West Village

I first walked into West End in May 2011. I knew very little about Brisbane’s geography, but I had heard a talk given by prominent West End advocate Dave Andrews and thought it sounded like a place I would like to go. Amazingly, within a few minutes if wandering around exploring the suburb, I ran into Dave sitting at a cafe. I chatted with him very briefly, and he sent me around the corner to a community house where “there are people you should meet”. They invited me in for tea, I stayed a couple of weeks. The rest, as they say, is history.

I open this article about West End with this anecdote for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is to acknowledge that though I love West End, though I have felt a sense of attachment to this place I have rarely felt elsewhere and though the culture and history of West End fascinates me; I am a relative newcomer to the suburb. Even of the five years since that first day, I have only resided in the actual West End postcode for less than two of them.

Secondly though, this little recollection actually says a lot about West End. It’s almost like a West End cliche. Running into people on the street, neighbourly hospitality, a stopping place for travellers and vagrants, local celebrities who talk about West End as an independent entity. This story helps to illustrate the point that gives this article its title – I’ve lived in small towns, outer suburbs and inner cities around the country; and West End more than anywhere I’ve been genuinely fits the description of an “urban village”.

There are many factors that I think have contributed to this. One is a fluke of geography. Despite being walking distance from the city, West End is virtually an enclosed peninsula – almost encircled by the Brisbane River, with even the land based part partly closed in by Highgate Hill.

Added to this is the historical demographic of the area. Both aboriginal (who traditionally called the place Kurilpa or “Place Of The Water Rat”; and since white settlement have always had a strong presence in West End thanks partly to Musgrave Park being traditionally used as an informal gathering space) and Greek (who made West End their own when post-war migration coincided with white Australians’ pursuit of the suburban backyard dream) cultures are strongly community based, which contributed to the character of the area.

Cheap rents and proximity to universities and the cultural hub of the city made West End very attractive for students, artists and political activists. The introduction of free university education and the development of youth counter-cultures in the 70’s helped to develop the social and political culture that we now commonly associate with the place. In this environment, residents could develop a local network of housing co-operatives, community gardens, DIY social services and local press. Alternative religious communities like the Waiters Union, the Catholic Workers and Ananda Marga chose West End as a home. The streets were sprinkled with alternative businesses (the Catholic Workers started ethical consumption store Justice Products, while there were multiple incarnations of anarchist bookstores, cafes and social centres).

This culture became self-perpetuating – people moved in to West End because they wanted to live in a community like this, which further strengthened the sense of local identity. People who didn’t live in the suburb recognised and valued it too. People would travel to West End for a night or day out because it was a place that contained and encouraged styles and ideas outside of the mostly conservative Brisbane mainstream.

This identity was also solidified by threats to it. When Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s dream of holding Expo 88 in South Brisbane meant mass evictions of low-cost housing in the area (a high number of boarding houses and hostels, dating back to the time when nobody wanted to live in West End, mean there has always been a high proportion of disabled and low-income residents); the response was a massive anti-Expo campaign and a distilling of what people wanted to preserve about the area. More recently, changing demographics and increasing development in the inner city has again been the catalyst for residents to protect what they see as important, from bushland in “The Gully” to small businesses and limiting the size of new developments.

Among these local characteristics was a prioritising of supporting local businesses and preserving public space. These both contributed to the village feeling of West End – it’s hard to walk down the street without running into someone you know, and you see the same strangers out so regularly that before long they become acquaintances. Local homeless or panhandlers are often known by name to businesses and locals. When I first came to West End I went from knowing no one to running into friends on the street in literally days. Share-house culture and local social centres (in my case Turnstyle) also helped that process. It meant that I very quickly developed an affinity with the place.

These things that made West End into the distinctive village that it has been are now threatened by other factors – once people moved to the area because they shared these same values, but now people are lured in by the attraction of property investment, proximity to the city or getting their kids into the catchment area for Brisbane State High School (that might sound hard to believe for people from other places; but literally the attraction of this school, which functions as a kind of publicly funded private school in terms of reputation and extra-curricular activities, is one of the key reasons families now move into the area).

The result of this is that the old make-up of the suburb is changing: artists, activists, eccentrics and the disabled making way for a new demographic of inner-city professionals. So too the main street – the anarchist bookstores and cafes are long gone; in the last year we have seen long-running West End businesses like the fruit and veg shop on Vulture St and George’s Seafood close. In their place is an ever-expanding array of craft-beer bars and coffee shops.

It is in this context that local opposition to the “West Village” development by Payce and Sekisui House on the old ABSOE site (corner of Boundary and Mollison streets) has emerged. The proposed development is made up of seven buildings up to 15 storeys each; containing 1350 residential apartments, a supermarket, retail space and a 450 space carpark. Quite a sizeable development for the main street of a suburb, but the plan of the developers is not limited to just the one site. Late last year they held an exclusive event launching their plan to “re-brand” Boundary St.

Notwithstanding that the street’s name harks back to a time when aboriginal people weren’t allowed in the city after dark, most West End residents quite like Boundary St as it is and don’t feel it is crying out to be “re-branded” by a development corporation with no links to the community.

