Reply to Anwyn Crawford’s ‘The monarch of middlebrow’
Thank heavens someone – and, what a delicious irony, a woman – should finally point out (Overland 197) that the Emperor (I know he would prefer King, but then I’ve seen him referred to as St Nick – the Devil, of course, rather than the man torturing reindeer at the North Pole) has no clothes. Perhaps the one point that Anwyn Crawford might have explored more fully was just why Cave is today lionised as Australia’s equivalent to America’s Lou Reed, despite the fact that even his most vociferous champions have yet to recast the work of the Birthday Party into a cultural ‘legacy’ to match the reverence which the Velvet Underground’s canon receives.
Of course the signposts for all this unswerving reverence are all there in Crawford’s piece, and it begins with the ‘gatekeepers of Australian cultural life’. In terms of the beginnings of the mythologising of Nick Cave, that’s down to the coterie of music journalists who came of age at the same time the Birthday Party began to perform in and around an (at the time) indifferent, if not downright hostile, Melbourne in 1978. All desperately in the thrall of the ‘new’ music journalism coming out of the UK courtesy New Musical Express and Melody Maker as well as America’s equally loose ‘gonzo’ school headed up by the inveterate misogynist Hunter S. Thompson, these writers have become the taste makers of today: think rock historians like Clinton Walker and Toby Creswell and (former) record label heads like Roger Grierson. They have proven far more successful at mythologising their ‘moment in the sun’ – the halcyon days of Australia’s heroin-fuelled punk, 1977 through 1982 – than any other generation, including the one these cultural arbiters expended so much energy demonising, the dreaded ‘sixties hippies’.
The biggest coup on Cave’s part, however, was staying away from Australia. It might not have paid off, of course. Exile hasn’t given another icon of the punk holy trinity, singer Chris Bailey of the Saints, the credibility it has Cave, despite the wonderfully Oscar Wilde pretension Bailey exudes whenever he visits ‘home’. While the surviving Birthday Party members have barely eked a living out of music in Australia, the mere fact that Cave based himself first in Berlin (sage nods of approval: the city that remade Bowie and Iggy Pop), Rio (anyone remember the glamorous model wife?) and finally Brighton, UK (er … um … well it’s the UK, innit!) and the sheer weight of his output, whether with the Bad Seeds, soundtracks, side projects or writings, has ensured he hasn’t joined the forgotten heroes of that other third of the punk holy trinity, Radio Birdman, whose frontman Rob Younger survives here in Sydney essentially forgotten by the contemporary scene.
Would Cave be as lionised had he returned to Australia? No more than Younger when Birdman – or his post-Birdman band, the New Christs – reunites for a quick nostalgic spin round the country on their way to proper respect in a low-key US or European tour, or the ‘cerebral’ half of the Saints, Ed Kuepper, either revisits the post-Saints Laughing Clowns or his own solid solo catalogue. As it is, the impact of these resurfacings lessens as the years pass, despite the loyalty of the cultural gatekeepers whose careers were so firmly based upon the original incarnations. Without them, even Kuepper, Younger and company might end up as forgotten as pretty much every other Australian artist who has achieved anything in this country on a commercial level, from Ross ‘Daddy Cool/Mondo Rock’ Wilson to Richard ‘Girls on the Avenue’ Clapton to … fill in your own favourite.
Crawford suggests that Cave, the deference to whose work ‘grows in inverse proportion to its increasing mediocrity’, has become, not the Renaissance man he would have us believe, but the ‘Monarch of the Middlebrow’. Perhaps even that is giving him too much credit. After all, what he’s been doing for the most part is recasting the ‘murder ballads’ of seventeenth and eighteenth century Britain in the mould of black America’s original badboy hero Staggerlee for twenty-five years, with the same sort of diminishing returns that AC/DC has had recasting Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley through the brassiere of Aussie pub rock. In 1984, Ignatius Jones, one-time controversial frontman of outrageous Sydney post-punk ironists Jimmy & the Boys, suggested to me that Australian music was enduring a ‘tyranny of the amateur’. Perhaps in Cave and in the acolytes who still champion the moment when he and they ‘came of age’ we can still make out the fringes of that fading tyranny.
Michael George Smith, Associate Editor, Drum Media
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when you go into any bookshop in New York the first thing you see is a table full of books about New York. Same in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Denver and New Orleans and … and … and … But when we – as in we Australians – want to publish our own stories we are labelled as ‘parochial, even reactionary’ (‘Editorial’, Overland 197). Even by our own intelligentsia. Where’s the pride? Why the nervousness?
It seems bizarre that the countries that dominate the global economy (which I’ve always thought of as a kind of oxymoron) are allowed to be parochial, whereas we are not. Or we think we’re not. Thus it ever was: once a colony but still a colonial mindset.
A solid export industry depends on a solid industry at home. Will the digital age change this? Will the digital age mean that all of a sudden those in the northern hemisphere are going to be seeking out the work of Australian writers.
I am grateful to Overland for hosting Peter Mitchell’s review (Overland 197) of my book Fragments from a Paper Witch but wonder if you could post a corrected extract from the poem ‘The Word Here’, which was quoted, possibly through transcription error, in a curiously truncated form, which renders it nonsensical. The quoted lines should actually read:
no breathing space to mark
your name your fierce
intelligence still flaring
with monographs on Stead
& White open at your side
when they shut you down
Thank you for your consideration,
Marion May Campbell