Life goes on (playing football for the Mudgee Black Swans)

It was the kind of news you don’t want to hear when you call your parents for a catch up. The Mudgee Black Swans – the club where I played my first games of aussie rules football – are close to folding, according to an article in the local paper.

Hearing the news took me back to my first ever game of aussie rules. I was 16, and had been playing soccer for a local club. While soccer paused for the school holidays, the footy kept going; and the club took advantage of the fact by recruiting some much needed playing numbers.

It was pouring rain – turning the field into a mudheap and testing the skills of the seasoned players, let alone the rookies. One of my teammates went to take a mark; the wet and heavy ball slipped through his hands and broke his nose. We lost by some margin, but I had the time of my life. The next week I was up before the sun and on the bus for the three hour road trip to Parkes; where we lost by roughly 100 points.

I was hooked though. I played the rest of the year when I could – playing footy in the morning then soccer in the afternoon for home games, even having my first taste of men’s footy late in the season (of which my only memory is being welcomed to seniors with a massive late hit by a hefty country player).

The Black Swans started with the kind of mythology every sporting club should have – the sporting culture of the town is dominated by rugby league and union, but one day after watching the AFL grand final, a group of friends decided Mudgee needed an AFL club and resolved to start one. That day one of the group spotted a black swan on his dam. It was fate.

The first few years were a success – playing in the CWAFL reserve grade, the Black Swans lost two grand finals in a row. Life was harder after a short stint moving up to first grade though, and the club was struggling when I started playing.

That first year I played I never once heard the club song for a victory. So it wasn’t until halfway through the next season, as our under-17s group gradually improved together, that I won my first game of aussie rules. I stood silently satisfied as a few of the club stalwarts belted out, to the tune of John Mellencamp’s Jack and Dianne;

“Oh yeah, life goes on; playing football for the Mudgee Black Swans
Oh yeah, the game goes on; we never give in ’til the final siren’s gone.”

Sadly that season the under-17s were the only team singing. The seniors lost every game and morale was definitely not at a high point.

It’s funny though how things can change. As we gathered again for pre-season in 2005; there was a new coach, some new players. Half a dozen of us had graduated from the juniors, where we had learned how to play together and to win. There was a new feeling around the place.

In the Black Swans’ finest moment, we went through the season winning nearly every game. Our star full-forward kicked 100 goals. In a year when the local rugby league and union teams both failed to make the finals, the back page of the local paper was solidly AFL for all of September. The week before the grand final there was a double page spread profiling each player individually – we were even asked to describe for readers our best playing attributes (I was a handy player off the half back flank, but found the question way too awkward so answered, as an in-joke, “fiery red hair”). That newspaper is probably saved at my parents’ house somewhere.

On grand final day we went to Bathurst and came home with the Black Swans’ first and only flag. It was the last game I ever played for the club though – by the time the next season started I was playing for the Southern Sharks in the Sydney AFL.

A couple of years ago the club held a fancy dinner to commemorate the 10th anniversary of that premiership. I didn’t make the journey down for it, though I had a twinge of regret when I heard that the Black Swans, who barely won a game that season, had a stunning win over the eventual premiers aided by some of the weekend ring-ins.

The news of the club’s impending demise gave me a kind of nostalgia for those few years of teenage footy. It’s funny though because I can remember virtually nothing that happened on the field in those years. The memories that make me smile are everything else that comes from a footy club – the impromptu community that developed among the friends, family and randoms who would come and watch the game. The kids we would help coach during the week who on game days would hang around and work the scoreboard for the seniors games. The unlikely mix of people, from tree-change yuppies to outback shearers and teenage schoolkids, who would get together on freezing winter nights in singlets and shorts to run around a field.

The grand final? I remember precisely nothing of the game, but I can vividly recall an exchange at training two days before. One of the players suggested we all wear shirts and ties to the game. Another, our huge and heavily tattooed forward pocket, said he had never worn a tie. The statement was greeted incredulously. “You don’t wear ties in jail,” he replied with a shrug.

Those few years I spent at the Mudgee Black Swans taught me a lot about how to play football, but they taught me a lot else too.

2005 gf

Grand final celebrations. I think you can spot a tuft of red hair up the back as the only evidence of me. I never have liked photos.

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Work – A personal history

A friend once gave me a definition of “vocation” as “where your abilities meet the world’s needs”. I think she said it was from one of those new agey pop psychology writers, though google attributes it to Aristotle. But whoever said it, that definition has never left me and I have yet to ever hear a better definition of what it means to do meaningful work.

Some people will always argue they are the exception, but I still think it’s safe to say that the employment of most of us does not meet this definition. Most work neither uses our abilities nor meets the world’s needs very well; some of it is actively destructive towards society and the planet. In the end the reason for this is that the logic that governs our world is not abilities, not needs, but purely profit.

And so work – that human impulse to contribute something towards making a better world – is deformed into the slow dripping water torture of pointless jobs, endless bureaucracy, demeaning bosses, fear of losing your job, and plain old exploitation that is given the cruelly ironic name of “making a living”.

I am of the belief that work can be rescued and reformed into something fulfilling, rewarding and useful – something that inspires us rather than drains us, a place where our abilities meet the world’s needs. And in this article I’m going to share a few shifts in how we perceive work that might help us get there. I’m also going to share examples of how I’ve tried to put them into practice.

I do this not to boast about my own achievements or because I believe everyone should do the same (after all, that definition would suggest that what a fulfilling vocation looks like should be different for every person); I do it because most of what I write here is already written in other places. And yet jobs are getting more oppressive and monotonous. Theory is good, but we also need practical ways to try to change how we work.

When I was younger I enjoyed work – I liked my first job (at a fast food chain) much more than I did the school work which was supposedly going to guarantee me a better future. The tangible results of working together as a team to serve customers were more rewarding than the abstract idea of studying things I wasn’t really interested in with a view to some future employment (things I was interested in I studied obsessively – didn’t help my marks!). I worked hard at it too. It seems hard to believe given how my life has turned out, but at the end of my first year of paid employment I had a fancy certificate saying I was “employee of the year”.

