I can see myself lying on the bed. I’ve been awake for days; I’ve lost track of time. I feel like I’m somebody else. I’m busy, busy pretending to forget who I used to be.
The music inside my skull backgrounds everything I do, high frequencies standing up the hair on the back of my neck and turning my mouth dry as sandpaper. The music drills into my nervous system, its bitter dissonance chemical-sour in the back of my throat, while the world shrieks with mystery.
Here by the bay, we are reinventing ourselves in a new image, with something we’ve never seen before reflected in each other’s eyes.
But the light …
The light is very deceptive …
The front door of the St Kilda house I’m sharing with two tearaway schoolgirls is never locked. People come and go as they please. There is a box of stale cornflakes, a few chipped cups and a bowl in the kitchen cupboard. Several chairs scavenged from the street sit on the scarred linoleum floor near a box of groceries my mum brought over because she said I was looking bone-thin last time she saw me – which was a while ago, before I moved out.
Not that I told her I was leaving; I just walked out one night and didn’t come back.
I wear the same clothes all the time, adapted from the racks of a Salvation Army store: suits and shirts in various shades of black. Old men’s clothes. Even better with holes.
Nothing seems worth explaining. I don’t want to talk. Nothing offends me quite like a question.
Music is my obsession. Joy Division’s Ian Curtis hanged himself six months ago; some people said it was because he was married. Married? The three of us in the house come from broken homes, where marriage went out of fashion around the same time as tie-dye, patchouli, marijuana and folk music.
The Lounge Lizards’ no-wave jazz spins on the turntable, the guitarist making his instrument sound like it’s been put through a Vitamiser.
The Channel Nine all-night movie marathon broadcasts old films until dawn. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil introduces me to Henry Mancini’s noir orchestrations. Bowie’s ‘Five Years’ has echoed through my teenage brain long enough; I write and record atonal songs on a TEAC cassette recorder until it’s time to go to work in an unslept trance.
The warehouse manager, who has been on my case since I was hired a fortnight ago, lies in wait in the basement men’s room. He kicks in the cubicle door: I’m reading a music magazine. He fires me for slacking on the job. Of course I am slacking off. What does he expect? Nobody could take that mindless job seriously.
The boss tells me to grab my stuff and leave before he goes me – not an even contest. I’m too dumbstruck to even answer back.
I find Richard as I’m making my exit and grab the guitar – a white Rickenbacker copy – that he is selling me because he needs cash to see AC/DC at the Myer Music Bowl. It’s spray-painted chop-shop white, and the neck and the body are separated.
I’m broke, can’t get the dole because I’ve been fired, and don’t know how I’ll afford to have the guitar glued and bolted back together.
I carry the parts home, walking ten kilometres down Punt Road to the house on Wellington Street.
The girls are in the kitchen with their friends, daintily shooting speed. They laugh like strobe lights, speaking sweet nothings in shrill voices. Amphetamines swirl like Wizz Fizz, the packaged sherbet powder they’ve exchanged for a more decadent high. They are getting ready for a party here this evening, safety-pinning the heads of kewpie dolls to the lapels of their faded trench coats and tying ribbons in their hair.
Who’s coming? I ask.
Wait and see, they reply.
That means they don’t know. More strangers, more chaos.
I go to warn Bill, the downstairs neighbour, of our plans for the night. Bill manages an independent record store on Greville Street, one of only two shops in the entire city where you can hear the latest underground releases from Britain and the USA. The records are vinyl imports, expensive and mysterious, and they arrive after several months in shipping containers.
Bill plays the Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, records he thinks I’ll like.
Upstairs, we have a small collection of thirty-odd albums that spin relentlessly, day in and night out. The default album is Public Image’s Metal Box – anarchic electric guitar music, the sound of speed.
It’s 1981 and provocation is the new entertainment. Provocation and shock get you noticed, get you more gigs, maybe a record deal. We dig deep into the unbeautiful, looking for a piece of music we can brand our own.
The band rehearses in my bedroom. A pale, raven-haired girl I’ve been seeing is on lead vocals, but she can’t really sing. The rest of the band becomes impatient. She throws a tantrum and storms out of the room, smashing random objects. I take the microphone myself and scream while slashing on the beat-up Burns solid-body six-string electric I swapped for a few Clash vinyls and a flagon of Penfolds claret with a teenage alcoholic from down the road.
The guitar turned out to be untuneable and, anyway, I’ve got my eye on a cut-down Maton Firebird at the Chapel Street Pawnbrokers. $120 dollars and it’s mine – but $120 dollars is a month’s rent, and money’s one thing I don’t have.
Somehow we need to make a name for ourselves. We need to get some gigs and make some money and buy proper instruments.
I load another cassette into the playback deck we use for background noise while Robin writes a neat musical score on a Hohner electric piano.
