feature | Andrew Ramadge

193-coverOVERLAND 193
summer 2008

published 19 November 2008


Andrew Ramadge on sex, drugs and Lemon

It took six words for Louise Dickinson to become the most infamous music journalist in Australia. In February 1993 she published a particularly vicious review of female duo Club Hoy in Lemon, a small-run music fanzine stocked in independent record stores and swapped by mail. ‘These girls need a good raping,’ wrote Dickinson in her opening lines, in reference to the band’s saccharine promotion of safe sex.

The following week a small piece appeared in veteran music journalist Stuart Coupe’s industry news column in Sydney street magazine Drum Media, reporting hearsay that Club Hoy was contemplating legal action over the comment. One week later, after he had been faxed a copy of the original review, Coupe ran a larger piece, condemning the article as ‘a true low point in music journalism’. It was the start of a short but explosive clash between the underground and mainstream. Other zine publishers wrote in support of Dickinson’s right to free speech, while members of the music industry assembled to retaliate on the band’s behalf.

On Monday, 15 March 1993, Club Hoy’s record label Regular Records launched a joint campaign with the Australian Women’s Contemporary Music Association to draw media attention to the review and to boycott advertising in Lemon. Other local record labels such as Polydor, Phantom, Au Go Go, Red Eye and rooArt were urged to follow suit. On Tuesday, Coupe reported the campaign in his column and was asked to write a feature on the scandal and sexism in the music industry in general for the Sydney Morning Herald. His story ran on Thursday under the headline ‘The song remains the same’, next to an unrelated piece titled ‘One of society’s losers’. In Coupe’s article, Julia Richardson of Club Hoy and Kathy Bail, editor of the Australian edition of Rolling Stone, denounced the review, while Dickinson argued that her readers would not have taken the remark seriously. Later in the piece Dickinson questioned why an equivalent campaign had not been staged to boycott Virgin Records over the forthcoming album by North American rapper Ice-T, which was scheduled to be released that week with cover art seemingly depicting a black man raping a white woman.

As commuters read the story on the train, phone calls began coming in from television producers. On Thursday morning Dickinson fielded calls from A Current Affair and breakfast news show Today before the phone line in her share house was unexpectedly disconnected. Teams from both shows arrived on her doorstep, but it was Janet Gibson from A Current Affair who got the interview. Spurned, the Today crew camped outside the house and filmed Dickinson and her flatmate walking down the street between conducting radio interviews on a public telephone at the pub down the road. The story, with an apology from Dickinson, ran as the second item on the evening news bulletin of national youth broadcaster Triple J. Letters began arriving in the mail, most of them angry. One came from Kate Ceberano’s manager; another from the members of pop band Things of Stone and Wood. A third letter, from a particularly outraged fan of Club Hoy, suggested Dickinson should kill herself. A copy had also been sent to Drum Media‘s rival publication On The Street, where it was republished in full. On Friday night, A Current Affair‘s segment ran with an introduction from Mike Munro as ‘a truly disturbing story’. The whole affair was described by Dickinson in a blow-by-blow feature in the next issue of Lemon. She was less than repentant.

‘To be perfectly honest I don’t give a flying fuck what the mainstream media and people think/thought of my remarks,’ she wrote in the editorial of Lemon number 16, alongside exhortations to maim and kill various former flatmates who split owing her household money, a trashing of newsstand music magazines Juice and Spin, and an uncomfortably positive obituary of notorious criminal Garry Webb – ‘an inspiration to all self-mutilators’ – who spent most of his life in prison and died of a self-inflicted stomach wound on 11 June. The page opposite ran a simple advertisement created on a typewriter for a small shop in Adelaide hawking books by ‘Burroughs, Bukowski, Crowley, Manson, various serial killers and more’. On page eighteen, Dickinson ran the transcript of an interview with musician Dave Graney, with the highlighted quote: ‘You start screaming by the side of the road that your life is screwed up and yelling at the traffic to stop, and they just keep going.’ The following three pages were given to question-and-answer pieces with graphic artists known for creating controversial record covers. One of the staple questions was about their ‘brushes with censorship’.

The reviews pages – long-titled ‘Lemon Juice’ but appearing in later issues under the heading ‘The Music Police’ – were no less inflammatory. ‘Excuse me, I just have to step out & sacrifice some animals,’ Dickinson joked while describing a heavy punk band from Geelong. She endorsed speed for the enjoyment of certain records and marijuana for others, described one band as ‘more fun than a public decapitation of Jeff Kennett’ and compared another to ‘Tarzan fucking Jane inside a dumpster w/ the chimp banging on all 6 surfaces, wanting to join in’. Her manic reviews of 164 vinyl singles, demo tapes, compact discs and zines, most of them created by bands long since forgotten and not likely to appear in any history books, were sprawled across seven pages. Common words like guitar and vocals were abbreviated to ‘gtr’ and ‘vox’ to save space. Scattershot thoughts were hurled at the page in snippets and half-sentences that would make the most hardened sub-editor bawl. Under particularly abrasive comments or judgements going against the grain of pop music dogma Dickinson printed a PO Box address and an invitation to send hate mail.