Other jobs I had as a young adult included working at a supermarket and working as a labourer for tradesmen. Especially labour work gave me another reason to enjoy work – under the traditional gender roles I had grown up around, there is something very manly about getting up early, doing hard physical work, getting dirty and going home tired.

But still these jobs didn’t fulfil me in the way a true vocation should. I didn’t at that stage have an inkling of what my vocation might be, but I intuitively recognised this when I turned down a couple of opportunities for apprenticeships in different trades. The only reason I needed was imagining myself in ten years time completely bored and wondering why I was still doing this job. These jobs didn’t especially use my natural abilities very well (even that idea of masculinity, as powerful as it was, belonged to someone else not me); and I didn’t really feel like I was contributing much to any great need in the world.

A couple of years out of high school I ended up studying again. Theology was the degree, job prospects extremely limited. Not only that, but within touching distance of getting my degree I stopped studying, impatient to do something else. I was a self-defeating careerist. Yet I was getting closer to discerning a true vocation – theology was what I was interested in and could prepare me for what I wanted to do in the future. Plus having youth allowance cover most of my expenses meant that the building site I worked on for most of my time studying – the new building of the Sydney church I was part of – I could do mostly for free, only invoicing them for my hours worked when I had run out of money.

Now unpaid work is not something I always recommend – especially if someone somewhere is making a profit off your labour. The current prevalence of unpaid internships is just another addition to the list of terrible things about work. But the problem with paid work is that just because somebody is paying you money (and let’s be absolutely clear here – as a worker, you make money for your employers, not the other way around), it is assumed that this work is automatically your top priority and every other part of your life should revolve around the hours they want you to work. Plus regardless of your abilities, you do things the way your boss tells you too, again because they are paying you. There are all kinds of ways we try to match our abilities with the world’s needs, all kinds of things that could be considered work. But there is usually only one standard by which we measure their importance – money.

In the end the reason we do this is because we need money to survive. This is what I discovered once I stopped studying and went back to work. I wanted to change the world, to change my life and to try different ways of doing both. But I had to pay for rent (not cheap in Sydney) and food, and so ended up juggling a variety of jobs in an attempt to have enough money to get by without having my life taken over by a full-time job.

It was hard, and often if a short-term job dried up I didn’t make enough to pay the rent. Which was a bit demoralising. But meeting people who shared my desire to live beyond just making a living, I discovered that you could eat for free from the bins of supermarkets. And that you could avoid rent by shacking up in abandoned houses. I already knew that most things we are told we need we don’t really – an idea was germinating in my head.

I remember the day I decided I was going to quit money. There was a protest by the asylum seekers locked up at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. A detainee had committed suicide, and it sparked the rest to burn furniture and climb on the roof in protest. A group of us went out to Villawood to show our solidarity and to talk about their situation with locals and interested observers. When the protesters said they were going for another day, we decided we would too. Except that night my job called, asking me to work the next day. I couldn’t say no either – because I needed to pay rent and because saying no might mean I got less shifts in the future (unbelievably, there was no roster – we were expected to wait by the phone for a call to work and to be available when it came).

shelf-stackThat next day, as I stacked supermarket shelves, I resolved that no longer would economics dictate work for me. Within a few months, I had given away most of my possessions, moved out of my rented house and quit my jobs. I was free to do the work that mattered to me.

That change, at 24 years old, is one of the defining moments of my life and certainly a key point in my exploration of what it means to do meaningful work. Freed of economic needs and cultural norms; I could begin the process of figuring out how to meet my abilities with the world’s needs.

An early discovery was that despite all those years of cursing the alarm clock and longing for days off, I actually really liked and needed work. As I hit the road and explored new cities, I found myself searching for the connection with others that comes from achieving something together, for the feeling of fulfilment that comes from contributing something to the world. I could live very comfortably off the waste of our society and do very little; yet I would quickly, in whatever city I ended up in, amass a steady schedule of volunteering at different things. I jumped at the chance to participate in working bees. Often without much of a home of my own to maintain, I would clean the houses of my friends, usually much to their bemusement.

With that discovery made, I also began to look at work in a different way; and to believe that maybe the distinction between work and leisure need not be as defined as we make it. As the rhetoric of “self-care” becomes more and more widespread, the work/leisure distinction is becoming stronger than ever. We are told we need to set aside “me-time” – to do activities we find fun and relaxing away from other responsibilities. I certainly don’t dispute this, especially as new technology enables employment to colonise more and more of our lives. But the problem is that most self-care literature doesn’t question the single most destructive thing for all of our selves – that economics is continually given priority over human needs. I believe in self-care, but think it should include critiquing the kind of work we do, and asking why we find it so draining.

Long before I gave up money I developed a habit of staying behind after events I attended to help pack up. It was helpful to to others, but it was also an excellent way to meet others and it transformed my own role from passive consumer to active participant. Now I could make a lifestyle of it – I did hard physical work, sat through marathon political meetings, played music for people, or hung out cooking with my friends. Which were work? Did it matter? I was under no compulsion to do any of them, I maybe saw some value in them; but still I did these things because for whatever reason, I enjoyed them.