No doubt the development will radically change what the centre of West End looks like – the strong sense of local identity may be drowned out forever by a set of new shops (presumably the massive supermarket on the site will not be a locally owned business), new architecture and massively increased pedestrian and motor traffic. It’s impossible to measure in monetary terms the value of West End’s cultural contribution to Brisbane as a whole – opponents should not be written off as just “not in my backyard” reactionaries.

But the other irksome thing about “West Village” is all of its talk of villages and “lush, sub-tropical community heart” – “re-imagining the precinct as a cathedral in the round… Places to sit, gather, relax… with views of our big blue sky”. It’s like a parody of the way the most parochial resident might talk about West End now, except it’s written by the people who are in the process of destroying that sense of community and urban village that West End possesses.

The sense of community that people created over generations is co-opted into advertising rhetoric by a corporation with no community aspirations beyond delivering a profit to its shareholders. And those suckered in by the marketing will never know what it feels like to live in a community that has developed organically with the consensus of its residents.

In a funny way, the changes of the ABSOE site over the last few years is like a metaphor for the transformation of West End as a suburb – gentrification in a microcosm. Not long ago it was a functioning furniture factory, like West End’s working class culture came from docks and factories along the river. I remember when the upstairs rooms at ABSOE became art studios – people running DIY events and living there against zoning regulations until a fire in the building led to a council crackdown (hope you don’t mind me blowing your cover now guys). This is like the creative and radical era of West End’s cultural formation. For the last two years, the Boundary St night markets on the site give you the quirky alternative West End experience but in a commodified form – food and handicraft stalls, a bar with live music, firepits with paid staff to go around stoking them up. Meanwhile down the street are the hipster bars and cafes that offer an “alternative” aesthetic if not an alternative vision of society. The next stage of ABSOE? High rise towers, fancy shops, the history of the site preserved in building façades but not much else. Unfortunately it doesn’t take too much of a stretch to envision the metaphor  extending across the suburb.

The thing about West End’s sense of community and and local identity is that (as opposed to West Village’s) it didn’t just happen – it was generations of hard work, leaps of faith, visionary ideas and heroic failures that made it the iconic urban village that it is. It should never be forgotten that when development companies and property investors advertise their sites with “community” and “creative” buzzwords, it is this hard and voluntary work they are profiting off.

But this history should also be a reminder to us, wherever we reside, that we can actually shape the places where we live and make them into the kind of spaces and communities we dream of. The last ditch resistance to the West Village development currently underway by people who care about West End shows that this suburb hasn’t given up on this process, but neither should any of us – suburbs or inner city, country towns to apartment towers; the communities we want around us are ours to create .

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Rewriting the political script

I met an Australian guy in a hostel in India. “I love politics,” he told me. “Especially American politics. I follow it every day. It’s like a TV show.”

At this point an American sat down and joined us. “Are you feeling the Bern?” he asked. She looked at him somewhat quizzically. “You know, Bernie Sanders. Are you a fan?”

The conversation went on, talking about Democrat primary votes, comparing the virtues of the safety of Clinton versus the hope for change of Sanders. Our friend reiterated his love for the drama and intrigue of American politics.

Meanwhile back in Australia it’s an election year too. If American politics with its mass rallies and larger-than-life personalities can compete for drama with Game Of Thrones though, the Australian equivalent is more like Days Of Our Lives – lower budget, less credibility, grand narratives replaced with petty backstabbing and personal feuds. Like a soap opera, Australian politics endlessly regurgitates storylines that stretch credulity with vengeful acts of sociopathy and characters being resurrected, each time seemingly a desperate grab for ratings. And like any good soapie, you know that watching it is bad for you, but out of morbid fascination you just can’t drag yourself away.

Not long after our conversation in that hostel though, something happened back home that broke the usual nightly soap opera routine. A one year old baby of Nepalese asylum seekers, given the pseudonym “Asha”, was taken from immigration detention on Nauru to Brisbane for treatment of serious burns. The burns healed, but the medical staff at Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital refused to discharge her; saying that with deportation imminent, there was no safe environment for her to return to and releasing Asha would be a breach of their duty of care.

It was a welcome break from the inhumanity of politicians that normally dominates any discussion of asylum seekers in Australia. But it was more than that. In a plot that had grown stagnant; with both parties parroting the same policies of boat turnbacks, mandatory detention and offshore settlement; a new character had been thrown into the mix. And what’s more, it seemed like these doctors and nurses actually had the power to stop a deportation and momentarily turn the tide of cruelty to asylum seekers.

Instantly, something had changed. If these people could disrupt the storyline, surely others could too. Instinctively, people got up from behind their screens and gathered outside the Lady Cilento hospital. What were they doing there? At first, no one seemed to know, but they were doing something, no longer content to be passive spectators.

A 24 hour vigil was maintained in support of Asha’s family and the medical staff. Signs were made to communicate with passing motorists. Food and drinks were brought down. Memorably, one night people from all over the country were phoning in pizza orders and getting them delivered to the hospital. Connections were made at the vigil – students, grandparents, socialists, anarchists, christians, unionists, refugees. All brought together by a desire to do something – to play a part in the story of Australia’s refugee politics.

vigil

On the Saturday morning, over a week after the vigil had begun, Border Force officials turned up at the hospital ward where Asha and her mother were. They were told that they were going to be removed back to detention. Their communication with the outside world was shut down. But word filtered to the vigil outside, and a call went out.