At the heart of the issue was a double page spread titled ‘Miffed Muff – Club Hoy, Censorship & Me’, a cut-and-paste recap of the Club Hoy scandal from Dickinson’s point of view. The most prominent letters, articles and newspaper snippets were republished in detail, with Dickinson’s commentary bridging them. Encounters between the Lemon crew and other media figures were described in a bemused tone that emphasised just how far removed their worlds were. Of the unlucky Today reporter who was pipped by A Current Affair, Dickinson wrote: ‘He was trying to act young and swore a lot in an effort to communicate with me! But I knew he was a fuckwit cuz he freaked when Arlo jumped on his suit … He laid down a big guilt trip (he’d hired a $1000 a day film crew and his boss would be pissed at him etc.). Then he said he didn’t have much money, but could offer me dinner for two to the value of $100 if I’d do the interview. Fuck, I may be cheap but I’m not that cheap! I could eat for two weeks on $100.’ The final taunt was a reminder that Club Hoy’s label, Regular Records, had yet to pay for their last advertisement.

Lemon was first published in 1987 as a photocopied fanzine with text laid out using a typewriter and headlines drawn in black pen, created by Dickinson and a few contributors. By the time of the Club Hoy saga, it had grown into a semi-professional format with a glossy cover and a print run of around 2000 copies across Australia and in cities in Europe, Canada and Asia. During its lifespan the zine ran articles on local and overseas alternative bands including the Saints, Underground Lovers, God, Sonic Youth and Metallica, and featured names still familiar in Australian music journalism today. Barry Divola, Tony Mott and Bob Blunt all appeared in Lemon, alongside regular contributors such as Craig Kamber, Joanna Palmer and Lisa Palermo.

The boisterous and autobiographical style of writing that Dickinson had adopted in later issues of Lemon, displaying a sometimes contradictory desire to offend and to amuse, extended even to jokes about her own death. Two years after the Club Hoy scandal Dickinson published a series of columns in TMT number 14, April 1995, titled ‘5 Weeks And Counting’, ‘Time At Ward 44′ and ‘Escape From … Monash Medical’.

‘I am proof that it is still possible to indulge in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll whilst in the psych ward,’ she boasted from the High Dependency Unit of Monash Medical Centre in Melbourne. Almost certainly with a degree of poetic licence, Dickinson described various suicide attempts and wrote about smuggling heroin and vodka into the hospital, having sex with her supplier in the bathroom and escaping at night to go drinking in St Kilda, a few suburbs away. ‘Hopefully by the time you read this I’ll be out of this prison, er hospital … Or better still maybe I’ll be dead!’ she wrote.

Dickinson died of an overdose of prescription medication in Sydney five weeks later.

For a time in the early 1990s, Dickinson was at the forefront of underground music journalism in Australia. She urged friends and readers of Lemon to create their own zines and, in a story told by one author, walked around town with new writers making sure that they didn’t wimp out from placing their work in local record stores. Other zines such as TMT, The Skills Of Defensive Driving and Underworld named her as an inspiration in their opening pages and published ‘Louise updates’ below each issue’s editorial, informing readers of what Dickinson was working on and when the next Lemon would be released.

One such update, on the inside cover of Underworld number 2, winter 1995, read: ‘Louise is doing up a photocopied version of Lemon at the moment which should be out soon.’ Sixty-five pages later in the same issue, nestled above an advertisement for PolyGram records, a short ‘Stop Press’ notice announced her death. ‘On Wednesday, May 24th, 1995, the Australian zine industry lost its unofficial figurehead’, it read. ‘Louise, founder of Lemon fanzine, was found dead in her Sydney home. Louise’s mother had died from cancer two weeks before. Louise was responsible, more than anyone else, for putting Australian indie press on the map and was influential in getting a lot of local music out to the world.’

The next issue of Underworld featured a longer obituary with tributes from Dickinson’s father John, close friend and long-time Lemon contributor Cameron Craig, and the authors of zines in Perth, Sydney and Germany. That it was published in the short-lived Underworld was significant in itself. Underworld represented a half-way point between two cultures, one dying and the other emerging. Alongside independent record reviews and interviews with underground musicians, it ran pioneering features on the possibilities of internet radio, video game culture and web-based chat – one of the first signs of engagement with the technologies that would revolutionise both mainstream and underground media, making independent physical publishing outmoded and heralding the rise of its replacement, the weblog.

‘Louise’s achievements in promoting Australian music to the world far outweigh an offhand remark that served as fodder for sensation,’ wrote Underworld editor David Higgins, himself a former Lemon writer, who would go on to captain the flagship websites of both Fairfax and News Limited a decade later.

Today Lemon is almost impossible to find. A handful of copies are archived in the State Library of NSW, and others are auctioned on eBay every now and again by record collectors in Europe because of the 7-inch vinyl singles that accompanied certain issues.