Thinking about this, an interesting example that especially comes to mind is Food Not Bombs. A world wide movement of communal cookups that serve food for free in public places, I have regularly done Food Not Bombs in various cities for many years now. Like a lot of things that rely on volunteer labour, Food Not Bombs is famous for burning out its participants. Certainly in Brisbane it was for a long time a real struggle to get a functional collective going that could do all the work required to make it happen. In fact, for several years, I pretty much single-handedly kept Brisbane Food Not Bombs going – every week I would dumpster-dive food on a Thursday night, bring it to the kitchen on a Friday afternoon, cook meals (usually with a few helpers, though not always), serve it up on the street and then clean up afterwards. When I left town for a while, it would stop happening. I don’t say this to boast – I’m much more proud of my achievement now that we have an actual sustainable collective. The point of this example is that I managed to feed countless people, use food that would otherwise have been wasted, and offer an example of a non-money based way of relating to others. And I managed to do this not because it was successful (it was the source of much despair), or because I was under any compulsion to do it. The reason I kept coming back every Friday (and still do) was in the end because I enjoyed doing it.

Erasing the distinction between work and leisure opens up all kinds of possibilities – what is work anyway? Because our usual definition – the thing you get paid to do – obviously no longer applied. That definition fails for multiple reasons anyway – as the feminist movement has long pointed out, not all work which enables economic growth is paid anyway, and for a long time women have been expected to do the home labour that allows men to go to work without being paid for it. But another interesting point is that some people do for free what others get paid for. So why is one “work” and the other not? To use myself again as an example, I play music for fun and because I love music. Occasionally I get paid for it, but mostly not. I think of music as a fairly self-indulgent activity, but the reality is that many people get paid for making music. Same goes for writing, playing sport, even reading to try to understand the world. I will argue that all these things are worth doing, although not because the fact that someone somewhere gets paid for it gives them some kind of legitimacy. No, something is worth doing if you feel it contributes something to the world, in whatever way. Isn’t that the purpose of work?

So the horizons of work are thrown wide open. You can see why I struggled when I’d meet people and they’d invariably ask “what do you do?” This question always frustrated me anyway, because when we ask each other “what we do”, it always implies their paid employment, whether or not that is where their true passions or skills lie. For many people it’s their most hated part of life! Coming back again to that definition of where our abilities meet the world’s needs, to achieve that requires investigation of what our abilities actually are – something which the economic impetus of employment rarely allows us to do. Not only are our work options limited to those things which can make money for someone, we are expected to specialise in one task – the basis of capitalist exchange.

For some people, specialising in one task is perfect. But for many of us, we have diverse skills and diverse interests. Finding fulfilling work is easier if it involves a variety of tasks. Not only that, but to discover our skills often requires the time, freedom and support to try new things. One of the earliest things I started doing after quitting money was to get a pen and write. I had never really written creatively before as an adult, but I enjoyed it and other people seemed to enjoy reading what I wrote. They would even thank me for new insights I had given them – in a tiny way, my abilities were filling a need. Yet what I wrote offered no commercial potential, and I didn’t feel that writing was especially my calling any more than other things were. In other words, without the freedom to experiment, I never could have discovered this part of my vocation. Similarly, I simply fell into doing radio journalism because there was a need for people at 4ZZZ in Brisbane. I had never really seen myself as a journalist, but it has subsequently become a huge part of my life, and something I think I am reasonably good at – as well as being something there is an undeniable need for.

“What I do” has always been very varied, and I doubt I’m alone in preferring it that way. In fact, truly trying to match our abilities with the world’s needs probably means changing tasks as we discover new sides of ourselves and the needs of the world around us shift. A rigid, specialised workforce causes issues when technological or societal changes make some jobs obsolete. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Over two years after I had left the paid workforce, I got a call from a friend. He is the boss of a disability support organisation, and he told me they had a new paid role open up, and I was the person they thought should fill it. For all the reasons I have already mentioned, I was very hesitant to take it up. I hadn’t missed paid employment, nor had I missed the complications that having money to your name brings. Plus I liked being a crazy example of someone trying to live a very different way. But the work was something I thought worthwhile (I had been doing a pretty similar job as a volunteer for quite a while anyway) and they seemed to think I had something particular to offer the task. Half a day a week was hardly the most strenuous workload either, and I figured the money could come in handy. So with much consternation (I did the job for two months before I even filled out the paperwork for pay, and even then it took my boss telling me his supervisors were on his back about it), I re-entered the world of paid employment.

For three and a half years now I have worked in that job. I believe I’ve contributed something to the world, and to be honest that money has come in handy. But I have continued to treat that job as only part of a broader oeuvre of work that I do, and my employers have supported me in that way too – giving me time off when I have asked for it, and not been fussed when they get a letter from the government saying my criminal record has changed and they need to re-evaluate whether I am morally fit for the job.

I mention this especially because obviously not everyone wants to live the kind of lifestyle that allowed me to experiment with work. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible for those that don’t. There are unlimited ways we can change our lives and our society to pursue a more meaningful way of doing work. As many ways as there are imaginations in the world. I have lived communally in a way that can support each other to follow their vocation whether it makes money or not; on a broader scale ideas like the Universal Basic Income could enable us to rethink what it means to work. Technological changes are meant to enable us to work less; the stress, debt levels and number of completely useless jobs that fill our society are a good reminder that they mostly haven’t done that. In the end, technology is as enslaved to economics as humans are, and when we rectify that it could radically change our society.

Despite all this, people continue to do work because they believe in it, regardless of profits. People volunteer for causes they believe in. Open source programmers develop computer software for the world to use freely with no financial reward or other recognition. While politicians entrench the status quo that pays their (hefty) bills, grassroots volunteer movements are usually the force for change that betters our society. Even our most basic needs point the way to new possibilities – people come home from their paid jobs and grow food or build shelter and transport for fun. It’s my belief that these cracks in the economic system is where a lot of the most important work is done.

As for me, I still do support work, and radio, and Food Not Bombs. Still play music and write. I paint banners, organise public events and plan political campaigns. I still help out at church, try to be a good friend and a friendly person to people I meet. Me and my housemates open up our house to people who need somewhere to stay or someone to talk to, and occasionally deal with the complications that come from that. I do all these things plus whatever other opportunities come up; and I do them all as well as I can because I believe my ability to do those tasks meets a need in the world.

