The World Where You Live: Confessions of a Crowded House Fan

What a world we live in.  You can be minding your own business when your phone suddenly informs you one of your all-time favourite bands has released a song.  Last Friday, I awoke to discover that Crowded House had released a brand-spanking new tune called ‘Teenage Summer’.  But despite the sense of joy, I hesitated.  What if it was a pale imitation of the music I’d grown up loving? 

It’s tough work being a fan.  Some people are football fanatics; they pledge their allegiance to a team and stick with them no matter what.  It’s a devotion that transcends rationality and, at times, decorum.  I didn’t have it in me to support a football team – I lacked the faith.  I was a music fan and I pledged myself to bands, through thick and Thin Lizzy.

That said, there were a few false starts.  Some musical passions burn brightly for a moment before fizzling out.  Like KISS.  For a brief moment in the 1970s, KISS was everywhere.  And by ‘everywhere’, I mean on t-shirts, lunchboxes and collectible swap cards.  They were the biggest thing since sliced bread, which they also marketed to impressionable youth under the name, ‘Gene’s Seven-Grain Wholemeal Slice Party’.  No rock band before or since has produced a bread that comes anywhere close.

Everyone at my school worshipped KISS.  My brother and I busted open our piggy banks and blew the lot on KISS albums at K-Mart.  I bought ‘Dynasty’ – which included the rock / disco crossover smash hit ‘I Was Made for Loving You’ and my brother snaffled ‘Unmasked’, which had a cartoon strip on the cover and was home to the soft rock power ballad, ‘Shandi’.  They were the first and last KISS albums we bought.  I’d love to say we had a musical epiphany and dumped Gene, Paul, Ace and the other guy for LPs by The Clash, but it wouldn’t be true.  We just lost interest.

My brother liked Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, but it did nothing for me.  It was remote, as if it had been beamed in from another planet.  As the product of superhumans, wholly inaccessible and unreachable.  ‘Thriller’ wasn’t something you could really relate to. 

Say what you like about Crowded House, they’re a different proposition to KISS and are unlikely to be mistaken for Michael Jackson any time soon.  Formed from the ashes of Split Enz, I liked them immediately.  And Neil Finn wrote songs that mere mortals like me could understand.  A lot of them could be played on an acoustic guitar.  And whilst many an act of musical butchery has been committed by people with acoustic guitars trying to emulate their heroes, something about those kinds of songs is inherently human.

Their debut album was crammed full of catchy tunes.  It arrived at a time when some pop music had started to take itself extremely seriously and suffered from delusions of grandeur.  The first Crowded House album didn’t pretend it was saving the world; it was rooted in something far more domestic.  These were songs that could be sung in the kitchen over the sink or when hanging out the laundry.  The songs belonged to everyone.

Their second album, ‘Temple of Low Men’ was darker, less exuberant offering than their debut.  It was the perfect soundtrack to teenage life for young people of a certain disposition, and I was just such a young person.  I loved that cassette and would play it was I fell asleep.  There are times when I still hear the sound of the tape deck ‘clicking’ as the album finished.

There’s a game called ‘seven degrees of Kevin Bacon’.  The object is to connect yourself to Kev through other people.  In the early nineties, I was three degrees from Crowded House.  My uncle, Mick, worked at a private school that Neil Finn’s kids attended.  My cousins were classmates with them.  It was a tenuous connection, but it would do. 

By album three, I was out of school and at Uni.  It was a sublime record stacked with ‘bonus-Finn’ by way of older brother Tim.  For sensitive singer-songwriters everywhere, it was the gold standard.  Almost every guitar player in Melbourne has, at some or other, strummed the chords to ‘Four Season in One Day’ whilst staring plaintively out a rain-streaked window. 

The following album marked the end of ‘phase one’ of the band.  ‘Together Alone’ was more sonically daring and arty than its predecessors.  It was the sound of the band growing up.  It was the perfect soundtrack to my last year at Uni.

The band broke up and, a few years later, one of them passed away.  There would be no going back.  Or so I thought.  Years later, the unthinkable happened.  The band reformed and started to release new music.  I kept my distance at first, but things have evolved.  The most recent incarnation is a family affair, with my cousin’s former classmates now on board, improving my score on the Baconometer to ‘two’.