Hundreds of people came to the hospital. At first, it was unclear what exactly the group would do. Where we there just as witnesses? To try to stop the deportation? Some of the prominent voices at the vigil warned against doing anything rash. But the paradigm they spoke of was one of “them” – decision makers, media portrayal and consequences. At the vigil something was shifting. People were thinking about the issue in terms of “us”. What can we do?

By mid afternoon, there were groups stationed at every exit to the hospital, keeping watch. People were practicing how to quickly link arms and sit in front of a vehicle. By early evening, a federal police car pulling up at the hospital was literally stopped by the vigil and searched for baby-deporting implements. The power balance had shifted.

After a night camped out watching entrances, the next morning it was announced that Asha and her family would be placed in community detention in Australia, a solution that the family and medical staff were happy with. There would be no blockading the exits after all. But people at the vigil were already talking about what next – which politicians’ offices could we target? What private companies are involved in the detention industry? What public monument could we drop banners off?

In the end, Asha was snuck out of the hospital via an underground entrance at 4am on Monday morning. It was a move designed to disempower the vigil, to stop the group visibly showing their solidarity. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was still talking tough, saying no asylum seekers could expect to stay in Australia. But the middle of the night sneakiness and community detention compromise betrayed the fact that the sleep-deprived impromptu community clustered around the hospital had made an impact.

The self-congratulatory internet memes claiming “WE WON” were perhaps a bit presumptuous – Asha and her family have no guarantee of staying long-term, let alone any of the others who came after the July 2013 announcement that no asylum seekers would be settled in Australia. The Australian navy is still employed turning around boats of desperate people fleeing their homes. Labor and Liberal show no inclination of letting up their bilateral cruelty.

The victory celebrations will have to wait. The really important development though from the last couple of weeks is that radical new ideas of participation had been planted in people’s heads. No longer content to engage in politics via the remote control, we were getting out of the couch and writing ourselves into the script.

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Desert songs

Riding through India’s Rajasthani Desert for a couple of days on the back of a camel, I thought often about the Australian desert and its endless red horizons. It’s a few years since I’ve been there, something I look forward to changing this year. But contemplating the landscape and how we relate to it, I also thought of three amazing songs that all encapsulate that desert in different ways.

 

John Williamson and Warren H Williams – Raining On The Rock

Warren H Williams is an Arrernte man from Hermannsburg in Central Australia. His father Gus was also a well-known country singer. In Raining On The Rock (co-written with country music legend John Williamson), he takes us to the desert; to “come out of the Mulga where the plains forever roll, and Albert Namatjira has painted all the scenes”.

Like the famous watercolour painter, Warren finds a sense of belonging in the desert landscape – “It’s raining on the Rock, in the beautiful country. And I’m proud to travel this big land as an Aborigine.”

The significance of Uluru extends far beyond its Anangu traditional owners, for whom it is a sacred place. It is the red heart of Australia; a majestic monument to this land, its unique flora and fauna, and all its inhabitants. So for Warren H Williams, it evokes pride in his culture and history; and inspires him further – “It cannot be described with a picture, the mesmerising colours of the Olgas. Or the grandeur of the Rock – Uluru is power!

 

Warumpi Band – My Island Home

While Raining On The Rock uses the desert to sing a song of belonging, the Warumpi Band’s classic  My Island Home is almost the opposite. “Six years I’ve been in the desert,” goes the opening line, “and every night I dream of the sea”.

My Island Home was actually written by Warumpi Band’s white guiarist/singer Neil Murray, but he wrote it for singer George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga; a Gumatj man from Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land who, as the lyrics say, had moved down south to Papunya near Alice Springs. George’s beautiful, plaintive voice certainly makes you believe that he could have written it, and Neil Murray deserves credit for writing a song that speaks not just to his bandmate, but has become possibly the most iconic song about the aboriginal experience in Australia.

My Island Home speaks not just for the literal circumstances of George Rrurrambu – it has come to represent the experience of aboriginal people all over the country; forcibly displaced from their homelands to live in cities and mission camps, often with the sacred sites of their ancestors lost forever. But even more than that, it evokes the yearning for a culture lost; an idyllic way of life that in the face of the poverty, incarceration and social problems that unfortunately make up so much of the modern aboriginal experience; probably sometimes seems as far away as the ocean from Alice Springs.

Sings George, “I close my eyes and I’m standing in a boat on the sea again. And I’m holding that long turtle spear, and I feel I’m close now to where it must be. My island home is waiting for me.”

 

Coloured Stone – Wild Desert Rose

Bunna Lawrie is a Mirning man, from the Nullabor plain on the coast of the Great Australian Bight. He is from the desert, and in the years of touring around Australia in Coloured Stone, possibly the first ever aboriginal rock band, he would have seen plenty of red sand.

Wild Desert Rose is Bunna’s tribute to the desert flowers, one of the stunning sights that make the Australian desert such a special place. The beautiful lead guitar and backing vocals conjure a side to the desert that we rarely consider.