As I was writing this, I talked to my friend about the ideas. She wasn’t so enthusiastic. She protested that this definition of vocation is entirely self-enforced, and in her experience (and mine too, let’s be honest), people are often happy to sponge off others without doing an equal share of the work.

This is a valid point. Human selfishness is an inescapable fact whose power should never be underestimated. But whether that justifies our current system is another question. The idea of capitalism as a meritocracy is a blatant lie. We in the west constantly sponge off the cheap labour and resource exploitation of the majority of the world’s population. That we have more money than people of the developing world is due entirely to accident of birth, not because we work harder (we don’t, in case you were wondering). No one sponges more than the CEO who earns 50 times the amount of the employees in his company who do the actual productive work.

The idea of work as abilities meeting needs should be read as a multi-faceted critique of overwork, pointless jobs, exploitation of others and the expectation that you can do nothing and someone else will do the work. It is a motto for taking personal responsibility of our own lives and the world around us. It is an invitation to become workers, not just products.

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Boredom in the court

written October 2014 (and promptly forgotten until recently).

I’m sitting in a courtroom at the Brisbane Magistrates Court. The matter at hand is over a few hundred dollars in fines given out regarding the lighting of the sacred fire at the Musgrave Park aboriginal embassy.

The embassy has had some dramatic moments in its time, but the incident we’re talking about here wasn’t really one of them – the embassy lighting the fire as a ceremonial formality at a small meeting, the council extinguishing it out of pure pettiness.

The court hearing now is even less distinguished. Present in the room is the defendant, the prosecution and defence lawyers, witness on the stand, the magistrate and clerk, and myself and one other supporter.

The magistrate is literally falling asleep in his chair, closing his eyes for minutes at a time, yawning and at times swinging around on his chair. His interactions with the lawyers mostly seem to be snappily asking when the whole thing will be over. The clerk is looking nearly as bored as she stares at the computer screen – I have no idea what she is looking at on there. The walls are drab and brown, the light fluorescent and the atmosphere less than electric.

The prosecution lawyer is trying to build his case by extracting from the witness a statement that the fire in question, though it had once carried the coals from the original Canberra tent embassy, was no longer sacred because it had been put out and re-lit.

musgrave-fireThis displays a lack of understanding of ritual, symbol and traditional religions. What makes a fire sacred is not how long the coals have been continuously burning; it is what it symbolises that makes it sacred. I remember once having a conversation with a whitefella who lived at another aboriginal embassy. He had worried that the fire would accidentally be left to go out. The elder replied that the fire went out all the time, but the real fire was what burned in our hearts.

But more importantly, the question is what role does the court have in determining what is sacred? I can’t think of anywhere less sacred. Even that bible that sits on the witness stand is the opposite of true symbolism – it is just a worthless prop where the actual contents of the book mean nothing. The pages of court copies of the bible could all be blank and no one would ever know.

For all its mighty imagery and glamour, our courts seem to me to often be concerned with semantics – endlessly digging out different laws and sub-laws, building entire legal arguments not on the actions in question and their consequences but on one specific word in the law. If people can afford a good lawyer they can get off virtually anything by arguing some trivial detail; but people who can’t afford a good lawyer are told they won’t be represented by legal aid unless they plead guilty – regardless of whether they actually did it or not.

A friend told me once about a time they were at the magistrates court waiting to have their matter heard. There were over 150 people waiting in there, and so the police prosecutor walked into the waiting room and declared that there was a “special” for that day – if you had a minor charge and plead guilty you would be fined $150 plus $100 court costs and you could walk out. This is pretty much my experience of our justice system – judges file away people like they file away papers. Read out the charge, give a punishment, sign the sheet and walk out.

Plea bargains are very common in our court system, but to me these represent the opposite of justice – the chance to not actually deal with what really happened in court is dangled as an incentive for people to plead guilty, often to something they may not have actually done. Especially when people have been held in remand and will be released with no further punishment than the time already served, it sustains a system of not actually dealing with the issues, yet the lawyers and judges all still get paid for doing their job.

Aboriginal people understand better than anyone the hypocrisy of the law. As a race they are maybe the most incarcerated people in the world, often for completely trivial offences; while the theft of their land and murder of their people goes unquestioned. Over the sad history of white domination of aboriginal people in this country, every new horrific development has been signed in by the law.

And not much ever changes in that regard. Wars, climate change and massive financial inequality go unchallenged, while our courts are full of people busted with drugs or not co-operating with police. Or people who actually have committed significant acts that affect other people; but who rather than dealing with the real-life consequences of their actions go through an endless rigmarole of bureaucracy and then finally pay a fine or do time or end up with some other condition completely unrelated to the crime of which they are accused.

Of course, often our court plays a very important role in defending human and environmental rights when they are threatened by politicians and businesses. But even this process is one that is hidden from understanding from the rest of the general public – veiled in a cocoon of law-speak inaccessible to most of us, to in the end provide a verdict that seems to be pretty much common sense.

Back at the court, and the magistrate and both lawyers are trying to work out what a “statutory instrument” is. The magistrate sighs, adjourns the court, and walks out. I don’t know what a statutory instrument is either, but I also don’t care or pretend that it has anything to do with whether a group of aboriginal activists should be allowed to light a small fire when they meet together.

And this is the real problem with the law – the law enforcers (in this case the council) can take an action and fine someone no matter how inconsequential their actions are, and the only recourse people have is to take it to a mind-bogglingly confusing court case a year and a half later.

As we see governments rushing to give more powers to police and intelligence organisations, it’s important that we remember how the law mostly works – those in power do what they want, and if the person on the receiving end is wealthy or persistent or lucky enough to challenge it then they might one day have the court agree with them; although most likely by that point the damage has already been done. The system works, but for who?