As it turns out, the new song ‘Teenage Summer’ is delightful.  It’s so tuneful and stuffed with melodies that it’s hard to tell which part of the song is, in fact, the chorus.  As it turns out, the band are still with me.  What a relief.  Things may change and some things that are broken can never be repaired, and while the past will remain determinedly where it is, there is always the chance of renewal and the hope that change, no matter how traumatic at the time, might actually lead to something better.  It’s true for bands and, I think, for people.  Now excuse me while I fetch my headphones…

Of Malvern Star-Crossed Lovers

On your bike.  For years, the invitation to stand astride a two-wheeled piece of transportation and trundle off over the horizon meant nothing to me.  That’s because I was bike-less.  It’s not as though I swore them off or took a vow to abstain from riding; it’s more than I never quite got around to it.  That, however, has now changed.

Maybe it’s just me, but there are heaps of things that were once an essential part of my life that, for whatever reason, I stopped and, for no reason in particular, I haven’t gone back to.  Riding a bike is but one example.  Others include slippers, sugar bowls and tablecloths.  That I have managed to survive successive decades without these things is a tribute, I think, either to my resilience or my aptitude for turbo-charged procrastination.  

My childhood was defined by three bicycles.  The first was tiny – the kind you expect to see ridden by a monkey at a circus.  At some point it would have had training wheels until the day arrived where these were deemed to be surplus to requirements.  Whether it was because I had finally garnered sufficient confidence to ride without them or I felt the other twelve year olds would keep teasing me the longer I kept using them, I can’t say.  

As the eldest of five, most of my possessions were redirected to one of my siblings.  I’m not sure what became of my training wheels.  Did they pass through the line of succession before coming to an ignominious end at the local tip?  Or has my father squirreled them away and, someday without warning, will he ask me whether I still want them?  The training wheels are, I suspect, somewhere in the shed.  It’s an observation that can be made about most objects in the known Universe.

I probably had that bike for too long.  It’s embarrassing when your bicycle is so small that you can use your own toes as bike rack.  But when time finally came for it to be replaced, it was followed by a gargantuan, lumbering mechanical marvel.  It was a dragster.  Nothing says ‘nineteen seventies’ quite like a dragster bike.  Except, of course, flares, lengthy sideburns and the first three albums by the Electric Light Orchestra.  High handlebars, long ‘banana seat’ and gears that were largely decorative in nature, the dragster was the two-wheeled equivalent of the kind of station wagon so lovingly championed by Carol from the Brady Bunch.    

I didn’t so much ride my dragster as I cruised.  Up and down the driveway, my flared trousers flapping like the mainsail of an ocean vessel, I cruised looking for something (anything) to relieve the boredom.  If the nineteen seventies were about anything, they were about being bored out of your brain whilst waiting for your parents to turn up in a Brady-sized station wagon before they strapped you into a vinyl seat that was so hot that it rivalled the surface of the sun; then scalded you with a seatbelt buckle.  Those were the days.

But whereas the seventies were plagued by station wagons, stagflation and disco music, the eighties were a time when anything seemed possible.  It was a decade of adventure.  Of timeless movies and chronically dated fashion (hello massive shoulder pads and acid wash!).  Of teen culture and big pop songs and even bigger hair.  It was an era in which a dragster was about as relevant as a Triceratops and just as aerodynamic.  Clearly, it was a time for a new bike.  It was time for a BMX.

More than just a bicycle, a BMX was a lifestyle choice.   Kids were often shown using their bikes to challenge authority and perform amazing deeds in generation-defining movies like ‘E.T.’ and ‘BMX Bandits’ (why Judy, PJ and Goose haven’t been featured on their own postage stamp or commemorative coin by now is totally beyond me).  The great thing about a BMX is that it didn’t need a smooth path like a dragster.  It could go anywhere.  And it did.  We used to race ours around the yard and perform ‘jumps’ by launching ourselves from modest ramps we constructed out of dirt (sorry for the holes in the lawn!).  It felt daring at the time.  (Monos!  Bunny hops!)  It probably was.

Then I left home.  And I never owned a bike (or a sugar bowl) again.  Perhaps the nineties weren’t a bike-loving era.  Maybe there was confusion as to what kind of bike to get, now that BMXs were considered a relic from a bogan era (so to speak).  Whatever the reason, I no longer had a bike to call my own.  The BMX was left to languish in the shed, next to my training wheels and the plaster cast I had when I was six and broke my leg (you never know – it may still come in handy).

Then came the awkward bit.  For some time, I owned a helmet but no bike.  Consider it something of a statement of intent.  But as of last week, I’m now the proud owner of a bike to go with the helmet.  It doesn’t have training wheels and it’s not a dragster.  It doesn’t look anything like a BMX.  It’s a hybrid.  Naturally, I’m nervous.  It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden one of these things, but the guy who sold it to me said not to worry; that it was as easy as riding a bike.  We’ll see.

