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Martin Sharp circa 2011 (Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

Martin Sharp circa 2011 (Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

Summer is odd, especially in Australia.

The first dose of decent weather – as in clear blue skies, no wind, 35-degree temperatures, and, where I live, 50% humidity (or less) – brings a sense of optimism: finally we’re through the winter and can now go outdoors without worrying about being frozen to death or being blown off the face of the Earth.  This week we at last had that feeling, because we had two days in a row of good summery weather.  So, yes, optimism.

But this week has also brought sadness.  The passing away of Nelson Mandela.  Closer to home, we’ve had the death of eminent Australian contemporary artist Martin Sharp at the age of 71.  It might be just a little strange to put these two names in the same paragraph, but I think it’s apt, not because of these two men having made similar contributions to the world – they didn’t – but because both lived such genuine and genuinely inspiring lives.

Martin Sharp was – and no doubt will continue to be for some time – Australia’s answer to Andy Warhol.  There’s plenty written about him, and there’s certainly been quite a few thoughtful and informed obituaries, including this one from his colleague and friend Richard Neville.  To many, Sharp will be remembered for being a founding member of Oz, a radical and irreverent magazine –  today we’d call it a zine – that lampooned authority and tradition, particularly the church, including conservative attitudes to sexuality.  He also designed some of the most iconic rock-music album covers from the 1960s/70s.  Later, he’d become an obsessed champion of Tiny Tim, Ginger Meggs, and Sydney’s site-of-thrills-and-fun Luna Park.  He continued to practice for the rest of his life, though became fond of spending years, if not decades, touching up his earlier work.

A cover of Oz by Martin Sharp featuring Bob Dylan

A cover of Oz by Martin Sharp featuring Bob Dylan, 1967

Amazingly, through sheer luck, in early 2011 I interviewed Martin Sharp in his Sydney home for the Canberra Times.  He was warm, generous with his time, thoughtful, always choosing his words carefully, not because he was guarded (though he might have been), but, I think, he just wanted to be clear.  He chain-smoked through the entire morning, constantly rolling homemade cigarettes, the tobacco in a bowl in the table as though it was merely just some kind of herb that he was about to use for cooking.  I found him to be utterly unpretentious, and during the interview we spoke about his great love of Tiny Tim, Vincent Van Gogh (his life’s great inspiration), and that he thought the best art was being done by school children.  He’d become religious in his old age, though in the broad, somewhat mystical sense that artists can become religious (I doubt he went to church), and I remember how he said that in certain contexts conservative thinking can be radical.

I asked him if he had any modern-day heroes, and without blinking an eye he said, ‘Susan Boyle.’  I knew only a little of Boyle, but when I got back home made sure to learn more about her.  What was it about this UK talent-show contestant that had intrigued Sharp so?  I remember how he said that she’d given her all, everything, put her whole being on the line, words to that affect.  So I googled her and was amazed to find myself getting goose-bumps.  When I could drag my way from Youtube I wrote up the interview and the resultant feature article – it wasn’t so much about Martin Sharp but about a new (at the time) gallery and arts facility in Goulburn called South Hill, of which Sharp was the patron – and I also wrote a short piece on how Sharp had given me goose-bumps while telling me about his love for Boyle.

Just before I left Martin Sharp’s house that January day, he gave me a copy of a Tiny Tim album that he’d produced (at considerable expense).  For some reason I’ve never listened to it; perhaps I just didn’t want to take it out of its resolutely plastic-wrapped sleeve.  Maybe I just wanted to keep it as perfect as it had been when it was given to me.  Every time I saw the CD in my collection I thought to myself, Wow, what an amazing day that was.

But I’m listening to it now.  It’s hilarious.  But also important: Tiny Tim, just like Susan Boyle, gives every fibre of his being to his performances.

Thanks, Martin, for your time, your wise words, and, above all else, your art.

If I make it to 71 I’ll be sure to remember that morning with you.

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Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor': is this at last the perfect record?

Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’: is this at last the perfect record for our beautifully fucked-up world?

How would it be to exist without music?

I for one would have no clue, and I don’t want to try imagining it, or even write much more along those lines.  But it is, perhaps, worth asking a related question: how would it be to exist without excellent music, or even very good music?  For me, this has been the question of the week.  And you can blame Arcade Fire for that.

I’ve been following this Montreal-based bunch since their highly acclaimed debut Funeral (2004).  Using the phrase ‘highly acclaimed’ in this context is hardly new or surprising – it seems that when Arcade Fire simply get out of bed in the morning there’s cause for rapturous excitement around the world, the sort of rapturous excitement that once greeted The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan (the crusty old shit that he’s become), David Bowie, Nirvana, and, erm, U-bloody-2.