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My top 10 songs of 2016

Another year, more great music released. Here are 10 songs I loved for various reasons:

Spindles – Revolution

I had a long wait between first hearing this song and it finally being recorded. But at one point shortly after its release, I reckon I listened to this song at least once a day for about three weeks. I craved it. I thought about writing an essay based on the lyrics.

Spindles had other great songs (no official release yet beyond a few internet uploads) and played some fantastic shows – from the little library at Jura Books to the wide open desert at Roxby Downs. But if I have to pick one song it’s still this one.

 

Dispossessed – Thronebreaker

2016 was a huge year for Dispossessed. At the start of the year I was hearing favourable murmurs about this new band out of Sydney. In March when I saw them I agreed they were great but was surprised at how young they were. Since then the band has lost members, had all their gear stolen, had one of their members be the subject of a public shaming campaign by the Daily Mail. They’ve also toured, gained loads of mainstream press attention, and released a fantastic album. Vice called them “the most important band in Australia.” I think it’s just great to see a proudly multi-racial and political band from western Sydney smashing it.

 

Camp Cope – Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams

I first saw songwriter Georgia Maq play a few years ago. I don’t know how old she was at the time, but she looked like she could have needed parental supervision to go to her own gigs. Camp Cope bassist Kelly I have similarly seen around the place since she was very young – I think her first musical effort was with all-femme scremo outfit Palmar Grasp.

So what a pleasure then to discover Camp Cope’s debut album – showcasing some great songwriting from Georgia MAq aided by wonderful melodic bass playing from Kelly. If I’m being totally honest, a few of the songs are still a little too teenage angsty to really resonate with me. But this one – linking the experience of sexism with 9-11 conspiracies in a way only the internet generation can – is just brilliant.

 

Curse Ov Dialect – Greed

I can’t say I’m really in the loop these days when it comes to new music, but one thing that helps me find out about new releases is scrolling through the new additions folder at 4ZZZ community radio. And that was how, at the start of the year, I made the unexpected discovery that legendary Melbourne hip hop crew Curse Ov Dialect had released their first album in seven years. I suppose layering all those weird samples and coming up with the tongue-twisting lyrics must take a while.

Of course, the album is fantastic and endlessly rewarding – a year on I’m still listening to it trying to work out what half the songs are about. But while Curse Ov Dialect’s beats and lyrics are dense and strange, their music is still somehow danceable and singalongable. They are also an amazing live band, which hopefully we in Brisbane will get to witness some time soon.

 

Babaganouj – Would you like me?

I’m not wilfully obscure or anything, it’s just that the music I find interesting is usually some tuneless racket that gets played in front of 50 people in a random location. As an analytical person too, I like music that has some kind of broader context beyond just sounding nice.

Indie pop is not always my preferred genre. But sometimes there’s just a band so good at what they do that I can’t resist. And that’s where Babaganouj come in – these guys just continually release glorious pop songs that light up the airwaves. This was my favourite of the year.

 

Nahko and Medicine For The People – Love letters to God

It took me way too long to discover Nahko and Medicine For The People’s last album, but by the start of the year I had it on high rotation. In April when they came out to Australia I was in Melbourne, and even discovering the show was sold out wasn’t enough to stop me from going – some desperate manoeuvring at the front door got me a ticket to a show that was all the better for having a room packed full of devoted fans.

A while later the new album came out. It didn’t quite grab me the way the previous one had; I think I would prefer the songs with a bit of a rawer production. But it’s grown on me a bit, and in this song the regular themes of Nahko’s music are all there – spirituality, forgiveness, resistance, transformation.

 

John K Samson – The oldest oak at Brookside

Like most years, in 2016 I spent many hours listening to Canadian band The Weakerthans. Unlike most years, I also got the gift of new music from Weakerthans songwriter John K Samson.

These days the instrumentation is pretty mellow (especially compared to his time playing bass in Propagandhi), and the songs are less personal – mostly now the character sketches that were always part of his songwriting but also are surely influenced by his other job of writing and publishing novels. There is a bit of an environmental message flowing through, which you can possibly pick up in this song.

I have to admit, that nasally voice and those minute lyrical observations are like a kind of comfort food to me. And his albums are like little books of stories that every time you open them you find some new detail. I couldn’t really pick a favourite song, but this tribute to an old oak tree in John’s home town of Winnipeg is one of the most immediately satisfying.

 

Carb On Carb – Eden terrors

Don’t look too closely at the release date – this album came out in 2015 but I first heard it this year. Once I had heard it though I listened to it an awful lot through the year.

It’s never hip, but I’m a bit of a sucker for emo music. Fortunately Kiwi two-piece Carb On Carb do the musical style very well while mostly avoiding the melodramatic treatment of falling in and out of love that can make the genre so punishing.

 

The Dead Maggies – Billy Hunt

I didn’t know the music of The Dead Maggies all that well when I decided in August I would hitch down to Nimbin the next day to go to their gig – it just looked like an interesting show. The next day I was picked up on the road by the Maggies’ tour van, saw them play, hung out with the band, and before you knew it I was heading down to Tasmania for the HOBOFOPO festival of folk punk organised by the band.

The Dead Maggies’ music is fun but also very informative about Tasmanian history. Like this one, about convict and serial escapee Billy Hunt who dressed in a kangaroo skin and hopped away from prison only to be shot by a hungry hunter.

 

Virginia Sook – Mandarin song

I mentioned this song in this list last year actually. It got recorded this year and also was performed at a memorable music event – my birthday party. Sitting around a fire in my backyard, a guitar was passed around and some amazing songs played – including this one.

I don’t say this to boast that I have friends who play music – I say this because I honestly believe that the music made by our friends and neighbours can be as good as what’s on the radio and the big record labels. Better even because we have an added connection to the songs and their meaning. The best birthday present I could ask for is friends sharing their musical creations. Plus this song is awesome.