Very Careless Whispers: Misunderstanding the Eighties

This changes everything.  Instantly, everything I understood to be true has been upended like a turned over table.  I no longer know what’s real.  Once, there were things I accepted as true, and those bedrock principles were the foundation on which I built my life.  But not anymore.  It was all a fraud.  A farce.  An utter failure.  I take full responsibility.  The blame is mine and mine alone and it is I that must reap the whirlwind of this catastrophic miscalculation.  I speak, of course, of ‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael slash Wham!

It’s a masterpiece.  On second thoughts, that might be an understatement.  The eighties were an embarrassment of riches when it came to pop music but even then, ‘Careless Whisper’ stands apart.  To begin, it has one of the best saxophone riffs of all time.  Dramatic, urgent and tragic; the sax motif in Careless Whisper is as addictive as it is instantly recognisable.  To this day, it leaps into my head all the time.  Whenever I hear a sports report about a ‘careless high tackle’, George Michael’s almighty sax riff starts playing in my mind.

But it’s not the saxophone I misunderstood.  It’s the lyrics.  For decades, I thought George was saying that ‘gifted feet have got no rhythm’.  I knew exactly what he meant.  In theory, I am a fabulous dancer.  In practice, I have two left feet if both of those feet have been dipped in concrete, doused in an accelerant and then set on fire for good measure.  Put another way, my gifted feet have got no rhythm.

The story of a young man whose feet have committed the ultimate act of betrayal, quite possibly resulting in him treading all over the Hush Puppies of his dance floor partner, was tragedy on a grand scale.  It was something to which I could relate.  As a teenager, my feet let me down all the time; whether I was dancing or simply trying to walk.  I was prone to stumbling and tripping when it was least expected and least welcome.  My mouth was no better.  Gifted though it was, it had a habit of running away whenever I let it off the leash.

My father is the same.  His gifted feet – as small and cloven as they may be – have left him incapable of dancing at all.  Most of the times, he refrains.  But on those occasions when he lets loose because someone has slipped the David Guetta remix of ‘Sink the Bismarck’ on the stereo, his feet begin a stamping motion that resembles someone trying to extinguish a small fire.  George Michael would approve. 

But last week, the world as I knew it came crashing down around my ears.  I was in the car with Katrina when the song came on.  Immediately, I started playing air saxophone (I wasn’t the one driving – safety first) before joining George on a full-throated rendition of ‘Careless Whisper’.  It was during the chorus that she corrected me.  Turns out it’s not ‘gifted’ feet but ‘guilty feet’.  The song is not, in fact, a lament about not being able to dance but a story of betrayal sung by a protagonist who has ruthlessly two-timed his girlfriend.  The cad!  No wonder the saxophone sounds upset.

It got me thinking – if I’ve fundamentally misunderstood ‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael slash Wham! then what else from the eighties have I misconstrued?  Probably everything.  Instead of hopelessly awkward, was I in fact incredibly suave and sophisticated, the envy of my peers and strangers alike?  Were other people secretly in awe of my homemade acid wash jeans?  Granted, at the time they seemed to be a magnet for ridicule, but perhaps this was just a cover for a profound and deep-seated sense of admiration at my ingenuity.  (For the record, I don’t recommend DIY acid wash.  In short, it stings.)  My black four-buckled goblin boots, which were for a time, home to my gifted feet, were actually super cool and did not make me look like Santa’s helper.  I wish.

It was inevitable that the song confused me.  The tune is, by its nature, an exercise in duality.  Impeccably sung by George Michael, back when he had Princess Diana-style hair, it was co-written by his Wham! band mate,  Andrew Ridgeley, but considered by some to be a George Michael solo single.  More confusingly still, in some countries it was branded as ‘Wham! featuring George Michael’.  I’m not sure how that works when you’re a duo.  Of course you’re going to be featured.  The band only has two people – you’re both going to be busy.

It mattered not.  The label could have read ‘Careless Whisper – a rock opera by the Tooradin Womble Ensemble’ and it would still have sold millions.  I’m pretty sure that my time in the eighties is exactly as awkward as I recall.  There’s nothing that George Michael or even Wham! featuring George Michael can do to convince me otherwise.  Instead, I have to face the altogether more brutal reality that I was completely and utterly wrong about something.  For a really, really long time.