Few publications like it exist today. While some forms of zine-making culture have survived the rise of internet publishing – titles connected, for instance, to political and artistic communities or to locales like pubs – music journalists as a whole have embraced newer technology and moved online. In part, their migration reflects widespread changes in music consumption which have led listeners to expect instant access to material, either legally through websites such as MySpace and YouTube, or through illegal file-sharing avenues. The same technologies have enabled journalists publishing on the web to embed or link to the music they are writing about within their own text, rather than relying on the chance that their readers have already visited a local record store and purchased a copy of the song in question. Blogs have become the accepted replacement for not only the photocopied fanzine but also the mixtape, the venue notice board and, increasingly, mainstream music publications as well.

The opportunities afforded by blogs are obvious and often-repeated – the internet gives marginalised voices potential exposure to the world in a format that, if not entirely free, is far less costly than traditional publishing.

The drawback is a twist on the same. Most blogs never gain more than a few hundred readers – but it’s always possible that they might. At any moment, a stranger – or thousands of strangers or a major news outlet – might link to an article that was never intended to be scrutinised by so many people nor to be taken out of the context of its surrounding works. That possibility results in a type of stage fright for some writers, who censor themselves in the knowledge that so much information can be found with a few clicks of the mouse.

There is an anecdote in an early issue of Lemon that sheds some light on the differences between zine-making and web publishing. In issue number 6, July-August 1988, Dickinson ran the first piece in a series about Australian new wave music from the 1970s – except it didn’t have as much to do with bands like X and The Scientists as with her. She began: ‘I was just about to sit down and start this article by apologising for my self indulgence. But considering that Lemon has been going for nearly a year now and I haven’t been self indulgent yet, I reckon it’s about time. Anyway I was about to sit down and write that when there was a knock at my door. It was the guy who lives upstairs.’

As the article explains, Dickinson’s neighbour had approached her to demand she stop playing such ‘angry’ music – a request she considered unreasonable, especially since she had complied with an earlier one to stop practising the drums. After he left, she continued: ‘At this moment I wish I had a gun so I could go up there and yell at him, and he’d have to listen to me and not yell back. But realistically all I can do is complain about him in my stupid fanzine that no-one probably reads anyway.’

Importantly, Lemon was not just an outlet for articles on bands that were ignored elsewhere but also for Dickinson’s anger. It appeared on the page as pure nihilism. Unlike many of her contemporaries – such as the generation of zine authors inspired by the early 1990s Riot Grrl movement who drew on elements of feminist politics, do-it-yourself culture and punk music – Dickinson’s rage never appeared to focus on any particular injustice or advocate much in the way of change. The persona she created was the ultimate outsider, a cynic beyond redemption, who approached everything other than rock and roll and self-destruction with malicious scepticism. After the Sydney Morning Herald article on sexism in the music industry was published, she shared an inside joke with her readers. The line that she had fed the paper about Ice-T’s sexist cover art was just a smokescreen, she said – just an empty ploy to divert the attention from herself.

In any case, Dickinson’s suggestion that the members of Club Hoy ‘needed a good raping’ was indefensible, and no doubt caused a great deal of hurt. It should never have been said – even in the context of a celebration of that which should not be said. Moreover, Dickinson knew it. ‘I did think twice when I wrote it,’ she admitted in the next issue of Lemon.

What allowed Dickinson to play the role of villain so well was her assumption that ‘no-one probably read’ her ‘stupid fanzine’. Without a wide audience to worry about, Dickinson could say anything she liked. Even as the zine grew in size, its readership was capped by the small number of copies printed, and most likely consisted of other like-minded writers and readers Dickinson knew in person or at least in name. Her defence of the review of Club Hoy – that readers would not have taken her comments seriously – had more substance than would have appeared on first glance, even if it didn’t excuse the remark. Dickinson quite possibly did not expect that her review would ever be seen outside of Lemon‘s tight-knit readership, who knew to take her with a grain of salt. For better or worse, she felt safe in expressing herself to her audience.

Something has been lost in music journalism’s move online. Much of the spark has faded, with criticism on the web too often falling into bland and uncritical fandom or tiresome attempts to legitimise pop music as a form of high art. Just how safe the ground these efforts tread becomes apparent when flicking through old copies of Lemon. Dickinson’s unmediated thoughts jump thrillingly off the page – the textual equivalent of brushing one’s hand over broken glass or trying to walk along an imaginary tightrope on the pavement without ‘falling over the edge’.

It may seem strange to praise a writer whose most notable statement was so reprehensible. But as an outsider author, Dickinson is a captivating figure, as much for her turbulent and tragic life as her words. She epitomises a style of underground writing harder to find today than it was two decades ago, now that online authors have traded the freedom of expression that came with a bounded readership in return for the technological advantages of the internet.

Andrew Ramadge is an Australian journalist. He writes about technology and pop music, and is currently working on a biography of Louise Dickinson.
© Andrew Ramadge
193-summer 2008, p. 32

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