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A Tasmanian pilgrimage

For a fair chunk of my recent three week stint in Tasmania, I hitched around from town to town without any real destination in mind. But between all that I made it out to a couple of the more remote parts of the state for a pilgrimage of sorts – to the Florentine Valley and the Franklin River.

The Florentine is in Tasmania’s south-west. 25km past the last town in that direction, traffic is fairly infrequent. But from 2006 to 2012 it was the site of Camp Florentine, where a group of committed environmentalists held one of Australia’s longest lasting forest blockade camps.

The people in that camp battled the cold and the rain; the hostility of loggers and the forestry industry; the heartbreak of watching a forest clearfelled in front of them. To stay there as long as they did showed amazing resilience and bravery. But they also showed a lot of creativity – banner drops in cities (even off the side of the Spirit Of Tasmania ferry), barricades in the shape of pirate ships, angels on tripods. They were “forest ferals”; people who rejected the values of mainstream society to camp in the bush, eating roadkill, sneaking around the forest and getting arrested disrupting logging.

I have to admit it was towards the end of that six years that I first heard of the campaign, but it inspired me to hear of these people protecting from clearfell machines one of the country’s last wild frontiers. I helped run fundraiser events, did protests at Harvey Norman against the sale of timber products made from these forests. I heard people who had been there talk about the beauty of the Florentine and what it meant to them. “The Floz” to me was always a magical place.

For quite a while I assumed I would at some point make it to the Floz to help out. But in 2012 a truce was called while the logging industry and environmentalists negotiated a “forest agreement”. It wasn’t an easy process – forests kept falling, but environmentalists were told that any protests would risk the whole process being thrown out. Blockaders were shut out of the negotiations. Many felt betrayed not just by the government and industry, but by big environmental organisations. Long-term forest activist Miranda Gibson went up a giant eucalypt and didn’t come down for well over a year to keep the eyes of the world on Tasmania’s south-west forests.

In the end the “forest agreement” was bitterly disappointing. It included industry subsidies but little conservation outcomes. It included a gag clause saying the whole thing would be discarded if anyone protested against deforestation. And after all that, it was torn up a year later when the state government changed. But there was a victory of sorts – 170,000 hectares nominated for (and awarded) world heritage status. It even survived Tony Abbott taking the unprecedented step of asking the UN to rescind part of the decision.

I went to the Floz with a couple of friends. None of us had been part of the camp but we had all heard stories from friends who had. We slept at the old campsite; we walked through stunning rainforest full of fallen trees covered in bright green lichen, an undergrowth of ferns, a distant canopy of giant and ancient sassafras and eucalypts. We went to the Growling Swallet, where a creek disappears into an underground cave. We walked to the river near where the last Tasmanian tiger was captured in the 1930’s (of course we hold on to hope there are still some in that dense forest). We walked to the top of a mountain range, where the vast valleys of green were laid out in front of us, punctuated by the scars where forest had been clearfelled.

The Florentine Valley was certainly as beautiful as I had hoped, and walking those tracks gave me a new sense of appreciation for the people who struggled so hard to stop those ancient trees being knocked down.

A few days later I headed north-west towards Queenstown, knowing that along the way the road would be intercepted by the Franklin River. The Franklin holds an even more iconic place in Australia’s protest history than the Florentine.

In 1979, the Tasmanian government announced plans to dam the Franklin and flood the valley for generating hydroelectricity. Many of Tasmania’s rivers had already been dammed for the same purpose; but this time conservationists decided that this valley; forest so impenetrable few settlers had ever made it through (of course a notable exception being the legendary cannibal convict escapee Alexander Pearce), should be protected.

Led by a prominent peter-dHobart doctor named Bob Brown and represented by Peter Dombrovkis’ iconic photograph, the campaign to save the Franklin was born.

People from all over Australia took up the cause, first through political campaigning and then in late 1982-1983 by flocking to the Franklin River to blockade workers beginning construction of the dam. 1,400 people were arrested in the blockade, which became a media spectacle and captured the imagination of the public in a way few environmental campaigns have before or since.

In 1983, the federal Labor opposition declared in the leadup to the election that they would stop the dam if they were elected. With the Franklin duly playing its part, Labor won the election. The Tasmanian state government challenged the decision in court, even threatening to secede from the commonwealth. But in the end the Franklin was allowed to flow, Tasmania never suffered a shortage of electricity, and the campaign put the state and its phenomenal natural beauty on the world stage in a way that no amount of hydroelectricity could ever match.

franklin

The Franklin River meets the A10 highway near Derwent Bridge. I got picked up hitching by another tourist from the mainland – he had rented a car and had ten days to drive around the state. I told him of my plan to see the river and he said he’d like to join me.

As we took the short walk from the highway to the rope bridge across the river, I told my new companion about the history of the campaign and its significance (I stopped short of launching into a chorus of Goanna’s cheesy campaign anthem Let The Franklin Flow). When we got there though, the mighty Franklin was photo0692looking pretty subdued. No high gorges or swirling currents like the Peter Dombrovkis photo, just a nice if pretty average looking river ambling along at barely waist-high depth.That spot I guess is not one of its more spectacular points.

Still, we hung out for a while on the bank of the river, I stripped off for a refreshing (ie. very cold) swim. Just by walking from the highway we had left behind the last bit of industrialised civilisation between here and the coast – a fact attested to by the rickety one-person-at-a-time bridge that crossed the river. From here on the Franklin wound through country where the Tasmanian devils, quolls, pademelons and thousands of other species can roam freely.

This little pilgrimage to those two sites might seem quaint and a bit nerdy, but I’m glad I did it. Firstly it helped to enflesh for me these stories I have heard, helping me to appreciate them in a new way. Secondly, it allowed a re-evaluation of the history that has brought us to where we are today.