The drummer suddenly announces that he has to go home soon because of a death in the family. Incredulous, I abort the rehearsal and walk up Chapel Street to the Hare Krishna soup kitchen, Gopals. Before I’ve even sat down to eat, an orange-sheeted Hare Krishna case manager starts chatting me up about religion and spirituality and I realise I’ve been coming here too often.
The free rice and vegetable goulash stick in my throat. I’ve already had my share of God and the Bible at the boys’ school I finished with last year. I spent most of final term suspended, killing time in a suburban bedroom listening to The Pop Group’s ‘We Are All Prostitutes’.
The apartment is full of people, most of whom I don’t know. They sit or sprawl on the floor, sharing rollie cigarettes and beer, while Gang of Four plays on the turntable. The air is thick with tobacco and cat shit.
I try to hide out in my room but a couple is making the beast with two backs in my bed. The bathroom is locked; I can hear people inside having sex, knocking things over, yelling at me to fuck off and die.
In the lounge room, a tall guy with glasses and a mouth as full-lipped as a goldfish is busily engraving our vinyl records, one by one, with a metal geometric compass. Don’t be angry, says his girlfriend, it’s just that he’s off his medication. He’s drawing sunbeams on the records because he loves music. He doesn’t mean any harm.
I move the band rehearsals into a loft over a Chapel Street white goods store where two girls have a screen-printing set-up and a vacant room. The room was formerly a painter’s studio and is splattered – walls, floor and ceiling – with violent colour.
The girls invite two rockabilly boys to audition for our band on bass and drums, and we get on well together. The band suddenly has a big backbeat. We get down to work.
Robin draws complex musical charts on the walls in sign language for a song that changes time signature every sixty seconds. It’s like snake handling. We drill it over and over again because the music is counterintuitive and the rest of us are untrained.
I call the song ‘Witchen Kopf’ after a supernatural decapitation story told to me by a young soldier from South Vietnam. Everybody thinks I’m joking, but in reality I take myself far too seriously to kid around.
Wyatt organises a recording session in the midnight-to-dawn downtime at a studio on Kings Way. We get high on the sheer novelty of the recording technology. Wyatt plays with the tape machine, speeding it up and slowing it down, reversing the sounds to reflect the ghost-story narrative of the song. Soon it feels like the ghosts of this office block are toying with us – doors open and slam autonomously, and a strange babble echoes through the ambient microphones slung down the office corridors we’ve been using as reverb chambers.
‘Witchen Kopf’ is picked up by the Au Go Go Records for a seven-inch single shared with People With Chairs Up Their Noses. It seems we have crossed the threshold to immortality by having actually made a record. We rehearse intensively in preparation for the launch.
A kilo of flathead bought at Prahran Market sunbake on the window ledge of our studio, turning rancid in the lead-up to next week’s performance at a South Melbourne theatre. Maggots appear. They increase in numbers until the moment in the performance when I douse both fish and maggots in lighter fluid and fire the whole mess up with a metal Zippo. Uniformed security waving CO2 canisters shut us down.
They ask me: what was the point?
I don’t answer, because there was no point. It was pointless. That was the point.
Word spreads. More shows are offered, like a support gig for The Fall, who are out from England on their first Australian tour.
Watching The Fall, I’m both shattered and inspired. They are so radically out of tune and authentically dangerous, pushing and shoving and taunting each other backstage. They seem the real thing. Us, well, there is work to be done. Our shows, featuring Robin dressed as a vampire girl, rotten fish and masses of spangled confetti, draw as much derision as applause. We are stumbling for originality, embracing the ridiculous in our search for the sublime.
I fall for a new girl; she is several years older than me. She drives a little purple Torana and seems to know things I don’t. I move my personal trash into her apartment down on Acland Street, but my renovated Rickenbacker is stolen from the curb by a junkie while I’m not looking.
All through the midnight hours I hear the traffic of kids who have no time for sleep visiting the speed dealer next door. The whole neighbourhood is a haze of sleepless nights and unknown pleasures.
A hot girl gives me the eye at a house party in a Richmond backstreet. Don’t fuck with me, says my girlfriend. Don’t even think about messing with those girls or I’ll kill you.
I’m so terrified of her and them that I can barely speak.
We find the money to buy the pawnshop Firebird for our next gig: supporting Hunters & Collectors’ tribal drone at The Club in Collingwood. That night, after expenses and studio rent, the five of us in the band divide a $1 bill in fifths. Later in the morning we split a souvlaki in five on a Carlton street while kids drive by flinging beer cans and insults from open windows.
In this remote and conservative city, new bands are appearing from nowhere with names like The Scientists, Sacred Cowboys, The Shower Scene From Psycho, and Primitive Calculators, all riding a wave they’ve started calling New Wave.
