific profiles of some of rock ‘n’ roll’s true originals, like Brian Wilson and Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as more marginal figures like Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett. He understood that many of the main protagonists were profoundly damaged, sometimes horrible human beings.
There was one spectacular piece he wrote for the NME about Television though, the New York band, and their debut album Marquee Moon. I ended up writing about it too, in my book, because right after I read it I bought it and it’s my favourite record of all time. I have a tattoo of the moon on the rear sleeve on my right forearm, and I’ve got Nick Kent to thank for introducing me to it.
I read this one right before writing Something To Believe In. I liked it because Tim Rogers presents himself as the opposite of the rock god windmilling his guitar on stage. It’s a very tender, vulnerable book and he really lays himself out there, particularly his struggles with anxiety and other mental health and drug and alcohol issues, without getting too voyeuristic.
It’s beautifully written. It’s also elliptical — it’s a lot like life, in that what we remember is not so much a clear narrative but a series of vignettes. So rather than starting from his childhood, instead he tells a long story about reconnecting with his father in the present watching bush footy in Kalgoorlie, and that ends up telling you far more about who he is and where he comes from.
Obviously, I don’t have the rock-star cachet or profile of Tim Rogers, so I didn’t think I had the option of being elliptical or obscure. I had to tell my own story more or less straight. But those little digressions in between chapters that I write, on particular songs or albums, that’s filched from a similar idea in Tim’s book, little mini-chapters that he calls Bagatelles, where he just riffs on random things.
He’s a good music writer, too. There’s a chapter called Earworms where he talks about Go West’s song We Close Our Eyes. He calls it a “yapping dog of a tune” which is about right. On the other hand, there’s a gorgeous piece on Willie Nelson’s Stardust which he says lets him know it’s OK to be alone. Our most intimate moments with music are when we’re alone with it.
Andrew Stafford appears at the Brisbane Writers Festival on Friday September 6. His second book Something to Believe In is out now.