“Don’t grow where no rain or snow, don’t grow where no river flows. Don’t grow where no waterhole, only where the north wind blows”…. “Dancing in the desert sand, swaying from side while you stand. The desert is your paradise, under the sun and blue skies.”

It is a joyous song, a tribute to the extraordinary resilience of these plants that thrive in the most inhospitable conditions. It’s a tribute to indigenous people too, who have lived in that same desert since time immemorial. And a tribute to the strength of aboriginal culture, which holds on 200 years after European colonisation despite every kind of injustice and hardship. It is a song of hope for everyone who ever finds themselves close to giving up – that life and beauty not only survive, but even in the smallest scattered fragments can still light up an entire landscape.

 

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Introducing Woolloongabba

For many non-Queenslanders, Woolloongabba is probably one of the few Brisbane suburbs they could name. When the footy or cricket is on, it is the destination for thousands of people from around the country, but the rest of the time it is a pretty unglamourous place. The intersection of all those major roads means it is constantly bombarded with traffic noise, there are no parks, and no real central downtown area for people to congregate – the cul-de-sac at the end of Logan Rd is full of cafes but is hardly a social hub, same goes for the shopping apartment complex on the other side of Ipswich Rd.

The Gabba is a geographically big suburb where lots of people live; but carved up by the freeway and the busway, full of big warehouse style shops; it almost seems more like a thoroughfare than a place of its own.

Woolloongabba was apparently a gathering place for aboriginal people because of ready access to food. The name is said to mean “Whirling Waters”, so named because its series of hills and creeks would flood when it rained. Which early white settlers found out the hard way, hence the fact that the main horse and cart road from the farms of Ipswich into the city (what we now know as Annerley Rd) was given the name Boggo Rd.

That name these days is most linked with the prison whose buildings still stand in Woolloongabba – the place that erupted into a riot in 1983 when a protest against prison food led to Prisons Minister Geoff Muntz saying that if prisoners didn’t like the food “they can starve for all I care”. A friend who moved into the area in the late 80’s has told me that as well as hosting the city’s prisoners, Woolloongabba was known as “the murder capital of Brisbane.”

That’s hard to imagine these days, but still the suburb carries a touch of urban neglect. The ornate Broadway Hotel burnt down 10 years ago and has sat empty ever since, slowly accumulating more and more graffiti. The much loved Lifeline op shop caught on fire in 2012 and has also never returned.

I lived in a squat around the corner from the cricket ground for about six months a couple of years ago. I missed the social connections that came so easily with West End’s public life and cultural drawing power, but I quite liked Woolloongabba’s unpretentious working class style – where people in singlets and thongs relax on a public bench on Stanley St with a hundred cars a minute flying past them.

For the last year and a half I have been a suburb further out but ride through Woolloongabba nearly every day for one thing or another, and so witness the changes in the suburb as they happen.

Woolloongabba has a notably high number of pubs – probably due to the proximity to the sports ground and the suburb’s industrial background. And most of them still unashamedly cater for a working class male clientele – the Australian National Hotel advertises itself as Brisbane’s home of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The Morrison Hotel has a ridiculously huge billboard on top of it proclaiming “Brisbane’s best steaks”. Similarly, the Norman Hotel proudly announces itself as “Brisbane’s worst vegetarian restaurant.”

Notwithstanding that the Gabba is also a hub for Indian grocery stores, the steak is the food I would most readily associate with Woolloongabba.  Which is one reason why the advertising for the new Sth/City/Sq  high rise development being built (by development companies Pellicano and Perri Projects) on the corner of Logan Rd and Deshon St is so incongruous. Because the advertising hoardings that run along the site don’t just proclaim the Gabba as “the new urban centre”, they also contain a bunch of images – some of them food. There is not a a steak in sight, instead there are plates that say “hola amigo taco” and “ciao sexy pizza” (yes, really) and picture of take-away coffee cups, lobster, even that most manly of foods – a bunch of asparagus.

Now I’m certainly not one for a one-dimensional definition of masculinity, but there’s no doubt that this advertising is not aimed at the traditional Woolloongabba demographic. Throw in some of the other pictures in the ads (coathanger, bottle of cologne, umbrella, dress shirt and shoes), and we begin to see that Brisbane’s so-called “new urban centre” is targeted to that very urban species – the metrosexual.

The development there – a proposed seven towers ranging between 14 and 21 stories, with “apartments, a hotel, supermarket, boutique cafes, restaurants and cinema” – was the subject of protests from local residents at the start of last year. The protesters were especially concerned that the development approval required relaxations of the local development plan, and have concerns about flood management (those old whirling waters again). But I think one less tangible reason why people are against the development is the rather presumptuous claim of the Sth/City/Sq website to “introduce Woolloongabba” as a new hub. For people who have lived in the area for their lifetime, and potentially generations before that, you can understand why there is some resistance to a development company “introducing” their suburb as something that doesn’t look very much like the place where they currently live.

The scope of the marketing for the Sth/City/Sq development is quite amazing really. Beyond their billboards and onsite display centre; the website promises not just a set of towers but a revolutionary new urban hub, and they have even for the last two years sponsored a free festival called “End Of The Line” that brings indie bands from around the country to play on the streets of Woolloongabba.