Careless Whisper is still a giant of a song.  And my gifted feet still have no rhythm.  None at all.  But that’s all right; I’ve made peace with it now.  And as I drift off to a fitful sleep tonight, the sounds of a dramatic saxophone will guide me to my dreams.  Sweet dreams are truly made of this.  But that is a story for another time.

Bemoaning the Era of the Post-Modern Mullet

Forgive me.  Forgive me in advance for the truly intemperate, intolerant things I’m about to say.  Forgive me if I hurt your feelings or betray myself as being too old to understand.  I don’t want to upset anyone or hurt anybody, but sometimes the truth is a blunt instrument – probably a bassoon – and the kindest thing to do is simply to blow it and damn the consequences.  I speak, of course, of haircuts.

We were at a shopping centre.  You may disapprove, but we’re entitled as anyone to do our Christmas shopping without experiencing a wholesale assault of the senses.  We walked (as you do when you’re at a shopping centre) for what seemed like hours and time and time again were confronted by the sight of young men, often in groups, sporting a haircut known as a ‘mullet’.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a mullet is the ‘platypus’ of haircuts.  Just as a platypus looks like several different animals rolled into one, a mullet consists of two types of haircut that are diametrically opposed.  Like ‘fire’ and ‘ice’.  Like ‘oil’ and ‘water’.  Like ‘good taste’ and ‘Married at First Sight’.  Some things simply cannot co-exist peacefully.

A mullet consists of short hair, generally located at the front of the victim’s subject’s skull, combined with long hair at rear.  The logic – such as it is – being ‘business up front, party at the back’.  It was the haircut that defined the eighties.  If that sounds like a somewhat pathetic achievement, you need to remember how competitive haircuts were back then.  It was an era that featured titans like the ‘blow wave’ and ‘the man-perm’.  Ultimately, they were no match for the mighty mullet.

As someone who grew up in the eighties, I aspired to have a mullet. My dreams, however, were cruelled by a school rule that strictly forbade boys to have hair that touched the collar of their shirt.  Flouting this rule was all in a day’s work for some, who insisted on growing their hair out until a teacher intervened and threatened to cut it on the spot.  The resulting handiwork was proof – if it were needed – that hairdressing is a skill acquired through training and not at teacher’s college.

But as human beings, we evolve.  That is, if we’re lucky.  With the benefit of hindsight and, possibly, a mirror, we came to understand that the mullet was an incredibly ugly haircut that not so much failed to flatter the host as it did insult them outright.  Eventually, mullets went the way of acid wash jeans and were quietly retired at some point in the nineties.  Granted, there was the occasional resurgence, including one led by Billy Ray Cyrus and his magical carpet of hair; who brazenly boot-scooted to distract you from the tonsorial atrocity that was perched on top of his head.  The horror.

Quite literally, I thought all that ugliness was behind us.  Turns out I was wrong.  A mere thirty-five years later and it seems that young men have embraced the mullet with a disturbing level of enthusiasm.  Worse still, they have taken this most tragic of haircuts and made it worse with a series of new and horrifying additions.  These include a bowl-cut at the front; presumably to get the ‘demonic altar boy’ look that everyone’s been raving about.  What’s happening out back only makes it worse.

There are two models of modern mullet.  There’s the one where the long hair at the back is teased or curled to give the impression of some kind of ‘hair explosion’ from a flatulent skull.  The other is lank and creates the impression of having only recently been released from prison.  Both kinds are all kinds of ugly.  It’s as though young men everywhere are participating in some kind of competition, vying for the title of ‘world’s rudest head’. 

Perhaps I’m too old and don’t understand.  Maybe I’m jealous at not being able to grow so luxurious a mullet of my own.  For all I know, these haircuts are a part of a sincere albeit misguided vow of abstinence by these young men.  Or perhaps it hurts to see the mistakes of the past being so hideously repeated by the next generation.  I’m not sure.  All I know is that you ought not go out of your way to have a head that looks like a dropped pie.  You can do better.  Humanity is begging you.

Naturally, I said nothing as they sauntered past me in the shopping centre.  As much as I wanted to walk up to one of these young men, grab him by the shoulders and shake him whilst screaming, ‘IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS SACRED, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING??????’ I refrained, because I thought there was a slight chance that I might be misunderstood.  Instead, I said nothing.  Perhaps I subtly shook my head in disbelief and, granted, there was the slightest hint of a tear in my eye, but I kept my thoughts to myself. 

If you’re reading this and are sporting a renaissance mullet, I beg you to reconsider.  You’ll be glad you did.  But if, after reading this story and viewing footage from the eighties, you remain unconvinced, then I simply can’t help.  Just know that I’m disappointed by your decision and that you broke my heart.  My achy, breaky heart.