But is Arcade Fire really that good?

There’s no doubt that when they’re fully charged they’re excellent.  Witness ‘Neighbourhood No. 2’ and ‘Wake Up’ from Funeral, ‘Intervention’ and ‘No Cars Go’ from Neon Bible (2007), and ‘The Suburbs’, ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’ and ‘Suburban War’ from The Suburbs (2010).  One day Arcade Fire are going to put out a best-of that’s going to knock the socks off people and prove once and for all how great – and ‘great’ is the word – they can be.

However, and this is a big ‘however’: they can also be utterly infuriating.

Some Arcade Fire songs start brilliantly before burning out as though in the end they just didn’t know what to do with them but, hey, chuck it on the record anyway.  The band can pack too many ideas into each song (certainly Reflektor suffers from this in parts), and lyrically they can be as awfully obtuse as a Sixth Form poet inspired only by Google.  Throw into the mix the fact that they’re fueled by both anger and beauty, they appear to adore and detest modern life in equal measures, and they can be grand, dramatic, over-dramatic, over-blown even, but there’s also a deep vein of melancholia throughout.  A rich brew or a directionless mess?  They’re both, quite honestly.

So.  What to make of this latest record?

In a way it’s exactly what you’d expect.  This is, apparently, Arcade Fire’s dance collection and they enlisted LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy to get their hips a-wigglin’.  Appropriately split over two discs, and inspired by the 1950 Brazilian classic Black Orpheus and its themes of death and isolation, Win Butler, wife Régine Chassagne, and the couple’s clever cohorts lead us from the superb ‘Reflektor’ – this is their ‘Atomic’ – through ‘You Already Know’, which sounds like what would happen if Butler fronted The Smiths and Queen, and the almost Clash-like ‘Joan of Arc’.

On the second disc the pairing of ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)’ shows just how close Arcade Fire is getting to John Lennon, in ambition if not execution.  ‘Porno’, the most James Murphy-esque track, is a fine slice of moody electro, and ‘Afterlife’ is one of those typically exasperating Arcade Fire songs: a gorgeous verse, a glorious chorus, it’s all ‘Can we work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?/Can we just work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?’, and then, and then – well, it just collapses under its own weight.

Referencing a bunch of great bands and singer/songwriters here is intentional, including The Smiths and The Clash.  Is Reflektor as good as the former’s The Queen is Dead or the latter’s London Calling?  No, it’s not.  But it’s dangerously close.  It has the scope, depth, audacity, and a burning desire to create something as timelessly artful as those albums.  In some ways it also feels like the best mix-tape you could ever possibly receive (the inclusion on the second disc of the test-sound once found on cassettes alludes to this) and, perhaps, in the age of iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify, Reflektor is as good as it gets.

A magnificently flawed masterpiece.  Yes, let’s call it that.

And I can’t stop listening to it.

A Cataract Gorge postcard, 1906

Last week I came to Tasmania with only a backpack and a laptop in a travel-case and, let me be frank, a shitload of hope that I’ll write well here (and by ‘well’ I mean, as I’ve noted before, to write by hand).  While the jury’s out on the latter, the minimalist luggage situation has caused one very significant problem: no room for CDs.  In the past when I’ve gone away to write I’ve been able to go in my trusty Barina, meaning more than enough room for a swag of CDs.  But not this trip.

Of course, I have an mp3-player contraption loaded with some much-loved albums, recent gems by Four Tet, Frightened Rabbit and Volcano Choir, amongst others.  There is, however, a need to hear music through the air, music that fills more than the space between my ears.  For that purpose I made room for just one CD from the hundreds (possibly thousands – eek) I have collected over the years, so I chose very, very carefully indeed.  I chose what I know will be in the top three albums of 2010.

When I arrived at the Gorge, tired from a day of travelling (two flights, a stack of waiting and reading in between) but also excited about commencing another period of writing in an unfamiliar place, I discovered that the CD case was broken.  I feared the worst – the actual CD could be irreparably damaged.  I needed to play it to make sure it worked.  In the first hour I hunted around the cottage for a CD player, getting increasingly desperate.  Could I really be about to spend the next month – a whole month – without music in the air?

After turning the place upside down (though not really: I am at heart a gentle soul, and this cottage is 120 years old and, apparently, one of the most photographed in Tasmania, so it deserves respect) I realised that there was no magic music machine here.  Immediately, and just a little shamelessly, I emailed the Launceston City Council who manages the Cataract Gorge Artist-in-Residence Program.  No doubt sensing the distress in my words, they offered to bring around a CD player – but they couldn’t do it for a few days.  Could I cope until Thursday? they asked.  No, of course I couldn’t, but I wasn’t about to push my luck any further.  For the next 96 hours there was no sound in the cottage other than that of pen on paper, fingers on laptop keyboard, and, at the end of each day, the sweet relief of white wine being poured into a champagne glass.