I like indie music too, and the things that Sth/City/Sq say they’re about – community , greenspace, style and authenticity – all sound pretty good, but the question must be asked whether this development company really cares about these things in themselves, or whether they are only useful inasmuch as they can be used to sell apartments and commercial spaces. Because these corporations are obliged to deliver results for their shareholders, and I somehow don’t think increased creativity is the dividend they are looking for.

While Sth/City/Sq claims to offer a lot to the suburb of Woolloongabba, in a lot of ways the more successful they are in marketing the suburb, the worse it will be for the people who already live there. Not just because of the loss of the place’s current identity or increased traffic congestion, but because every time fancy buzzwords, music festivals or pictures of asparagus push up the price of apartments in the new development, by the rules of supply and demand they also push up the price of all the other buildings in Woolloongabba. Which means every house or business that currently calls the Gabba home will have to start paying more money if they want to keep doing so.

If you’re into cafes and boutique stores then it’s great living in a hip suburb; but ask anyone who once lived in Fitzroy, Newtown or West End but now can’t afford to; and they’ll tell you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In these suburbs, even the creative types – like the bands who play at the End Of The Line festival – get forced out as real estate agents happily capitalise on the “hip, alternative” vibe to push up rents further.

Meanwhile the ability of people of low income (who didn’t come to Woolloongabba enticed by pictures of lobster or cologne) to live close to the city; or in a place where they have lived, worked, and helped to shape; just got that bit harder. As property prices go up too, governments begin to see less economic sense in keeping public housing in these high demand areas when it can be sold off at a huge profit.

Change is inevitable, and the point of critiquing gentrification is not to wish that a suburb would forever stay the same. As I said at the start, the current design of Woolloongabba is hardly ideal. But the carving up of the Gabba for construction of a web of main roads should be a warning – this suburb has already suffered once from economics being put before actual community needs. It would be a shame to see it happen again.

What’s happening right now in Woolloongabba is a great example of how a corporation, with the help of a pro-development government, can remodel, rebrand and ultimately transform a whole suburb in the interests of their own profit margin. Not only that, but it’s an example of the role that seemingly unrelated things like music, food and “hip” culture play in the process.

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My top 10 songs of 2015

It was a funny year for me and new music. For various reasons I went to less shows than I have the last few years, and a lot of my favourite musical discoveries were old albums that were new to me. So when it came to making this list I was a bit worried I wouldn’t have 10 new songs from 2015 that I had really loved. So it was nice in the end to realise that actually I had too many songs and would have to whittle down my shortlist. Here are the ten I came up with:

 

Royal Headache – Carolina

A few times over the last couple of years I’ve run into Royal Headache’s lead singer Shogun. At some point the conversation would turn to his band and he would tell me that he had broken up the band because there were “too many dickheads” at shows. “You look out at the audience,” he told me, “and it’s all the people you hated at high school.”

The hidden darkside of alternative rockstardom. But despite Shogun’s warnings, this year Royal Headache returned with their first album in four years and launched it, of all places, at the Sydney Opera House. The album, of course, is amazing.

 

mewithoutYou -Red Cow

mewithoutYou are a band that I have appreciated for a decade without ever really sinking my teeth in properly. At the start of the year though I saw them play twice on their Australian tour and was enamoured by their last album, the circus escape concept album “10 Stories”.

Their new album which came out in the middle of the year wasn’t quite as immediately rewarding as the last one, and didn’t have any songs that I became quite as obsessed with as “Cardiff Giant”, but they are such an endlessly intriguing band – the band’s sometimes delicate, sometimes heavy sounds drawing you in to dig for the meaning in Aaron Weiss’ lyrics.

“Pale Horses” is another concept album of sorts, about somebody’s struggle with their faith and attempts to see where God could fit in our world. “Was he a violent man?” Aaron asks in this song… “Well, he had his genocidal moments.”

 

Virginia Sook – Soil, Seeds, Bellies

Over the last few years I have seen Virginia Sook play many times. This year it was a special treat to have some new recordings released. But my favourite Sook memory of 2015 was a show in a West End laundromat with a bunch of local songwriters plus visiting interstater Jess Locke. We passed the guitar around a circle, requesting each others’ songs and singing along.  Riding home, I had the Virginia Sook song “Mandarin” in my head. I thought about how nice it was that I struggle to keep up with the hyped new bands or the latest releases, but the music that I really want to hear is being made by my friends.

“Mandarin” is not recorded for me to share with you though, but I have always liked this song too, and it also has a nice video of the band (which actually since the clip was made has an almost totally new lineup) having a picnic

 

Laura Mardon – Hail! Hail! The Dead Can Dance

I used to think that Laura Mardon’s music was like an incredible secret – she would come up from the Gold Coast, play an amazing set to a few dozen people and go back.

This year though she had one of those experiences that you’re never sure actually happen in real life – she opened for Joey Cape from 90’s pop punk legends Lagwagon, and a few months later ended up at his house in the US recording an album. Hopefully it’s helped her music become less of a secret, because I think her short, simple songs with beautiful honest lyrics are wonderful.