The Flying Folk Club Spandex Spectacular

The moment has arrived.  After three decades of retirement, I am returning to the stage.  I’m not sure I’m ready.  And I’m certain the gig-going public are equally unprepared for the musical maelstrom that’s about to be unleashed.  Doubtless, there will yelling, screaming and thrashing about – that’s certainly the way audiences used to react to my efforts. Luckily, I have lots of experience. 

Musicians are often lured out of retirement with the promise of obscene riches.  Not me.  My glorious return has been secured on the vague promise of a complimentary counter meal.  I’m pretty sure The Eagles insisted on more than a chicken parma before agreeing to play ‘Hotel California’ for the three millionth time.  In actual fact, I’ll be paying to play.  Whilst shelling out your own hard-earned cash is not very rock roll, even the most hardcore musician must accept that there are reasonable administrative fees associated with these kinds of events.  Rock on!

I agreed to perform at a folk club theme night.  I have never before performed at a folk club theme night.  But I’m going to assume that a gig is a gig and it’ll be much the same as the gigs I played in the eighties.  Which is when I last performed.  Suffice to say, I’m quietly confident that I won’t be the only performer on the night wearing spandex.  Or who brings home made pyrotechnics.  I plan to arrive early so I can attach a cable to the roof, which I’ll connect to harness so as to recreate ‘The Flying Jon’ from the ‘Living In A Prayer’ video by Bon Jovi.  You can learn a lot from that music video.  Or, if not a lot, then how to fly out over an audience.

The theme for the night was ‘metals’.  Given my experience out the front of a hard rock combo in the metal era, this was clearly playing to my strengths. Unfortunately, the rules required that the song reference a metal of some kind rather than the band itself, completely ruining my plan to do an entire set of Nickelback songs on ukulele and washboard.  We asked to do ‘Brass in Pocket’ but someone else had already claimed it. We were left with no choice – we would need to write our own song.

As themes go, ‘metals’ is interesting.  There are lots of songs about gold and silver. There’s at least one about titanium.  Maybe copper, too. But there are plenty of metals that never get a look in.  It was time to set the second straight.  

We decided to write verses that referenced other musicians and their metal songs.  It resulted in lines such as ‘Bing Crosby’s Silver Bells, is a journey into hell’ and ‘If you want to keep it classy, then sing some Shirley Bassey’.  That kind of thing. For the chorus, we listed less popular metals like Zinc, Praseodymium and Gadolinium, noting that incorporating them into a song could see you become ‘Tungsten tied’.  We were all set to perform.

The great thing about spandex is that it stretches. In practical terms, it means I can use the same spandex bodysuit I used in the nineteen eighties for my gig. Granted, the leopard skin pattern was being forced into some pretty unusual shapes and, frankly, it looked as though it belonged to a really big leopard, but I figured if I wore it to work the day before, it should be alright on the night.

When the day arrived, we got to the folk club early. I attached my ‘Flying Jon’ harness to the roof.  Ideally, the roof would be eight metres high.  Unfortunately, the roof was two and a half metres tall, practically guaranteeing that when I leapt, I’d take out tables four through seven. Everyone has to make sacrifices; in this case tables four through seven.  That’s showbiz.

As other performers arrived, a certain theme emerged.  Namely, flannel. I began to feel self conscious. No-one wants to be the spandex cork bobbing in a sea of lumberjacks.   Ironically, a leopard’s spots are to help him camouflage himself.  Leopard skin print on a body suit, however, was having much the opposite effect.  I sat patiently at our table and ordered my complimentary chicken parma from the bar.

Finally, it was our turn to hit the stage.  The crowd fell into a stunned silence as we entered.  It is, I later learned, unusual for acts at a folk club to emerge through a curtain of dry ice. As we started to strum our guitars, I decided it was time to leap into the audience.  Luckily, the cable to the roof remained firmly in place. The same, however, could not be said for my leopard skin jump suit.  The additional strain of the harness and cable was too much.  With its physical integrity fatally compromised; table four was confronted by the sight of a middle age man bursting out of a leopard whilst strumming a ‘G’ chord.  They didn’t cheer so much as scream.

To say that I hit the wrong note would be something of an understatement.  I immediately announced my retirement.  It suits me.  The leopard skin spandex jump suit has been buried in the back yard.  It’s for the best.  Indeed, it may be another thirty years before I perform in public again.  But when I do, watch out!  Especially if you’re seated at tables four through seven.