While I was in Tasmania, Donald Trump was elected as US president, the latest of a series of reactionary election results in 2016. I wish I could have shrugged it off, knowing I was on holiday. But instead, it prompted a lot of thinking. Can we of the pro-immigration, pro-environment political left really be losing this badly? As Hillary Clinton raged against “deplorables” and those she was targeting proudly took on the label; I had to wonder how we had gotten so out of touch. How many people in the political left have any kind of relationship with the average Trump/One Nation voter? When the mainstream view is so far from my own in so many ways, how to I find a place where I belong in this culture and these people?

These are questions that rolled around my head as I went on long bushwalks. I didn’t come to many satisfactory resolutions, but it was really nice to think of these environmental campaigns as part of the history that had shaped Australia – not a fringe sect, but a powerful movement that gathered people together, that gave voice to feelings that were deep-seated and shared by many, that influenced the society we live in today. And it is a part of our culture I feel I can proudly identify with and situate myself in.

And looking at that forest and that river, I had to admire the people who had given so much and staked it all on protecting these places. People who dedicated their lives to the cause, going to live in remote locations; standing in the face of a hostile media, government and local opposition. They didn’t see events as just unfolding guided by fate. They believed that we should play an active role in shaping the future. While one view of the future was proffered by the powerful people of Tasmania (and indeed the world), they were able to see a different one – and the proof is standing there in the forests of Tasmania that sometimes those visions of the future can turn out. Opening our eyes to a different vision of the past also allows us to envision a different future.

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Not Drowning, Waving – a cultural appropriation case study

Over a year ago, I started just for fun writing short articles based on songs that would come up on shuffle mode on my mp3 player. The articles were intended to form a zine that I have never gotten around to publishing.

But I occasionally am reminded of this particular piece as the online debates over cultural appropriation grow more and more fervent. I don’t intend to write an in-depth article on the concept of cultural appropriation, but I do think that this article – in a specific micro-study – puts forward some of my own ideas on the issue; ideas that I think are a reasonably interesting contribution to the debate.

Not Drowning, Waving – Claim

In 2015, cultural appropriation is a hot topic. Especially in online media, where marginalised voices have a new platform, there is heaps of writing about white culture co-opting the music, clothes and imagery of other cultures to gain some kind of ‘cool’.

Cultural appropriation is not in itself a bad thing. Throughout history, one of the ways that humanity has progressed is through observing and copying other groups and the way that they did things. I think it is in fact much more natural for ‘culture’ to be shared and copied than our modern system of copyright and intellectual property.

Where it becomes problematic though, is where cultural appropriation comes alongside colonisation. So the situation we have now is that non-white cultures who have had their land and traditions forcibly taken off them now have the somewhat irritating sight of seeing their music, clothes and art become valuable commodities that can make a lot of money – usually for white people and corporations, with little credit and even less cash being given to the original source.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, one if the best things that happened to rock music was that people in the western world discovered that other parts of the world have music too. Suddenly there were new record labels like Real World and World Circuit, new global stars like Youssou N’Dour and Yothu Yindi, and new collaborations like Paul Simon’s Graceland album, Deep Forest’s house remixes of African field recordings, and Melbourne band Not Drowning, Waving.

Not Drowning, Waving ndw1mixed rock with classical instruments, with ambient soundscapes and with traditional Melanesian music. The song Claim (title track off their third album) is a good example – the song is almost entirely didgeridoo and clapsticks played by Gnarnayarrahe Waittairie, with the band playing a very minor role.

David Bridie from the band would go on to start a record label to release Melanesian music (mostly Papuan, Torres Strait or northern Australian Aboriginal), and would record a number of film soundtracks, a feature of which would be electronic and ambient production mixed with traditional music.

In the 1980’s, I think ethical questions around cultural appropriation were less widespread (although there was quite a debate in political and music circles surrounding the ethics of Paul Simon’s Graceland album). In the expansive, exploratory vibe of the time, it made sense to take on different musical styles. That spirit of experimentation made for some amazing music. Graceland is a perfect example of the fact that even without a real commitment to the actual culture and conditions of people, you can still make some brilliant music.

But it’s never really just about the music, is it? The critique of white cultural co-option is a valid one, and anyone who thinks it’s “just about the music” is exactly the kind of person who needs to be listening to it.

So as well as purely the sound of the music (which I quite like), there is some worth in analysing the cross-cultural ethics of Not Drowning, Waving. And in this field I think they do pretty well. Rather than just a cultural dilettante, David Bridie has shown a real commitment to the music of Melanesian cultures and the people who make it – the music by releasing and promoting music made by artists who would not otherwise be given those opportunities, and the people because he has continually offered his support to the people of West Papua in their struggle to resist Indonesian occupation.

Some may debate my views here, but I’m satisfied I can listen to a song like Claim and enjoy it as an exchange of musical ideas across cultures, rather than an act of exploitation.

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A rough guide to folk-punk

After all these years, I’ve finally made it down to Tasmania. The thing that brought me down here, happily, is HOBOFOPO; a four day festival dedicated to that most wonderful of musical styles – folk-punk.

Wonderful it may be, but folk-punk remains a pretty obscure musical niche. Many people over the years who have seen me perform or asked what kind of music I play have assumed I must have invented the term. As I got ready to leave Brisbane and head down here, a few people were surprised there are enough folk-punk acts in Australia to make up a festival.

But in fact, the folk-punk connoisseur (like myself) could tell you that even in this niche genre, there are a number of distinct styles that fit under the folk-punk umbrella.

Our first category is the singer-songwriter with obvious punk influences. In this group we can place maybe the original folk-punk Patrick Fitzgerald (with his simple guitar playing, tales of punk love and out of tune singing), Billy Bragg (rhythmic electric guitar and again a relaxed approach to hitting the right notes vocally), Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains (screaming and thrashing an acoustic guitar), myself and many more.