The album begins with “Hail! Hail! The Dead Can Dance”, which started life as a speedy punk song for Laura’s band Albion Gold. As an acoustic ballad it’s better though, bittersweetly singing the joys of punk music while reflecting on some of the disappointments that come from the scene.

 

Provocalz, Lady LashDjarmbi Supreme, Task, GekkZMad Madam, Mr. KrowFelon – Stand Proud

2015 was a big year for militant aboriginal protest. Starting with the G20 in November 2014, where a new group called Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and a new publication called Black Nations Rising announced their arrival; there was a long-running protest embassy in Redfern defying eviction notices to demand aboriginal housing on The Block; and then following the plan from the Western Australian government to shut down services to remote aboriginal communities (and Tony Abbott’s description of them as “lifestyle choices”); there were a series of rallies in major cities that aimed for, and often acheived, maximum disruption to white complacency.

Fittingly, aboriginal hip hop in 2015 got militant as well. Briggs brought politically conscious indigenous music to the Oz mainstream with his album “Shepplife”; while in Sydney Provocalz and Felon stepped into the limelight, bringing a posse of indigenous MCs with them.

Provocalz is phenomenally prolific – he self-released two albums this year plus various other tracks. The music is pretty simplistic, and sometimes I think his lyrics about shooting politicians are a bit over the top for me, but it’s nice to have an Australian rapper with actually something to say. Another really cool thing about Provocalz is that rather than an exercise in ego, his releases are extremely collaborative, as would suit music from a very communal culture.

His album “Only Built For Koori Linx” features over 20 different MCs, but if that’s not communal enough for you there was this song in response to the community closures that gives us 8 different rappers in 4 minutes.

 

Russel Svinurai – Chemutengure

For a couple of years, Russel Svinurai has lit up West End and Southbank, playing his mbira to passers by. I have always loved it, and have regularly paid him in meals on Friday nights when we have been on the street doing Food Not Bombs.

On discovering that he didn’t have any recordings, I invited Russel into 4ZZZ to do a live on air performance and to talk about the cultural and historical significance of mbira music. The three tracks I recorded (including this version of a traditional Zimbabwean song) became regulars on my stereo and on radio shows I did.

 

Ryan Gosling’s Dog – Why Do I Keep Coming Back Here?

As a lover of acoustic and punk music, it is always exciting to find a new addition to the small collection of folk punk acts around the country. So it was great to have Ryan Gosling’s Dog join the fold last year.

I saw them play a few times, but after about 9 months together (and a brief name change to Slyng Shot) they broke up, leaving us with very little recorded material and one less folk punk band. This clip is from what was possibly their first ever gig – at the Leard Forest, unrehearsed, with a bunch of ring-in musicians. But that is maybe my best memory of the band anyway, singing these fantastic songs with beautiful harmonies on the back of a truck as the sun went down.

 

George Telek – Free West Papua (One People One Soul)

Unbelievably, I didn’t hear about George Telek’s tour of Australia to celebrate Papua New Guinea’s 40th anniversary as a nation until after it happened. But as a small consolation, Wantok Music released a best of from the Papuan legend, compiling some of his best tracks over the years and a few new ones.

The record is full of amazing summery pop, but Telek is not afraid of tackling big issues either, and a new song is his latest offering for the Western half of the island of Papua – a country still waiting to celebrate their own independence.

 

Screamfeeder – Alone In A Crowd

Long before I ever came to Brisbane, I always had a strange attraction to bands from this city. As a teenager in Mudgee I owned and loved albums by The Saints, The Disables, Custard, Regurgitator and The Melniks, plus a random compilation of Brisbane punk bands.

Another band I’ve always loved is Screamfeeder. I remember years ago in Sydney working as a labourer, I would drag myself out of bed every cold dark morning by listening to the same Screamfeeder album.

Since living in Queensland, I’ve got to see them play a couple of times. And late in the year we got, for the first time in a decade, some new songs. Happily (because you don’t always get to say this about new music from old bands you like), all three songs are really good.

 

Kev Carmody – Livin’ In The Country

It wasn’t until the very end of the year that I heard the somewhat surprising news that one of my all-time favourite songwriters had released a new album. And not just one album, but in fact a four CD box set, of songs that Kev Carmody has had sitting around unrecorded, some for over 40 years.

Like every quadruple album ever made, it could probably have done with a bit of pruning. But the really wonderful thing about this album is that it was recorded in an old shed, where Kev apparently declared he didn’t want to use any drums or bass guitar – that instead they would use whatever was lying around in the shed for all the instruments beyond voice and guitar.

It’s a side of Kev Carmody’s music that has always been there but is not often discussed – he is a restless experimenter. And this album is just sonically amazing – like a bush Lee Perry. This song is a great example of that, as well as being a 2015 update on an old Kev Carmody theme – telling the stories of rural Australia.

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In the city

When I left my home town of Mudgee at 19, I had one destination in mind – the city. I maybe should have been a bit more specific, because I ended up living for the next five years in the scenic but unexciting outer southern suburbs of Sydney.