We are oblivious; our reference is still punk. Whatever you’re for, we’re against it; whoever you are, I am not you. Rebels without a cause. Rebels for fashion’s sake. Unconscious actions. Automatic desires. Everything is accident and discovery; everything is happening for the first time.
Down on Fitzroy Street, the packed foyer of the Crystal Ballroom is illuminated by the yellow glow of a dazzling chandelier. There are people everywhere, spilling down the stairs. The energy is like a cage full of parakeets. The girls wear heavy kohl eyeliner and dress like wayward Catholics, larger than life and strangely inscrutable. The boys mix up rockabilly and punk and suburbia. Some do drink and some do powders and some are utterly straight. The room is thick with cigarettes – more smoke, more mirrors to cover up our essential emptiness. We pirouette and pose with feigned ambivalence, adopting absurd attitudes we hope will shape new identities.
A boy with styled hair and clean clothes strike up a conversation with me backstage, after our set. Two guitars, he says, are better than one. You know the Stooges? They invented rock music. Your band has potential, but it’s missing that rock element. I’ve got these incredible new songs I’m working on. We should get together and write.
It’s Ed from The Fabulous Marquises and he wants to play guitar with us. It seems the band is expanding. I’m trying to pack up my gear before the headliner goes on while also talking to Ed over all the noise. My ears are ringing with a high frequency and my throat is dry.
The Birthday Party takes the stage with a wall of noise – fuzz distortion, the sonic aroma of pure electricity. The bassist plays through three huge amps lined up in a row. It’s the loudest thing I’ve heard since the Avalon air show. With this kind of violent firepower, the stage resembles a wrestling ring or the Grand Guignol, the singer standing in the middle as ringmaster, blowing smoke out both nostrils.
The scene drags me down into a churning, whirling mass of sound behind which you can hear, occasionally, the snickering and bitching in the background.
There is a lot of talk about who is cooler than whom. At eighteen, everything is really happening in the now. We’re eggshell fragile, trying to act tough, growing thicker skins to protect our own egos and absurdity. We know almost nothing, yet think we know everything, even when we really know that we don’t. Speeding all night, writing songs we think are masterpieces that in the cold comedown of morning all sound the same, running down chord changes in an orbit around E minor, the deepest, most open chord you can hit with two fingers. It floats through the scene like a cement graveyard angel, all gothic overtones and tremolo arm harmonics.
Epochal bands from overseas start arriving. We play for bigger crowds supporting groups like The Psychedelic Furs, New Order, Violent Femmes. I get a chance to demystify their approach from the side of stage, dimly aware that I don’t really have a clue what I’m doing musically, yet absorbing everything.
The Gun Club perform at Melbourne University and the atmosphere is weirdly volatile, something like the energetic tension of The Birthday Party, almost inexplicably violent. Our set is treated with downright hostility by the audience, beer cans and coins flying past my face.
Even if it is only just a show, when the music interacts with audience expectation there is a kind of psychic fission where sound draws power from the verbal beyond, conveying the inexpressible, venting the collective mind.
We’re building rapidly in this music scene and the sparks are fanned by community radio and fanzines. Interview requests arrive, band photographs are snapped and published. Becoming better known and using publicity to build an audience brings unexpected problems. The attention is hard to handle and my friends say I’m getting too full of myself, acting out of character, losing the plot.
An inquisitive green-eyed girl interviews me in the derelict Victorian house on Williams Road where the band now rehearses. I’ve been up all night strung-out and have clean forgotten about the interview appointment. Her questions are piercing and intense, and her insistent curiosity about my most secret self is increasingly irksome. She produces a Polaroid camera from nowhere and I quickly recoil, telling her I don’t want my photo taken and have no interest in her questions about sex, recurring dreams or the point of my existence.
I give her nothing. I can the interview.
The band tell me I’m rude and arrogant, and apologise for my behaviour. She takes photos of Edward, always ready to pose for a girl with a Polaroid.
I storm out into the decaying kitchen where my dark mood and I mutter about these trendy blitz girls daring to waste my fucking time.
She leaves and I try to jolt everyone back into my campaign against the world. They ignore me. Faintly, I hear her crying on Williams Road, with her boyfriend speaking scathingly to her for being so uncool.
Ignoring her sobs, and Edward’s disappointment in me, I walk down the road to a phone box, drop a coin in the slot and call my dealer.
I see there are cracks forming – in me, in the music, in the worn and torn city streets – and a whole lot of chaos out there waiting to get in. I want to stretch open those apertures to the possible, to the beyond; I want to tear it all down and let havoc reign supreme. I don’t want to know where I’m going. I don’t want to have to think about what happens next. I don’t want anyone to see me. I don’t want to be seen through. I’m moving so fast, I blur.
And the light …
The light is very deceptive …