In April I blew half a tax return on tickets to Martha Wainwright and All Tomorrow’s Parties ‘Release the Bats’ music festival.
“We can’t afford it,” my partner said and that was true. I was working a lot then, writing a book, but I was working for free. My small advance was gone. My small Creative New Zealand grant was gone too.
I wrote about five hours a day, while the kids were at school. Then the kids would come home and another four or five hours of work would begin. The next morning, the work would start again: dishes, breakfast, washing, ending fights, peeling carrots, grating cheese, plaiting hair, signing notes, dispensing money, picking up dog poo, making the bed.
I also volunteered at the primary school and delivered food once a week for Second Bite, a food rescue charity. Like so many other people, I was a hard worker in the care economy, the ocean the flows beneath the money economy, sustaining it, enabling it, keeping it afloat.
Unlike many others, I had a partner who was being paid for his work and a house with a manageable mortgage. We had enough. We were fortunate. I knew that. I saw that each week when I dropped off boxes of salvaged tomatoes, apples and spuds to the commission flats in Kensington.
Even so, it was remarkably easy to buy those concert tickets, to relish them as some sort of reward for all the stuff I did for free and why not?
Martha Wainwright was on in August at the Melbourne Recital Centre. I took my middle daughter, who had just turned nine. At intermission I let her choose whatever she wanted from the bar. She had a Coke and an Aero bar. We stood together by the black windows and watched the lights change on the Arts Centre spire. My daughter broke off a piece of chocolate with a delicate snap and offered it to me. She sipped her drink through a bendy straw.
“I’ve never had Coke from a bottle before mum,” she said.
In the dazzling gold-tiled toilets, she stood in front of the long mirror and admired herself from all angles, turning forward and back, smiling so her dimples showed. She stood there for a full minute, maybe more, totally unconcerned about what everyone else might think. Imagine being that free! I couldn’t remember that feeling but I could catch a bit of it by watching her.
In an interview with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, South African artist William Kentridge explained why his drawings suggested nostalgia for Modernism and a sense of relief that it was over. “The nostalgia in the work is connected with moments of childhood that one tries to reclaim as a touchstone for authentic experience,” Kentridge said.
Like children, musicians seem to have the gift of “authentic experience” and when I watch them perform, I feel some of that intense abandonment rub off on me. The best moment of Martha Wainwright’s gig was the first song, ‘This Life’, not a track I like that much on her debut album because the tone is sort of sickly but my God the version she did that night was one of the most brutal, devastating things I’ve seen.
Last Saturday, I took my partner to ‘Release the Bats’. Neither of us had very high hopes. Ticket sales had been so poor that the promoters had moved the one-day event from the gigantic Westgate Entertainment Centre in Altona to The Palais and The Prince Bandroom in St Kilda. Two overseas acts, Jesus Lizard and Forest Swords, had cancelled. There had been no mention of the festival on the radio or in the paper. “Is it even still on?” my partner said.
Late on the Friday night, I heard Kim Deal from The Breeders on 3RRR. The band was going to play their 1993 album, Last Splash, from start to finish. This had excited me in April but now I felt depressed. All yesterday’s parties: Last Splash was 20 years old. I was 45 years old. Kim Deal must be 45 years old or more. Another act was Television. Their album Marquee Moon came out in 1977 so that would make those guys at least 50. “They were the only punk band who could actually play their instruments,” my partner said.
I remember seeing pink paint sprayed on the footpath on Gover Street, New Plymouth, in 1977. It said: “DISCO IS DEAD”. The punk graffitist had sprayed an anarchy sign next to it, a symbol that meant nothing to the nine-year-old me.
We got to St Kilda and collected our wristbands. Hoss and Total Control were first. At the back of the dark bandroom, a svelte performer called ‘Pricasso’ painted people’s portraits with his penis. Then we went back to The Palais for Television, who played Marquee Moon’s eponymous track with all the calculated cool of superior jazz musicians, and The Scientists (also excellent).
Next was the Fuck Buttons. I had never heard of this act before and didn’t know what to expect. Two men stood on either side of an enormous mirrored disco ball while their shadows played across a big screen. The music started up, slow, loud, industrial electronica and then the pace began to build and so did the volume until it reached such a monumental level that I could feel my eardrums vibrating. My heart had slowed down in time with the bass notes but my head was speeding with all the rest, including the shrieks of one of the Buttons. I was completely sober but had the uncanny sensation of ears, heart and head all beating at different speeds. It was amazing.
In the concert booklet, Fuck Buttons describe their three albums as “more like snapshots of an ever evolving mess”. Their music, my life, the line resonated deeply.
Outside, Luna Park was lit. The red mouth leered at Television’s Tom Verlaine. “Straight to the airport,” he told the driver.
I jogged along the Esplanade to catch up with Mike at the Prince. He had decided to check out Sleep. “So let’s dispense with ‘stoner’ and ‘doom’ and while ‘metal’ is a good catchall even that does what SLEEP does an injustice,” the booklet had said. Both of us were intrigued.
I rushed up the stairs, through a sweet fog of weed. The room was packed, thrumming, hot. I could only see the bass guitarist. He had long black sweaty hair stuck to his face and he had no shirt on. Unlike all the other musos, still carefully in shape and marked with artful tatts, this guy was fat and his tattoos were dark blue slabs with watery edges. He was sneering at the crowd but also hamming it up too. The moshpit heaved. Bodies were passed from head to head. Every head in the room nodded in time to the slow, heavy beat and the ridiculous, guttural voice of the lead singer. Doom metal! Why had it taken me so long to discover this genre, this band? Mike was in heaven. He stayed for the whole thing, missing The Breeders.
He even bought a black band T-shirt. It says SLEEP and has a picture of a space man with octopus arms on the front. “Sorry I took so long but there was a whole lot of metal guys buying four or five each. That’s their clothes shopping for the year,” he said. “The guy before me asked for XXL but the stall had sold out.”
Later, we googled Sleep. The band had released two albums in the early 1990s. They got signed with a big label to make their third. Dopesmoker was to have consisted of only one track, more than 60 minutes long. The record label refused to release it, the band refused to budge. “Frustrated and generally unhappy with the situation, the member of Sleep decided to disband,” the Wikipedia entry said.
The gig we saw was one of the sporadic live dates Sleep has done since reforming in 2009. You’ve got to take authenticity where you can find it.