There are a lot of good things about those suburbs, and they definitely still provided plenty of exciting new experiences for a country kid, but still I realised pretty quickly that some of the things I had hoped for in the city experience were not to be found out in the ‘burbs.

So occasionally on days off I would catch the train into the city. I would get off at Town Hall or Central and just walk around – going to independent record or book stores, wandering the streets, taking myself to experience places with famous names like Hyde Park, Kings Cross or Woolloomoolloo. Sometimes I would walk all the way out to Glebe or Newtown, inner city suburbs with beautiful terrace houses and “alternative” styles that were absent from the sterile beachside suburbs.

The problem was that after a few trips I realised that these city adventures mostly would leave me feeling lonely or sad – moreso than if I had stayed at home. It made me reflect that despite the reputation of the suburbs, maybe the city wasn’t automatically a more welcoming or exciting place.

As I got older and thought more about these trips, I’ve come to see that me feeling lonely after a day of wandering around the city was inevitable – there might have been people everywhere, but I didn’t really have interactions with any of them. My relationship with the city was purely as a passive consumer – of products, places and sights.

Plus, I’ve spent a lot of time since then in inner cities around the country and still feel the same way most times. I’ve come to believe that despite all those people, the CBD is the most alienated place you can go. The reason for this I think is that since so few people live there, most people don’t feel especially connected or in control of that space – their connection is usually an economic basis. You go to the CBD to work, to shop, or like I did to consume an experience or culture. The “B” in CBD is the key part – it’s a place for business, and the logic of profit dominates the city and its layout.

For the hundreds or thousands of rough sleepers who do call the city home, it is hardly a place of connection. They are mostly there for proximity to services and people; but live with the constant threat of being moved on, without anywhere to relax or leave their stuff.

After years of occasionally going into the inner cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, the feelings conjured up are almost always the same – loneliness, anxiety, disgust at the vast amounts of pointless junk we buy and sell. And yet, I keep going back there.

This is because, as I intuitively understood when I first moved to Sydney as a teenager, the city plays another role besides the centre of business. It also acts as the hub for ideas and knowledge; the place where we meet together to hear and share views of how things are, and how they could be. The place to access and exchange all the accumulated thoughts that we call “culture”.

In philosophy there is this concept of “the city square”, which goes back to ancient Greek times, when cities were still new things and thinkers and theorists would take advantage of the people being in one place to expound their theories. It has come to signify the realm where ideas can be shared.

It’s funny that as our cities continue to sprawl outwards, our realm of ideas and access to culture has actually become more and more centralised. Where once live music could be experienced in a whole network of suburban pubs, these days no matter what the style of music you will probably have to go into an inner city suburb to see it. I’m not an expert on the visual art scene, but I certainly have never seen many galleries in the suburbs. Theoretical ideas like political discussions or demonstrations also happen almost entirely in the inner city.

It’s very hard to see this changing any time soon looking at the trend in (sub)urban development – public space where ideas could be exchanged is sadly lacking. Any kind of chance encounter with a new person or thought is almost impossible, with new suburbs looking like vast swathes of private housing, only occasionally interrupted by private shopping malls and private carparks.

Tragically, while this is the state of new developments out on the fringes, the actual inner city is getting harder and harder to access. Once, inner city housing was cheap, which encouraged artists, activists and students who were interested in continuing the idea of the “city square”. These days though, the price of living in those tiny terrace houses has gone through the roof as a generation of urban professionals have rejected the suburbs and moved back into the city. The result is that people who want to dedicate the time and effort into a realm of ideas are priced out of living in the places where that can be made into a physical reality.

And ideas outside of a production/consumption mainstream are less able to survive in the city too. Art and culture have never been very profitable, but they could carve out a space because people valued that exchange of ideas. Now though, the number of community centres, independent stores, art galleries and live music venues in the city are dwindling, priced out by trendy shops and cafes.

Public space is an endangered species too, taken over by outdoor commercial spaces and policed by security guards armed with council by-laws allowing them to eject anyone doing political protest or anything that might disrupt the shopping experience. In Brisbane, any public gathering of over 50 people is technically meant to apply for a permit, otherwise you can be fined.

Our changing relationship to the city and the way the subsequent gentrification has affected these places is well documented. But it’s also important to consider our relationship to the “city square” – the places (physical and ethereal) where we can exchange different ideas. Do we value ideas outside of dominant paradigms? If we do then how can we ensure there are spaces where these ideas can be developed and shared? I guess in a lot of ways the internet plays that role today, but I think that fundamental to any idea is the ability to put it into practice, which without physical places and relationships seems very difficult to do.

It may be that answers lie not in preserving the city as it once was, but by seeking to create new, decentralised “city squares” in different places, utilising different technologies and creative ways of thinking about space. I wouldn’t especially miss the big buildings, loud traffic and crowded streets of the CBD. But for all of us who feel a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a belief that things could be better, literal and metaphorical city squares are very important.

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Not A Number

Growing up in a small country town and being obsessed with discovering strange new music had its complications. One was that there was no “music scene”. In fact with each new style that I discovered; be it punk, reggae, soul or 80’s post-punk; I didn’t know a single other person who was into the music I was listening to.