Then the glorious moment arrived: two lovely representatives from the Launceston City Council came around and dropped off a brand-spanking new CD player.  ‘We were just waiting for someone to ask,’ they said generously as they lifted the handsome black beast from the box.  An hour later, after a cup of a tea and a chat (we spent most of it talking about blogging, would you believe), they left me to my own devices.  But the stereo stubbornly refused to play my CD – it claimed that there was ‘no CD’ even though I could see such a thing on the spindle.  I pressed every button I could find and swore like a rabid trooper, but still my CD couldn’t be brought to life.

Being at times the most tenacious person you’ve ever met (or not met, as the case may be), I realised that the CD player had a USB port and I had a legal download of the album on my laptop.  Hooray for technology after all!  I put the album onto a memory stick that had once been used as a marketing gimmick, put the stick into the CD player, and…the bastard thing still wouldn’t work.  It quit playing halfway through tracks, and quite steadfastly refused to broadcast whole sections of the album.  I cleared the memory stick and put the album on it a second time, but it was still no good – the same mega-frustrating problem.

In the morning I’d be travelling two and a half hours to the other end of Tasmania to spend a couple of days in Hobart.  I hatched a plan: while in the big smoke I’d buy a damn good memory stick and see if that would fix a matter that was now keeping me up at night.  After spending much of my time holed up in an 1840s whaler’s cottage (poor bloody whales) and giving a workshop on writing about place, I ducked into town to get the much-desired memory stick – despite the fact that I’m running out of money, I didn’t skimp on price – and this morning I jumped on the bus back to Launceston.  Would what I had safe and secure in my laptop bag fix this hurdle to my month-long residency?

It was an interesting bus trip to say the least.  Behind me was a man who, with earphones in his ears, insisted on laughing loudly to himself the whole time as if he was in his own private comedy show.  Even more worrying, in the seats in front of me were two heavily tattooed young men who spent the journey talking loudly and proudly about how they’d both just gotten out of jail.  One of the men ‘couldn’t read or nuffin’’.  The other man had gone to Hobart to see his ‘missus’ before she too was sent to jail, but rather than stay with her he’d spent the night on the streets; this same man wondered if his mate knew that sometimes you can shoot a wombat twelve times and it may not die.  The poor granny beside me did nothing but stare straight ahead, refusing to even blink for fear of being knifed.  I had flash-backs to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  Needless to say I clutched onto my newly purchased memory stick very tight, as if it was made of Unobtainium.

But then, thankfully, gratefully, I arrived in Launceston and walked back up to the Gorge.  Would the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage be soon filled with the sounds of an album that I know will be in the top ten of the decade?

As soon as I stepped into the cottage, I downloaded the album onto the new memory stick and then plugged the stick into the stereo.  Oh dear Lord, there it was at last.  Music in the air, good music, great music.  But it’s not just any music.  What I played this morning – and am still playing this evening as I write this post – does everything I expect of great music: it is clever, it is beautiful, it is dark (to the point of grimness); it makes you want to cry one minute and then swing your hips the next, or even do a bit of air-guitar; it is new, thoughtful, sometimes funny, but above all it takes risks.

It’s a clash, a mash-up, a remix and a reimagining.

Interested in hearing This Mortal Coil versus Sigur Ros?  Philip Glass versus Elton John?  REM versus Sia?  Want a listening journey that encompasses David Lynch soundtracks, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Coldplay, Nancy Sinatra, Nina Simone, Nirvana, Bon Iver, and Harry Dean Stanton, Charles Bukowski and Bob Dylan, just to name a few artists represented in this collection?   Do you have a penchant for melancholia and the more reflective side of eletronica?  If the answer is yes to these questions, you need Introversion by Irish DJ/producer/remixer/mash-up artist Phil Retrospector.  Amazingly it isn’t available commercially, but you can listen to it here.

Can I be so bold as to say that if the Coldplay versus The Beetles versus Joe Anderson mash-up called ‘Jude Will Fix It’ doesn’t make you smile or bring you to tears, or both at the same time, then you may want to check for a pulse – and I’m not even a crazy fan of these bands individually.  So I end this tale with a declaration and a request: if a wild Tasmanian storm comes Launceston’s way (the weather reports are saying that it’s quite possible this week) and I get flushed out of my little cliff-face cottage and washed into the Tamar River and never come up for air, then please have this song playing as you file out of the crematorium.

Last week I came to Tasmania with only a backpack and a laptop in a travel-case, but now I have music in the air.

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