Another category, in some ways an extension of the first, is the whole band that plays obviously punk-inspired music but on all or mostly acoustic instruments. Examples vary from the fast-strummed guitar and violin duo Ghost Mice, to the more full band setup of a group like Defiance Ohio (violin, cello, electric guitar, drums), to the intense medieval crust punk of Blackbird Raum. At HOBOFOPO, an example would be Tassie’s own Lordy Lordy.

A third style is traditional folk music sped up and electrified. These can be traditional songs or trad-inspired originals, or often a mixture of the two. The originators of this style are The Pogues, and there are plenty of other examples, from American-Irish acts like Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, to Australian equivalents Mutiny and Roaring Jack, hillbilly punks This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb, gypsies Gogol Bordello, or at HOBOFOPO bushpunks Handsome Young Strangers or Tasmanian historians The Dead Maggies.

A fourth style, becoming increasingly common, is the acoustic side-project of the punk singer. Satirical punk blog The Hard Times has great fun with this phenomenon. Originally it was most commonly singers from emo bands discovering a more intimate way to connect with their audience – Dashboard Confessional, Jonah Matranga and Owen being the pioneers, City and Colour a similar recent example. But increasingly it has come to mean punk and hardcore singers growing beards, putting on flanellette shirts and playing country-tinged folk. Frank Turner is the most successful example, but he is only one of seemingly legions – Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour each year takes half a dozen examples on tour; in Australia examples would include ex-Conation singer Jamie Hay’s Fear Like Us project, ex-Disables singer Jud Campbell or former Sydney City Trash member Paddy McHugh. There actually aren’t any examples of this on the HOBOFOPO lineup though there is no shortage of them around and this is probably the most popular strand of folk-punk. But this style kinda exists as a niche of the mainstream punk scene and doesn’t really take on the name or the spirit of the “folk-punk” genre (I’ll explain later).

You could even add another category – bands like The Smith Street Band, Camp Cope and Against Me!; whose music doesn’t really resemble folk very much but who hold on to the label in some ways because they started out as acoustic acts.

folk-punkSo there is a more in-depth analysis of folk-punk styles than anyone was really asking for. But you know, that still doesn’t quite get to the essence of folk-punk. And this is why: while folk and punk are both genre names that describe certain musical characteristics; they are also both more than that. Folk and punk are both ideologies that represent ways of thinking about music.

Folk, as Pete Seeger would describe it, is music “for the people, by the people” – a proudly proletarian artform that rejects virtuoso musicianship or high artistic concepts and instead embraces a recognisable, easy to replicate style and singing about everyday people’s lives. It sees music as a communal resource – songs are “traditional” and able to be performed by anyone rather than a songwriter’s intellectual property; and songs are often developed for use by the community around them – like protest songs for a certain campaign or songs written about a particular place (famous examples of the latter being Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Our Land and The Seekers’ I Am Australian).

Punk meanwhile is an ideology based on Do-It-Yourself – a rejection of rockstar idols and the traditional music industry. Sniffin’ Glue writer Mark P famously printed three chord shapes then wrote “now go form a band”. His iconic publication meanwhile, was hand-collaged and printed on a photocopier. Punk is about making your own bands regardless of technical ability, making your own publications (since the mainstream media is rarely interested in punk bands), opening your own venues (that represent independent values rather than run for a profit), and putting out your own records on your own independent labels. Punk is about rejection of mainstream society’s values and (sometimes) creating alternatives – outrageous fashion, communal share-houses, anarchist politics.

There are large crossovers between the two ideals – both have a long history of political protest songs and benefit gigs, both eschew superstars and technical brilliance (Mark P’s three chord call to arms echoes Harlan Howard’s much repeated phrase “three chords and the truth”), both see music not purely as art for art’s sake but as a means to something bigger.

And folk-punk even more combines the two traditions. Want to see what songs as a communal resource looks like? Go to a folk-punk show (like one I recently played at in Brisbane) and witness multiple performers play Johnny Hobo songs as the crowd sings every word. The guy who wrote those songs doesn’t even play them any more, yet they live on as folk-punk standards. This is not limited to one songwriter either. Folk-punk carries on the folk practice of communal sing-alongs and traditional songs – keeping alive both folk and folk-punk classics. Bands like The Pogues and Weddings Parties Anything (plus many many more) do punked-up versions of old folk songs, while popular folk-punk songs become standards – and not just Johnny Hobo. I can recall shows where Billy Bragg, Defiance Ohio or Andrew Jackson Jihad became room sing-alongs. Or once I played a show where the climax was every band getting together for a mass jam and singing of Blackbird Raum’s Witches.

Folk-punk also continues folk traditions like protest songs (Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs mirrored in the riot-folk collective or Billy Bragg) and travelling songs (the ghosts of ramblin’ men like Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie alive in countless songs about hitching or the beauty of the road), even the hobo lifestyle (Big Rock Candy Mountain and Hallelujah I’m A Bum transformed into Johnny Hobo’s songs like Home Sweet Homeless and the entire oogle subculture).

Meanwhile punk’s DIY spirit is amplified in folk-punk. Doing your own recording becomes simpler when it’s just acoustic instruments (Australian group Mace Face did their one and only recording on a Sydney to Newcastle train journey), as does finding venues for shows (parks, cemeteries and all-night laundromats become concert halls).

So as musical style or philosophy, folk-punk has carved out its own niche of the music world. It receives very little attention from the broader music industry; even its most legendary acts are virtually unknown outside of this small subculture. The earnestness and the celebration of mundane subject matter and musical amateurishness means that is irredeemably uncool.

But I love folk-punk. I love it for all of the reasons I have just listed. I love it because it is about having something to communicate and creating spaces where that communication can take place. It is a pretty narrow sphere of music and at times it is clichéd to the point of ridiculousness – I think potentially that’s why over the years so many acts are short-lived and people move on to other styles. And yet I trudge on, hitch-hiking around with my acoustic guitar and simple songs. Uncool, obscure and limited as it may be, folk-punk is a tradition I am proud to listen to and to be a part of.

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