Another complication was how to actually find music. Triple J was invaluable as a starter point, but pretty soon my hunger for new sounds was seeking more than it offered. Staying up late on a Saturday night to watch Rage was great for discovering music from the past, but I wanted more. The internet was an incredible resource, but it was not like today’s internet – no youtube, no streaming, dial-up download speed. A lot of music I would read about long before I would ever hear it.

My home town of Mudgee had one CD shop. Well, technically it wasn’t just a music store – half of it was taken up with books, and a small section sold role-player games like Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons. The music selection was small and not very diverse. You could order in CDs they didn’t have in stock, but they could literally take months to come in. Fortunately there was one other place in town where you could buy music. The local hock shop, called “The Trading Post”, was a second hand music goldmine.

I have no idea how some of the obscure and varied music ever got on to the shelves of that shop. But it started what was to become a long-lasting hobby of trawling through the music section of second hand stores, and taught me a valuable lesson – sometimes the more random the location, the better the haul. From its ever-changing selection of second hand CDs I not only got some of the big alternative acts of the time like Grinspoon, Jebediah and Frenzal Rhomb; but I first heard a number of artists who I would go on to love – Bob Marley, The Pixies, MxPx, Billy Bragg plus many more.

And it was cheap too (every CD was $8, which isn’t very cheap these days, but back then people had to actually pay for music and $8 was cheap). So sometimes if I went there and didn’t see anything I knew, I could just take a punt on something with a cool name or a cool looking cover.

Sure, this strategy had a few misses. But it was this habit that led me, when I was 16 years old, to picking up a compilation called Not A Number.

The album cover was a fistPhoto-0144 punching through a barcode. There were 14 bands and 24 songs on it. I had heard of none of them, but even as someone fairly new to the genre I could decipher they were probably punk bands.

Once I got home and put it on, I discovered that it was indeed punk bands – it was a compilation put out by a Brisbane based label called Mouthbreeder Records. It was mostly pop punk, with some ska, a bit of hardcore, an instrumental surf band, and one slow grungey song that I didn’t like and would always skip.

I loved this album. It was lo-fi (I listened to it for the first time in many years this week and some of those songs are so badly recorded you can not distinguish any instruments except a snare drum thwacking away); the songs were about things like missing the bus, playing in a crap band, and pretending to like someone because they’re a friend of a friend. My favourites were a joyous ska song called “WOW” by Fetish that I have never had any idea what any of the words are; and “Skateboard” by Girls Germs, with its opening line “I wish I could ride a skateboard, then I’d be like all the punk rock kids.”

Photo-0145It was the joy of punk music that endeared it to me – these bands were not famous, technically brilliant or with access to good recording equipment. But they could write songs that were catchy, funny and about their own lives. The virtues of DIY. I could only imagine living in a city where a punk scene existed, and people made their own wonderful music, for their own friends, with no need for boring rockstars singing about fake emotions.

There was one other thing about that CD that influenced me a lot. Inside the front cover was a little graphic for a radio station – 4ZZZ 102.1mHz. I got on the computer and looked up this radio station. I don’t remember what I found on the website, but I do remember having my imagination captured by the thought of a community radio station that played alternative local music (even if it wasn’t the clearest recording), and covered alternative local issues.

Today I actually picked up the CD for probably the first time in a decade, and I realised that the only thing linking Not A Number and 4ZZZ is that one little graphic in the artwork. So strongly have the two been linked in my head that I have always assumed that zed  actually released the compilation. And though I loved the music on the album (listening to it again, I still do), I have heard virtually no more music from any of these bands. 4ZZZ though, I kept investigating. Further second hand shopping adventures netted me “Lots Of Brisbane Punk Bands”, curated by zed presenter Rollo and put out by the station; plus the only ever 4ZZZ Hot 100 album – before I had ever spent a night in Brisbane. When I drove through Brisbane on the M1 with some friends once, I insisted on tuning in. When I met Brisbanites, I would invariably ask about the station.

Those who know me will know where the story goes from here. It took me five years after leaving Mudgee to end up in Brisbane, and two more after that till I began volunteering at 4ZZZ, but I have come to be more and more involved – to the point that this month when 4ZZZ celebrated its 40th anniversary, I was in the studio, presenting a history of the station’s news reporting.

Having written all of this, I’m not quite sure what the moral of the story is that brings it all together. It’s definitely fun to reminisce about being a teenager and discovering things for the first time, imagining what wonders the outside world could hold. I also don’t mind singing the praises of second hand music shopping, even today when nearly everything in the world is googleable.

Maybe it’s just coincidence that I picked up that CD as a teenager and later ended up involved at 4ZZZ – certainly there were a lot of other factors involved. But I think reflecting on it all, I’m grateful for that spirit of exploration that led me to seek out music I’d never heard of as a kid, that led to me looking up information about a radio station more than 1000km away. That same spirit of exploration would keep me always asking “but what else is out there? What else is possible?”

It meant that when those city punk scenes didn’t turn out quite like I had imagined, I made my own music and organised my own shows. It led to me getting involved in community radio and trying to create the kind of media I wish we had. I’m not a teenager any more, but I hope that I can still hold onto that spirit. And I hope that more and more kids keep emerging with that same questing enthusiasm.

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